We met at the Center for International Light Art in Unna, where Christine Sciulli currently presents her site-specific installation FERMENT for the exhibition program HYPERsculptures, open to the public from November 2022 to April 2023. She is one of the participating artists along with Squidsoup, Julius Stahl, Philip Vermeulen, and Giny Vos.
After descending 10 Meters into the Center for International Light Art, we enter the dark vaulted exhibition space which FERMENT inhabits. The ambiguous cloud before us seems to be a living organism. Circular lines gather and disperse thin ribbons of white light, which map their way through the textile’s layered undulations. All movement seems to be hypnotically slow. It seems like an endless coming and going. “My goal is to create an immersive experience for the visitor where lines of light continuously re-draw themselves through a diaphanous sculptural intervention that is in tension with its concrete tunnel enclosure.”1All quotes from an ongoing interview with Christine Sciulli for this text from November 2022 to January 2023., explained Christine Sciulli.
My first association with FERMENT is to describe the installation as an optical poem with regard to Oskar Fischinger’s work presented in 1938, showing rectangles, triangles, and circles floating across a screen. Decades before computer graphics and music videos, Oskar Fischinger (1900 – 1967) mastered non-objective filmmaking. He was an animator who, beginning in the 1920s in Germany, created ‘visual music’ using geometric patterns and shapes choreographed tightly to classical music and jazz. While Oskar Fischinger’s “Optical Poem” responded to music and is considered one of the early music videos, Christine Sciulli’s artwork is silent. There is just the sound of the space, the projectors running, and the audience moving in space. But in generating their visuals, they have in common working with geometrical shapes, animating them in choreography that plays with appearing and disappearing of a range of graphical objects that range from single forms to multiplied ones, finding their ways moving across the canvas, sometimes crossing their paths, sometimes circumventing each other.
The site-specific intervention FERMENT by Christine Sciulli is one of the few projection-based works in the Center of International Light Art in Unna. It consists of hundreds of meters of white tulle, each short section gently pinned into a sculpture that seems to emerge from the walls of the barrel vault in the basement of the museum. Christine Sciulli recalls her first thoughts when starting to develop an idea for an exhibition in the narrow but elongated 6,8-meter high gallery: “… I was very excited about grazing the long wall to pull the audience into the work and sublimate the back wall into a field of fermentation. I was interested in exploring the long axis of the space to give people pause in an ever-changing relationship to the scale of the work, as well as the viewing angle of the circles cast through the fabric, ultimately forcing an intimacy with the layered height of the work as they approached the far end of the gallery.”
Working with tulle features a bundle of unique properties: the fabric’s weave is semi-transparent, and its nylon thread is translucent. It allows one to see the material it is made of and as well as to see through it, and it glows catching some photons along the way; to look into what is before and behind, to physically reflect the projection, and to let it pass. When translucent netting is illuminated only from the front or the side at a steep angle, it will appear opaque when everything behind it remains unlit. By controlling the ratio of projected light to its ground of darkness, this ambiguity generates an ethereal aesthetic as if water, mist, or smoke. Volume and motion, shape and color are defined by the interplay of material and space, time, and projected light. Christine Sciulli describes the handling of the material and that “… each piece of fabric is extremely light, 2 meters by 2 meters. Tiny white safety pins hold each piece to the other.” By meticulously randomizing the stratification of the fine-netted material, she achieved different levels of density and opacity. And she built a voluminous semi-suspended form as the recipient of a digital projection.
Languid (2013). Video: Christine Sciulli.
The raw materials for the graphical projection are thin white circles, which she choreographs putting each circle in its place on the black frame. None of this process is automated, but it is very handmade in a sense. “But”, the artist said, “… but most viewers do not realize what they are seeing in the work is only circles” due to the interaction performed by all the elements of influence: the square grid of the textile fabric versus the floating grid of the circles; the textile grid distorted by the irregular folds. The projected white lines travel along the folds generating a meandering interplay of visibility and non-visibility. From the interaction of the fabric, the graphical material, and the projection emerges an intriguing visual complexity.
Christine Sciulli explained her way of composing: “I work with the speed of the circles expanding and contracting, as well as their position within the frame … for this work, I allowed some circles to black out akin to a gas bubble popping as its tensioned watery membrane gives out instead of contracting. I am always working intuitively within the apple motion frames as well as with the fabric form. The projection files are composed of 7 segments, which are 5 to 8 minutes each. These segments are sequenced randomly for each projector, of which there are 4. This effectively prevents the repetition of the projection cycle on a given day.”
When I asked Sciulli why she restricts herself to white as the only color, she answered that “white light maximizes the amount of refraction visually available to the inhibitor of the installation. Additionally, I have never found a conceptual reason to incorporate color in this body of work…” Most of her explanations feature the material properties of her art materials. She accentuates the ones that allow interaction and synergy to emerge.
