Last night I was in the kingdom of shadows. If you only knew how strange it is to be there.
From the Object to the Shadow
When Jun’ichuro Tanizaki published his essay “In’ei raisan” (translated as “In Praise of Shadows”) in 1933, he detected a fundamental difference between Western and Eastern cultures. For him, this difference lay above all in terms of two aspects: first, in relation to the different meaning of objects in the search for what is considered beautiful; second, in relation to the different meaning of light and lighting in this process. Whereas for Tanizaki the search for and question of beauty was associated in Western cultures primarily with objects, he saw the Eastern context as advocating that beauty is not to be found “in the thing itself but in the play of shadows, the light and darkness, that one thing against another creates.”11Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (modified) (New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1977), 45. In his view, the second aspect was quite directly connected with this difference, since it was precisely because of this different orientation that in Eastern thought the idea was not, as in Western cultures, to eliminate shadows from rooms by constantly improving the lighting, but rather, quite the contrary, to accept them, to give in to their beauty, and to immerse oneself in their wayward play of spaces and lines.
It is certainly useful to approach Sandra Peters’s works with Tanizaki’s background in mind. When looking at the various works in her oeuvre, it is immediately obvious how continuously her artistic concerns correspond to the Eastern way of thinking he described. An occupation with shadows and lines in particular always plays a special role in her works. They are found both in the folds, seams, and superimpositions of the collaged drawings of her Tokyo and Los Angeles series and in the cast shadows of her installation of light sources Elemente als Formen, Formen als Elemente (Elements as Forms, Forms as Elements, 2007). In both, the view repeatedly shifts in interesting ways away from the concrete, specific elements into the diffuse, which again and again enables small cosmoses to develop in playing with shadow or light. In her drawing series Tokyo (drawing: 4) (2002), for example, she achieves this play by folding tracing paper into small objects, recalling Japanese origami techniques. The drawings on the paper are folded into one another and produce thereby an overlapping and shading into the depths. Similar effects are exhibited even more clearly in the drawings of her Rheinland (Rhineland, 2005) series. There the drawings are also applied to tracing paper, but the play with shadows begins only when the works are hung on a wall. When appropriately lit, the space between the wall and the paper results in small cast shadows, a delicate trace that points to the dimension of light, which is so elemental to drawing. Surface and shadow thus enter into an unusual area of tension that extends beyond the familiar two-dimensionality of drawings. That Peters is interested in precisely this phenomenon and knows how to exploit the tension between surface and depth using other media is demonstrated not least by her above-mentioned light installation. In Elements as Forms, Forms as Elements, she does not exhibit the line on paper but instead applies it directly to the wall as a minimal light source. When observing them only for a short time, one is struck primarily by the intensity of the light; the line itself leaps into the eye in the truest sense; after watching them for a longer period, however, one finds that this perception changes constantly. Increasingly, the shadow cosmos of the work, which had at first been spectacularly overwhelmed by the prominence of the light source, begins to emerge. Only after investing a certain amount of time, does this side of the work become evident at all, creating an extremely interesting alternation of these levels.
Shadow Lines and Traces of a Movement
Sandra Peters’s most recent works demonstrate particularly well not only that her oeuvre should be seen against the backdrop of an intense occupation with Japanese aesthetics (fashion, writing, architecture) but also that she is certainly interested in connecting this frame of reference directly with a Western-oriented history of ideas in art. In her animated video Défilé des ombres (2009), it is particularly obvious that she is concerned again and again with opening up new spaces for thinking. Here too Peters’s grappling with shadows and lines is the focus of the work. More than that, her preoccupation seems to have become thematic here: in a video sequence just under four minutes long, the artist edited together twenty-four photographic stills to create an unconventional cosmos by means of superimpositions. Through the use of various zoom effects, amorphous shadows combine in ever new ways in the video. They interlock with one and, beyond that, correspond with the drawn lines, which are slightly but visibly set off from the visible silhouettes. As in Peters’s earlier works, a tension develops between line and shadow, with the consequence that what emerges in the course of the video is not limited to intangible shadow landscapes that would evoke a trance-like state. In the relationship of shadow and line, rather, lies an unresolved tension that all but prevents a complete immersion in the shadow world by raising a whole series of questions about the difference between shadow and line. First and foremost, there is the question of how the relationship of shadow and line should be understood fundamentally and how the spatial dislocation can be comprehended in similar form. What results in the spatial movement and in what relationship does it stand to the movements of the image? Is the drawn line in this work to be viewed as a trace (Spur), very much in the sense of its etymological derivation from the Old High German spor, or “footprint”?
