Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty

Review

Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty

By Vanessa Kauffman Zimmerly July 16, 2015

Night, in most latitudes, is characterized by darkness: a dimming of the sky that is often accompanied by the dimming of the senses, and the mind. But our eyes can and do adjust to this darkness, and as our shadowed surroundings surrender a certain clarity—becoming amorphous in form and color—the world may appear, to us, anew. In Jewish tradition, as noted by Renny Pritikin and Lily Siegel, curators of the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibition Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty, the sun’s trajectory toward the horizon is a harbinger: nightfall is the first spark of a new day. The show hinges on this inversion of ingrained timetables and asks us to question our relation to the Earth and its celestial bodies, the murky beauty of our natural (and at times mundane) surroundings, and also our own destruction of those surroundings. The 25 contemporary artists, scientists, and others included in the show put forth a remarkable “dusking,” asking viewers to embrace the rich sublimity that is to be discovered in the dark.

Disrupting the notion of any singular moment of creation, the German artist Peter Dreher’s Tag um Tag guter Tag (Day by Day, Good Day, 1974–ongoing) is a series, to date involving 5,000 artworks, that is continually in the making. Once or twice a week, Dreher paints the same water glass, holding the same amount of water, sitting on the same table beside the same window, in an oil painting of the same dimensions. Time is measured here by an unchanging, quotidian relationship to a single object. Numbered and displayed in a grid, the paintings (and days) are hard to assess individually. And yet each does vary from its neighbor due to the subtle shifts of light Dreher captures in the reflections on the glass. As in nature, sublimity enters and exits this work through the impressive sum of its parts, and microscopically in the infinitesimal gestures that break with what is formulaic and anticipated.

Adjacent to Dreher’s work are three photograms from Klea McKenna’s larger project Rainstorms & Rain Studies (2013–ongoing). Captured with a cameraless photographic technique, McKenna’s images reveal that while a rainstorm may weigh dark and heavy in our minds, each drop of rain on its own carries significant light—enough light to activate the paper’s photosensitive chemicals, which record the water’s image as it falls. McKenna’s images are therefore not photos of rain, but photos made by rain.

Reacting to light sources much farther above the Earth’s weather zone, the conceptual artist Katie Paterson exercises a droll wit in her epistolary project The Dying Star Letters (2010–present). With the prompting of an academic email service that notifies subscribers each time a star dies, Paterson sends a physical letter by mail notifying a chosen recipient of each new celestial loss. Some typed on formal letterhead, others handwritten on torn paper, the letters inscribe a new constellation on Earth as they are carried by the post. Displayed without any explanatory wall text, the large mass of them seems grave and somber. Each individually timestamped and addressed, they are brief epigraphs in a galactic history book in which humans play a minor role, one that they will only ever know in part.

Klea McKenna. Rainstorm #11 (Kona, April), 2014; unique gelatin silver photogram of rain; 42 1/2 x 33 1/2 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Von Lintel Gallery.

On another wall of the museum, seriality is summoned again, this time by three pigment prints from the photographer Michael Light’s 100 Suns (2003). Unlike in Dreher’s or Paterson’s pieces, the plurality at play here does not have so much to do with the work’s sequence as with its challenge to the idea of a singular authorial hand. The image depicted is unfortunately iconic: the mushroom-cloud aftermath of an exploded atomic bomb. The artist garnered these images of nuclear testing from the military through the Freedom of Information Act, and by reproducing them as 100 Suns, he makes them artworks. Formally striking and dreamlike, their beauty is of course tempered by the horror they represent.

The many pieces in the exhibition, from Peter Alexander’s limelit Los Angeles landscape to flydime’s digital photo of a Turkmenistan oil field that has been brightly burning gas for more than 40 years, do not mimic the sublimity of the universe in its raw state—a view that is impossible to achieve in a practical sense. Instead, these are revelations of the Earth and its ethers as they have been marred, imprinted, and manipulated by human hands. Setting their stage at the quintessential “beginning of all beginnings,” Pritikin and Siegel cite Genesis 1 in their introductory wall text for Night Begins the Day. The seven days of creation described in that story, however, too quickly wrap up the nascent narrative being told in the featured works, each of which has a cosmology unto itself. There is nothing new under the sun, perhaps. But, as this exhibition proves, there is newness in its shadows. Night indeed begins the day—every day.

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Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty is on view at Contemporary Jewish Museum, in San Francisco, through September 20, 2015.

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