The Spark of Fusion

The Spark of Fusion



What is the major difference of my fine arts education between China and New Zealand?


I have studied in the leading fine arts institues and practising art-making for many years both in China and New Zealand. From my observation and experience, the answer is the decision on emphasizing techinique or concept during my creative process. 


When I studied in the Oil Painting Department at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in China, I spent hours and hours on developing painting techniques and often judged my works with the old master’s perspective. I did a lot of research on works by greatest Western masters in order to find out how they used brush strokes to create atmosphere and what kind of paint they used to achieve special effect. I believed that as I was professionally trained and I have the knolwedge and skill to complete the work in higher standard as well as refining aesthetics value. 


During my Master of Fine Arts programme at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland in New Zealand, I found that the learning strategy and the programme system were very different. In a work, I learnt how to develop a concept and I was able to work with other mediums. I gained a whole lot of knowledge from group critique, one on one meeting with supervisors and participated in reading groups. All these activities opened up my eyes and engaged me to express an idea by using any medium. Also, I had opportunity to work with the technicians and they gave me a great deal of advise and guided me to complete projects. Art-making became an interesting, creative and fruitful activity.

后来,我奔赴新西兰奥克兰大学(University of Auckland)埃兰艺术学院(Elam School of Fine Arts)攻读美术硕士学位,正是那时才发现中新两国在学习方略和课程体系的差异。通过某个作品的创作,我学到了如何提出概念,如何运用其他创作媒介。小组互评、读书会、导师一对一会面等教学方式不仅让我受教良多,眼界大开,也让我学会用任一种媒介阐述创作理念。此外,我还有机会与技师们合作,得到了创作方面的专业建议和指导。在新西兰,艺术创作的全过程让人兴致勃勃,创意迸发,收获颇丰。

East and west, traditional and contemporary, technical and conceptual; like the Chinese Yin and Yang philosophy describes how apparently opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. The spark of fusion will provide a new direction in contemporary art.



Curator: Alvin Xiong


Article for the exhibition Big Catch On Live Bait, 2016, Nathan Homestead Arts Centre, Auckland, New Zealand

Published on the exhibition catalogue

Publisher: Alte Btücke Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany  

Rethinking light and shadow in contemporary artwork


Rethinking light and shadow in contemporary artwork




Alvin Xiong




Master of Fine Arts 


Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, 2015 







Light has been an important element in the world since ancient civilizations.

The sanctity of light and sun is one of the most ancient and persistent themes within sacred art and architecture – a concept associated with the cultural structures and rituals of Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, as well as both Mayan and Aztec civilizations. People in ancient times worshipped the sun a lot, reflecting their ancient thoughts that the sun had immortal power over human mortality. They needed to find a way to revere the power that they believed came from their gods. Light has a particular materiality, in connecting human life to the touch of an unknown field. 

Within mankind’s ancient cultures, the sun had been given an extraordinary position. It is possible that social leaders in that period used their knowledge of the seasons to maintain their own power and status over those people of lower classes. Such political and religious agendas may have given Man the understanding of his appropriate place in relation to the universe and the creator or God. People were convinced that their commitment to worshiping the sun was the proper way to build a direct relationship between both them and the creator.

In the Christian tradition, light is also indispensable. In Genesis 1: 3 it reads“And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.’’[1] Light was an integral component to creation in the Christian world. This same concept of light illuminating is prominent in religious architecture. Stained glass windows are an important device in churches and cathedrals. The function of stained glass is not only showing people the beauty of light but also reminds the believer that the power of light comes from their God, so their lives cannot be without God or light.


The importance of light is not only apparent in ancient art, but also appears in minimalism and post minimalism earth art. Sunlight, space and human beings have been involved together in combination for millennium. Also, if we look at history, Mankind's interest in working with visual phenomena of sunlight and space has continued since early civilization. During past decades up until now, contemporary artists have used and are using light to create their artworks. This provides the viewer with an immersive experience of the power of light. James Turrell’s monumental The Roden Crater Project[2] and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels[3] are both good examples of this. Contemporary artists are using artwork to create a unique worship-space for the viewer to understand the power of light.


For Turrell’s The Roden Crater Project, the power of light is manifested by the architecture and sun, bringing the light of the heavens down to Earth, linking viewers with the celestial movements of planets, stars and distant galaxies. Both light and space have been perfectly used in this monumental art project. I think Turrell was influenced by the design of the architecture to enhance his visual perception in this project. I also believe that Turrell explored and understood the Ancient’s treasure. As Turrell says “I admire Borobudur, Angkor Wat, Pagan, Machu Picchu, the Mayan pyramids, the Egyptian pyramids, Herodium, Old Sarum, Newgrange and the Maes Howe. These places and structures have certainly influenced my thinking. These thoughts will find concurrence in Roden Crater.”[4]

New York critic Calvin Tompkins writes about Turrell’s work “His work is not about light, or a record of light; it is light - the physical presence of light made manifest in sensory form.”[5] The function of the work is using light and space to engage the viewer within the limits and wonder of human perception.


Light is not only important to me but also important to human beings. Without light, we would be in darkness. 


Using light in an expanded field


“Surprising things have come to be called sculpture” - Rosalind Krauss[6]

American art critic and art theorist, Rosalind Krauss discusses the issue of the transformation of modernist medium specificity into postmodernist medium multiplicity in contemporary art in her famous essay: Sculpture in the Expanded Field. Krauss’ alternative narrative discusses Modernism as the rupture between sculpture and its site. In addition she talks about the opposition between architecture and landscape or indeed ‘non-architecture’ and ‘non-landscape’. Yet, when these issues had been explored in greater depth, postmodern sculptors like Carl Andre, Robert Smithson, Sol LeWitt and Bruce Nauman mapped an ‘expanded field’ of sculpture, which superseded oppositions such as Krauss.[7] One such example is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty[8], a work forms a 460 metre long and 4.6 metre wide counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the Great Salt Lake. Depending upon the lake water level, the work is sometimes visible and sometimes submerged.[9] This artwork breaks or blurs the boundary between sculpture, architecture and landscape. 

