Seeing Rainbows Among the Ruins: Peter Erskine’s “New Lights on Rome”

During the height of Rome’s millennial celebrations, the city was filled with thousands of tourists; they came for events as disparate as the Holy Year and International Gay Pride. The ubiquitous rainbows the visitors experienced (in the ancient Roman ruins, in the Termini train station, and even on the trains bringing in pilgrims and marchers) weren’t the kind you see after the rain. They were more intense than any natural rainbow and appeared and disappeared with every passing cloud. The rainbows were everywhere and yet so unusual that those people who saw them had to stop and think about where they were—what space they were in or how they were moving through that space. With a little looking and some logic, they would realize that these now-you-see-them now-you-don’t rainbows relied on sunlight—the earth’s spin and its motion around the sun changed their intensity and hue, minute by minute.

A viewer’s shadow transformed by Erskine’s installation in the Hemicycle.

Behind these spectacular displays of the sun’s power in Rome were sculptor Peter Erskine and an ambitious planning process on the part of the Eternal City to integrate large-scale public sculpture projects into its millennial programs. Erskine has pursued a single goal for nearly 15 years: to make people conscious of the beauty, power, and danger of the sun—and of our precarious relationship to the source of our energy and our very being. His strategy all along has been to employ the rays of the sun itself to power up his installations. In some works Erskine has used the heliostat—a machine that follows the sun’s trajectory across the sky to provide a constant beam of light. In recent public installations (five works commissioned by the city of Rome and Bettoja Hotels for “New Light on Rome 2000” and installations in the train stations of Rome, Florence, and Milan and on railway cars, commissioned by the Italian National Railway), Erskine used a passive system, positioning laser-cut prisms to catch the sunlight. Whether actively following the sun or passively receiving it, this is not “California Space and Light” art. Unlike the constructions of James Turrell, which make the gallery a black box to stage pictures made out of captured sunlight, Erskine’s installations employ architecture that already exists.

Exterior view of the Hemicycle.

It’s no accident that Erskine chose five masterpieces of ancient Roman architecture for “New Light.” In 1992, he mounted his solar environmental installation, Secrets of the Sun: Millennial Mediations, within the ancient Markets of Trajan. It is a spectacular architectural complex, long hailed and studied by historians and architects for its imaginative use of a technology invented by the ancient Romans: poured concrete. In A.D. 110, the architect Apollodorus of Damascus planned the Markets to fit a steep hillside flanking Trajan’s dazzling new Forum. Instead of trying to adapt the traditional post-and-lintel systems of the Forum to the irregular site, Apollodorus chose to pursue all the fantastic yet rational forms poured concrete allowed. The miracle of concrete also ensured the Market’s preservation through the fires, barbarian invasions, and earthquakes that destroyed the rest of ancient Rome. All that stands from Trajan’s Forum today is his great 100-foot column.

I’m reminded of the work of Christo in following Erskine’s progress from idea to realization. It took him two years to cut through the red tape of Rome’s archaeological bureaucracy and to put together the funding. Erskine’s art, like Christo’s, requires the artist to present models of how the piece will look, but unlike Christo’s wrappings, Erskine’s work does not cover buildings or landscape features. Instead he bathes them with spectrum light—completely non-invasive art that actually disappears when the sun moves behind the clouds. Ecologists objected to Christo’s Wrapped Coast, because he covered environmentally sensitive coastline with canvas and cables. Erskine takes the opposite tack, attempting to make his materials (transparent Lucite prisms and lightweight materials, such as aluminum, wood, and wire) as unobtrusive as possible.

View of the exterior of the Saint Sebastian Gate.

For the Great Trajanic Hall Erskine built a scale model and pored over the plans to get details and proportions correct. Once he built the model, he worked with solar software on the computer to calculate sun angles. He mounted the model on a tilting table so that he could simulate the sun’s angle at any day or hour of the year; using miniature prisms mounted in various openings of the building, Erskine could predict the effects and record them with photos and videos. The installation covered the period from the summer solstice to the winter solstice, and the artist was able to represent every possible angle of the sun that the ancient Romans saw. He also experimented with different kinds of prisms—his way of modeling and coloring the building with light.

