Olafur Eliasson: Little Sun at Tate Modern, London, 2012
Olafur Eliasson, Little Sun at Tate Modern, London, 2012

When humans set about to contemplate the hidden forces that shape their lives they engage perforce in a practice of theology or economics… or indeed (and better), in the practice of both. After all, what modern principle is more magical, or deist, than the ‘invisible hand,’ and what move in thought more shattering than Georges Bataille’s designation of a flaring star as the heart and origin of our material and erotic, and not only spiritual, life?

From the sun, Bataille taught, all value flows: the distant combusting sphere was fiercely disclosed to be the source not only of movement – our oceans, air and earth – but, moreover, of wealth and worth; a prodigal engine of both (physical) change and (symbolic) exchange. The storage of light, and the mechanics of its strategic, artful or hedonist transfer and release, became the origin tale of human being, of inventiveness – of life itself.1

In modern times, light was reduced to a kit of optical traits, stripped of substantial and existential density, of its geopolitical, biological, and motor-like actions and effects. Light is vehicular: it primarily conveys. Believed to carry heat, revelation, as well as motive force, it is the very transubstantial materia of plants, of herbivores and frugivores, then of us carnivores who capture the very same light they had previously captured in increasingly concentrated form. Yet our own energy rarely presents in its expenditure as a mere physics or tropism: but rather as works of labor and culture (now evil, now good). Light is not only clarity and illumination (and the tired metaphysical claims that ensue therefrom) but the very embodiment of the concept of reservoir, of potential.

Light is that which comes from without: we carry specific opacities and darknesses within us, and before these latter were routinely demonised, they represented astonishing and magical contributions to the admixtures that arose reliably whenever we projected our imaginations and bodies into the world, to mix with the light.

I recall an extraordinary and troubling passage in Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, where he speculates on the innate fear of the nocturnal dark that humans have harbored within themselves since Pliocene times – from our time in the caves, when it was our burden to protect our children from the curiously adapted predatory cats who resided more deeply still in the lightless recesses, from within which they cultivated a pivotal taste and preference… for hominids. This fearful ecology would explain our relationship to fire, a medium assiduously cultivated not only to keep the ‘dark’ beasts at bay but to nourish the accompanying, often ecstatic forms of crepuscular mental life – the night vigilance, the excitations of story, trance, song and dance, and then beyond, to the ecstasies of recreational eroticism – each deployed with a single aim, to sharpen our consciousness and modulate our mood away from the dangerous dimness and negligence of sleep.

Light is substantially diminished when separated not only from the solar emanation from which all flesh comes, but also from the darkness that it re-draws and modulates in subtly unveiled tones, in partial, local, mobile, and transformable ways. Light activates the darkness within us, arouses the fevers and mysteries that serve to make and remake the images of how we might live tomorrow, in this world.

Sanford Kwinter
Professor of Architectural Theory and Criticism, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

  • 1. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, New York: Wiley, 2003 (1776), and Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay in General Economy, New York: Zone Books, 1988–91 (1949).