Introduction, Background, Aim and Objectives

Note to Examiners:

In the initial Learning Contract, Module MAIS 5306 is listed as:

"Explore the intentions and use of natural and manufactured light in art, interior design and architecture"

Please note that although the intentions and use of light in interior design and architecture will be touched upon within this module, they will be expanded much further within Modules 5305 (with particular regard to the use of light within architecture and spiritual spaces) and MAIS 5307 (with particular regard to the use of light within interior and product design).

Therefore, the intentions and use of natural and manufactured light within visual art will primarily be focused on within this module (5306), and will be contextualised within the history and intentions of the use of light within interior design and architecture.



Since the beginning of time, light has been used for both functional and phenomenological purposes. At once, natural light was used for both illumination and for more spiritual and religious purposes in combination with the celestial, astronomical calendar.


Temples and monuments were built to harness the power and phenomena of light as early as the prehistoric monolithic structures built in the 4th Millennium BCE.


Through time, humanity’s understanding of light developed, with Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Greek thinkers attempting to unravel the mystery of the sun.


Advancements were made in both the architectural capturing of light and in the understanding of optical science, from the time of the earliest prehistoric monuments through the prismatic experiments of Sir Isaac Newton to the development of the electric lightbulb and Einstein’s understandings of particle physics.


In correlation with this, artists have been working with light as a material and as a subject for centuries. Manufactured light, however, is a relatively new subject and material in the greater sphere of human history, having only been readily available from the end of the Nineteenth/start of the Twentieth century.




The prehistoric monuments of Newgrange, in the Republic of Ireland, and Stonehenge, in the UK, used celestial understanding to construct monuments to the summer and winter solstices.


This practice of using light for spirituality and mysticism continued into Ancient Egypt with the building of the Temples at Karnak at Abu Simbel, in Rome with the Pantheon and the stupas of South and South East Asia.


Ancient Greek scientists and mathematicians, including Plato, Euclid, Aristotle and Empedocles philosophised about the wonder of light, followed by the optical writings of the Arabic polymaths Al-Kindi and Ibn-al-Haytham.


Oxford scholars and Franciscans, namely Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon created treatises that would in turn influence the investigative minds of Descartes, Huygens and Hooke.


Sir Isaac Newton expanded optical theories, experimenting with prisms and unravelling the rainbow. Thomas Young countered, demonstrating electromagnetic waves, supported by James Clerk Maxwell.


The electric light dawned as Albert Einstein produced a quantum view of light and neon advertising lit up modern cities.


These circumstances and ideas have formed the way that we understand and use light today. Light illuminates our lives, whether through a window during the day or a lamp at night.


Artists have been fascinated with light and its uses for centuries, and with the advent of electric lighting, it could now become both functional and phenomenological in its usage.


At the turn of the Twentieth century, artists began to use electric light, primarily for theatrical and cinematic audiences, but by the 1920s and 1930s they began to incorporate light into their objects. After the end of the Second World War, these objects began to be shown in museums and galleries (Malina 1987).


By the 1960s a group of artists, known as ‘light and space’ artists were beginning to remove light as an object from their work and focus on the phenomenological aspects of illumination. These artists were are the forefront of what would now be termed Light Installation, and included, among others, Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, Bruce Nauman, Maria Nordman, Larry Bell, Michael Asher and James Turrell.  


Turrell (b.1943) studied mathematics and psychology as well as art and art history in the 1960s, and he was exposed to the thinking of the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty at this time (De Lima Greene, 2013). Interested in the aforementioned structures at Newgrange and Stonehenge, he has removed the object from his work, instead focusing on the phenomenology of the perception of light (Govan & Kim, 2013, Krupp, 2013 & Trotman, 2013).


Within a similar timeframe, another American artist, Dan Flavin (1933-1996), began his experiments with industrial commercial light fittings. From 1963 onwards Flavin would construct sculptures consisting only of lamp and light, stating that there was no hidden psychology to his work, “it is what it is, and it ain’t nothin else” (Gibson, 1987).


In stark contrast to each other, but both using, literal, illumination as a vehicle for their message, both of these artists have become synonymous with the use of light within visual art. One stating that their light is “an industrial product that can only be used as it is” and the other that he uses “no object” and that there is “no object, because perception of light is the objective” (Gibson, 1987, Govan & Kim, 2013).


This blog will therefore seek to explore the idea of light as function, and object, and light as phenomenon, and perception. It does not seek to proffer a preference in which is preferred, only to compare and contrast the uses and intentions.




The aim of this blog is to explore the ideas of light as function and light as phenomenon, contextualised within the history of Optical Science, the development of manufactured lighting and the use of the celestial in constructing monuments.



This will be achieved by meeting the following objectives:


  • Conduct secondary research into

    • The definition of light and the history of the development of Optical Science

    • The development of manufactured lighting and the use of light as function, with particular regard to the work of Dan Flavin

    • The use of the celestial in constructing monuments and the use of light as phenomenon, with particular regard to the work of James Turrell