Once he secured the commission, Erskine began to work directly in the spaces of the Trajanic Hall to maximize the colors in relation to the textures of its brick, concrete, and travertine cladding; he directed the prisms into various spaces: stairways, deep barrel-vaulted shop spaces, and galleries. The prisms are capable of producing literally millions of different spectrum interventions, and Erskine had to choose the ones that worked best. He characterized the final installation as a kind of “internally moving painting, whose size, color, and shape is continuously and infinitely changing.” Uppermost in his mind was to integrate these changing “paintings” into the spaces, surfaces, and textures of the architecture. Chunks of spectrum color, cropped and shaped by the spaces of the Trajanic Hall, formed “carpets” that moved into even the darkest spaces. Entering the barrel-vaulted shop spaces that line the Great Trajanic Hall, you could walk into the field of color, superimposing your own shadow and progressively deleting sections of the projected art.

View of Erskine’s installation in the stairway to upper gallery, Trajanic Hall.

As in all sculpture, the viewer’s perception is part of the piece. The great question of Postmodernism is just how the artist negotiates the terms of the viewer’s perception: is the sculpture the “object” and the viewer the “subject,” or does the piece really consist of meanings encoded within the object that may or may not be decoded by the viewer/receiver? Can we really speak of sculpture as a self-contained work that always sends the same messages? Today most artists and critics would answer emphatically “No!” Yet the question remains of how to get rid of the notion that sculpture is an object on a pedestal—either literally or conceptually. Erskine’s solution is an ingenious one: he doesn’t make objects, he takes the viewer’s perceptual apparatus for a walk.

It’s in your walk through an Erskine-rigged space that you discover your own process of perception. Sculpture, the quintessential “space art,” becomes a “time art.” Viewers’ movement through the Trajanic Hall took them up the steep stairs to the upper gallery. Spectrum light turned the drab brick walls into pure colors more intense than heaps of freshly ground pigment. Reaching the gallery, viewers looked down some 25 feet to the pavement of the Hall. The irrational stripes of color that penetrated the stairway—thanks to the angle of the sun’s rays at the moment—reassumed their geometry. The regular stripes aligned with the Hall’s divisions: six cross-vaulted bays, each covering a single travertine-framed shop space with its square mezzanine window above. The hall gained and lost its rational volumes depending on where you were within its spaces and at what time of day. At about an hour before sunset the spectrum climbed high up into cross vaults; in photographs we can see it has risen to dramatize one of the most unusual features of the Great Hall: the cantilevers that reach out over the space—stilts that allowed Apollodorus to raise the apex of the cross vaults to maximum height.

View of Erskine’s installation in the Trajanic Hall, seen from the upper gallery.

Objects, too, took on new and surprising qualities in Erskine’s installation. In one of the second-floor rooms are archaeological displays, including amphorae that brought goods from Spain two thousand years ago. In late afternoon, nearly horizontal beams of color streamed through the doorway, bathing the vessels in raking light that changed colors from minute to minute. At one point a non-spectrum magenta appeared, the result of the optical mixture of red from one beam briefly overlapping with the violet and blue of a second spectrum. This experience made me realize yet another temporal dimension to Erskine’s work. As in one of Turrell’s “Sky Spaces,” the viewer doesn’t see the colors changing but remembers that they were different a few minutes before. Erskine’s installations become an art of time and memory as well as of light and space.

