Light made dark

Lily Hibberd

Jo Scicluna, from a slow dark light

Jo Scicluna, from a slow dark light

The greatest challenge for the contemporary visual artist is capturing the audience’s undivided attention. Art is getting bigger, louder, and bolder every minute, and the death of contemplation seems imminent. In this regard Jo Scicluna’s recent exhibition was unusual. from a slow dark light is a journey of 2 kinds, both territorial and spiritual.

At BUS (a Melbourne artist-run gallery) there is a narrow passageway that goes nowhere. At its end Scicluna has installed a large photograph of a nocturnal landscape illuminated by a lightbox and, halfway down the gallery, a small wooden construction made of contour-map jigsaw forms. The lightbox is like a window to another world, drawing you to the end of the space. On the other hand, the wooden construction, built into the wall and dimly backlit, is only noticeable when you pass it.

Landscape is often used as a metaphor for existential yearning, the nocturnal image even more so. The photograph in from a slow dark light is of a suburban park at night. It’s a spooky image. Two trees in proscenium arch formation frame the scene and the shadow of a third tree is strongly cast across them. What a looming shadow it is, animated like a tree from a haunted forest. Beyond are the distant lights of the city, but they are blurry and out of reach. Like walking through a park at night, the danger is prescient. Light is used here as a central element, but it’s the dark that prevails, our gaze drawn into the depths of the shadows. It’s the dark night of the soul and darkness might swallow us up.

Lightboxes are seductive. They embellish images and lend them theatricality. The allusion to cinema is often made but in this case Scicluna probably employed the device for other reasons. In from a slow dark light the visual relationship of the 2 components exists primarily through the technique of backlighting. Illumination from beyond was a device of Romanticism in its celebration of the Sublime and its evasiveness—what is missing is meant to keep you searching.

Scicluna’s contour construction is a graphic representation of the formal patterns of light and dark in the photograph. It is here that the 2 elements of the work magically meld despite appearing quite contradictory. The wooden contours speak of analytical thought, in contrast with the sublime experience of the landscape. Which is more real? The topographical map is a formula for space, an index in which both real and virtual coexist. But we are more likely to trust in the photograph as evidence of something real. Even so, Scicluna’s image is difficult to trust. It is beautiful, but feels like an illusion. It has all the staginess of trompe l’oeil and about as much reality as a Claude Lorrain painting. The one fact of the photograph remains—it appears to be the archive of a moment, a passage to the past.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up (1966) is about a prominent British photographer (played by David Hemmings) who discovers, as he enlarges one of his pictures in the darkroom, that a murder has taken place within his frame. In the scene where he is working with his enlarger, the movie camera zooms in on the photo of the park and the ambience of the room is replaced by the sound of wind and rustling trees. The suggestion is that in the absence of seeing a greater truth exists. Jo Scicluna’s work is just as suggestive—something strange emerges from a slow dark light.

Jo Scicluna, from a slow dark light, BUS, Melbourne, December 2-20, 2003

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 32

© Lily Hibberd; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004