‘If we shadows have offended’
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck provides an unassailable disclaimer as to how the actors’ performance cannot be criticised, describing them as ‘shadows…no more yielding than a dream.’ The actors, the people behind the masks, remain only faintly present onstage after assuming the life of another – their character. In Chinese theatre, the imagination is thought so powerful that once a character dies, the actor can get up and walk offstage without affecting the captivated audience because the character is dead, and the actor was never present. The audience makes the actor absent and the mask present and so the material reality of the actor becomes a shadow behind the imaginary character.
A similar sensation occurs in Barry Flanagan’s light pieces at &Model, Leeds. One work, a narrow strip of light, is barely noticeable in a corner between two doorways. People pass from room to room, momentarily eclipsing the projected strip on the wall. Instead, it is projected upon them. The humour of this is that few people even notice the small light, and so participate in the work unknowingly. Like Puck’s audience, in the exploratory space of the gallery the viewers do not realise quite how much they are involved, or how important their imagination and physical body are in projecting, displacing and distorting rays of light – the means by which we see.
In the exhibition the viewer’s body obscures light from the wall. In doing so, it ends the light’s inertia, giving it movement: the shadow of the passing participant breathes life into the work. The viewer ‘kills’ the work in so far as it displaces it and resurrects it. This recalls the notion that the audience’s imagination ‘kills’ the actor behind the mask to give a character life.
Every art work calls for some sort of participation, but the extent to which we should get involved varies. Flanagan notes that it angered him if an artwork was disregarded simply because it was on the floor. People generally allocate space in a hierarchy and assign objects accordingly: floors to be walked upon; walls to be looked at. Spectators carefully tiptoe around projectors on the floor so their shadow does not obscure the work, yet in Flanagan’s exhibition it is unavoidable not to block out the subtle strip of light from the wall and let the light fall on their bodies instead.
‘Daylight light piece 1 ’69’ recalls encounters with projections of daylight on a wall, room or object, evoking a certain wistfulness in the knowledge that their fleeting transience is precisely the cause of their special beauty. By using ‘daylight’, Flanagan conveys the idea that art continually attempts to capture such evanescence whilst remaining aware of its own ephemerality. It is the viewers’ obstructing shadows that participate in this game of transience. Standing right in front of the projector, spectators create multiple ‘echoes’ of their shadow: a hand placed in front of the projector will seem to have fifteen fingers with each a shade lighter than the last. Approaching the projection on the wall, the shadow loses these ‘echoes’, increasingly appearing as a silhouette of the real hand, at its darkest and clearest at this point. At the place of projection, then, the multiplicity of possibilities and forms finds its inoffensive unity.
Barry Flanagan – Light Pieces and Other Works, &Model, Leeds, 25 May – 17 June 2017.
Gertrude Gibbons is a writer and student based in York.