Project Description


from 31 October 2019 to 23 February 2020 – Space: NAVATE

Conceived as a harmonious composition of light, energy, and sound, “….the Illuminating Gas” is the largest-ever solo exhibition by Cerith Wyn Evans (Llanelli, Wales, UK, 1958; lives and works in London) and it presents a selection of 25 works—earlier sculptures, complex monumental installations, and new productions—offering visitors a unique synesthetic experience.
As of the 1990s, the artist abandoned film altogether, and concentrated on creating sculptures, installations, photographs, and site-specific or performative interventions, which are characterized by the use of ephemeral elements such as light and sound, as well as by the centrality of the temporal dimension in the experience of a work. Cerith Wyn Evans’s research focuses on language and perception, on the potential of the word and the communication, questioning our very notion of reality.
In their elegance and formal balance, his works draw on a complex body of references and quotations—from literature, music, philosophy, photography, poetry, art history, astronomy and science—that are declined into new forms through an articulate process of transformation. This operation takes place both through the use of textual materials that are decontextualized and translated into a language of light—for example, in the form of neon signs, fireworks or light pulses—and transposing into sculptures the imagery of earlier artists—such as Marcel Duchamp—or the movements of actors in Japanese Noh theatre, as in the series Neon Forms (after Noh) (2015-2019).
The exhibition includes a new configuration of Forms in Space…by Light (in Time) (2017), a work originally conceived for the Duveen Galleries of the Tate Britain in London, and StarStarStar/Steer (totransversephoton) (2019), made specifically for the occasion, opening the show and creating a choreography of lights and shadows that intermittently invades the space.
Internationally renowned institutions that have presented solo exhibitions by Cerith Wyn Evans include: Museo Tamayo, Mexico City (2018); Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain, London, Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich (2017); Museion, Bolzano (2015); Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (2014); Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna (2013); Schinkel Pavilion, Berlin (2012); Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, Kunsthall Bergen (2011); MUSAC, León (2008); Kunsthaus Gratz (2007); ICA – Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, ARC/Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2006); MIT Visual Arts Centre, Boston (2004); Centre for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, Japan (1998).
His works have also been included in important collective exhibitions, including: 14th Lyon Biennale, Skulptur Projekte, Münster, 57th Venice Biennale (2017); 4th Moscow Biennial (2011); Aichi Triennale, Nagoya, 12th Venice Architecture Biennale (2010); 9th Istanbul Biennial (2005); Documenta 11, Kassel (2002).
In 2003 Cerith Wyn Evans represented Wales at the Venice Biennale, and participated in “Utopia Station.” He was awarded the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture in 2018.

Location: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Artist: Cerith Wyn Evans
Exhibition: “…the Illuminating Gas”
Allestiment: curated by Roberta Tenconi and Vicente Todoli
Engineering: MOSAE srl
Photo: Agostino Osio
Courtesy: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Pictures in slideshow: from the exhibition

StarStarStar/Steer (totransversephoton), 2019

The exhibition path opens with seven imposing luminous columns that almost reach the ceiling and that fill with light the space of the Piazza through a complex sequential lighting system. The work, made specifically for the spaces of Pirelli HangarBicocca, is composed of LEDs forming cylinders of different height. The artist created a “score” in which the columns light up to a rhythm that alternates from one part of the space to the other in accordance with a light pulse that reveals and hides the structure itself, either gradually intensifying or slowly fading it. Each column lights up independently, passing from a state of translucency to a brightness so powerful that it makes looking at the work almost impossible. When the light slowly decreases, the columns become transparent and viewers can glimpse the materials that they are made of (cables, transmitters, LEDs and the metal framework that supports each element). Simultaneously, it is possible to see through the columns and see those behind. In their form, the lines of the columns evoke the Doric architecture and yet contradict the very idea of a column. They are in fact suspended from the ceiling and rest a few centimeters above the ground, thus not supporting any architectural element but instead seem to float in the air.