If today’s architects still stand in awe of the Trajanic Hall, it’s because Apollodorus managed to solve formidable practical requirements elegantly. Without recourse to a single column he ingeniously supported the Hall’s massive concrete canopy with the barrel-vaulted commercial spaces hidden within the building’s fabric. With the Hemicycle, practicality yields to pure aesthetics. It is semi-circular in plan, a corridor 150 feet long giving access to more shop spaces. Light entering from regularly spaced windows on the outboard side of the corridor both articulates and punctuates your progress. In Erskine’s installation, ribbon-thin prisms, held in front of each window by nearly invisible wires, shot vertical stripes of color onto the inboard wall, itself punctuated by the openings into the shop spaces. Erskine added the element of spectrum color to Apollodorus’s lighting scheme, gently nudging the already rich chiaroscuro with subtle stripes that reminded the viewer that it is the sun that creates the play of light and shadow along the continuously curving surfaces. Here, viewer participation in “New Light on Ancient Rome” reached a crescendo, since the viewer could actually create the art by stepping into the sun-bleached spectra of two prism strips. In the darkness, viewers’ shadows saturated the ancient brick floor with uncanny intensity, and as they moved, the sun’s white light bleached the image of its color.

View of Erskine’s installation in the cryptoporticus of the Domus Transitoria of Nero.

Rome always challenges the visitor to peel back layers of time, and in the Chapel of the Knights of Rhodes the present uncannily meets the past. The day I visited Erskine’s installation there, a Roman high-society wedding was about to begin. To be a Knight of Rhodes requires a pedigree going back centuries, and the proud male relatives of the bride wore their medals and medieval regalia. In the chapel, the furnishings for the Catholic liturgy are kept to a minimum, all the better to showcase the spectacular ancient Roman architecture. Light enters the space only through two tall windows on the chapel’s left-hand wall, and Erskine positioned four prism panels to color both the soaring barrel vault and to articulate its arched supports and lateral bays. It’s clear that ancient masons cut the travertine support blocks with care, their joins barely visible and their creamy-white surfaces perfect reflectors of the spectrum light. As the bride and her father marched in, they saw a display of the sun’s energy and beauty that they will recount to their children and grandchildren.

View of Erskine’s installation inside the Saint Sebastian Gate, stairway to west bastion.

Ancient Romans were fond of a particular kind of space quite unfamiliar to us, the cryptoporticus—a passageway mostly hidden beneath the terrace of a garden where you could take cool walks in the heat of the summer. Lighting was a concern, and architect-engineers such as Severus and Celer hit upon an admirable solution when they connected two parts of the Emperor Nero’s palace with a cryptoporticus. They lit this long but spacious barrel-vaulted corridor with the morning sun by placing rectangular slots just above the springing of the vault on its east side. Erskine dramatized the architects’ ingenious lighting with spectrum color that acted like a solar clock. During the installation’s run, the visibility of Erskine’s piece depended not only on the weather—cloudy or sunny—but also on the sun’s position in the sky. Visitors entering the Cryptoporticus around noontime (as the show’s brochures advertised) rediscovered the quintessential regal walkway, a cool refuge from the summer’s heat, its gloom spectacularly dispelled by spectrum color. As with all of Erskine’s pieces, the experience was both visual and kinesthetic, but the Cryptoporticus, in its simple design, emphasized the kinesthetic: your movement along the barrel-vaulted corridor seemed to activate the piece as much as the spectrum light.

The Gate of Saint Sebastian today houses Rome’s Museum of the Walls; much more than an archaeological site, it serves as a microcosm of the city’s history. The defensive walls first built in 270 A.D. by the Emperor Aurelian to reassure citizens in the face of the first barbarian incursions into Italy (the barbarians only got as far as Verona), continued to defend the city, for better or worse, until 1870, when Garibaldi breached them and declared Rome the capital of the new modern state of Italy. The walls contain the historical city; outside their confines huge modern apartment cities mushroom. The Gate of Saint Sebastian is a bastion against change. A glance at its exterior reveals the gate’s hybridity, merging ancient Roman vaults with medieval towers and crenellations. Today pilgrims visiting the catacombs and shrines along the Appian Way pass under the Gate of Saint Sebastian—as they have for centuries.

Detail of lit amphorae.