Krauss’ essay provides a precise diagram about the structural parameters of sculpture, architecture and landscape art, and what sculpture had become in the second half of the twentieth century. In her essay, she questions the three-dimensional art form of ‘sculpture’ and tries to clarify what these art practices were, what they were not and what they could become if logically combined.

She explains that looking back through art history, definitions of both art and sculpture have become more elastic. Sculpture has jumped out of the traditional box and has moved into new areas.[10] Krauss gives us two examples about the gradual transition: Auguste Rodin’s statutes: The Gates of Hell[11] and Monument to Balzac[12]. These two works show the beginning period of the sculptor as expressing the artist’s personality in the work. This special change is illustrated more clearly by the discarding of the pedestal upon which the sculpture has traditionally sat.

Next, Krauss argues, sculpture moved more completely away from the monument to an art form. And so sculpture lost its ‘site’ or ‘place’. Monuments became abstract. Sculpture became ‘nomadic’.[13] This change happened during the modernist period between 1880 - 1945.

After the 1950s, sculpture became something that could be defined by what it was, rather than what it wasn’t.

It was during the postmodernist era that for the first time, sculpture situated itself between ‘non-landscape’ and ‘non-architecture’. This is when the notion of ‘combination of exclusions’ comes into play. The sculpture needed the landscape to define what the sculpture itself was; it used the landscape to be. That is why Krauss gives us the example of Robert Morris’ Green Gallery Installation from 1964.[14]

Some sculptures explore the possibility of landscape and not landscape (the sites defines the works) and some are between the place of architecture and not architecture (sculpture as an ‘intervention in the real space of architecture’)[15]

So, what is sculpture in the twentieth century? As Krauss mentioned: it could be anything. Sculpture could encompass a much broader range of medium such as ‘photography, books, and lines on walls, mirrors, or sculpture itself’.[16] The definition of sculpture has become more ambiguous, and in my opinion, no matter what the art form is, the situation of definition is the same.

The importance of Rosalind Krauss’ essay not only gives us the artist’s permission to be free with our creativity during the creation process, but also to blur the boundaries and limitations between different art forms and be ambiguous with the notion or definition of an object in the art world.[17]

Based on Krauss’ theory, I think the idea of using light in an artwork can be extended.  

Light as both a medium and subject within painting has been a relevant topic developing for centuries.

From the dark paintings of Michelangelo Caravaggio to the interior environments and garments of Johan Vermeer, light is an important element in their paintings. Light increases the dramatic and emotional atmosphere in their works. The Impressionist painters Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh also tried to depict light and catch the various changes of light on the object. This is especially apparent with Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series and Haystacks series. He was impressed with the way light imparts itself on a subject creating a distinctly different character at different times of the day, the weather, the season and the year. In Monet’s paintings, the different effects of light on a subject became more important than the painted subject itself. In my opinion, he is painting the changing of light rather than painting a subject under different conditions. He tried to illustrate the importance of light and change the viewer’s perception about what light can be as a subject in a given time and place in a painting. 

Gjon Mili as a photographer and lighting innovator caused Pablo Picasso to create the famous light-drawing photography "Picasso draws a Centaur". The invention of using light and camera develops the idea ‘photography to capture the image on sheets of paper’ to become ‘painting with light by using photography’. It also opened a new direction for the potential of integrating drawing and light. 

In fact no matter whether it is painting, photography or other traditional art forms, the artwork is illuminated by light. Without light, the darkness does not let the viewer see the incredible detail and the fine brush-strokes in the work. On the other hand, in two-dimensional work, artists only recreate or use the effect of light, they are not using light itself. Some use light to enhance the painted figure’s emotion, others use light to create three-dimensionality effect of the object. Some artists use light to achieve a certain brightness required for painting their works. In my opinion, that means artist’s only use light as a reproduction tool in two-dimensional artworks; they are not using light itself as an important part of the work.

For sculpture and other three-dimensional works, light is unavoidable such as when light enhances the beautiful body curve of a Roman marble sculpture or reflects a particular area of designed architecture. Without light, the wonder of artwork would fade to become glooms.

Many contemporary artists working with light use manufactured light-sources. They contextualise light by considering how it affects the viewer and what the relationship is between light, space and that viewer. I see that using light as the medium to create an artwork has not been developed enough.


As one of the pioneers of Minimalism, Dan Flavin is best known for works that are entirely constructed with fluorescent light tubes. He might be considered as the first artist who physically employed electronic lighting into art. Dan Flavin gave continuity to his practice by utilizing the light-emitting object itself. As Xu Tan said “A craft that not only depicted the subject as the medium but that playfully explored color theory and the designing of space.”[18]


His works also established a new tradition of perceiving art and a new way of adapting specific works to site specificity. He did this through various forms of installation and what was later known as environmental art.[19] From Dan Flavin, light itself started becoming a medium in artwork, not just existing as the reproduced effect. It means that the power of light will be applied on the artwork.


Dan Flavin’s work is discussed in the book Icons, “the light of the tubes extends the work’s scope of effect into the surrounding room. Not only does the viewer stand opposite the work of art, he can, so to speak, enter it and thus become a part of it.”[20]


Flavin developed the extensible character of this special material: light. He may not fully realize that light is not only applying colour to affect the space or object but is also creating more shadows within the space. When I see Flavin’s work, I am not only seeing how the light affects the surrounding room, but also the relationship between the light from the work and the shadow of the viewer. Light is not only affecting the space but also creating shadow in the space. Furthermore the viewer becomes an object in the space, creating a shadow that always stays with them until they leave the space. It is the viewer’s absence that returns to the space, where the shadow formerly occupied, to its previous state of being lit. Shadows will be gone and light will dominate the whole space by itself again.