Quite unnoticeably, the viewer’s position slips into this line of questioning. The mode of negotiating with what has been seen is no longer one of dreamy floating but rather another, archaic form of perception and cognition: reading traces. Both the shadow and the line are to be understood as such. In the video they both become traces—the shadow is the trace of an object that is never seen in the image and the drawing a trace of a shadow that, faithful to its nature, repeatedly moves away from its original site and leaves behind its drawing as difference. Faced with all this, we comprehend not only to what extent traces are the place where “silent things are ‘made to speak’ through our serendipity,” but also that serendipity means that only “insofar as we know, recognize, and take into account our own life and the inherent laws of the material context of the work […] can we transform perceptible fragments of this work into interpretational constructs that give evidence of what remains to us invisible and remote.”22Sybille Krämer, “Was also ist eine Spur? Und worin besteht ihre Rolle? Eine Bestandsaufnahme,” in Spur: Spurenlesen als Orientierungstechnik und Wissenskunst, ed. Sybille Krämer, Werner Kogge, and Gernot Grube (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007), 11–33, esp. 19. Thus in the return to this form of another knowledge lies hidden no less than an alternative to the usually paths for experiencing the world.
Almost clandestinely, another, often easily overlooked frame of reference slips into the flipside of the questions and reflections on the trace raised by Sandra Peters’s video. It may be that it is overlooked simply because it seems bizarre that the video, one of the most recent media, should find its way to the founding myths of art and epistemology. Yet what begins to be reflected in the context of this bringing together of the themes of the debate over the relationship of shadow and light is ultimately two of the oldest myths in the history of Western art.
First, we find that in Défilé des Ombres addresses the myth of the origins of painting to which Pliny the Elder referred in his reflections in the first century AD. In his Historia naturalis, he explained that the birth of painting was anchored in the copying of the human shadow: the silhouette of the motif to be painted was taken down in a line. Hence the shadow was the mediator between line and motif. Already in Pliny’s day, however, this form of coming to terms with the shadow in painting had been detached from this simple idea of the outline. Instead, as Victor Stoichita clearly demonstrated in his analysis of the history of the shadow, art integrated the outline “into the area of a complex representation to suggest the third dimension — volume, relief, the body.”33Victor I. Stoichita, A Short History of the Shadow, trans. Anne-Marie Glasheen (London: Reaktion Books, 1997), 7. If we then look at the resulting history of the shadow in Western art, following Stoichita’s argument we can see not only a progressive coming to terms with it but also at times a quite neurotic controlling aspect. Precisely against the backdrop of such a strategy of cultivation of the phenomenon, Peters’s work is depicted in a different light: it is neither about incorporating the shadow into the field of safely negotiable values based on experience nor about taking up a strategy of romantically uncanny demonization. It is rather about venturing into this shadowy realm as an open aspect of experience. Thus clearly emerges the second myth that is echoed in this video: Plato’s parable of the cave. In dialogue with Peters’s video, however, this parable undergoes an interesting turn. Whereas in Plato the experience of the world via shadows in a cave always has the status of a primitive life, of a condition that must be overcome, this idea is countered by Peters’s work. In contrast to Plato’s positive connotation of an experience of the sun, here the shadowy realm is seen in a more positive light. Especially in a culture of light—to return to Tanizaki’s theory outlined at the beginning of this essay—the shadow seems to offer more potential for experience. Therein may lay one of the reasons that today’s society is so drawn to cinematic media. Ever since Maxim Gorki’s 1896 report of his experiences in film’s kingdom of shadows, interest in this theme has grown continuously. One need only think of such outstanding examples of German Expressionist film as F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Sandra Peters recognizes this potential of the cinematic medium and, just as she stitched together various parts in her early collaged drawings, she now achieves this again in her video. It stands to reason that this sewing together of shadows is no simple venture. Take care: it is not twenty-four images per second but twenty-four silhouettes per video that are stitched together. This process is not cinematic but digital. The sewing thus no longer takes place in the textures of paper or celluloid but has advanced into the dimension of pixels. We will have to retrain our eyes to grasp these seams.
- 1Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, In Praise of Shadows, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker (modified) (New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1977), 45.↩
- 2Sybille Krämer, “Was also ist eine Spur? Und worin besteht ihre Rolle? Eine Bestandsaufnahme,” in Spur: Spurenlesen als Orientierungstechnik und Wissenskunst, ed. Sybille Krämer, Werner Kogge, and Gernot Grube (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007), 11–33, esp. 19.↩
- 3Victor I. Stoichita, A Short History of the Shadow, trans. Anne-Marie Glasheen (London: Reaktion Books, 1997), 7.↩