The Brooklyn Rail

JAMES CLARK The Luminiferous Aether

May 1, 2011
JAMES CLARK The Luminiferous Aether

The Luminiferous Aether, 1995 - 2011. Argon gas filled tube, plastic, balloons, light, and air. Dimensions variable (about 87"h).

RHV FINE ART | MARCH 10 – APRIL 17, 2011

"…upon this simple system of many colors is based the manifold and infinitely varied investigation of all things."


—Zosimos of Panopolis (ca. 250 CE)

Obscurity of expression is natural to the psyche. Prime example, our dreams; mere glimmerings of our esoteric selves. There are also rare instances in which these obscurities are conjured through an interaction with the exoteric, or the physical world of objects and beings. James Clark’s most recent exhibition was such an occasion.

A single sculpture, 16 years in the making, “The Luminiferous Aether” (1995-2011), was housed in the one-room gallery space of RHV Fine Art in Brooklyn. The piece is composed of a single, vertical, argon gas-filled tube sheathed in a clear plastic cylinder, adorned with an array of iridescent balloons, which are inflated with the artist’s breath. The argon tube itself is covered intermittently in swaths of translucent pigment of varying hues, a heretic’s alchemy of the imaginal, indulging a place of quiet, illuminated contemplation.

Anyone approaching the gallery during the daylight hours would encounter sheets of heavy white paper board concealing its large storefront window. Two small rectangular openings cut out of the center of each board presented a peep show-like come-on to the space within, revealing this strange, luminous creation swimming in pools of the peculiar light of its own glowing gas (at night this barrier was removed to allow the light from the work to spill out into the darkened street). The concealed window, a collaboration between the gallery and the artist, functioned as a large camera obscura. Constantly shifting images and colors, lights and shapes from the outside world played themselves out upside-down and in reverse across the gallery walls, intermixing with the glowing light of the work itself. Aether, all pervading, filling all space and interpenetrating all matter. Said to have been formed by the infusion of the breath of the Logos into the primordial atmosphere. It is both the body of the stars and the structure of dust, an ever-flowing, plastic continuum. Air. All things breathe, images of souls in ceaseless animation, sending us their dreams. “Air is the cause of dreams, and of many other impressions of the mind,” states Agrippa von Nettesheim in his 16th-century work Natural Magic, “through the prolonging of Images, or similitudes, or species…until they come to the senses, and then to the phantasy, and soul of him who receives them.”

We breathe air and speak air, illumined, resounding, ascending—the anima corporalis or soul embodied in imagination.

At best, we can follow the images that the experience of the work leads us toward—the colors, the chemicals, the vessels, the fire—what James Hillman refers to as “images of the sensate imagination as it presents states of soul.” To seek logical meaning in such experiences is, I feel, a fool’s errand. The 1330 text The Precious New Pearl, attributed to the mysterious Petrus Bonus Lombardus of Ferrara, explains, “the only method that prevails is that of chaos; there is everywhere studied obscurity of expression; all the writers seem to begin, not with the first principles, but with that which is quite strange and unknown to the students. The consequence is that one seems to flounder along through these works, with only here and there a glimmering of light.”

In Latin, “camera” is translated as “vaulted chamber or room” while “obscura” is “occulted or dark.” A paradoxical conjunction of opposites is achieved when, as this artist and gallery have done, a vessel for the channeling of the luminiferous aether is placed within a camera obscura. Vessel within vessel. The ebb and flow of light and dark, color and form, projection and interpenetration, are achieved through an aetheric admixture. It is a space that covers both the immediate present and its hidden potentialities. So, let us swim though our manifest aetheric imaginations to that shore of here and now, the exalted and utterly ordinary (what Chuang Tzu calls the most meaningful place of all). Clark encourages the owner or exhibitor of this work to inflate the balloons with her/his own breath. Over time, as the latex balloons decay, the breath that once gave structure to the vessel will seep into the domestic atmosphere around it. Taking on new life, it mixes into and illuminates the spaces of our minor domestic struggles—the garbage, the cleaning, the intimacy–in the chance that within this space of life we can discover the occulted configurations of imagination at work, the possibilities of ourselves within ourselves. It’s a fleeting moment of understanding at best, like watching particles of dust drift through a sunbeam. Outside of our dreams, it is art, that other dark body full of obscurities, which can take us there, floating us through those essential bits and pieces of existence, surfacing in the aetheric imagination of air—beautiful and ordinary in their illuminated obscurity.

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