Predetermined by the wavelength of a photon, the curvature of the eye and the synaptic impulse to the brain, our perception of light is automatic. Our perspective of light, however, is not. It’s our perception that shows us what a sunset is and our perspective that speaks of its beauty. Sometime in the ever-changing modern relationship between man and nature, culture supplanted nature in these roles. Thus, cultural perspective is now almost as automatic as perception. By slightly changing our perception of light, Christina Seely’s LUX — a collection of 30 x 38-inch photographs of the brightest cities on Earth — changes our perspective of light, culture beauty and everything else we take for granted with the flip of an electric switch.
The ten pictures on view here, culled from a body of work made in the U.S., Europe and Japan, are executed in the New Topographics mode – a documentary style that emerged in the mid-1970s which examined how our seemingly benign habits obscure a darker, more complicated truth about our relationship with nature. NT’s early practitioners focused on the visual and psychological impact of urban, suburban and rural development. Seely, by training her lens on the energy emitted by cities, charts a similar course but asks a new set of questions: What is the economic cost of burning up the Earth’s supply of fossil fuel to light up cities? And, what is the psychic cost of eliminating starlight from so much human life?
Seely’s pictures, which are uniformly shot from a high elevation and frequently framed by foliage, are exposed far brighter than our eyes would perceive and more fallible than our culture would allow. The vantage point for contemplating these extreme levels of light is nature, which is dark, removed, maternal and anachronistic all at once. What we get are massive color fields of white light that make the contrast between day and night seem almost irrelevant. In forcing such a disconnection, Seely simultaneously conjures idyllic and dystopian visions, balancing proximity and distance, light and dark, man and nature, new and old. These extremes force us to reorient ourselves in own world.
Light evokes many different ideas: technology, prosperity, knowledge. But when Seely increases the lighting her photographs you almost want to look away. Maybe because it is too bright, but maybe those old connotations no longer hold. Perhaps, that looming white tower that she records in her image of Kyoto, to take but one example, makes you think a little more of dominance, decadence, and every unmentioned resource and process required to light up a city. Some of the scenes are suggestive enough to make you want to simply disown our entire culture and lifestyle.
Man’s conflicted relationship to technology and nature is, of course, an old theme, but Seely renders it fresh and painfully relevant.
Christina Seely: “Lux”,@ Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento through February 13, 2010.
Learn more about Christina Seely.