In previous versions of the work, the artist used incandescent bulbs. As those are no longer in production, the work indirectly alludes to how our society creates objects that are intrinsically obsolescent. As the artist explains: «When it comes to the production of certain kinds of lights, this of course reminds you that with emerging technologies—and especially those to do with artificial lighting—there are certain atmospheres that belong to the past […] and the world appears differently at different times […] so it’s a comment on the notion of how certain technologies now have a built-in obsolescence.»

The title opens to different levels of interpretations of the work. The first part of the title comes from a print made by the conceptual artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006), consisting in a concrete poem in which repetitions of the word “star” are printed to create a graphic sign that ends with the word “steer.” The word in brackets alludes to notions of quantum physics, in particular to the photon, which is a carrier of electromagnetic forces, including light.

Composition for 37 Flutes (in two parts), 2018

The only sound work in the Navate, Composition for 37 Flutes (in two parts) is a transparent sculpture composed of two pairs of concentric circular tubes around which 37 glass flutes radiate. Like mechanical lungs, two artificial units blow air from the surrounding environment into the tubes in a rhythm generated by a predefined algorithm. As the air passes through the glass tubes, it produces a sound at the limit between harmony and dissonance, which, like exhalations and inhalations, resembles the rhythm of human breathing. Furthermore, the circular forms of the work are flat, recalling the perspective used in Renaissance painting, in particular representations of halos, and harmonizing with the neon tubes in the adjacent work Radiant Fold (…the Illuminating Gas).

Winner of the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture in 2018, Composition for 37 Flutes (in two parts) was created specifically for the Hepworth Wakefield art museum. Cerith Wyn Evans was inspired by the close relationship between the building, constructed near the river Calder, and the set of locks that control the water flow in the surrounding countryside. At Wakefield, the work was fed by the system of pumps and pipes that supply the museum with electricity generated by the flow of the river: the transformation of energy thus turned into an aesthetic experience, evoking the relationship between the organic and the mechanical, between breath and the voice, and the potential of sound to shape space.

Radiant Fold (…the Illuminating Gas), 2017-2018

The work is a light sculpture that subverts spatio-temporal coordinates. Placed at the entrance of the Navate, resembling a magnifying glass, this work symbolically introduces a series of neon sculptures suspended in the air. Radiant Fold (…the Illuminating Gas) is also a reference to two of Marcel Duchamp’s most celebrated and enigmatic works, both of which marked the history of 20th-century art. It consists of circular forms of neon tubes that are three-dimensional transpositions of motifs in La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even), realized by Duchamp between 1915 and 1923 and also known as Le grand verre (The Large Glass). The circular elements in the bottom part of the work, described by Duchamp as “Témoins oculistes” (literally “oculist witnesses”), recall devices used in optics. While Duchamp placed them one above the other in The Large Glass, Cerith Wyn Evans appropriates these forms by transposing and suspending them vertically in the space, and altering the point of view from which they are seen. Whilst with the wording …the Illuminating Gas—part of the title of work—the artist recalls one of the elements included in Duchamp’s installation Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage… (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas…), in which it is possible to glimpse a diorama through a peephole and see a female figure holding the gas lamp that illuminates her body, thus placing the viewer in the role of a voyeur. According to Evans’ words: «The Oculist Witnesses by Marcel Duchamp, to a certain extent, is his poetics because he allegedly derived this image from a test card that an optician or an ophthalmologist would use to measure how good your eyesight was. It stems from this notion of lifting something from its trajectory, in relation to an optic, and then considering it seen from a slightly different angle and then skewing it into this obviate reflective, two-dimensional aspect of what it is to look at these radial forms as if they have been slanted through an axonometric projection.»

Neon Forms (after Noh), 2015-2019

This series of neon works appears as an intricate set of straight lines, curves and complex geometric forms of different sizes, evoking ideal flows of energy. As suggested by the title, the sculptures are related to Noh, the traditional theatrical form in Japan based on a repertoire of codified gestures in which the bodies of the actors are immersed in a ritual dimension. The choreography unrolls according to scenic movement patterns which are synthesized in the so-called “kata diagrams” (kata can translate as method in Japanese). Using these forms of notation, which in themselves represent a graphical depiction of movement, Cerith Wyn Evans transposes Noh gestures into abstract light designs: steps, turns of the head, the beating of feet on the floor, the positions in which a fan is held, or the rolling up of a kimono sleeve.

