In Praise of the Shadows

By Delphine Bedel

In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

The hollow light of the computer screen flickers in the sudden darkness. The nurse switches off the light of the room, as I can’t bare the light. Curled on the hospital bed, my mind plays tricks on me. Through the meanders of the medicine, a fleeting recollection emerges from my teenager years in Japan. Sabi: an ideal beauty that is so imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. The cracks of a broken blue porcelain plate filed with gold to enhance the changing nature of things. The subtle roughness of a brush stroke on the rice paper. The melodic voice of Tokyo’s street vendors, singing “Yakimo, yakimo”, sweet potatoes to celebrate September’s Full Moon.

“We delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them. We never tire of the sight, for to us this pale glow and these dim shadows far surpass any ornament.” Junichiro Tanizaki literary gem ‘In Praise for Shadows’, written in 1933, is an ode to the Japanese culture of Sabi and the passing of time. He wishes for literature to retain in the shadows what the West and it’s dazzling electric artefacts brought forward to clearly, in an irreversible movement. For Tanizaki, beauty reveals itself slowly, in the silent darkness of a room, the patina and shallow brilliance of objects touched over and over again, through the fragmented experience of darkness. In a maze of shadows and lights, the exhibition Hex at Bergen Kunsthall, curated by Pedro Gomez-Egana and presenting 25 artists, is an invitation to experience the temporality of the works exhibited.

Anchored in the history of the Chinese Blue porcelain and its multiple Western appropriation over the centuries, Lin Wang’s mesmerising installation is a long banquet table, set with a series of oversized tableware and various hand made Western artefacts, such as candlelights and sauceboats. The motives of her Chinese Blue tableware are inspired by the tattoos and stories of old sailors she met in Bergen. Entitled ‘Exotic Dreams and Poetic Misunderstanding’, the blue porcelains were produced by craftsmen in Jingdezhen, China and partly hand painted by the artist with a tattoo machine, including fragments of gold leaves. “Modern man, in his well lit house, knows nothing of the beauty of gold; but those who lived in the dark houses of the past were not merely captivated by its beauty. (…) Its reflective properties were put to use as a source of illumination.”

The artist weaves together export porcelain motives from the Ming and Qing Dynasty together with the erotic symbolism of sailors tattoos. “To have their products conform to the clients requirements as much as possible has been the ultimate goal of the Jingdezhen artisans for several centuries. Therefore, although not being able to comprehend the cultural politics behind western motifs, the artisans could still replicate the images in pure technical terms. This institutionalised production of export porcelain gradually became a local tradition of Jingdezhen, which still continues today. Arguably, these cultural images ascribed with colonial connotations have been shaping the local social and cultural landscapes on a structural level.

Kobie Nel series of phantom drawings flickers in the dark for a few seconds before they vanish, existing only as remanence in the viewer’s eye. Painted with phosphore, these drawings are illustrations reproduced from old newspaper clips, forensic evidences about a woman who disappeared 45 years ago, a well-known police case in Bergen. The ‘Isdal Woman’ had nine passeports, nine identities, but little is known about her. The originals of the phantom drawings also mysteriously disappeared.

In Anita Loe’s performance, one character stands as the story teller, and the other one sits, without a word, barely moving, softly turning her head now and then. Who is the narrator, the actor? Like a puppeteer, a ventriloquist, Anita tells a story. There too, I quote: “The rocks and roots radiate a glow that you can only see with eyes tuned to darkness”. A special trait of the performers, characters and objects displayed in the show, the distinction brought by light over shadows is extant but obsolete. Using found images, Anita Loe and her performer invent the life of the anonymous women depicted in this series of lost photographs.

Scott Elliott brings back to existence defunct ideas of unrealised art works. After placing a worldwide ad online asking for artists to contact him, he selected 15 ideas out of the projects he received – from ghost writing a novel to building large scale sculptural works –  In his ad, he offered the artists to bring their abandoned idea back to existence. Working under the artists’ guidance, Elliott would produce the works for free in exchange of a contract as a facilitator. Taking center stage in the exhibition, a wandering line, electric blue, covers the entrance wall, next to the glittering light of a bright red car. In a constant displacement of meaning and cultural representations, the narrator’s voice, the value of labour and the tactility of the artist’s works are in a constant flux. In all these works, forgotten archives and images become a reciprocal relation of affects, the embodiment of someone else’s desire, of someone else’s existence.

