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Shine bright like a Light Box / Out of the dark, into the Fluorescent Tube


In his habilitation thesis of 1931, written not too long before his tragic and untimely death, the art historian (and author of a charmingly turgid, blabbering Bildungsroman) Ernst Michalski introduced the concept of the "aesthetic boundary". Behind this theory, which is formulated in a very complex way and was linked impressively convincingly to other scholarly fields like optics and psychology, lies a concept that in its essence is actually very simple: for Michalski, there is an "Kunstraum” (art space), the world immanent to the work, and a "Realraum” (real space), the non-pictorial reality. Our main focus should lie on the exciting moment when the so-called “art space” spills over into the “real space”: it is only then that the full potential of aesthetic creation is unleashed.

What would Michalski have added to his habilitation had he lived to see the next 70 years of art history? I asked myself this question when I visited the two blockbuster exhibitions currently on view at the duopoly of Basel institutional art, the Kunstmuseum and the Fondation Beyeler. In both the magnificent show on Jeff Wall at the Beyeler, praised by all reviews but aimed more at mass taste, and the rather sublime and meticulously curated exhibition "Dan Flavin: Dedications of Light" at the Kunstmuseum, visitors do not simply gaze at a work of art that is separated from them, but are irradiated, illuminated, seduced and almost overwhelmed in a multi-directional manner.

With Dan Flavin's legendary fluorescent tubes, the audience walks through rooms filled with coloured light. It is not just the serially produced household objects that are observed, but rather: the walls around them, the reflections on the floor, on the clothes and faces of the other people present in the "real space", the light suddenly reflecting from your mobile while you are taking pictures. In this marvellously installed exhibition, the intensity of the visual experience increases from room to room. Having just been dazzled by almost brutally bright white fluorescent ring lamps (untitled (to a man, George McGovern) 2, 1972), the exact same light sources and their reflection on the white walls next to them suddenly appear pink after one has gotten used to the green luminescence of the following section. We all are familiar with optical illusions from children's books and viral Internet phänomena; nevertheless, we are pleasantly irritated when we suddenly seem to be able to rely so little on the impressions of our own visual experience. It is not often you have a chance to bask in such a successful immersive spectacle at Kunstmuseum Basel.

It is no wonder that the Canadian artist Jeff Wall also refers to Flavin. In his essay "To the Spectator" from 1979 - known, among other things, as the introduction to the large Schaulager catalogue from 2005 - Wall refers to his American colleague as a role model. However, the photographer and art historian also extended his own artistic appropriations of the lamp industry to phenomena from the world of advertising and TV. In particular, Wall sees his luminous photo boxes in the tradition of TVs that cast their light into the living room. The (dare one say it?) almost iconic works of photographic montage in the show at the Fondation Beyeler also largely correspond to this aesthetic. The play with staging is particularly striking here: Wall's supposed snapshots appear seductive, overwhelming, almost threatening in their huge light boxes. Michalski's “real space” is invaded here by the brightly shining dramas of arranged evictions, theatrical nightclub entrances or assembled and disarranging gusts of wind. Here too, the audience's state of mind changes from room to room: surely at latest when looking at the fabulously uncanny ventriloquist's dummy in room 9, your head is spinning so much that you can no longer precisely separate any of the experienced rooms. Are they real or unreal, do we find ourselves in the entrance area of the Beyeler or in the middle of the percorso, is the ventriloquist performing in the illuminated basement or in the daylight-windowed ground floor?!. In a …..well…. rather high-brow text from 2008, Michael Fried applied Heidegger's concept of "absorption" (the immersion of the work in itself) to Wall's figures, who only care about their own pictorial space. For me personally, this ventriloquist's dummy embodies everything except that idea of absorption: This monstrosity is shining out of the box so brightly that it easily transcends its "aesthetic boundary" and hopefully only figuratively comes to haunt me in my dreams. Isn't it marvellous what art can achieve?