I think there is the potential in pushing the boundary of using the relationship between light and shadow and their relationship within a minimalist sculptural light work. Perhaps, the artist can integrate two different mediums, drawing and manufacturing light into a two-dimensional work. A new contemporary light-work form can then be created by mixing minimal light work together with traditional painting or painting techniques.


A new mixed art form is not just about using light to create some effect, but also using the special relationship between light and shadow. This may create new opportunities for the viewer, having a different perspective when seeing light works.


Francis Bacon said “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.”[21] This implies that darkness enhances the power of light, and the light makes the darkness even deeper. Developing the relationship between light and space is important. But it appears many artists do not notice that light and shadow are commensal - in the sense that there will be both light and shadow in the same light-dominated space when an object moves into it. An object enters a light-dominated field and introduces that there will be both light and shadow in the same space, where shadow is created by an object entering a space dominated by light.


To me, shadow has two important roles. Firstly, shadow proves there is light in the space, because nothing can create a shadow except for the existence of light. Secondly, shadow proves that an object is impeding light - the object blocks light to create darkness, shadow. Additionally, the clarity or depth of shadow depends on the power of light.




     The inside and the outside of an artwork using light



What is the inside and what is the outside?


I am concerned with developing the relationship between the viewer and the work, especially in an artwork using light. So, what is the inside of the work and what is the outside of the work? This is a very interesting question to me.


Take for example a light work constructed with fluorescent tubes that illuminates the whole space in yellow. When the viewer walks into the space and faces the fluorescent tubes, are they outside of the artwork? In my opinion, they are facing the physical material: manufactured fluorescent tubes, but the core untouchable material: light, is extending itself to the surrounding the room. Are they then inside the work? I believe so. 


For a light work, the material has a special character: light is uncontrollably extensible. The viewer’s entire body is inside the work when they are watching a light work in the space. The physical light installation as an object is like the heart of the work. It is as if the viewer has entered a human body and comes face to face with the beating heart. On the other hand, the viewer has acquired the power to ‘kill’ the work from the inside. Because they just need to turn off the light, then there will be no power for the light tubes to shine. The attractive power of light will be taken from the fluorescent tubes, the tubes become only a plastic object and we will then call this object a ‘fluorescent tube’. Without light, the physical material loses its special character. It is as if we can go inside a body, we can cut the heart out and the body will be dead. Without life, we will be just a soft body.


For other traditional art forms like sculpture, painting or photography, the viewer cannot physically go inside the work. For instance, the viewer cannot go inside of a marble sculpture as we cannot go into the stone. Also, the viewer cannot go inside an oil painting as we cannot go into paint. So, the viewer is always outside of the work. For those kinds of works, the viewer only can go inside of their personal experience that is aroused by the work. For the traditional art forms, what we can see is the skin of the work. We can destroy these works from outside, but we cannot kill them from inside like light-work can. Within traditional art forms, the artist’s creative process is like doing plastic surgery with the material to make it look nice. But for light works, the artist is not only doing the make up for the material, but is also giving the work the power to bring the work to life. Light is the life of a light work. Without light, the object is not an artwork.



A good example of this is Anthony McCall, a British-born American artist. His work is about using his ‘solid-light’ installations to project a volumetric form slowly in a three-dimensional space. The viewer can not only walk in the space to feel the power and beauty of light, but also can stand in front of the strong projecting light to create their special shadow in the space.


McCall said about his works “No longer is one viewing position as good as any other … every viewing position presents a different aspect. The viewer therefore has a participatory role in apprehending the event: he or she can, indeed needs, to move around relative to the slowly emerging light form.”[22]


McCall talks about the relationship between the viewer and the work. The light will influence the viewer and the viewer will affect the work.


When the viewer walks in the perfectly designed space by Anthony McCall, his light projector is projecting light in the space. The viewer is inside of the work. The changed projector itself is not an artwork, it is just a material for creating the light effect. The light from the projector is the artwork. The viewer is not only immersing themselves in light but also modifying the work. The viewer’s body will stop the light from the beginning to the end, and the body will cast a special black object: a shadow in the space. Light cannot go through the viewer’s body. Following the viewer’s movements, the artwork is keeping itself in the space until the viewer or the object leaves the space. Then light will dominate the space again.


For the light work, if the viewer wants to see the real face of the work, he cannot go into the space. Because if the viewer is inside the work, he becomes part of the work and he is modifying the work created by his unique body shape. On the other hand, light work is an art form that can gives the viewer an opportunity or an authority to recreate the artist’s work whether they are doing this consciously or unconsciously. The artwork immediately then returns back to its original state when the viewer finishes his movements and leaves the space.



Light has power in the space that it dominates. No matter how many viewers or objects in the room, they will be all accepted by light. The object and the shadow all are inside of light.


The British choreographer Russell Maliphant presents his dancing work Shift (final part) (1996) in an innovative way by integrating light and dance. He uses his body to cast shadows on the stage wall through the spot light. Maliphant is dancing on the stage and the shadows are dancing with him as well. Body and shows move together. There is only one dancer performing on stage, yet the audience can see many shadow dancers dancing at the same time. At the end of the dancing, Maliphant moves out the light sources and the shadows leave at the same time.





               Light, shadow and drawing



What can shadow do for a light work? Shadow is a space or a region where light from a light source has been blocked by an opaque object. Shadow occupies all of the three-dimensional volume behind the object with light in front of it. The cross section of a shadow is a two-dimensional silhouette, or reverse projection of the object blocking the light. This provides an opportunity for the artist who works with light to use an object to block the untouchable material: light to create a special image.


As an example, Japanese American artist Kumi Yamashita deals with light and shadow in her contemporary Light & Shadow series.