Iconic Series of Artwork
Her artistic practice extends to theater and performance works. While it was an incidental observation that pivoted her artwork’s content to root firmly in the exploration of geometry, it was the theater that opened her eyes to the use of extremely porous projection surfaces and ultimately the use of fabric: “I was given the missive to use a large construction scaffolding, the set for Mabou Mines production of Ruth Maleczech’s Songs for New York What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting … after that production I built extensive networks of string on which to project straight lines of light which seemed to generate fields of autonomous moving points of light. The timeline of my QuickTime movie file caught a piece of thin fabric hanging on a ladder in my studio and I thought it was interesting but shelved the idea. I moved from the interception of straight lines onto various linear networks: massive installations of string, colossal tangles of vines and branches, and even a kind of wheat-like grass. Moving into the next form, I utilized layers of screen mesh that I curved. Seeing the curve of this single line onto the formed mesh piqued my curiosity and I finally embraced the fabric I had previously rejected and curved the straight line into the circle. The first in the expanding circle series were two small wall pieces and then a full-height corner work. I was offered a large space to experiment at Spring Break Art Show in NYC and then I moved on to using only circles with the fabric installation in even larger and more architecturally informed interventions The use of fabric netting for the circle projections seemed perfect and satisfied my interest in working intuitive. In my earlier work, I focused on very energetic life drawing with charcoal, and combining the austerity of circles with the excitement of building very large abstractions with fabric was a thrilling extension of my love of swirling carbon on rough paper as models changed from one brief croquis pose to the next.”
Over the last 10 years, this series has become iconic to the work of Christine Sciulli. In the early years, she exhibited them mainly in the New York area. Examples range from 2013 at the Parrish Art Museum in Watermill to 2016 at the Smack Mellon Gallery in Brooklyn. In 2018, for the first time in Europe, Christine Sciulli staged an artwork at the international light art biennial LICHTUNGEN Hildesheim and traveled in 2019 to Canada to be part of the international light art project RESPONSIVE. “… “Expanding Circles” is a series of installations that I like thinking of as a series of paintings except for my “canvas” is hard to come by and the work defies reproduction so its audience is limited. The series spans over a decade because the works can only exist in real-time.”
After working on the “Expanding Circle Series” for a decade, Sciulli is still very enthusiastic to explore further the artistic framework she has developed and bring the work to new audiences. She explains that “all installations are unique … my work requires a colossal amount of space to be realized. My studio becomes the gallery, the warehouse, the corridor, the brewery – and this is where the work is created, where it lives, and where it expires. The installations are as ephemeral as time and their phenomenological experience is essential. They cannot be duplicated, reinstalled, or captured effectively on photo or film. They continue to exist in the minds of their participants and will ultimately be lost to time.”
About Christine Sciulli’s background
She holds an Architectural Engineering Degree from Penn State University, as well as BFA and MFA degrees from NYC’s Hunter College, where she studied visual arts. She developed a background that is nurtured by the arts and by technologies, by spatial qualities as a framework for human interaction. She links the knowledge of light and its perception to an artistic mindset. Her practice is rooted in a continuous flow of artistic experimentation in her studio. Asked about the initial idea that led to the series of graphical projections, she talked about the origin of working with simple geometries: “A line crawled up the crown molding in my studio and then across my ceiling. It had come through a seam in the blackout panels over my windows after bouncing off of a car window 4 stories below. I had always wanted to revisit that line and without thinking of that moment until much later, I started to focus on planes of light.”
In her conceptual approach, she refers to the basics of working with physical light – almost in the same way as we can find it with the artists known from the networks ZERO in Europe, “Light and Space” in the USA, and GRAV in France and Latin America. She expressed that “working with light presents the opportunity to ride on the edges of perception. Time and space are essential to this process. Because I am creating a phenomenological effect that cuts close to the edges of the visual experience, being that the light is very dim, and the piece takes place in the darkest setting allowable, white light onto white fabric offers the best opportunity for maximum visibility with minimal lux. I feel there is an eerie or otherworldly quality because when the lights are so low, the cones in our visual system are not operating to see color and the environment naturally becomes greyscale in a palette – but the rods are on high alert and our peripheral vision is extremely active. Therefore being inside of the work or under the work, can feel so viscerally engaging. One can sense the movement of the circles of light around them because the rods are super attuned to motion.”
Working with light
It echoes with what one of the ZERO Co-Founders, Heinz Mack (*1931), spoke about his artistic approach: “I am a friend of logical working steps, or perhaps I should say: of artistic logic – and I make sure that this logic simultaneously contains elements of chance, its dialectical shadow. I love the invoice whose sum is irrational.” Like Christine Sciulli, Heinz Mack adheres strictly to the geometries of light. Lines, surfaces, layers and cuts, axes, and compositions are designed to stage the performativity of light. From the selection of the material to the composition of the object to its position in space, their works record the light situation found and transform it into a visual composition. Surfaces, structures, and edges become graphic material, and the optical properties of light in interaction with the applied materials, such as brilliance or transparency, bundling or refraction, and reflection or absorption, turn out to be the pictorial material. They do not depict but form a framework that generates an aesthetic situation.
