In the art world, collaboration and teamwork have perhaps never been more celebrated than they have during lockdown – memorably symbolised by the triumph of Array Collective at this year’s Turner Prize, the first time the award has eschewed individual artists. This is just one respect in which the remarkable, twenty year long, creative partnership between Elaine Buckholtz and Ian Winters captures the zeitgeist of the age of coronavirus. Their installation at Lumiere 2021, ‘A Telling of Light’, is just as of the moment, a commemoration to the lives lost during the pandemic and a testament to the heritage of the city of Durham – contemplating its recent suffering in a site of early history.
What makes the exhibit masterful is how Elaine and Ian exploit the “ephemeral” nature of light to challenge presuppositions about the permanence of art, offering an “unlimited possibility” that a canvas painter could only dream of. Elaine’s analogy is especially telling in this respect, comparing her earlier work ‘Spinning Night in Living Color’, a reimagining of Vincent Van Gogh’s nineteenth-century depiction of a café under the stars, to “drawing a painting through time”, its meaning and appearance completely changing upon entering new temporal and environmental contexts. It is this shapeshifting quality that makes an impression on us in a time where everything seems so up in the air, now, more than ever, light truly is, “the essence of life”.
Indeed, illumination is less of a mere medium than a vocation in itself for these co-artists. Elaine studied light as an Undergraduate and travelled to Japan thrice, in 1992, 2010 and 2017, to experience aesthetics which cast a less rigid divide between the mind and external world. Paradoxically, while light came to represent an “essential medium” for her, it still felt rather transitory – and she revealingly compares it to a stream of consciousness. Similarly, Ian touches upon the paradoxical elusiveness of light and its duality of being “there and not there”. Again, this ephemeral quality embodies and mirrors his artistic experience, specifically the challenge of adapting throughout the pandemic, where work became increasingly nomadic – a frequent search for new spaces ripe for displaying temporary installations. Respect for the elusive entity would therefore seem the very essence of Ian and Elaine’s work as artists.
Yet choice of location remains equally important. Indeed, it is the setting of ‘A Telling of Light’ in Penshaw Monument by night that brings a potential for revelation and sense of “the unexpected” to the piece. It also dramatically augments the scale of the work, so it can be seen from across Durham – though Elaine stresses this is about immersing her audience in an illuminated atmosphere, supercharging her work with an aura of poetical grandeur and bringing about “inspiration and possibility”, not broadcasting the work as widely as possible. It’s a perfect example of how artists can bring Durham’s heritage sites to life and simultaneously deepen the meaning of their own work.
This raises a critical final point, that though there is clearly a radical streak in this pair’s work, both are nonetheless keen to distance themselves from any ultimate agenda, instead focussing purely on showcasing the artistic possibilities of light – as Ian puts it, their aim is to inspire, not dictate, reactions. For instance, the choice of musical accompaniment, a piece from twelfth-century mystic Hildagard von Bingen, certainly seems intended to peak the observer’s artistic curiosities. As one of the earliest female composers, the choice has a feminist ring, pushing boundaries and raising awareness of her long-overlooked work. Yet at the same time, it is also delicately reflexive, its spellbinding complexity encouraging listeners to reflect and place themselves within this testament to suffering. These meanings are left open for our personal comprehension, exploiting the indeterminate quality of light to transform the observer into an essential component of the work.
‘A Telling of Light’, then, is unquestionably a piece embodying current artistic zeitgeists, the importance of cooperation, the transitory experience of life, and an absence of overriding certainty. Elaine and Ian have produced a work that captures these strands of emotion, feeling and intellectual thought, but only commits to immersing its audience within them through the medium of light, so they can determine what they take away for themselves and “know they’re human”. After all, what could be more life-affirming in a time like this than unrestrained self-reflection?
Images: Provided by Elaine Buckholtz