Yamashita subtly manipulates different materials such as paper, fabric and wood to introduce strategic lighting; the installation becomes about light and shadow. In Yamashita’s work, small cuts are made to paper and other materials that accompany the work, careful consideration is paid to folding and lighting. The shadow becomes a human figure or an image, which is her work. Without light and shadow, her work doesn’t exist.


Kumi Yamashita says “I sculpt using light and shadow. I construct single or multiple objects and place them in relation to a single light source. The complete artwork is therefore comprised of both the material (the solid objects) and the immaterial (the light or shadow).”[23]


Yamashita’s work enhances the function of light for a sculpture. Light shines and the curves or forms of a sculpture appear, regardless of what material the sculpture is made from. Light is able to show the tiny details from a sculpture that would not be seen in a dark space. The viewer needs light to appreciate the non-architecture, non-landscape sculptures as well as renaissance sculptures.


Yamashita’s work extends the function of sculpture in a sculptural artwork (if we define the sculpture as the art of carving, modeling, welding, or otherwise producing figurative or abstract works of art in three dimensions). The new function of sculpture is helping light to create a shadow that is the actual artwork. Sculpture becomes an object in the work. The artist uses the sculpture and different light sources for achieving the work: shadow. I think that there is the potential to direct people to a new perspective when we see a sculpture. If we think for a moment Michelangelo’s David[24] not as an artwork, but as an opaque solid object in Academia di Belle Arti di Firenze, with the dome as the light source casting an immaterial shadow on the floor. The shadow is the artwork. David is just an object for creating the shadow. So, with this in mind it leaves the traditional relationship between sculpture, light and shadow to be reconsidered. Traditionally, an artist only applies light onto an object (sculpture), to provide more details or to create a special atmosphere in a bright space. The shadow itself is without meaning or function. Maybe the only function of the shadow is to prove there is light in the space. But in Yamashita’s work, the privilege of the sculpture has been removed. The new hierarchy has been built between sculpture, light and shadow. Shadow is the most important component in the new relationship as it is the final result, which the artist wants to achieve. And light is still playing its essential role in the work, as without no light, there is no shadow. The function of light is not only improving detail but also giving life to the work. The sculpture becomes a less important component in the work. The function of the sculpture becomes a vehicle with which is to cast the image of shadow. So, no matter whether we are dealing with a detailed masterpiece or a rough beginner’s work, the effect is the same for shadow on the surface to achieve a similar result.


Yamashita’s work encourages thinking about expanding the relationship between light and shadow. What is the difference between a drawn shadow and a real shadow? Drawing is a residual mark of the hand or body movement by a person who uses various materials to make the mark on paper or on a two-dimension medium. Generally, the drawing medium can be materials such as pencils, pen, ink, wax, crayon, charcoal, chalk, pastel, paint, and various materials that can leave marks on surface. So, a drawn shadow is a mark, which the person applies with body movements onto the drawing medium.


For having a real shadow, we need something to block light. If we think of a viewer as a drawing medium, the shadow is then a drawing. When the viewer walks into the space, his body movement is like doing a drawing in the space. The light and the viewer’s body become the drawing medium, his body marks the wall or the floor. It breaks the eternity and unchangeable character of normal drawing/mark making. The result of drawing becomes temporary. The viewer is given the special function from the artist in the particular space. The viewer does the drawing in space as the light casts shadow no matter whether the shadow is strong or weak.


The gesture and movement from the body provides the artist with a way to integrate drawing into a contemporary light work with an adequate reason, drawing the shadow. So, in a new contemporary light work, we will have two drawn shadows, one is the light making where the viewer does the drawing in the space which is dominated by light, another one is the artist using his bodily movement to draw something responding to the light. It is like the ancient sun worship, the artist is creating something to worship the light in the work and what he creates is light’s brother: shadow. Because shadow is unavoidable with light, drawing the shadow is the best way to build a relationship with light. Light is the way to relate to two different things: drawing and shadow. Because without light, there is no shadow. Without light the drawn shadow is just a drawing. 






Light is always the main core in a light work. An artist spends lots of time to develop their light works further by using different light sources and modern lighting technology. The technology effects artistic creation by causing feelings as if becoming a scientist or an engineer. The spark of an artist’s observational skill and creativity is being put under pressure by technology. But sometimes, if we use a different artistic perspective to see what we are doing and what we have done, we can find something useful that we have not yet been concerned with or we have forgotten is there, like the shadow in light work.


Light and shadow, shadow and light, everyone knows their relation and connection, but I do not think that shadow has been investigated enough in contemporary light work. Many artists create many complicated instruments or high-tech technology constructions to express light in their light works. But these works lose the power of pure light. For example, in Leo Villareal’s Cylinder II in the exhibition Light Show in Auckland Art Gallery 2015, the viewer’s attention has been driven out by the cold metal structure and the large electrical wires. In my opinion, all the elements in the light work should only have one reason: enhancing light. If we think that sun worship is a light work, the sun is the most important element in the work, because sun is the only light source. The human being can’t help but increase this spectacular feeling from light. Even in the present, LED light or any other electrical light source that provides us all with energy, it is the sun. Technology helps us to convey the power from the sun, to then be the energy that we use in daily life.  


Integrating basic or traditional art materials from drawing, painting, sculptural elements into the light works using light and shadow could be a new way to provide another direction extending contemporary light work. The artist who uses light as their practical art medium will be focused on developing the relationship between light and the human being’s spirit rather than the scientific or technological.


What is drawing doing in this contemporary light work and what does it convey or do? As the contemporary Australian painter Dion Archibald said, “Drawing is the 'bones' of art. You have to be able to walk before you can run.”[25]


I believe that combining light with drawing can give me as an artist a new way to investigate light, and that drawing can help me jump out of the technology box and come back to the key of a light work: light. And the shadow will be the best and the proper binder entangling drawing and light in these illuminated works.


