Light as function



From the daylight of the sun and the naked flame of the prehistoric fire, through candlewax and whale oil lamps to the more recent incandescent bulbs and LED fixtures, light, both natural and manufactured, has served the purpose of functional illumination from the dawn of time.


That is not to say that light has not been of celestial and spiritual significance within human history, which will be demonstrated further in the ‘light as phenomena’ section of this blog, but to say that it is also a functional material.

Natural light, that being the light of the sun, has been used functionally since the earliest prehistoric monolithic monuments signaled in the start of the summer and winter solstices.


Manufactured light, however, has not been in use for such an expansive amount of time, and has its beginnings in the development and use of candles as the prime source of illumination up until the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries.

The advancement of mass production techniques, and technological advancements in energy infrastructures, freed industrialised societies from their dependence on natural light as the main source of functional illumination, with both gas and oil lamps becoming increasingly popular up to the turn of the Twentieth century (Fouqet & Pearson, 2006). 

In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century, progress in the field of electrical lighting manufacture led to the commercialisation of electric lighting and the introduction of incandescent lights.


These, relatively, cheap and reliable sources of illumination allowed light to be produced and controlled in a variety of new ways (Lauson, Wagner & Ball, 2013).



One such progression lead to the increasing commercial use of neon light at the beginning of the Twentieth century.


Discovered by William Ramsay and Morris Travers in 1898, neon is a rare, so-called inert gas which became readily available as early as 1910 after the ‘French Edison’ Georges Claude was able to create neon as a by-product of the liquefaction of air in 1902 (Lauson, Wagner & Ball, 2013).


Synonymous with the advertising industry of the early to mid-Twentieth century, neon became a symbol of the modernisation, and despite its French roots, Americanisation, of popular culture until its decline in usage in the 1950s and 1960s (Ribbat 2013).


Although the history of the use of neon functionally is fairly short, the decline in commercial, functional use, however, gave way to the increasing use of neon within the artistic world. The American artist Bruce Nauman (b.1941) has been using neon as a material since the mid-1960s, and more recently, the British artist Tracy Emin (b.1963) has used the inert gas to inscribe messages of love and lust on the gallery wall.


There is a handmade, and handwritten, appeal to neon lighting, blown by mouth and shaped by the hand, that appeals to artists such as Emin and Nauman, making neon at once an advertising medium, an element of architecture and an artistic material (Ribbat 2013).


Dan Flavin

Another artist who has become synonymous with another type of functional lighting is the American artist Dan Flavin (1933-1996).


Colloquially, some might say that Flavin is a neon artist, using neon tubes, however, for the artist, critics and followers of Flavin, this is not the case. Fluorescent lights, the ones which Flavin used, are not neon.

Flavin, himself apparently touchy on the subject, stated that ‘fluorescent is an industrial product that can only be used as it is’. Neon, as previously mentioned, can be handmade and handwritten, twisted into any shape, affording more flexibility and customisation that the static fluorescent tubes and fittings (Gibson, 1987, Lauson, Wagner & Ball, 2013).


This is an important distinction when looking at Flavin’s work, as we are doing now, as function and object as opposed to phenomena. Flavin is using an object, more commonly used in offices and schools, as a sculptural medium, for him, the cold hum of the fluorescent tube stands alone as an object of formal interest (Meyer, 2009, Wäspe, 2012).

The fact that you can see the source of light in Flavin’s work is another step in showing that his work has more sculptural than ephemeral connotations.


The fittings, though often structured and displayed in different forms, shapes and sizes, are all store bought, a common place occurrence with the Minimalism and Pop Art of the 1960s following on from the readymades of Duchamp earlier in the century, and this commercial aspect appealed strongly to Flavin (Lauson, Wagner & Ball, 2013).


Critics, however, have been divided on Flavin’s work since he first diagonally placed a fluorescent tube in 1963. In the 1960s, the art critic David Bourdon was fairly dismissive of Flavin’s works, stating that they were only considered art because they placed in the context of a gallery (Ribbat, 2013). This, however, is a comment that could be levelled at any number of Flavin’s contemporaries in the 1960s who used readymade objects, and given Flavin’s appeal to the commercial nature of the fluorescent light, can’t have concerned him too much.


Later on in Flavin’s career, and particularly posthumously, the critiquing of his work, with particular regard to the use of commercial light fittings, has become more understanding of the artist’s intentions.


Laura Cumming, upon reviewing Flavin’s posthumous retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London for The Guardian in 2006, highlighted the ‘pleasure’ that was emitting from Flavin’s work, describing it as “hardware performing as high art”.

Returning to the idea of object versus phenomena, the idea of the use of light is conceptually tied to spirituality and mysticism, however, it is Flavin himself who sets out the score most plainly and distinctly.


“It is what it is and it ain’t nothin else… Everything is clearly, openly plainly delivered… There is no hidden psychology, no overwhelming spirituality you are supposed to come into contact with. I like my use of light to be openly situational in the sense that there is no invitation to meditate to contemplate… One might not think of light as a matter of fact, but I do” – Dan Flavin (Gibson, 1987)


Despite attempts to pin spirituality and psychology on Flavin’s work throughout his career, the artist remained steadfast in denying representation and resisting spiritual interpretations of his work (Cumming, 2006). He himself would term his work in the sphere of architectural intervention, and his pieces can be described as “less site-specific and more site-erosive”, given the deliberate diffusing of architectural structure (Fuchs & Kraus, 2012).


Flavin also denied the role of the ‘observer’ in his work, a notable attribute of the Minimalist work of Flavin’s contemporaries, and a key distinction from the work of James Turrell, who directs viewer perception, and whose work will be explored further in the ‘light as phenomena’ section of this blog.


To summarise, briefly, the argument of function and object versus phenomena in the case of Dan Flavin’s work, a court case from the European Commission is sufficient to conclude on.


In 2012, the European Commission banned the sale of incandescent bulbs, meaning that Dan Flavin’s sculptures would become liable to 20% VAT. Defending the ruling, the European Commission stated that his work has “the characteristics of light fittings… and is therefore to be classified… as wall light fittings” (Kennedy, 2010, Lauson, Wagner & Ball, 2013)