Centre for International Light Art, Unna, Germany (2013)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 13 September 2014. This article was written in September 2013.

Centre for International Light Art

In May 2001, the Zentrum für Internationale Lichtkunst (Centre for International Light Art) opened in the former Linden Brewery (1852-1979) in the former small industrial city of Unna, Germany, about 45 minutes by car from Dusseldorf in North Rhine-Westfalia. Situated as part of the Ruhr District´s "Route of Industrial Heritage", the light art centre features 2400 m2 of exhibition space for light art 10m under the ground where the beer used to be produced. The interesting, underground spaces feature former ice cellars, fermenting cellars, arched corridors, and industrial storage areas that are transformed into installation spaces featuring light.

First things, first: why a centre specifically for light art? According to the centre’s director since 2012, John Jaspers, “Light art has increasing become an independent form of art within installation art and sculpture. More and more artists have become interested in working with light as their material. It’s expanding enormously, from not only an artistic point of view but also industrial developments concerning light. A few years from now, light, and what’s possible with it, will be completely different from what we’ve seen in the past 50 years. So it was thought a few years ago that light art deserves its own place.”

Jaspers took the position of director at the centre in Unna in March 2012. Previously he was director of the former light art centre, Centrum Kunstlicht in de Kunst in Eindhoven, The Netherlands (2002-11), situated in the first light bulb factory of the Philips corporation. Before this, he worked in the radio and television field in the Netherlands.

The centre features a number of permanent installations exploring light art. These include works by Christian Boltanski, Johannes Dinnebier, Olafur Eliasson, Joseph Kosuth, Brigitte Kowanz, Mischa Kuball, Christina Kubisch, Mario Merz, François Morellet, Jan van Munster, Keith Sonnier, and James Turrell. How were they acquired? “Some are loans, some were donated and some were bought. A big mixture,” said Jaspers.

Annually, the centre puts up about two exhibitions per year. Exhibitions have included James Turrell: Geometry of light (2009), and a jubilee exhibition entitled Light Lines - (un)real celebrating the centre’s first decade (2012-13) featuring participating artists Li Hui, Ernesto Klar, Stephan Reusse and the one-time artist group consisting of Wolfgang Bittner, Yoko Seyama, Lyndsey Housden and Jeroen Uyttendaele. Kazuo Katase was featured in 2008, Mischa Kuball in 2007, Brigitte Kowanz in 2005-06, and Andreas Oldörp in 2004-05.

In addition, the centre is a forum for talks, symposia, conferences and workshops related to “light”. The centre is structurally funded by the city of Unna, regional government, admissions fees, sponsors and events. Exhibitions are facilitated by additional funding.

The spaces themselves in relation to light art have inspired artists. “We always try to invite artists to look at the rooms and really make works of light art that ‘conquer’ these rooms,” said Jaspers. “The rooms are very specific, in some sense, difficult. On the other hand, artists tend to be triggered by the rooms. And the contrast between the light art and the environment is fantastic to see.”

The museum’s outward “sign” is a 52m high chimney with a Mario Merz-installed work on it. Fibonacci sequence (2000), displays a sequence of numbers that go up the chimney, by mathematician and monk Leonardo Fibonacci (c. 1170–1240). The numbers above result from adding the two preceding numbers from below and reach towards the sky. (1+1 = 2; 1+2 = 3, and so on. So 1-1-2-3, etc.) The piece “creates a link between the installations by light artists in the cellar and the endless cosmic space of the starry sky.” [1]

For artist Micha Kuball based in Dusseldorf, who has permanently installed his work Space – Speech – Speed ( 1998/2001), “The abandoned caves of the former brewery stood for the prosperity of the region, when coal mining and metal production was at its economic peak. Since, the area has undergone a massive transformation. Converting the brewery into the ’Centre for International Light Art’ was a risky task, but every artist that I had spoken to wanted to contribute to it. In fact, the museum and artists have changed the labeling of Unna, and the centre has created something of a light glow for the whole former industrial region between Duisburg and Dortmund.”

In 2007, Kuball was also the focus of an exhibition featuring ten works in underground cave-like spaces dedicated to temporary exhibitions.

For artist Jan van Munster, whose installation I (in dialogue) (2003/05) is part of the centre’s collection and positioned in a shaft in the former brewery, the Centre is “the most important museum for light art of the 20th century in Europe. The art spaces in the labyrinthine corridors, cold storage cellars and fermenting vats of the former brewery are a perfect setting.”

Interestingly, Jaspers’s previous background in radio and television contributes to his current work as the light art centre director. “With television, you are working with light as well— what things look like— and what the effect is,” explained Jaspers. “Also in TV, we think about how we can reach as big an audience as possible. How do you get to new target groups? How to make it broader? Like everywhere, you have to fight for an audience. There’s so much competition going on, what people can do in their free time.”

Does the specific ‘light art’ remit have any negatives from an organizational viewpoint? “No. But we’re not a rich museum at all,” said Jaspers. “We just manage. For temporary exhibitions, we have to find funding. Up until now, that works. Of course, sometimes that takes time.”

Future plans? According to Jaspers, “The centre is preparing an international light art award with plans for it to run every two years starting at the end of 2014. We’re also considering enlarging the exhibition spaces and adding more site-specific installations, and maybe a wing for not site-specific installations, but for works of light art in general.”

1 Katrin Osbelt (based on original text by Uwe Rüth) on Mario Merz’s Fibonacci sequence (2013). Centre for International Light Art: The Essence of Light. Published by Wienand Publishing Company. ISBN 978-3-86832-152-4, p. 31.