From ancient to present times, the use of light for spiritual and material purposes follows all of human history. New technology opens up all kinds of possibilities, but it cannot obscure the ancient source of all our energy and life. As an artist working with light, I need to rethink how to extend light and shadow into giving the viewer a new perspective to read the contemporary light work.





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[1] “Genesis 1-3 New International Version (NIV)”, Bible Gateway. Accessed September 10, 2015.


[2] Turrell, James. The Roden Crater Project (red and black volcanic cinder cone, 18288 cm ) 1974 - , Near Flagstaff, Arizona

[3] Holt, Nancy. Sun Tunnels (Concrete, 548.64 x 274.32 x 2621.28 cm) 1976, NW Utah, 40 miles N of Wendover, five miles S of Lucin, Utah

[4] “About.” Rodencrater. Accessed September 2, 2015.

[5] “Introduction.” James Turrell. Accessed September 2, 2015.

[6] Krauss, Rosalind, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field, October, Vol. 8. (Spring, 1979), pp.  30-44”. Onedaysculpture. Accessed September 1, 2015.

[7] Rosenmeyer, Aoife. “Expanded Field.” Frieze. Accessed August 23, 2015

[8] Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water coil, 4600 x 46 cm) 1970, Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah

[9] “Earthwork.” Holt-Smithson Foundation. Accessed August 23, 2015

[10] More ‘expanding field’ artists from today’s tutorial.” Becky Bendy Legs. Accessed Auguest 10, 2015

[11] Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell (Bronze, 635 x 400 x 85cm) 1880-circa 1890, Musée Rodin, Paris

[12] Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac (Bronze, 280 x 120.5 x 128cm) 1898, Musée Rodin, Paris

[13] Krauss, Rosalind, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field, October, Vol. 8. (Spring, 1979), pp. 30-44”. Onedaysculpture. Accessed September 1, 2015.

[14] “Thoughts on ‘Sculpture in the Expanding Field’ by Rosalind Krauss.” Becky Bend Legs. Accessed August 23, 2015.

[15] Krauss, Rosalind, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field, October, Vol. 8. (Spring, 1979), pp. 30-44”. Onedaysculpture. Accessed September 1, 2015.

[16] Krauss, Rosalind, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field, October, Vol. 8. (Spring, 1979), pp. 30-44”. Onedaysculpture. Accessed September 1, 2015.


[17] “Thoughts on ‘Sculpture in the Expanding Field’ by Rosalind Krauss.” Becky Bend Legs. Accessed August 23, 2015.

[18] Xu, Tan. “Original Creators: Minimalist Light Sculptor Dan Flavin”, The Creatorsproject. Accessed September 9, 2015.

[19] Xu, Tan. “Original Creators: Minimalist Light Sculptor Dan Flavin”, The Creatorsproject. Accessed September 9, 2015.


[20] Thierolf, Corinna, Flavin, Dan, Vogt, Johannes, and Pinakothek Der Moderne. Dan Flavin : Icons. Munich : Munich: Schirmer/Mosel ; Pinakothek Der Moderne, 2009.

[21]Fransic Bacon Quotes.” Brainy Quote. Accessed September 3, 2015.

[22] McCall, Anthony., Barton, Christina, Smythe, Luke, and Adam Art Gallery. Anthony McCall : Drawing with Light : 24 February - 25 April 2010. Wellington, N.Z.: Adam Art Gallery, 2010.


[23] Yamashita, Kumi. “Light & Shadow”. Kumi Yamashita. Accessed September 4, 2015.

[24] Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. David (Carrara marble, 500 cm) 1501-1504, Academia di Belle Arti di Firenze, Firenze.

[25] Percy, Natasha. “Again with Feeling”. Artist’s Palette Magazine. Accessed August 27, 2015.

Painting with light

Painting with light 

Alvin Xiong

MFA YEAR 1 (10/2014)


The initial aim of my art was to paint with oils in the tradition of the old masters. My dream was to be one of the best painters in the world. I was fascinated with the painting techniques employed by the old masters such as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Diego Velazquéz, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and Peter Paul Rubens.

 Everything changed though when I moved to a new country to live. Moving from China to New Zealand was such a culture shock for me and the new environment inspired me. For the first time I had the chance to experiment with and develop new materials and mediums and to create new works, aided by this new perspective.

I visited an international light show in Guangzhou before I moved back to Auckland. The beauty of light impressed me at night and I began thinking about the possibility of using light as the new medium to create my work. Working with this new material was refreshing because it provided a platform to depart from traditional oil painting medium, into the unknown. 

 Prior to this point I was struggling to use oil paint as my only medium to create artworks, because I could not really build up the connection between my heart and the material. I felt uncomfortably limited by the medium. It is like Wassily Kandinsky said that I was ruled by the exterior impression rather than by the interior sound.’ I could not free my inner expression by only using oil paint while I restricted myself to oil paint. I think that the connection between the work, the material and the artist’s inner expression is one of the most important things in artwork as Kandinsky described his painting purpose …All of my works have only one purpose, or rather, reason – I had to make them, because there was no other way I could free myself of certain thoughts (or, perhaps, dreams). Nor am I thinking of any practical use. I have just got to make the thing.” 

I started to explore how to mix up my painting knowledge by using other materials to create new works and pushing the boundary of the preconceived limit in my work. My knowledge of painting provides a background which gives me a particular perspective that differs from those working around me. I aim to merge this painting experience with experimentation through another medium.