The artist often draws on notions from Japanese aesthetics and culture, such as the use of asymmetrical forms, chance, limit as a compositive element and ma. A significant feature of the dramaturgical action, ma (Japanese for suspension, emptiness, pause) is conceived as the spatio-temporal dimension that embraces the moment of creation as an epiphany. He integrates these notions throughout the exhibition, by using suspension as a way of displaying the artworks in the space and by evoking the dissolution of a univocal perspective. The choreology—the notation of the movements described by abstract forms—is not simply reproduced in the sculpture but subjected to another editing process that compresses, distorts, inverts, expands and folds the forms, as it occurs in many works in the show. This expedient is notably present in two new works in this series—Neon Forms (after Noh VI) and Neon Forms (after Noh VII) both created in 2019—which, as in a polyphony of light, Evans has inserted as a “coda” to Forms in Space… by Light (in Time) in the current exhibition.

Forms in Space… by Light (in Time), 2017

Commissioned by Tate Britain in London in 2017 for the Duveen Galleries, Forms in Space… by Light (in Time) is composed of kilometers of neon tubes hung from the ceiling in a series of curves and straight lines, abstract forms and more recognizable shapes that are three-dimensional transpositions of drawings and gestures throughout the exhibition space. The work was reconfigured for Pirelli HangarBicocca and becomes the axis around which all the other works gravitate in constellation. Originally structured in three sections, with its intricate tangle of motifs, geometries and arabesques suspended in space, the installation combines abstractions and elements present in other works in the show. The first section, at the entrance to the aisle, is a translation of the forms seen in Radiant Fold (…the Illuminating Gas), recognizable for their orbital appearance. The next section of the work takes inspiration from the codified movements in Noh theatre represented by kata diagrams, as in the adjacent sculptures Neon Forms (after Noh).

For the version in Pirelli HangarBicocca, Cerith Wyn Evans has added to the complex sculpture a fourth part made of two more neon works taken from the series Neon Forms (after Noh), which he describes, alluding to musical language, as the “coda,” namely the selection of notes used to conclude a movement with the purpose of lengthening the passage. These two sculptures relate to one another inasmuch as one is the elevation of the other but turned over and then again mirrored. Moreover, the “coda” is the compression of the central section of Forms in Space… by Light (in Time), and inside it is also possible to see the structural formula of the molecule of LSD, which was synthesized in 1938 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann (1906–2008).

The title conveys the essence of the work—forms that employ light inside space and through time—as in Evans’ words: «There are many layers to it and multiple points of entry. Very importantly, my viewpoint is not the only take on it. If anything, it’s a type of zone for meditation and a place for reverie on the transference of energy. I feel there’s an insufficiency of means to come to even a conventional description of what it is to live through a revolution in information technology and to look at the exchanges of energy that go across the surfaces of the Earth, let alone what fantasies we might have about parallel realities. I want people to be in a place where they might be able to cohabit with some of these things.»

C=O=N=S=T=E=L=L=A=T=I=O=N (I call your image to mind), 2010

Suspended close to the entrance to the Cubo, this installation is a large polyphonic mobile composed of directional speakers with reflecting surfaces. Its sixteen mirror disks slowly rotate in the air and transmit sound tracks by industrial music legends from the 1970s Throbbing Gristle, combined with the artist’s field recordings including some of his own piano compositions and sounds captured by radio-telescopes across the world. These “sonic flares” are transmitted within an ultra-directional acoustic range, in which encrypted messages and musical fragments produce a constellation of frequencies that dialog with perspectives and reflections generated on the reflective disks. The viewers are attracted towards the movement of the disks and find themselves in an individual experience, as each sound is perceptible to only one person at a time. C=O=N=S=T=E=L=L=A=T=I=O=N (I call your image to mind) stimulates a combination of refractions, juxtapositions, superimpositions, overdubs, occlusions and revelations that challenge the parameters of human cognition.

