Magazine article The Spectator

Anthony McCall on Making Light Solid

Magazine article The Spectator

Anthony McCall on Making Light Solid

Article excerpt

When the artist Anthony McCall was in his mid-thirties his creations vanished before his eyes. Laura Gascoigne talks to him about what happened next

The impermanence of works of art is a worry for curators though not usually for artists, especially not at the start of their careers. But Anthony McCall was only in his mid-thirties when his creations vanished before his eyes.

It was in New York in the early 1970s that McCall came up with the idea of 'solid light works', animated projections of simple abstract shapes in which the beams of projected light assumed a physical presence. Not being taken seriously by commercial galleries -- 'It did occur to me that I hadn't made a terribly wise career decision' -- McCall's solid light works were initially shown in the sorts of dusty, smoky downtown lofts where devotees of 'expanded cinema' gathered. Then, just as they began to attract attention from public institutions, their solidity crumbled. In the dust- and smoke-free zones of the modern art gallery the sculptural beams of light became invisible: from dust they came, and without dust they went.

Fortunately the British-born artist had another string to his bow, having initially trained at Ravensbourne college in graphic design. From the early 1980s he reinvented himself as a designer of art books and catalogues, a career change so thorough that people thought there must be two Anthony McCalls, and he almost began to think so himself. Then the haze machine came along to solve the problem that had put a halt to his fine-art career, and by the time he returned to the art world in the early noughties it was ready for his work.

His new exhibition, Solid Light Works, at the Hepworth Wakefield -- his first in Britain for ten years -- includes the work that marked his return, appropriately titled 'Doubling Back' (2003). The effect is magical. Viewed from the outside, the slowly moving beam of light appears to be contained by a gauzy membrane that gilds your hand if you penetrate its surface; step through the membrane and you enter another dimension, an ethereal atmosphere of swirling vapour where you can imagine yourself seated on the clouds of heaven looking down a shaft of celestial light. Actually, the darkened gallery with its carpeted floors has the feel of a movie theatre rather than a church. McCall likes 'the little nod to cinema' -- lucky there are no usherettes with competing torch beams.

The Hepworth's ceilings are not quite high enough to accommodate McCall's newer vertical projections, which require ten metres of headroom. Large as this sounds, all the solid light works, whether vertical, horizontal or, most recently, diagonal, take man as their measure: '"The Vitruvian Man",' he says, 'is carefully placed in the centre of the beam.' Turbine Hall folie de grandeur is not for him: 'If I were asked to make a piece twice as big, I'd say no, it's not going to work -- the body would lose its reference.' The human figures are part of the work, caught in the nets of light like shadow puppets.

Part film, part drawing, part sculpture, McCall's shape-shifting creations defy categorisation. Using the same basic vocabulary of straight lines, ellipses and waves -- 'I haven't added to them much' -- they might today be called 'projected installations', though McCall prefers the less pretentious word 'film' with its connotation of sequential development and its connection with performance. …

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