Darkness Visible: Anita Edenhofer’s By Stealth
by Dr. Rachel Wells, Art Historian
Light has long been associated with knowledge and understanding. The metaphorical use of light infiltrates everyday language: explanations can ‘illuminate’, clarifications can ‘throw light’ upon a subject. Equally strong metaphors accompany darkness: ‘being in the dark’ suggests ignorance, and a lack of understanding.
Anita Edenhofer’s installation-based practice plays upon such rigid alignments. In her innovative work she investigates the revelations and projections that can be prompted by darkness. Exploiting the ability to control light that is offered by a sealed gallery space, Edenhofer presents a ‘darkness visible’, not in the ghoulish sense of hellish flames as described by Milton, but in a prompting of the viewer to realise both their own projections and assumptions, and the limitations of the information disclosed to them. Her 2012 exhibition By Stealth presents a poetic and political exploration of the contemporary meaning of darkness.
Upon entering the dimly-lit gallery, the viewer is met with a highly realistic life-size sculpture of an elephant’s lower body, its grey wrinkled legs apparently frozen mid-swim as it hangs from the ceiling. The startling effect is both humorous and seductive: gallery lighting is limited to low-level up-lighters, similar to those used in swimming pools, so that the viewer seems positioned within an underwater tank, dwarfed by the clumsy, powerful enormity of the animal above. Entitled Clandestine, the installation suggests secrecy and the withholding of information; what is happening above the ‘surface’? The viewer is made aware that their vision is partial and their view limited, even whilst remaining fully aware of the artist’s control over the illusion. The implication here is that Clandestine could be both the affectionate name of the female elephant, and a more sinister description of the secret, the censored, the illicit. If an enormous, heavy beast can become clandestine in dark water, then how much more are we missing?
A rather sinister answer to this question slowly becomes clear in the next room. The watery theme continues throughout the exhibition, as the viewer moves through a dark space to encounter Sea Shadows Rising, a room whose darkness is pierced only by 36 small LED lights. As the viewer’s eyes adjust to the limited light, it becomes clearer that these lights are all hovering on the same plane, forming an invisible ‘horizon’ within the darkness that is implied but never shown. Coming closer to the lights, viewers can begin to make out dark shapes: the ominous forms of stealth ships. Edenhofer has modelled these miniaturised ships on the Sea Shadow, a boat used by the US navy between 1985 and 2006. This black, covert vessel was designed to see but not to be seen; this play on visibility is ironically reflected in the ship’s name, as the aural pun on the word ‘sea’ suggests that the sea can enable vision. In this stealth ship, a watery shadow for seeing, darkness would not only be visible but would also be capable of vision. In Edenhofer’s miniaturised, darkened diorama, such stealthiness becomes palpable, as the viewer’s own lack of vision is accompanied by a frightening realisation that this does not mean that they themselves are not seen.
Yet, as with Clandestine, there is also a constant awareness of the simple artificiality of Edenhofer’s illusions: Sea Shadows Rising produces a sudden shift in scale and an awareness of covert spying operations despite existing only as a few everyday artificial lights arranged in a darkened room. As such, the work also functions as an investigation into the flaws and follies of perception, of the gaps that the viewer imaginatively fills, of the darkness that allows for, and encourages, a projection of their own ideas and responses. A gallery space can be transformed into an elephant’s swimming-pool or an American naval spy mission with only a slight manipulation of light and darkness.
The final room of the exhibition includes two artworks which continue this theme. On a plinth in the far corner stands a miniaturised model of a large grounded radar station, constructed again for reconnaissance. As an innocent-looking painted wooden construction atop a traditional plinth, the sculpture might appear to be an abstract Modernist form, but its title, By Stealth II, its position within the entire exhibition, and most importantly its shadowy form within the dark gallery space, lead the viewer to understand its more secretive, militaristic connotations. Again, darkness is presented simultaneously as a tool for both hiding and ascertaining information, it is a means of both achieving and witholding understanding.
Just within reach of the radar stands By Stealth I, another elephant torso, this time miniaturised, and standing upon a plinth. As with Clandestine, only the lower half of the animal’s body is presented, and yet the legs seem equally animated, frozen this time in mid-walk. Edenhofer’s exhibition juxtaposes the elephant and the militaristic, the half-present animal and the shadowy reconnaissance tools, as if to suggest both the gentleness and aggression inherent within both. By Stealth I appears to be the elephant in the room, as the English phrase goes, a sign of something obviously present, but never discussed or addressed. As such, the sculpture again suggests the flaws and foibles of perception, and the will to see that is a precondition of vision. As with the other works within this quiet, dark exhibition, seeing becomes a complex operation, subject to imagination, perception and will, as much as light. As such, darkness is revealed as a potentially enabling, as well as restrictive, tool of vision and understanding.
The originality of Edenhofer’s artistic approach is clear. While many artists have explored these areas of light, darkness and hiddenness, few have presented such an interest in darkness as a tool of revelation. Olafur Eliason has used artificial light to provide spectacle and to prompt social interaction; Miroslav Balka has eliminated light to explore the visceral effects of complete darkness. Others have made politicised work about national tendencies to hide and conceal information, perhaps the most notable being Taryn Simon’s use of photography and text. Edenhofer’s work offers something different: a subtle exploration of the complexities and implications of contemporary darkness.