The letters of the first part of the title, as in those of other works, are separated by the “=” symbol. The inclusion of unpronounceable graphical signs is an expedient Evans often uses to create suspensions and distort language, directly referencing the Language poets, an avant-garde poetry movement that emerged in the late 1960s in the United States.

E=C=L=I=P=S=E, 2015

Depicting an imaginary horizon, this work features a neon text suspended diagonally in the Cubo. The writing describes a solar eclipse and the trajectory followed by the phenomenon as it passes through various geographic regions at different hours of the day, beginning on the northern coast of Spain, passing across Iberia and North Africa and coming to an end in Somalia. Reflecting the artist’s sensibility, the language used to describe this passage merges a poetic tone with scientific terminology.

In order to read and understand the text, viewers have to walk along the work. E=C=L=I=P=S=E involves the notion of movement in all its different aspects: the passing of the Moon across the Sun’s surface, the movement across the Earth’s surface from which the full eclipse is visible, and the possibility to walk around the work. Moreover, the light emitted by the neon tubes enters into a relationship with the sunlight that fills this area of the building during daytime. In the artist’s intention, «This piece it’s just a small footnote to something which is happening in the building already. It is just an observation, which strangely happens through this kind of parallel time, moving across the surface of the globe.»

The horizontal feature of E=C=L=I=P=S=E recalls the traditional proportion of landscape painting, while the dimension of time is fundamental to the experience of the work, as it is a reflection on language. The words generate a sort of paradox between the subjective viewpoint from which the narration occurs, and the impossibility that the eclipse, which is visible across different areas of the Earth, is witnessed by a single individual. Furthermore, the text is a citation adapted from an essay written by Dan Fox on the occasion of an exhibition by the artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz.

Mantra, 2016
S=U=T=R=A, 2017

The works are both composed of two pairs of chandeliers more than two meters tall that are suspended from the Cubo’s ceiling and are made from blown Murano glass to a design by Galliano Ferro, a long-established glass workshop in Venice. Both configurations come from Galliano Ferro’s historic archive: Mantra is formed by hanging floral motifs, while S=U=T=R=A is composed of linear and geometric elements according to a design originally conceived for a mosque in Iran in the 1970s. The lamps turn on and off to a rhythm given by a music piece written by Evans that fills the surrounding space, thus transforming sound into light. The installation includes a complex mechanism that regulates one of the lamps to flash first, which in turn triggers the illumination of the other lamp. Both works are composed of two pairs of almost identical and symmetrical elements, though different in proportion since one of the two is imperceptibly larger than the other. The lamps perform a duet: one of the two musical scores is shorter than the other and creates a slight asynchrony, thereby the viewer experiences a different sound and light composition each time. The dialog between the two works activates a binary exchange between two entities and alludes to the dialectics between subjectivities and machines.

A “mantra” and a “sutra” are both speech acts. A mantra is a formula that is repeated innumerably with the purpose of helping the speaker to concentrate during meditation; in the Indian tradition, a sutra is an aphorism or set of aphorisms. Like warnings, these two works communicate a message, a code whose meaning for now remains concealed.

Mantra and S=U=T=R=A belong to a series of works identified as Chandeliers, created by the artist over the last decade. All chandeliers are inspired by well-known designers such as Castiglioni or Venini, and often translate Morse-code texts into flashes of light. Each one is related to different texts, such as excerpts by Madame de La Fayette, Judith Butler or William Blake, among others, that a computer codifies letter by letter and transmits to the chandelier.

Still life (In course of arrangement…), 2019

The installation consists of palms and other plants placed on turntables that revolve at slightly different speeds, while two spotlights direct their beams of different intensity attempting to create a film which is happening in real time. The slow and almost imperceptible movement of the plants and the projection of the resulting shadows on the walls recall the son et lumière shows that became widespread during the second half of the 19th century, thus evoking the imaginative potential of cinema and going beyond the limits of film projection. Through this work Cerith Wyn Evans makes explicit reference once again to the practice of Marcel Broodthaers and his reflection on the colonial history of his home country, Belgium, through the use of exotic plants in works such as Un Jardin d’Hiver (1974).