Working with lines: Keith Sonnier
In the Center for International Light Art, „FERMENT” is located not far from the circular neon lines by Keith Sonnier (1941 – 2020). Like Christine Sciulli, Keith Sonnier used an industrial material but had it formed by hand. He developed all his shapes by bending them by hand with copper tubes and had them copied into neon tubes that he integrated into site-specific artwork. The title “Tunnel of Tears” (2002) refers to the puddles of groundwater that mirror the neon lines distributed in space. The bluish and reddish shine of the neon combines the visual experience with white lines embedded in colorful fields. Sciulli — like Keith Sonnier — likes to build immersive situations in which the interplay of space and light, material and form melt into poetic consistency.
Working with circles: Rebecca Horn
Next door, the installation “Lotusschatten” (2006) von Rebecca Horn (*1944) consists of copper tubes bent like tendrils that carry 18 copper funnels. Each funnel is filled either with a focus light or with a mirror circle. Along with the mechanical movement of the mirrors, a light and shadow play of the circular light sources, the mirror circles, and the round shadows that travel the space along with a spheric soundscape by composer Hayden Chisholm. Whenever these shadows encounter an obstacle while scanning the surfaces, the circles are distorted – they break, or disappear. Similarly, Christine Sciulli refers to her use of circles: “This abstract and very clear form, the circle, seems to shape-shift lyrically as it roves and glides through the tulle. However, It is precise and geometric. Unwavering. Any impression that it morphs and changes is derived from the viewers’ perception. The circle is a relationship described only by the constant pi and its diameter. No dominant side, no endpoint, and no direction. They separate the interior from the exterior. Pi is an irrational number. Pi is a transcendental number. I find it endlessly intriguing. Circles both social and physical, have been culturally important since the beginning of civilization …”
Working with net structures: Raika Dittmann
Passing from one vault to another, there is the artwork “Chaordisch” by Raika Dittmann(*1992). It consists of clusters of small synthetic rolls, made of a transparent polymer, compiled in organic shapes. They do not follow any pattern or repeat. They form lines and structures and become a fabric. The cellular shapes are installed as a mobile, hanging freely in space. They are moved by the airflow that changes with passers-by. Each of them is juxtaposed with a narrow LED spot to generate a shadow play, that is how the artwork bleeds into the surrounding surfaces and space.
For Raika Dittmann, the poetic is a perceptual event that begins where familiar images and conceptual habits are insufficient to grant space and image to that which can be imagined. It echoes the Greek term “poiētikós” which encompasses the aspect of processing and denotes a framework that reaches beyond what can be grasped intellectually and linguistically. She refines the processing of observation while investigating the fraying of the line. She fathoms the perceptual flickering at the edge of a material or the interference that arises in the synopsis of different lines, grids, or structures. Her medium is diaphanous, which unfolds between light and sight. She looks for the esthetics of the vague, the uncertain, and the variable to comprise them in the artistic material. Like Christine Sciulli, she aims for a performative framework of “poiesis” from the Ancient Greek, the space “in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.”
Working with space and time: Christina Kubisch
When visiting the Center for International Light Art before setting up, Christine Sciulli told, that she “was truly intrigued by the sound piece in the fermentation tanks by Christina Kubisch”. In 2001, Christina Kubisch (*1948) started building one of the first permanent artworks of the collection of the – at that time new – Center of International Light Art in Unna. She chose four former tanks and structured them with square, whitish speakers on a blackened floor. The geometrical grid of speakers seems to float when lit by UV light. The installation emits a drifting soundscape.
The artwork is part of a series of works in which Christina Kubisch braced spaces with technical items like cables, speakers, and other sound-generating materials. Transforming them into lines, planes, and sculptures, she provided a space for audiovisual experiences. She featured spatial installations that allowed visitors to explore them along the interaction of senses, in their own time and their ways. She wants the audience not only to grasp a new artwork but to find their points of reference and develop their point of view. Christina Kubisch and Christine Sciulli share a preference for explorative composition and experiential settings. For FERMENT, Christine Sciulli invites the viewers to immerse in the environment “ … and to choose from a variety of perspectives and places to sit, linger, play, and interact with the work, as atmospheric shapes appear to grow and dissolve around the gallery.” And Christine Sciulli explicitly refers to the social encounter by saying that the artwork in Unna “… refers to not only this museum when it was a brewery and these tiny yeast organisms huffing and bubbling — working together to make a mighty force to digest and transform the raw ingredients into beer but also refers to people working together to create change. FERMENT asks for taking time to transform with purpose.”
I am under the impression that working “Unter Tage” (en: “below grounds”) sparked the idea for the next dare: “I’m dreaming of a MidWinter project in Iceland projecting along a kilometer of steaming fissures.” For Christine Sciulli, each opportunity, each space is a challenge and an experimental environment, she said “… really, each one calls for a unique intervention.” She is interested in experimentation — exploring materials, observing light, and moving in digital frameworks. The installation FERMENT by Christine Sciulli in the Center of International Light Art in Unna “proofs” one more time that she has developed a unique position among the contemporary artists working with light and media.
- 1All quotes from an ongoing interview with Christine Sciulli for this text from November 2022 to January 2023.