Light painting photography:

Minimalism interests me because it aims to exclude the pictorial, fictive and illusionistic in favor of the literal. Thinking about this genre of art practise has led me to a place where I am reducing the realist and pictorial elements at work in my painting. As a consequence I hope to enhance the personal reflection between the material and the thinking. I want to answer my inner expression and creativity rather than mimic nature. I read a book called ‘Painting with Light: Light Art Performance Photography’, which is written by two German artists Janleonardo Woellert and Joerg Miedza. The book is about their innovated art form: Light Art Performance Photography (LAPP). I found that this book is useful and helpful to me, because they use the ‘old’ photographic techniques but they mixed their new idea to let the old staff becomes a contemporary art form, this kind of crossover and mix-up phenomenon influenced me a lot in my works. 

LAPP is one of the first forms of art using light as the medium to gain widespread attention. LAPP differs from other ways of working with light because it involves more than a simple illumination of existing objects; The photographer aims instead to create and capture new subjects that are constructed entirely of light. Works of this kind are characteristically shot at night and rely on long exposure photographic techniques to capture complex sequences of precisely choreographed movements. In the background of their works, real-world surroundings are combined with transient, light-based elements to produce spectacular effects.

The typical defining characteristic of LAPP is the harmony between the background and the harsh light often used to produce the individual image elements. The symbiosis between photographer and performer gives each work a degree of reproducibility that is essential if it is to be accurately restaged at a later time.

Using light as the medium evident in their work encouraged me to consider using a no paint medium to create a painting I wanted to challenge how I can extend and crossover my painting knowledge by using an unfamiliar material. I believe ‘painting with no paint’ allow me concentrate on developing the relation and the reflection between the medium and my idea.

Man Ray said “I began as a painter. In photographing my canvases I discovered the value of reproduction in black and white. … I need to experiment in one form or another. Photography gives me the means, a simpler and faster means than painting.”

His words influenced me to think that I can use photography to break my previous mind setting. Because photography is faster to develop and experiment my ideas by creating the images in a short time. Photograph is like my pencil drawing but in a different way and I found that is very useful and helpful for quickly visualize my idea. It means when I have an idea, I can quickly finish the image and get the result; that helps me to focus on my idea not on the image itself but also my thinking behind the work. The idea ‘painting with no paint’ makes me think about these questions: What makes a painting being special? What is my purpose to create a painting? Why I have to be stuck in one medium to create my work? What is the reflection between the viewer and my work? How to use different painting materials to express my idea instead of using oil paint? I do not want to be an artist who lives in a contemporary time but creating some works as similar as the traditional craft man did ages ago. Like Pablo Picasso said that ‘The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?’

I use the process of long exposure photographic techniques to create images similar as LAPP use that technique in their works. But the difference in my techniques is that I move a hand-held light sources or the camera to create my image. I found that when I use light as my medium to create my image, I feel to be more comfortable and free. I guess it is because in my previous oil painting work, I always have a plan for my self to guide my painting to come out. It means that before I start creating my painting, I already realized the result of the work, because I have enough experience and techniques to paint whatever I want by using oil paint medium. Obviously these experiences became my problem in my art practice. I felt that my creative process becomes like a senior worker in factory, just keeping repeating the similar process everyday. When I see the tools, I know what I can achieve with them, when I see the object; I know what tools I need to use to paint it to become the thing I am looking for. I did not have any chance to think about what could be behind the work and what is the connection between the viewer, the work and the artist. On the other hand, it is a special experience for me, which I had never experienced previously in my art practice.

In my light painting photography, I set up a rule for myself, which is I can not have a plan or an illusion of the final result for my work. I focus on the pure expression process of my feeling and my thoughts. And use this expression to emphasis the spontaneous, automatic and the subconscious creation in my work. It is like I am building up the spiritual communication between the work and my mind. Like Kandinsky said that ‘he felt a new “sound’’ vibrate in his soul. For reason of “inner necessity’’ abstract forms appeared to him to be the only way of expressing this vision.

In the article My Painting, Jackson Pollock said that ‘My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.

I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.

When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.’ Kandinsky and Pollock’s words influenced the creation process of my light painting photography.

I use camera and different kinds of light sources to create the light painting work. Like Pollock, there is no traditional easel, stretched canvas, palette and brushes in my light work. The camera becomes my painting brush, light becomes my paint, and I am doing my painting on an invisible canvas: the space. The entire brush stroke is in the space. When I start moving my camera or my light source, the painting starts happening in the space. The brush stroke floats in the space. I feel totally free when I am painting with light in the space, because I do not need to worry about any painting techniques, the composition, the colour matching, the brush stroke and the object, etc., I can fully concentrate on expressing myself by using the spontaneous and the subconscious creation. Just try to let the work come through. When I stop all my actions, the light painting is finished. The audience only can see my original light painting in the special space and the typical time.

The painting process is also like a performance involved action, time and space. The viewer can see I am doing my painting there, but they cannot exactly see the physical painting. The painting process becomes more important than the finished result. Like William Vaughan said that ‘the artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also omit to paint that which he sees before him.

In my light painting photography, the photograph captures the mark of my painting. The mark is for approving my work is existed and gives the viewer a physical object of the painting, but the photo is not the actually original work. After all the creative process, the printed photographic paper is a reproduction of my light painting on photographic paper.   


Sculptural light painting:

Janleonardo Woellert and Joerg Miedza use Light Art Performance Photography as their contemporary art form. As one of the first light painters, Gjon Mili used stroboscopic light to capture the motion of everything from dancers to jugglers in a single exposure in the mid 1930’s. His photoflash techniques are still very popular used today in light painting photography. Mili used this technique to study the motion of dancers, musicians, and figure skaters. His creation of photoflash photography work was just his first gift to the light painting world. In the 1940’s Gjon Mili attached small lights to the boots of ice skaters, then he opened the shutter of his camera and created what would be the inspiration for some of the most famous light painting images ever created. In 1949, Mili took some photos about Pablo Picasso did his ‘light drawing’ in the meeting with him at Picasso’s home in the South of France. Picasso drew a centaur in the air and Mili took his photographs in a darkened room, using two cameras, one for side view, and another for front view. By leaving the shutters open. He caught the light streaks swirling through space. Of all of these Drawing the most famous is known as “Picasso Draws a Centaur”. Man Ray is the first artist to explore the light painting techniques. He did an important series “Space Writing” to contribute to light painting photography. In 1935, Man Ray set up a camera to produce his self-portrait. He opened the camera’s shutter and used a small penlight to create a series of swirls and lines in the air.

