Drawn to the light

Through their recent exhibit, Gravity of Light, artists and identical twins Doug and Mark Starn continue to express their interest in the way light shapes our world. They shed a different perspective on the concept of light by thinking of light as not just something airy and invisible that illuminates objects, but rather as a force that pulls objects toward it. They express this radical view by using the paradoxical phrase “gravity of light” to describe their exhibit. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, in its description of the show, says, “Light is not usually described as heavy. It is spoken of in terms of its presence or absence, yet it is invisible. The ‘gravity of light,’ then, is an intriguing paradox — or, in the words of Doug and Mark Starn, a ‘coincidence of opposites.’”

The exhibition is focused on a carbon arc lamp that illuminates the surroundings with a bright blue and white light. The lamp is based on the model created by the British chemist Sir Humphrey Davy, and is regarded as the brightest source of artificial light. The light is so bright that visitors are required to shield their eyes with the protective glasses that are provided. This is done to eliminate any chance of blinding, as the high level of ultraviolet radiation is harmful to the eyes. The lamp proves to be an interesting spectacle to observe, as it seems to be emanating pure white energy. It crackles and splutters abruptly from time to time, causing the entire hall to be engulfed in darkness when it goes off, but flooded with light the moment it comes back on. What is also interesting to notice is that the shadows produced by the light are longer, darker, and more defined than usual. This, of course, is because of the greater intensity of light.

All around the hall in which the exhibit is housed, the artists have displayed a body of art that is representative of their past work. The brothers have tied into the exhibit different instances in nature in which we can see the attractive effect of light: the drawing of a moth to a flame and the way trees grow toward the sun. All the photographs are larger than life and span large sections of the walls. They have been created by printing different squares of the pictures on Thai mulberry paper and putting them together to form a vision in black and white which blends in with the stark atmosphere. The pictures include close shots of dusty moths and delicate views between the intertwined branches of trees. The wall behind the carbon arc lamp has been superimposed with the picture of an 8th century Chinese monk named Ganjin. “The light falls over everything, including behind, on the monk Ganjin. Ganjin was blind, but the light falling on him symbolizes his state of enlightenment,” commented Murray Home, the curator of the exhibit. The photographs are remarkable, each one displaying unique parts of leaves, moths, and trees. Some depict dried and withered leaves, bared down to their skeletons; some display the majestic branches of trees rising heavenward; and others focus on the eyes and glossy wings of moths.
But more than the beauty of the artwork, what intrigues the observer about the exhibit is its setting. “I think the exhibit is fantastic, mainly because I like the lighting and setting, and the unusualness of the way in which the art is displayed,” said Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The Pipe Building is an old, crumbling, brick building that has large parts of its flooring missing. There are bricks, debris, and sand lying at different places across the hall, and many uneven portions of the floor that create an obstacle course for any visitor. The location seems to complement the art and lighting perfectly. While the light bleaches away the color of objects it falls on, there are still some places in the hall it does not reach that seem doomed to darkness. This creates an interesting interplay between the blinding white light and the dense dark shadows, and also augments the beauty of the stark photographs of nature that are displayed on the walls.