In the neon works of Welsh conceptualist Cerith Wyn Evans, “real light” (as Dan Flavin called electric light) appears like an un-flickering flame, creating brilliant and bizarre spatial drawings. His sculptures resonate with an amalgam of illusion and fact, interacting with the spaces that they occupy, disappear into, and dissolve. As much as Wyn Evans creates works of manmade beauty, his interest lies in the interaction between sunlight and electrically generated light. It is not just about the ability of light to illuminate a space, but also about how it gratifies a room with its presence—and affects the human psyche.
We might assume that darkness would be essential for works in neon, yet Wyn Evans sees natural light as a significant element in his work, creating remarkable reactions of bleeding or bleaching through reality. Daylight draws him in, and he confesses to spending hours at a time watching sunlight cross interior space, as though the embodiment of life itself. In the same way, he wants natural light to caress, veil, and cancel out the artificial light of neon, blurring the physicality of his sculptures—as if to say the artificial cannot exist alone, it has to react to the real world to become part of it.
Rajesh Punj: When I look at your work, I think of novelist Joan Bauer who suggested, “You don’t understand how much light you have until the lights go out.” I wonder what the works become without the light.
Cerith Wyn Evans: Do you mean literally? Or do you mean their presence not being felt when you remove yourself from the space?
RP: Both. I am intrigued by the significance of artificially generated light; it gives the works life in themselves and within a space. Without light, they become something else—perhaps empty vessels.
CWE: They don’t exist without the lights being on. The very tall columns, StarStarStar/Steer (totransversephoton) (2019), are about that, because all of those things happen in time and combine with the atmosphere of the space. When the work was installed at HangarBicocca in Milan in 2019, it received natural light throughout the day. The show was on throughout the winter, and as the afternoons were getting longer, one of the things that happened was that on a bright, sunny day, the space was flooded with sunlight at the end. There was an “event” that happened—a meteorological event that acted as a backdrop to the density and compression of that huge amount of neon covering the full length of what they call the navate or nave of the building.
RP: It is interesting to be aware of the manufacture of (artificial) lighting.
CWE: We looked at how we could surf across that issue, at how it might be possible to examine the possibilities for clearer and much more efficient lighting. We could dim up and down so that the light would move between the columns, illuminating them at different levels. And there would be an occasion when—and I have seen it very few times—all the lights are out, fading very slowly up and down, and there is an exchange of energy across the light columns, moving from one to another. So, you get a sensation of rhythm or movement, which is quite slow compared to the luminosity of the work; and subsequently, people move around the space in a very different way. There was a sound aspect to the Milan exhibition as well, which was also constantly changing and shifting. The soundtrack acted as a kind of pedestal or backdrop, something coexistent with the appearance of the light.
RP: What was your thinking about “…the Illuminating Gas,” the HangarBicocca show?
CWE: I thought not to include a room of films, a room of chandeliers, of this and of that, which as far as I was concerned would end up being a bit of a dog’s dinner. I intended to narrow it down and give it some intensity. I wanted an overall impression when you stepped into the space of appreciating a central unity to the entire exhibition. There was an aspect of—and Hans Ulrich Obrist would always tease me about this—Gesamtkunstwerk, a gesamt quality to the togetherness.
RP: There were many works together under one roof. As a consequence, there was light against light and the possibility of such intense luminosity reducing the subtleties of individual works. Essentially we think of artworks in isolation. How did introducing an army of works change the experience?
CWE: I have always thought of the works as fundamentally coexisting and have never seen them as separate pieces. But anything in a series is limited to a certain extent, so you embark on research, explore along certain lines, and narrow some of the parameters. I suppose these neon works have for some years now been part of a series; as long as there is interest from me, and by extension, interest from other people, there will be the means to continue making them. Very few of these things exist in the real world, with anything like the theatricality provided by HangarBicocca. It is a huge, dark space, and we are far more accustomed to the theater or contemporary performance in that kind of space.
RP: You touch on something incredibly important there—art in a theater-like setting.
