Insights from Steel and Light
At a recent visit to the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, MA, I saw the “Eye Spy, Playing with Perception” exhibit and became captivated by abstract steel sculptures creating surprisingly recognizable shadows on a wall. Interpreted from the perspective of complexity science, there fascinating sculptures are rich in embedded meaning and insights.
Shadow-art is a relatively new sculpture art form that does not rely on mass to create form but, instead, uses a combination of light and entangled mesh of steel rods to create a coherent and identifiable shadow. Larry Kagan, one of the few shadow-art artists, explains how “object/shadow need both the solid and the shadow in order to exist. And, by virtue of their natural nature, they exhibit surprising visual behavior that defies our visualization rules for objects…By not having a one-to-one mapping between shadow and object, all kinds of new object/shadow relationships become possible…” Louis Zona, Director of The Beecher Center at the Butler Institute of American Art points out: “This imagery which exists in shadowed form only appears as alchemy. How is it that a totally abstract linear physical composition could make possible a recognizable image or perfect clarity?” It is indeed intriguing that such “delirious steel formation” can generate so much coherence and order.
The process of making an object-shadow sculpture is a one-to-many mapping: instead of drawing a shape with a pencil, the artist draws the shadow of the specific figure he has in mind using the interplay between matter (the steel) and light. Through this interplay, both the shadow and the steel object emerge, simultaneously. There is a complete co-dependency between the object, its shadow, and the light beam; the sculpture cannot exist in the absence of any one of them.
Taken independently, the abstract steel sculpture might be considered as a chaotic system bearing the potential for order, coherence and increased complexity—that is, increased wholeness. The light is the active energy required for entropy production and for the transformation to take place under the eyes and hands of the artist. In the absence of the light beam positioned at a specific distance and angle, the object still exists, but the wholeness of the sculpture is lost.
From a viewer’s perspective, one is invited to bring one’s attention to the shadow—that is, to the ephemeral yet concrete and meaningful form. Order and coherence reside in the shadow—in the intangible, yet very real. The shadow only exists as a process of becoming—a process where light, not visible in itself, plays a major role in making objects and color visible and in creating wholeness.
Going even further, the shadow also requires a wall surface in order to exist; similarly, the quality of the ambient air could interfere with the light in a way that changes the shape and color of the shadow. To make a parallel with what physicist David Bohm calls “thought as a system,” one could say that the object, the light (including its specific position), the shadow, as well as the wall, the ambient air, the mind of the artist, and mind of the viewer constitute a system in which every part interacts dynamically and has a particular role; as a whole, the parts and their interactions are creating one unbroken field of mutually informing meaning.
Indeed, there seems to be an analogy between the object/shadow co-dependency and the way our mind generates thoughts and attaches meaning to reality. The steel structure is the pre-cognition system. It represents our often-chaotic mind attempting to make sense out of what we observe and perceive in the absence of the necessary “light.” The light is the transformative energy and source of creativity that enables unexpected insight and “aha” moments to emerge, and that stimulates our creative responses when faced with a particular situation. While wholeness and coherence is embedded into our pre-cognitive system, it is mostly hidden to us and one is often unable to bring it to the surface in the absence of a deeper connection to our creative source.
One may also recall Plato’s Parable of the Cave, with the cavemen mistaking the shadows on the walls for reality. If one assimilates the shadow to our core identity and individual self (keeping in mind how closely attached we are to our own self-image and identity), one may realize that such identity has no “real” existence; it is an illusion, a shadow. As Bohm suggests, the self is like a rainbow; it arises in a process (a process that involves light!). And while this process is still very obscure to us, “the attempt to treat the self as an object is just not going to mean anything…[the self] is constantly revealing itself, through each person or through nature or through various other ways.”
As these object/shadow sculptures demonstrate, by refocusing on the creative process of ‘becoming’ we generate more wholeness than by focusing just on the identity aspect of ‘being’.
 Bohm, David (1994). Thought as a System. Routledge, London. p. 173