From the allegorical use of sunlight in Renaissance painting to the neon works of Dan Flavin, light is one of art’s building blocks. And then there’s Martin Creed, who pretty much had the last word on the subject when he won the Turner Prize in 2001 with ‘Work No 227: The Lights Going on and off’ – an empty room and a single lightbulb. So, Ian Whittlesea’s installation may seem a little familiar. A bare room and a single lightbulb going on, and then, as lightbulbs tend to do, off again. It doesn’t flick on and off like Creed’s – it pulsates, growing from nothing into eye-watering brightness and then back again. It’s like Creed’s work with a dimmer switch. Creed isn’t mentioned anywhere in the gallery text. He’s sort of the elephant in the room, and the room’s empty, so – you know – it’s kind of hard to hide an elephant.
But let’s take it on its merits. Whittlesea’s pulsating bulb is a meditative piece of art. As the light grows, it stings your eyes, then as it fades away, a sense of calm returns. There are ideas about breathing exercises and meditation at play – a mystic, Eastern-philosophy approach that ebbs and flows, grows and dies. Seen from the street at night, the work makes the whole gallery look alive, like a heart beating in slo-mo.
As with much contemporary art, you can either buy into the ideas and enjoy them, or dismiss them as bullshit and walk away. Don’t forget to turn the light out when you leave.