Skip to content

May we suggest

Essays / July 5, 2012

Anthony McCall: Light Lifting

The Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art is a former train station. In its current configuration, however, it has come to resemble a vast cathedral.

The occasion is an exhibition by New York–based artist Anthony McCall; it focuses on his so-called light sculptures, and its title is appropriately ecstatic: “Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture.” The central hall, a long, wide gallery capped by gothic arches, has been completely walled off from the rest of the museum. The cavernous space is entirely blacked out and filled with a delicate misting of smoke. Out of the hazy, inky blackness emerge vast shafts of light, luminescent conical towers that cast a series of shifting shapes onto the hallway’s floors.

The show’s title is so hubristic, I had difficulty deciding whether or not it’s a joke. For one thing, McCall, who’s been doing this kind of light projection work for some 40 years now (albeit with a 20-year hiatus in the middle), should know well enough that he isn’t creating “pure” sculpture by any stretch of the imagination. These projections are promiscuous hybrids of multiple media, a wild miscegenation of categories.

Furthermore, the idea of any kind of “pure” media, and the desirability of pursuing such a category, hasn’t been in fashion for a long time; it certainly wasn’t in fashion when McCall began doing these light sculptures in the early 1970s. And this lack of material purity is, in fact, a great strength of his work. In a poetically simple gesture, in a single beam of light cutting through a fog of smoke, McCall has collapsed cinema, animation, installation, sculpture and drawing into a single work.

So perhaps this is what the exhibition’s eponymous purity refers to: not the purity of media, nor of material, but the purity of spectacle, the purity of the optical experience. As I wandered through this hallowed hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof, weaving my body in and out of McCall’s walls of light and watching other museum-goers do the same, I briefly entertained the question of what these light sculptures signified—if, in fact, they signified anything beyond themselves. And the deeper I went into the exhibition, the less important that question became. There is so little in art galleries and museums that elicits this kind of visual wonder and delight; the purity of this experience is so rare, and it is, in and of itself, more than enough.

Sholem Krishtalka

Sholem Krishtalka is an artist currently living in Berlin. His work has been shown in Canada, the US and Europe. Recent exhibitions include “Them” (Perrotin Gallery, New York) and “Sex Life” (SAW Gallery, Ottawa). Upcoming exhibitions include “Intimacy: Queer Art from Berlin and Beyond” (Schwules Museum, Berlin).