Cerith Wyn Evans: born in 1958, an eccentric Welsh with a dandy style and passionate about Japanese culture, he grew up in the transgressive and musically active post-punk London of the late seventies; a pupil of artists John Stezaker (1949), a guru for generations of English conceptual artists, and Peter Gidal (1946), theorist and filmmaker, he made his debut in experimental cinema. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1984, the multifaceted artist continued to devote himself to the avant-garde cinema until the 1990s, as an assistant to Derek Jarman, the director famous for Caravaggio (1986). In the new millennium, his interest in the movement and his fascination for the movie projection that radiates through the dark-clad movie theatre made Cerith Wyn Evans, the anti-narrative director, come to use light as a form of sculpture, space, place, and composition of sound “scores” resolved with hypnotic installations, to be seen rather than to be told.
Pirelli HangarBicocca does not miss a shot: with “….the Illuminating Gas”, the Cerith Wyn Evans’ first personal solo exhibition in Italy curated by Roberta Tenconi and Vincente Todolì that features works spanning over the last ten years, the Milanese Tate Modern confirms its winning programme made of spectacular exhibitions. Evans’ exhibition is one of the most Instagrammed by scholars and curious of all ages, looking for strong perceptive experiences. The title of his Milanese exhibition is a cultured quotation referring to the latest work of Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage… (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), an enigmatic work to which the father of conceptual art worked for twenty years, from 1946 to 1966, a tableau visible only through a pair of peepholes in a wooden door. Evans’ synesthetic research is a hymn to the artist’s expressive freedom, an elaborate visual and sound score that hybridizes different languages, codes, and temporalities emitted by various devices, mixing sound and image in relation to the context.
The result of cinematic phenomena processes obtained by mixing vintage materials, such as the neon, and LEDs, his luminous installations are inspired by the choreographic movements of the Noh Theatre, a form of dramaturgical representation born in Japan in the XIV century. The Welsh artist – like many others, in particular those of the generation born in the Sixties – knowingly “remixes” a repertoire of references and quotations “stolen” from various fields of 20th and 21st century culture, such as music, literature, philosophy, photography, poetry, art history, astronomy, and science. As Picasso said, the artist is a kleptomaniac, because he is able to re-elaborate old codes and materials from scratch. The ephemeral, the investigation of perception, the interest in movement and the assembly of light and sound, the search for a relaxing and reflective dimension that frees the imagination: these, in a nutshell, are Evans’ work codes. This is demonstrated by the 24 spectacular works presented at the Pirelli HangarBicocca, which, like musical notes, scan the space in a complex score of lights and sounds. Among historical sculptures and new monumental installations, the asymmetry of forms and the elaboration of the concept of limit as a composite element are for Evans fundamental dramaturgical elements. Suspension, emptiness, and pause appear in works that are inscribed in an alienating space-time dimension. As the artist said, this exhibition materializes a “love letter to space”.
Composed of choreographies, luminous arabesques, and intermittent twists of light and sounds, his are abstract works that seduce, as they look at us and listen to each other in a harmonious atmosphere, where everything is calmness and well-being. A demanding space for any artist, the more than five thousand square meters of the Pirelli HangarBicocca’s Navate and Cubo have been mapped by throbbing works, since the very start of the exhibition, with StarStarStar/Steer (totransversephoton) (2019), composed of seven imposing twenty-meter high light columns.
Specifically made for the exhibition and composed of a skeleton of tubular LED lamps assembled in cylinders of various heights, each of them lights up independently, intermittently, passing from a state of translucency to a condition of strong and annoying brightness, redesigning the darkened space. Opening the exhibition path, this site-specific installation seems to metaphorically dialogue with The Seven Heavenly Palaces (2004), the titanic permanent installation of Anselm Kiefer placed nearby. The titanic and stroboscopic Brancusian columns of Evans capture the viewer’s gaze, attracted by luminous graphics from the very first to the last work, housed in the Cube. Beyond the LED columns forest, timed by different luminous gradations, there is a tribute to his master John Cage, Composition for 37 Flutes (in two parts) (2018). Composed of crystal tubes that sound like organ pipes, the installation plays with the suspended neon lamps of the adjacent work, Radiant Fold (… the Illuminating Gas) (2017-2018), a reference to Duchamp’s work. New Forms (after Noh) (2015-2019) includes a series of thirteen bright tangles of strictly white neon tubes. Inscribed in space with slow, continuous, and hypnotic gestures, these are mysterious calligrams that draw on Japanese culture. The exhibition route continues beyond the sound barriers and within the effects of the poetic and theatrical potential of light, ending in the Cube, the only area with natural lighting, in which the sound intertwines with space, evoking journeys where harmony emerges from chaos. Here, heterogeneous works, neon signs, suspended mobile sculptures, and sound installations create an all-embracing sensory experience. As with E=C=L=I=P=S=E (2015), the monumental neon writing describing the temporal and geographical progression of a solar eclipse on different continents, and C=O=N=S=T=E=L=L=A=T=I=O=N (I call your image to mind) (2010), composed of mirroring discs, suspended play of refraction, and directional speakers that emit polyphonies composed by the artist, sounds that appear as collected by an imaginary astronomical observatory. Or with S=U=T=R=A (2017) and Mantra(2016), where two pairs of Murano glass chandeliers, whose shapes come from the historical archive of Galliano Ferro, emit flashing lights according to a musical score composed by the artist, conveying an indescribable feeling of psychophysical well-being. The tension towards suspension culminates with the immaterial column of T=R=A=N=S=F=E=R=E=N=C=E (Frequency shifting paradigms in audio streaming) (2009), an audio-only installation where a directional speaker placed on the floor controls the seven luminous columns that open the exhibition. And here, floating in a harmonic dimension, between the visible and invisible, the breath of the Cosmos can be heard.