In 1988, Japanese artist Tokihiro Sato created his well know work: Photo-Respiration that consists of two subsets, Breathing Light and Breathing Shadows. Sato was trained as a sculpture but found that photography better suited his artistic desires. He shoots with an 8×10 camera and his exposures can last up to three hours. Sato received his Masters degree from Tokyo National University. His light painting photographs are held throughout the world in public and private museums including the Guggenheim in New York and Museum of Modern Art in Saitama, Japan.

In his work, Tokihiro Sato uses light tracks to create his sculpture in the space. Each of light track looks like the metal wire being set up in the space, and Sato put a lot of ‘light wire’ in the space in order and accumulate all the tracks together to become his light sculpture. The result of the work is like a massive metal wire sculpture in the room. I found the important point in Tokihiro Sato’s work is that even the result of his work is a photograph, but it is totally different of Gjon Mili and Man Ray’s works. Because Gjon Mili and Man Ray’s light painting works are more like painting or drawing. They create a two-dimensional image in a three-dimensional space, then reproduced on the two-dimensional photograph. So they much more consider their works as a two-dimension finished work. But in Sato’s work, he uses a two-dimensional medium to create his three-dimensional sculpture in the three-dimensional space, then reproduced on photograph. This evolving thinking pushed the boundary of using light as the medium to create artworks. And it opened my mind to further developing my light painting.   

In my opinion, the important point in these artists’ works is the relation between using light as the medium and the photography, because we can easily use photography to catch the light track. Their works inspired me to believe it is possible to paint with light. Actually, light painting photography has been explored for almost one centenary since Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth created their ‘working simplification’ in 1914. But, I do not think that the idea ‘painting with light’ has been developed further enough, as the photographic ‘light painting’ has limitations in that it was only represented in two-dimensional flat surfaces. Photography only captures the action of the tracks of the light moving but does not show the actual light itself. It is like light loses its character’s after being photographed. The viewer cannot feel light itself, it is like we will lose a lot of detail and the rhythm of the real brush strokes when we see a reproduction photographic oil painting. My aim is to use light itself to create my painting.  

I read a book called Light Ballet, which is written by the German artist Otto Piene. Piene uses light from moving torches was projected through grids, thus extending and stimulating the viewer's perception of space. His light work was inspired by László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator (1930) and Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924). Otto Piene consecutively developed three forms of ‘light ballet’ in different years: 'archaic light ballet’ (1959) based on torches and perforated cardboard; ‘mechanical light ballet’ (1960) requiring the visitors to operate cranks to set light objects slowly moving; ‘automatic light ballet’ with electrically powered dynamos. While his show was running in the Galerie Schmela, Piene staged in his studio a ‘festival of light’ with performances of different versions of the light ballet. He said that ‘light creates the power and magic of a painting, its richness, eloquence, sensuality, and beauty.’

Light Ballet inspired me to think about the possibility of building a spatial construction to use light itself for creating my work, because in the space presentation, the viewer can see and feel light itself in the space not just from the two-dimensional photograph.

In Otto Piene’s work, I found that the darkness is an important element, which needs to be considered in my light painting. Because I think that the darkness seems can blur the environment and kick out all the chaos and noisy in the space it can provide a quiet environment for the viewer to appreciate the beauty of light. The light is also being enhanced with more magic power in the darkness.

When I first created my light work in the darkness, I had a special experience. The darkness veil and blur the other irrelevant objects such as the edges of wall, ceiling, table, etc. in the dark environment. It provides me a space where I can focus on my work and my thoughts. The low light space gives me the opportunity to hear my inner voice much clear than in the daytime or in a bright space. I can feel my ideas come up my brain and they are like babies who want to be born. So, the only thing I can do it is to keep making my work and express all my feelings and thoughts in the artwork as Kandinsky said ‘because there was no other way I could free myself of certain thoughts (or, perhaps, dreams).’ I also think that light has the magnetically attracted for most life forms especially human being as moths fly towards light at night. The power of light feeds the aspects of our mental, body, spirit and emotion too.

Mirror is a special object for me. It can reflect light in a way that preserves much of its original quality subsequent to its contact with the mirror. Some mirrors also filter out some wavelengths, while preserving other wavelengths in the reflection. This is different from other light-reflecting objects such as stainless steel, aluminium, CD and ceramic that do not preserve much of the original wave signal other than colour and diffuse reflected light. Also, we have different types of mirror, normally plane mirror and curved mirror. Plane mirror has a flat surface, which is better for getting a straight light reflection line. Curved mirror is for producing magnified or diminished images or focus light or simply distort the reflected image.

In my sculptural light painting, I chose the plane mirror to be my painting brush, because I want the light reflection as straight as possible. Because I agree with Kandinsky that line is one of the fundamental element in art and ‘a line is a dot that went for a walk.’ So in my work, the light touch the mirror surface as a dot and then being reflected on the surface as a line. Light from a dot to a line that is my painting action. And the action is an important component in a painting like Picasso mentioned: ‘Action is the foundational key to all success.’ I do not actually apply my physical action on the paint, but my special brush: mirror helps me to reflect my action on the ‘canvas’.   

I use LED as my light source to make my sculptural light painting; the light from the LED is my paint. The mirror is my painting brush that can reflects the light, and the mirror gives me the ability to work with light. My canvas can be wall, wood, polystyrene or other materials.

