For nearly 40 years Zurich based artist Christian Herdeg has spearheaded the medium of light art in a search for an aesthetic function beyond mere impression. He trained to be a professional cinematographer and lighting technician before he turned to the visual arts. In the late 70’s he began working with light to showcase vibrant colors and became the first Swiss artist to use fluorescent lights in art installations.
Light art as a form took shape soon after electric light became commonplace and affordable in the late 19th century. Prounenraum (Proun Room) (1923) by Russian Suprematist artist El Lissitzky is generally credited as the first to incorporate architectural light as a necessary whole alongside the viewing of his reliefs and paintings on the wall. Together they transformed the square room into a 3-D work in itself. However, light art really came into its own in the 20th century with the pioneering work of Robert Irwin and James Turrell at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1969 who belonged to the Light and Space art movement influenced by American abstract painter John McLaughlin. The emphasis was on light, volume, and scale; using materials such as glass, neon, resin, and found objects to create installations. James Turrell’s famous series Shallow Space Constructions uses concealed light to alter the viewer’s depth perception; pictured below, the actual partitions are artificially flattened by the use of light.
While light has always been used in paintings and architecture for dramatic effect throughout history, light art sought to make light itself the center of expression. This is mainly achieved in two ways, one, sculptural objects are built to emit light, second, light itself is used to create the sculptural object. The first object-based light sculpture was the Light-Space Modulator (1922-1930), by László Moholy-Nagy; a kinetic sculpture that revolved to create shadow patterns. Christian Herdeg belongs to the latter category – creating standalone objects out of light – experimenting with various tubes of colorful lights twisting them into myriad shapes to deep dive into their physical properties.
Initially, he started with figurative and narrative explorations of light although he never went near text like many of his peers at the time such as Joseph Kosuth. He gradually moved on to a direct study of the medium itself. This led to autonomous results rather than preoccupations with representation. Eventually, he landed on utilizing light as color and devoted his practice to it. He created a distinctive body of work that is at once abstract yet narrative in a grand way.
Seen below is a selection of works from over the decades. The sculptures and installations use a combination of black lights, neon light tubes, and paint. He plays with the many similar and opposing properties that color and light offer to create a sensual experience. Restricting the way light naturally behaves, he fashions precise, minimal, geometric pieces. The effect is soft yet bold. To witness the work is to be drawn into the physical smallness of the installation while feeling as though one is lifted off the ground, floating in the vastness.