The visitor enters the museum up several flights of stairs that lead to the vaulted walkways for soldiers defending the walls. The intricate plan shifts levels and covering systems to create pathways through the building, for its spaces saw many functions: customs house, arsenal, and military barracks. Its current state, stripped of most of its fresco decoration, emphasizes the intricate brick and concrete vaults and winding staircases. Light comes from a variety of south-facing openings: round-headed windows, gunners’ slots, rectangular windows. Part observation tower, part fort, the building’s attention focused on all who wished to enter the city, for good or for bad. Erskine experimented with prisms over a three-month period to articulate the gate’s complexity with spectrum light. One strategy was to make spectrum light from the openings on the south penetrate the dark corridors and stairways to the north. Viewers were surprised to see pure spectrum sunlight burning into the drab brick of the walls and floors; the very intensity of color dissolved distances and cut into the regular geometry of the vaulting. Light and space, the essential prerequisites for perception, became eerily palpable. Normally we perceive what light reveals—a line of traffic seen through a window, for instance. We don’t usually look at light itself: looking at the sun, the source of light, will blind you. Yet programmed deep into our psyche is the most direct expression of pure sunlight—the rainbow. In a 1995 interview, Jonas Salk commented on the human relationship with the rainbow:

Memory is one of the strongest forces in Nature. It guides action. When memory is broken, as is happening today, we slide into chaos. The Rainbow is a very deep memory for humans. It has been coded into our genetic material over millions of years. Seeing a Rainbow restores our connection to Nature—it restores our physical and psychic functions.

Sunrise, 1999. Light installation at the Zollverein Coking Plant, Essen, Germany.

It’s clear that Erskine wants to extend human interaction with the rainbow beyond the infrequent happenstance afforded by nature. He wants to make viewing spectrum light, with all the kinesthetic and associative apparatus that viewing entails, both concrete and wondrous. Erskine made the prisms that powered “New Light on Rome” nearly invisible, since they were lighting precious ancient buildings rarely seen by the public. But for the industrial museum recently created in the spaces of the former Zollverein Coking Plant in Essen, Germany, Erskine actively engaged the viewer in the machinery of spectrum production. Sunrise (1999) used a solar-operated, computer-controlled heliostat to guide the sunlight through the façade of the plant’s “end station,” where prisms refracted the light to fan it out within the dark, cavernous interior. Ascending clouds of water vapor also caught the spectrum color, making it brilliant, tactile, and pervasive. The sun’s radiation, the very phenomenon that allows vision, became tangible.

Exterior view of the solar-operated, computer-controlled heliostat that creates Sunrise.

As viewers progressed up to the tower above the space, they saw how the heliostat worked. It was a deductive process not unlike the path through the texts of conceptual art or the detective work needed to decode one of Robert Smithson’s “Site-Nonsite” pieces. But Sunrise offered a moral lesson in its workings. You saw a natural phenomenon, but you could perceive it only because of machinery that tracked the sun, the mirrors that moved its rays, and the prisms that split those rays. And it worked under sun-power, an alternative to the use of fossil fuel. The dark cavern of the coke plant became a metaphor for the death that burning fossil fuels is bringing to our planet as higher carbon dioxide emissions permanently change the global climate. If the spectrum-lit interior caused wonder, it did so because it was an artificial presentation of a “natural” phenomenon. But viewers might well have a sense of foreboding, for that wondrous color inhabited what many consider a global death-chamber. If we continue to accelerate global warming by burning fossil fuels, we will experience not the beauty but rather the burn of the sun.

“New Light on Rome” shared much with the Essen installation, in that it used high-technology prisms to create art that was both site-specific and interactive. Both used solar energy, pointing to the role that the sun’s power can play in solving environmental problems. But there was an added dimension in Rome, where the sun, in the form of gorgeous and ever-changing rainbow colors, enlivened often-ignored spaces that have survived for centuries. “New Light” gave its viewers new eyes; it renewed old visions of Rome even while challenging our understanding of Roman antiquity. Ancient Rome will never be the same for those fortunate enough to have experienced Erskine’s work.

Contact information:
Peter Erskine

1100 Palms Blvd.
Venice CA 90291
Tel: 310-396-4615
Fax: 310-396-9083

John R. Clarke is Regents Professor of Art History at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches both ancient and contemporary art. His most recent book is Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250.