In my work lullaby in 2013, I use two LED lights as my light sources, one of them is cold white, and another one is warm white. The whole work is like a big light painting on the wall, I call it ‘light fresco’. I set up my mirrors on a wall, which is covered by polystyrene sheets. When the light reflection appears on the wall, the polystyrene gives me an incredible moon-like surface. It reminds me building the texture of oil paint on the canvas. It is a special experience for me, because it is my first time using other medium to create my big painting. I feel like I am doing a painting, but I do not familiar with the medium. When I create the light painting, my painting experiences keep popping up. Fortunately, I can integrate my oil painting experience into my ‘light painting’.

Also, there are many light reflections in my work to create the light illusion. I want the abstract illusion can arouse the viewer about dreams, imaginations, hopes, mystical experience and aspiration for touching the human spirit.


Light, darkness and the eye


Observe the light and admire its beauty. Close your eyes and look: what you have seen doesn’t exist any more, and what you will see does not yet exist. Who remakes it, if he made it is perpetually dying?’ - Leonardo da Vinci


The theme of using light to create artwork has been a preoccupation of artists for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci wrote volumes about the important of light in rendering nature. Romantic artists described the sublime through light. And others, from Russian icon painters to modern artists, have used abstract forms to account for a divine or inner light. None, however, have so fully considered the ‘thingness’ of light itself as James Turrell said that, and how the experience of light reflects the wondrous and complex nature of human perception.

I agree with the concept of the ‘thingness’’ of light itself. I also think about the inherent relationship between the eyes, light and the darkness in my light painting. I find that light can be strongly reflected in the dark space by using a spatial construction like Piene’s light ballet. Our eyes help us to appreciate the beauty of light.

The eye is our vision organ, we use our eyes to focus and detect visible images. Light illuminates the objects and the environment, so we can use our eyes to see them or observe them in detail. If we open our eyes and stay in a dark space, our eyes cannot focus on anything, because there is no light and no object being illuminated. We start to get uncomfortable feeling and lost the sense of safe little by little. So, light seems to help the eyes focus and detect the images. If we open our eyes and stay in the dark space, and there is a lamp or other light source in that space, our eyes will be attracted by the light, because the eyes can focus on an object. And also, our body and mental will be lead to get close to the light.

In my work, the low light space is for reducing the visible environment and the objects in the space for creating a hard focus situation for the viewer’s eyes. Then, the light work illuminates the darkness and gives the eyes an object that can be focused. The purpose is for giving the viewer an immersive experience for enhancing the light painting in the space.

Light has the magnetically attractive for living forms especially in a dark space. For exploring light painting in a space scale, I set up my work in a low light environment for creating a typical environment and an atmosphere for enhancing viewer’s sense of sight to see my work. As James Turrell said that ‘Only when light is reduced does the pupil open and we feel with the eyes’. I think that a low light environment can make the viewer calm down to appreciate the beauty of the light illusion, because the darkness seems can give people a signal about being relax and quiet in that space. It is like people chat loudly before the drama starts in theatre. But when the light turns down, people will become quiet and stop talking. They will focus on the spot light in the stage. The dark environment reduces everything around us but it enhances our sense of sight to make us feel with our eyes. 

In Turrell’s work, the work gives the viewer an accessible experience about light reflection and space. The viewer can get a special experience when they see his work, it is spiritual like Turrell said that ‘light affects the physical state, the mental and emotional state and the spiritual state. The mind is what assembles what’s seen by the eyes to create the reality within which we live. The body is completely sensitive to light. It is through the skin that we drink light as Vitamin D. Light is a food for the body, mind and soul.’

I believe that human’s eye is the most exposed part of the brain. And it looks like the brain. We are very aware of the sensitivity of the eye. We are not made for the light outside. We are made for twilight. We are made for the light of the cave. So I think that my light painting should be happening in a space with darkness, because that suits to us.

The pupil becomes small when it is a noonday with a good sunlight, almost closed. We need to squint and wear the dark glasses. It is with lower light our pupil opens, and feeling comes out of the eye as touch. We touch and caress with the eyes. It is then we have the more sensual feeling with sight. The pupil opens and we can feel with the eyes when light is reduced. So, like my light painting ‘Echo’ in 2014, it does not come alive until the sunset, they will exist more as sculptures and architectural forms in the daytime or bright space, but they awake when we have lower levels of light.

I believe that people can be treated and healed with light. It is clear that human being needs light to exist.



From a traditional painter to become a contemporary light painter, I believe it is a big changing and challenge for my art career and my life. For myself, as an Asian student studied in an eastern philosophy and perspective environment but being trained to have a western painting background, and then conducting my art practice in a western social environment. I found that this special experience and background give me more options and perspectives to create my work. I also believe that being a contemporary artist, we need to open and accept different and new mediums and new ideas in our art practice.

Painting with light is my on going research project. I have used different art forms to develop and explore this idea, such as photography, sculptural and spatial construction, but I still can find there are many potentials and possibilities in working with my new painting medium: light. I think it is because light is a special medium that we can see it and we can feel it but we cannot touch it in the world. Light is visible but untouchable. Light is richness, eloquence, sensuality and beauty; it can create the power and magic of a painting. I really enjoy working with light. It makes me rethink my purpose to be an artist and I want to keep using this beautiful and mystery medium to create my work.



Janleonardo Woellert and Joerg Miedza. Painting with Light: Light Art Performance Photography. Santa Barbara, Germany, CA: Rocky Nook, 2011. Print.

Kandinsky: Painting on glass, New York: S. R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1966. Print.

Merry A. Foresta. Man Ray. London, Thames and Hudson, 1989. Print.

“My Painting”, The Pollock-Krasner foundation (Winter 1947-48): 78-83. Print.

William Vaughan . German Romantic Painting, London, Yale University Press, 1994. Print.

Light painting history. Light Painting Photography. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Pablo Picasso draws with light. Life magazine, Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

James Turrell. Milano: Charta NMAC, 2009. Print