CWE: In the post-industrial age, we are familiar with the reappropriation of industrial spaces like this—like the powerhouse that became Tate Britain—and their conversion into culture factories. It all has to do with space, and the works having a phenomenal shell to contend with. When I did Forms in Space…by Light (in Time) (2017) for the Tate Britain Commission in the Duveen Galleries, we knew that we could accommodate the work in the HangarBicocca space and still have only filled a 10th of it. That first piece gave us an anchor for the kinds of works to place around it. Then it became like one big work because you were arranging everything from a sight line.
RP: What about the empty or negative space surrounding the work? How do you negotiate between the void and the visible?
CWE: That doesn’t exist where you have something that exudes light—as far as you can see the works, they occupy the space.
RP: That’s interesting—we usually think of works as having boundaries or endpoints, but your neon works radiate beyond themselves, and that afterglow is very much part of them. So, just as Flavin saw it, light is able to eliminate space.
CWE: Yes, indeed. You can have one fairy light or candle at the far end of an enormous building like HangarBicocca, and if you can see that light from where you are, to a certain extent it occupies the space. To me, the most fascinating thing was the compression of space and the success of my intuition to play with scales and gauges within that. I know this sounds like a reactionary and very formalist perspective to take, but it is a relatively fresh perspective for me—knowing that, in certain instances, I have tried to interrogate the confidence people have with perceptual verisimilitude or life-likeness. I played with that on several occasions, pushing and pulling things according to what the camera can understand and what the eye will want to do to measure or ground the space. That was about tearing into notions of perspective, for want of a better word. I can stretch perception a great deal by replacing or repeating a form—a curve, an angle of a triangle—in receding gauges. It’s like putting a full-length mirror in a room: if you remove the mirror, the room becomes a good deal smaller.
RP: Do you think the neon works have a greater resonance or register against a black background? At Marian Goodman, Paris in 2019 and White Cube Bermondsey in 2020, they were set against a white background.
CWE: They do. But though everyone reads the HangarBicocca space as black, it isn’t black at all. Before Pirelli owned the building, it belonged to Alfa Romeo, and the walls are painted signature Alfa Romeo blue. Because there is so much of the color, your mind reacts to it as black, but if you look at a chip of paint in daylight or point a really strong light at the wall, you realize that it is dark blue.
Very often, I have felt the need to look for where natural light comes into a space. There is only one room at White Cube with natural light, but it is excluded, shrouded by fluorescent tubes. I hung fig. (0) (2020), a big, hybrid machine from the ceiling there. The light above the work was, in fact, daylight. It was important for me to take the temporary ceiling away to bring in natural light. I suppose the ideal place for me to show these neon works would be a space open to changes in the seasons. Very often photographers misunderstand, and they photograph the works against black backgrounds, because they think that if you really want to see the light properly and clearly it needs to be photographed in such contrast.
RP: I am guilty of thinking like a photographer and not seeing the significance of natural light in your work, thinking instead that there are two very distinct states and that the artificial light illuminating the darkness gives the works their power. But you suggest that natural light enhances the neon, that the natural world can be involved with the artificial, each illuminating the other.
CWE: The most successful way to explain the significance of natural light involves the big piece installed at HangarBicocca, in the open room at the end, described as the transit of the moon across the surface of the sun, a total eclipse. On sunny days, a diagonal bar of sunlight scanned across this image and text describing a total eclipse moving over the world. I look for the sunshine in rooms. I have been commissioned to create a work for a building in San Francisco that looks extraordinary. And, of course, it will have a lot of direct California sunlight coming onto the neon. Those are the conditions and the occasions in which the neons work best.
RP: It is interesting to think of your works outside, like neon signage intended to attract attention outdoors.
CWE: Outside the neon is in direct competition with natural light. I prefer when there is a shroud of sunlight drenching a neon, which is also balanced with the same kind of color temperature (6500K). It creates a haze around the work, almost erasing it, and when you have direct light on that, at its absolute brightest, the neon will disappear. It is a bit like having a candle in sunlight.
