This is a recreation of a 1976 exhibition, but it could be taking place in any year after the commercialisation of fluorescent lamps in the 1930s. Being a little unmoored from time pairs well with new beginnings, the slow drift back from the holiday break; pairs well with the sense of weightlessness and placelessness at play when, as Flavin himself put it, ‘A section of wall can be visually disintegrated’ by strategically placed lamps. But while the room can seem to melt away, walls awash, at the same time the vertical reds fixed at regular intervals suggest an architecture of their own: pillars, windows, arrowslits.
In My Dan Flavin Era
Dan Flavin should be shown every winter. In the January gloom, David Zwirner’s first floor is rose-tinged by four vertical tubes of red light, each paired with smaller ones of varying colour.
"Flavin’s arrangements — or ‘situations’ as he liked to call them — rely on repetition, sequence, cut-and-paste"
Upstairs is more like a tanning bed. Suffused with soft pink. Your eyes must readjust between floors. In fact, your vision keeps adjusting, and it calls into question at which millisecond of focus and myopia the work is meant to be viewed at; rather than look at the light, it’s better simply to bathe in it.
"better simply to bathe in it"
Not only does the eye struggle. The lamps are notoriously difficult to photograph. They flicker or the lens picks up unwanted hues or they just look a bit dull. There’s the question of how to frame the effect on an entire room. A Flavin exhibition can quickly turn from a dry, technical anecdote – the difference between neon and fluorescent lights (something to do with a phosphor coating and ultraviolet photons) – to an experience there isn’t a word for in English: yes, sunbeds, yes the sudden realisation of life’s transience as the morning sun passes through a piece of stained glass, but mainly Flavin’s work elicits the suspicion that there would be a word in another language to describe it. On the one hand, something like Japanese’s yūgen (‘mysterious profundity’), a vocabulary of simplicity and mindfulness; then again, there’s a McMansion-y banality to these everyday light fittings. In any case, if someone could make up an entirely new vocabulary for his work that would be great. Thanks.
That being said, students at a secondary school in Liverpool had some decent words for it in 2009. ‘I like the colours, but I think it’s boring,’ said one girl, and it is a bit boring, or a bit Music for Airports. While another said it was a masterpiece, still more of the class thought it could have just been robbed from the fixtures in the ceiling or bought from a hardware shop. Indeed, these materials are affordable, found objects, off-the-rack. Anyone could make one. Flavin’s arrangements — or ‘situations’ as he liked to call them — rely on repetition, sequence, cut-and-paste. ‘I select the colour, the width of the line and outline a basic pattern of alternation’ he once said. ‘Beyond that, the work makes itself...’ Indeed, the approach removed a lot of dead-weight: with the artwork taking care of itself, even the artist’s hand is removed. As a writer, I admire his unflinching approach to cutting. It’s satisfying, and it makes Flavin’s lights light in a different sense. His work has levity. ‘It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else.’
"affordable found objects, off-the-rack"
This is one of the key differences between the East coast Flavin and his Californian contemporaries James Turrell et al, who were also making minimalist works that ‘employ light as their primary medium’, as a 2020 exhibition at Pace gallery showcased. Influenced by his Quaker upbringing, Turrell’s work is poised towards transcendence, quite keen that you see the light. In comparison, although Flavin was born ‘of an ascetic, remotely male, Irish Catholic truant officer’, as he writes in a brilliant and much-loved piece for Artforum in 1965, none of this sense of religiosity turns up in the work.
In 2015, James Turrell borrowed his lawyer’s page to clarify his position on the then-latently viral music video for Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’, which looked a fair bit like one of his installations. ‘While I am truly flattered to learn that Drake f*cks with me,’ he wrote. ‘I nevertheless wish to make clear that neither I nor any of my woes was involved in any way in the making of the "Hotline Bling" video.’
"culture is regurgitating itself at a tornadic pace"
In an era when TikTok reigns supreme, ‘Hotline Bling’ looks ever more like peak Instagram. Writing for Rolling Stone, Claire Shaffer said it fit the ‘aesthetic perfectly, and the brightly-coloured, minimalist promotional photos for the clip drew viewers in.’ But now Instagram has entered its flop era. It’s short form videos, photodumps and BeReal from here on out.
New trends arrive in machine gun bursts and culture is regurgitating itself at a tornadic pace. At this rate, we’ll be feeling nostalgic about 2015 before the end of the week. But since, on the whole, perfection is out and authenticity is in, can I suggest that instead of James Turrell we fuck with Dan Flavin this time around?
By Sammi Gale