In Yafei Qi work’s filmed in Beijing, the confinement of domestic violence is documented without flinching, After being beaten up and yelled at by her husband, the mother, always filmed the background of each scenes, goes to the bathroom to fix her hair, and, as if nothing happened, goes to the living room to sit at the end of the sofa, with the rest of the family. Her, the husband and two kids watch together without a word a scene of shooting from an American movie. Using at time the features of a burlesque movie, alienating urban industrial landscapes and interior scenes of violence are shot in alternance, with a surgical precision. The artist depicts how the societal and domestic violence have become the fabric of daily life, so engrained and absorbed by each member of the family that it becomes invisible, the blind spot that defines their relation. Presented as a double projection, where characters seems to move loosely from one screen to the next, emphasising their erratic lifestyle. In her awkward attempt to catch a bird in the living room, dancing with a dust broom, the artist pulls a smile of resilience.

This pervasive violence is also invoked in the tryptic video installation “Rendering the Useless’ by Andrew Amorim. Set in a natural reservation in the jungle of Brazil, Andrew Amorim filmed, without a crew, a forest keeper. Also the man’s gestures and outfit borrows from his work’s daily rituals, the gestures dissolves into a poetic and monotonous movement in the film. Like a modern Sisyphus, the forest keeper wraps a stone with a rope to bring it on top of a tree, the effort is straining for his body. Moving slowly, The fruitless labour lives the man stranded, on a rock. A dazzling light shines at time through the jungle’s magnificent trees. Performing three times for the three camera shots, we never get to see his face, covered in his work attire. Like in the well known paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, the character filmed from the back against the backdrop of nature is a political figure, who defies the representation and abuse of power. Hanging high and unevenly, Andrew’s tryptic reminds us also how Friedrich was the first painter to break the Renaissance perspective, We look at the back of a character who looks at a landscape that looks back at us.

This poly-vocality takes multiple forms in the exhibition. In the works of Yafei Qi, Lin Wang, Kobie Nel, Scott Elliott, Anita Loe, Peter Cleary, Arydas Umbrasas, Sora Park and Maria Jonsson, to name just a few. Stemming from personal narratives, appropriation, fictional characters, micro narratives or political situations, the artist creates a reciprocal relation with the viewer, where meanings seems to elude through appearances and disappearances, questioning authorship, representations of power and the role of images, the haptic image.

Maria Jonsson’s large scale installation, made out of clay pots, working tools, and hand made furnitures. are all the objects build during a workshop with refugees, organised by the artist. Half display, half landscape, a lighthouse with a Norwegian flag dominates the unstable construction.

The haptic image is a reciprocal and tactile experience, where our eyes touch the object and we are touched in return, where the affect is both kinesthetic and cinematographic. We have to call upon our own experience to make sense of what we see, visibility and meanings are not given, they are constructed, over and over again. They are tactile, but they elude us. The exhibition brings into question the construction of our gaze, our perception of temporality and space. In praise of the shadows, this play of darkness and light brings all the works in conversation, a polyphony that reminds us that we need multiple perspectives to make sense of our world. 


Delphine Bedel is a photographer, lecturer, curator and publisher, working at the intersection of photography, design and publishing. Founder Meta/Books and Amsterdam Art/Book Fair. She is Member of the Advisory Board of the Mondriaan Foundation and Member of the German Photography Academy. She regularly contributes to books and magazines and is a lecturer on media culture, publishing, art, design and photography. Her work is exhibited internationally and her awarded editorial work includes over 60 books. Currently MA Thesis Supervisor at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam (NL) and PhD researcher at UCA/University of the Creative Arts, Farnham Campus (UK). Through essays, books, historical research, bus tours, exhibitions and education projects, her work explores topics of innovation, publishing and the dissemination of images. She lives in Berlin and Amsterdam. She is currently Artist in residence at Hordaland Kunstsenter.

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