RP: I wanted to ask about the glass works in “No realm of thought…No field of vision,” your White Cube show. There were the phase shifts (after David Tudor) (2020), suspended windscreen mobiles, and Folds…in shade (also light and shade) (2020), folding screens made of glass and bronze. How did you decide on breaking the glass in these works? There are nuances to the nature and intensity of your damage?
CWE: I have collected photographs of broken glass forever; I won’t photograph my food, but I will take pictures of broken glass. Breaking glass takes a short amount of time. I did all of the breaking myself with hammers, in a glass studio. You realize that you are not in control of the trajectory of all those broken lines. But glass has an innate structure to it, and so it is possible to make tiny, punctual gestures. One knock with a hammer and an entire sheet of glass will crack. If the hit is too hard, you will shatter the thing; but I was working with a laminated glass that we had rehearsed over and over again. It appears completely transparent, but there is a layer of polymer cleverly sandwiched between two sheets of glass that keeps the whole thing together.
Certain glass will shatter—you see it at bus stops where it just crumbles. Other types, like windscreens, chip when hit with sufficient force by a something like a bullet or a little stone. If you have one puncture point, then you can create a flower effect, like a stone dropping into shallow water. You will have “radio shocks” appearing as concentric circles going out from around the center and cracks going off like a spider’s web from an anchor point. In principle, a crack will want to run its course to the edge of the piece of glass, but it has other properties that balance the immediacy. John Latham also “talked to glass.” I saw him get into an argument in a Paris museum about 30 years ago because he wanted to hang a piece of plate glass from the wall by a little corner, so the glass could bend. But it could have killed someone if it fell, because the glass would have exploded across the room. Also, there is Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass).
RP: How do you balance control and accident in the process?
CWE: According to John Cage’s chance procedures, once you’ve done it, you have to learn to accept that you have done it and agree. As Cage would say, “First thought, best thought.” Once it is smashed, you can’t smash it again; you have to accept it, otherwise you see it as one that didn’t work. This offers a kind of ego/non-ego business of appreciating that pretty much all work has to work. I would only discount something on principle, which I never did with these. I might refuse something if it very strongly had the appearance of something else. For instance, if you made an accident and it looked like Mickey Mouse holding a swastika, you wouldn’t go down that road. If something takes on an appearance that you can’t wipe out of your mind, either you have to embrace it and include those associations or have a contingency and say, “No, this is too suggestive of something else, so therefore it limits the scope of the piece.”
RP: I think of your work as making the ephemeral physical. Do you feel yourself attempting to do that? You concentrate on elements such as light and sound that we think of as beyond the physical.
CWE: They are always in flux; nothing is ever really nailed down. There is a transverse trajectory, direction, energy, flow that at a certain level is about light intensity, that is also the link between the volume, the audible, of conceivable silence, and of your eyes becoming accustomed to the light. Of there being a detectable relationship between the natural and the artificial. Frank O’Hara described this with great poignancy—where the neon light looks rather compromised by the strength of the invasive sunlight, etching it out of existence. And somehow being able to notice, when you have the luxury to take your time and be still in a room, that you can follow the sun moving.
RP: Do you understand light better by looking at it? I’m intrigued by the idea of “understanding” light, physically and emotionally.
CWE: Perhaps understanding should be cast in the light of experiencing. Different places have different atmospheres, and you are constantly aware of the specificity of the occasion, which will influence where something is placed, the amount of time it is given, or the amount of precedence it has in a certain situation. I am constantly considering how the light falls in a room.
RP: You talk about space as occupied when we might think of it as empty.
CWE: Following Cage, you can appreciate that there is no real absolute silence, darkness, or light—all these things have a relational capacity. Quite often working on their fringes and edges is fruitful and rewarding, because some things that we take for granted are then open for exploration. The frayed edges of things are fascinating, and there is recourse to occupy those spaces where something is neither full or empty; you appreciate after a while that there are relatively few absolutes. It is worth considering as a norm; you might expect common sense would overrule these things, but I think as an artist, it is worth throwing down and questioning some of the things that we take for granted.