Blindside Gallery, 2017

Reflections on Light

Melissa Miles

Light has long played a central role in how we define our world and sense of being. We chart the passage of time according to the cycles of the moon and the orbit of the earth around the sun, and design temples and our homes in response to the flux and flows of light. We live by an assumption that light will reveal truth and testify to presence. On a physical level, light services vision to guide us through space, and by casting shadows it helps us to discern the mass of objects and their connection to the ground. As the sun continually rises and sets, it also establishes the rhythm of day and night, revelation and concealment, and presence and absence that structures the very language of philosophy. No wonder, then, that the French philosopher Jacques Derrida described light as the founding metaphor of Western philosophy as metaphysics.

In language, philosophy and theology, we invest heavily in the notion of an absolute distinction between darkness and light. Light is not only the opposite of darkness but in its very essence “darkness is destroyed and overcome.”The list of dualisms that arise from this binary scheme seem infinite. Light is linked to the good while darkness is aligned with evil; light is bound to order while darkness represents chaos; and whereas light is associated with life and vitality, its absence suggests death and depression. “Light lights up, makes-free, provides a way through. The dark bars the way, does not allow things to show themselves, conceals them.” These boundaries between lightness and dark are demarcated endlessly in language and culture. Light’s invisibility and contingency are inherently resistant to such order, and as a result the boundaries that delimit the meaning of light require constant reiteration. Like heliotropes, we are in relentless pursuit of the sun as an origin on which to fix this photological system – continually remapping this dynamic force according to our own cultural contexts and desires – turning and turning only to return to the same place in a movement that disavows light’s profound volatility.

Light may be inseparable from space and language, from our being and knowing, but the myths and meanings that we attribute to light also belie a tension deep within these relations. Such tension is particularly pertinent when considering the psychic investment in light, presence and space. Sigmund Freud was keenly interested in the language of light and darkness, and invoked photography (as light-writing) in his description of the links between consciousness and the unconscious. In a much-quoted passage, Freud makes explicit this correlation between the light of the positive, the dark negative, consciousness and unconscious: 
. . . let us assume that every mental process . . . exists to begin with in an unconscious stage or phase and that it is only from there that the process passes over into the conscious phase, just as a photographic picture begins as a negative and only becomes a picture after being formed into a positive.
In Freud’s work, light, darkness, positive and negative do not sit simply in opposition. Instead, psychoanalysis demands an exploration of the passage between the conscious and unconscious. The appearance of an image in the psyche is not simply the product of that image’s shift from the unconscious to consciousness where both realms remain discrete and distinct. Like the uses and meanings that we attribute to light, the boundary between these two realms is continually formed, traversed and renegotiated.

Our place within light, both physically and psychically, is subject to a comparable push and pull that is often neglected in the realm of art. This neglect of the contingency and fluidity of light in visual culture is no accident. Such patterns of neglect reflect a desire for an ordered, highly controlled understanding of the function of light in space that is tightly bound to our sense of being in the world. The control of light through a camera obscura, or the use of light to project an image of three dimensional space onto a two dimensional screen, conforms to the laws of monocular perspective and their production of an all-seeing all-knowing observer. According to Jacques Lacan, Euclid’s optics (on which these systems of monocular perspective rely) place the viewing subject at the centre of the gaze and as such help to define a sense of being in oneself. Encapsulated in Lacan’s phrase “seeing oneself seeing oneself,” this regime of vision fosters the illusion of a self-reflexive consciousness. Within this scheme both the object and light, as that which reveals presence, are located problematically outside of the subject who apparently remains discrete, distant and in control.

The practice of looking, argues Lacan, is actually far more complex. Light does not conform to the expectations of Euclidean optics and the boundaries between the self and the world are never so easily defined. When transforming an Other into a screen for our own desire, we are also subject to another point of light (the gaze) that delimits this one-way relation of objectification. According to Lacan, an additional point of light sits at the apex of Euclid’s cone of vision to transform the viewing subject into another screen, disrupting the field of perception by implicating the subject in the desire of the Other.
That which is light looks at me, and by means of that light in the depths of my eye, something is painted—something that is not simply a constructed relation, the object on which the philosopher lingers—but something that is an impression, the shimmering of a surface that is not, in advance, situated for me in its distance.
Whereas a screen or an image on the wall may conform to the geometral field of monocular perspective and locate the viewer at the apex of the field, the point of light associated with Lacan’s gaze transforms the subject into a screen, mapping an entirely different mode of subjectivity.

By engaging with these fluid intersections of light, space and presence, Eastman’s work opens up new modes of seeing. Light is not simply invoked to illuminate this space and chart the placement of the objects within it. As we share this exhibition space with the objects and move amongst their flickering play of light and shadow, we cannot help but realise that we too are being written in light.

Professor Melissa Miles is an ARC Future Fellow (2014–17) and researcher based in the Art History and Theory program at Monash Art Design & Architecture.
Her writings include The Burning Mirror: Photography in an Ambivalent Light, published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2008 and The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photograph published by Power Publications, Sydney, and McGill Queen’s University Press, Montreal in 2015.


Jacques Derrida, "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy," in Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 251.  
Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans., Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), 27.   

Hans Blumenberg, "Light as a Metaphor for Truth," in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. David Michael Levin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 32.  

Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Truth: On Plato's Cave Allegory and Theaetetus, trans., Ted Sadler (London and New York: Continuum, 2002), 44.

Derrida, "White Mythology."

Sigmund Freud, "Resistance and repression" [Lecture 19], in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud / translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1975), 295.

Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans., Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1977), 74.

Ibid., 96.

Ibid., p. 106.