In the middle of the gargantuan hall of Kraftwerk Berlin, Robert Irwin’s latest site-specific installation suffuses the space in an ethereal atmosphere of white light. Measuring more than 16 square metres, the monumental work looms over the viewer like an indecipherable alien script: on the one side a harsh, incandescent white, the other a more sombre blue, reminiscent of moonlight.
It is hard to know what to make of it, this vast white square of fluorescent light. Which is exactly the point, for the work of Irwin is all about perception – or, more precisely, about making us more conscious about that which we perceive. Talking about it doesn’t do it justice,” explains Amira Gad, Head of Programmes at Light Art Space (LAS), the foundation which commissioned the work. “It’s easy to underestimate the power and presence of a light installation.”
Of course, Robert Irwin has been doing this for over six decades. He first made a name for himself in the late 60s and 70s as one of the pioneers of the influential Light and Space movement, the West coast Minimalist group investigating phenomena such as light and shape on human perception. Irwin’s “conditional” art encompasses everything from painting and sculpture to landscape projects, his cool meditations on colour and light evoking the sun-drenched expanses of his native California.
Now aged 93, Irwin could not come to see the artwork himself. Instead, his studio manager Joseph Huppert oversaw the installation. “He was bummed not to be here,” Huppert says, “but I’ve been speaking to him every day on the phone. He’d always find a detail we would not have noticed before, like the shadows created by the wall mounted lights. They can’t be planned or mocked up. And he was blown away when he saw them.”
This is the largest work by Irwin ever shown in Europe, and in the turbine hall of the former Kraftwerk power station in Mitte he has a venue to match the tremendous scale of his vision. “One of the advantages of not having a permanent space is that it gives us the freedom to find a place that is suited to a particular artist,” Gad explains. “We showed [Irwin] various locations, but once he’d seen Kraftwerk, nothing else mattered, and the idea came instantly.”
You can see why he chose it. This colossal industrial cathedral – Berlin’s answer to Tate Modern – is unlike anything else the city has to offer. In recent years it has been putting on increasingly large-scale productions which resonate with collective energy – not least from the crowds of people who gather inside.
The trouble with large-scale light installations is that you expect to be blown away by the light, but Kraftwerk’s great shadowy recesses work to drain it’s intensity, leaving you wondering whether Irwin perhaps underestimated the enormity of the space. It’s only on moving closer to the glowing wall that you understand what’s going on, how the environment reinvents itself – or more accurately, how we reinvent it – as the light floods over you and those around you, simultaneously blurring and spotlighting each individual human figure.
“One of the things Robert once said to me, is that the installation is wherever the light touches,” Gad says. “And I love the fact that our experience of art doesn’t need to be mediated through technology, the space itself becomes the mediation of our experience.” Over the festive period, the hope is that people will take the opportunity to see what’s likely to be among the last major works from this pioneering artist.
Light and Space Through Jan 30, Kraftwerk Berlin, Mitte