3.11 / Review


By Sarah Hotchkiss March 13, 2012

Thumbnail: Afterimage, 2012; installation view. 1,234 Days (Sunspots), 2012; digital video, looped; one foot diameter. Courtesy of the Artist and MacArthur B Arthur, Oakland.

On March 6, 2012, NASA announced the eruption of two huge solar flares from the surface of our sun. These flares sent accompanying coronal mass ejections (balloon-shaped bursts of solar wind) traveling towards Earth at more than one thousand miles per second, threatening to collide with our planet in the form of a geomagnetic storm. While this news spawned a hyperbolic media frenzy filled with fears of knocked-out power grids, disrupted GPS, and downed airlines, the actual effects of this space weather were next to nothing. Residents of Iceland witnessed a lovely aurora borealis.

Nevertheless, we are currently in the midst of an increase in solar activity, part of a normal eleven-year solar cycle expected to peak in late 2013.1 As that apex approaches, only one or two storms will likely be strong enough to be labeled extreme. In those cases, however, our dependency on electronics will be cause for worry. According to Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester, intense solar storms pose health risks for astronauts, can destroy the sensitive electronics on orbiting satellites, and can overload electric grids on Earth. “Without warning,” he writes, “millions of people might be plunged into darkness.”2

This uptick in solar activity and the resulting fear serves as a reminder that the sun is not a benign and benevolent spot of light in the sky but a gigantic, incredibly hot star that we are only just beginning to understand. Currently, NASA maintains a vast and growing archive of sun data gathered through the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), and centuries of philosophical speculation on the nature of the sun, light, and perception existed prior to today’s imaging and measurements. Hillary Wiedemann mines both pools of knowledge as inspiration for her new solo show, Afterimage, at MacArthur B Arthur Gallery in Oakland.

For Wiedemann, the sun is both subject and source material. Six separate pieces fill the project space with an assortment of tactile, visual, and aural experiences that use the sun as “a marker of time, a source of light, a determiner of place, and through its absence, an acute awareness of space.”3 Using the phenomenological concerns of the Light and Space movement as a starting point, Wiedemann’s exhibit explores the transparent and reflective qualities of different materials. But by linking each piece specifically to the sun, instead of relying on abstract shapes to convey sensory phenomena, the exhibit becomes a familiar and revelatory experience for the viewer rather than a disorienting one.

(from left to right) Sun Shadow, 2012 (still); three-channel digital video projection, looped; 72 in. diameter. Gray Area, 2012; reflective fabric; 36 x 36 in. Untitled (for Goethe), 2012; glass microspheres, paint, vinyl tiles; approximately 300 sq. ft. Courtesy of the Artist and MacArthur B Arthur, Oakland.

This is especially the case where light and shadow come into play. In Untitled (for Goethe) (2012), three hundred vinyl floor tiles are covered with white paint and glass microspheres, the same material used to create reflective lines on city roads. This surface treatment yields a highly satisfying sound as viewers walk through the show. From certain angles, the white tiles are just white tiles, but with the light shining from behind, they become spectacularly reflective—and suddenly a spotlight of silver surrounds a viewer’s shadow.

This participatory effect is furthered in Sun Shadow (2012), a six-foot-wide three-channel projection of red, green, and blue light. Using still images from an “extreme ultraviolet imaging telescope,” Wiedemann animated 1,234 days worth of three different temperature readings from the sun’s surface. As the projected image of the sun jerkily turns, with flares popping up and dissipating, viewers standing between the projectors and the wall create a set of multicolored shadows that resemble aura photography. Sun Shadow is greatly removed from the visible sun, yet the piece amplifies its subject’s qualities through the participatory demonstration of how different wavelengths of light combine to form color. Repeatedly in this exhibit, Wiedemann takes scientific data, renders it useless to science, and creates works that emphasize the sensory residue the sun leaves behind. Instead of the actual image, she provides us with the afterimage, or, in one case, no image at all.

For 8 minutes, 18 seconds (2012), Wiedemann sampled acoustic waves used by helioseismologists to study the core and far side of the sun. Unseen, “the body of the sun is literally roaring with turbulent boiling motions” measured through these waves.4 The piece is in a darkened, closet-size room at the front of the gallery. Sped up and edited, the audio brings to mind recordings of whale songs or what the Voyager Golden Record might sound like when it reaches alien ears. Capturing this invisible activity and replaying it in darkness, Wiedemann guides the audience into an appreciation of the sun’s hidden powers.

While some works contain nods to the constraints of conceptual art (1,234 days represents the exact amount of time Wiedemann has been in San Francisco; light from the sun takes eight minutes and eighteen seconds to reach Earth), other pieces evince an interest in unique materials that contain and refract light. In concert, the works form a highly considered and meticulously crafted solo show. The only setback for this inventive and accomplished work is an obvious one: with so many pieces relying on precise levels of illumination, Afterimage is best seen after its subject has set. Thankfully, the gallery has expanded its hours to include nighttime viewings on Wednesday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m., encouraging more comprehensive exploration of Wiedemann’s experiments into the phenomenology of perception.


Afterimage is on view at MacArthur B Arthur, in Oakland, through April 1, 2012. 


  1. NASA, “Geomagnetic Storm Strength Increases,” March 9, 2012, http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/news/News030712-X5-4.html.
  2.  Adam Frank, National Public Radio, “Storms in the Void: Space Weather and Childhood’s End,” January 24, 2012, http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2012/01/24/145700040/storms-in-the-void-space-weather-and-childhoods-end.
  3. From email correspondence with the artist, March 8, 2012.
  4. NASA, “Sunspot Breakthrough,” August 24, 2011, http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/news/sunspot-breakthru.html.

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