“PHOTOsynthesis”, Inverleith House, Edinburgh, 1997

MDF, part painted white, part lacquered
Scotland on Sunday, February 16, 1997: 10/Spectrum, Visual Art.
Inverleith House
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
January-March 1997


The new medium is light itself, but the message is older than the Impressionists: Iain Gale explains

Adam Barker-Mill has filled Inverleith House with one of the most unusual and engaging shows recently seen in Scotland. Working with the most intangible of media - light, he has used merely a series of walls, lamps, dimmers and filters to create an environment which is at once poetic, ingenious and profound. This is a show about being and nothingness.

The first room is an appetiser. Two light boxes of vertical lines flank a third in which a tiny disc of light, when looked at from different directions, changes colour, from green through orange to bright, incandescent red. Walk next door and you are confronted with a “target” - two concentric circles of different colours, constantly changing: white with a red centre giving way to grey with orange, moving to grey and violet and then, with a blue centre, the outer ring turning an intense orange before becoming white. If this sounds intriguing, turn the corner. Barker-Mill has built a room-within-a-room, whose all-enveloping darkness you are now encouraged to enter - no more than three at a time. Hyperbole is often all too easy, but Photosynthesis is nothing short of a masterpiece. Go, as I did, when it’s quiet, and you will be entirely alone. Sit down. Take your time. What you will encounter is possibly unlike any work of art you have ever seen before.

The first thing you are aware of is the noise. Barker-Mill has worked closely with Canadian “sound artist” Matt Rogalsky, and the accompanying soundtrack is best compared to listening to a single chord of a Mahler symphony distended to painful extremes and interrupted by percussive bangings reminiscent of Steve Reich. Before you is what at first appears to be a large colour-field painting, possibly by Kenneth Noland or Ellsworth Kelly. In an orange rectangle hangs a long, thin, round-ended vertical of pure blue. Looking at it is a little like pausing before a Rothko. And then it begins. The colours start to change: subtly at first, and then in time with the rising crescendo of the music. What happens next is hard to describe.

Your mood of calm contemplation might transform into a feeling of rising panic. You might sense your heartbeat increasing. You might even need to leave. But, if you can manage to calm your irrational fears, you will find it worthwhile. This is a level of almost trancendental emotional intensity on which, in our neat, day-to-day existence, we do not normally operate. It is probably a level of emotion which you have not attained before a painting. Perhaps what is most unsettling, though, is that the work of art itself does not actually “exist”.

Outside its actual effect, this is less revolutionary than it might seem. The creation of believable illusion has been the chief preoccupation of artists since Cimabue famously attempted to swat a fly painted by his young pupil Giotto. But paint itself is only pigment held together with oil and manipulated in such a way that light will be reflected from it to produce the sensations of what we call “colour” and “form”. Look at it this way and Barker-Mill’s work starts to become more like “conventional” art. In fact, it is not entirely original, as was shown by a recent group exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in which he featured alongside other “light artists” including the American James Turrell, at 53 commonly perceived as the grand old man of the genre. But what distinguished Barker-Mill’s work in that show was its evident identification with a more familiar precedent.
As with the attempt to create illusion, the changing nature of light has been a constant inspiration to artists. Think of Leonardo, of Turner and, of course, the Impressionists. Frequently such artist were influence by scientific theory: Leonardo by Pecham; Turner by Goethe. Similarly, Barker-Mill expresses an interest in the theories of light and colour propounded by the 19th-century Edinburgh physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who, in 1873, in a house within sight of the Botanic Gardens, made the important discovery of the conduction of light by electromagnetic radiation. It is perhaps more significant that at the same time, in France, another theory of light and colour was emerging.

In the early 1870’s the painters Monet and Sisley, recently christened by the press “Impressionists”, began to make studies of particular subjects in the countryside at different times of the day and under different conditions of light. In Monet’s case, as he became increasingly obsessed with this notion over the next 20 years, a cathedral facade or a group of haystacks would stand in as indicators of the operation of light. In particular, in his 30 paintings of haystacks, he was able to explore the effect of morning, midday and evening light over the changing seasons. Similarly, from 1891, he began to paint poplars along the banks of the Epte; strong verticals of orange or mauve light, seen against a shimmering ground of aquamarine and violet.

With this in mind, re-enter the gloom of Photosynthesis. Notice any similarity? If this sounds a far-fetched analogy, climb the stairs to where Barker-Mill has installed on the wall five plain white boxes. Each has two vertical slots cut into the front and is divided vertically in two by an internal partition. The result is that light from two different sources - the gallery wall and the window - enters each box from a different side. Subsequently, the two spaces within each box, visible through the slots, no longer appear white, but one grey, the other blue. Stay for a few minutes, and, as the light from outside changes, notice the gradual related change in the colours within the box.

This is no artifice. Barker-Mill has merely harnessed the forces of nature. The impression is much the same that we might have were we to gaze for a while at the view beyond the gallery window. Try this at 10-minute intervals and watch how the leaves on the trees turn a deeper green, or even red; how the sunshine falling on the wet stone of the castle, shimmering above the city, turns it from grey to purple, to blue, to green. This is what Monet had in mind when he expressed his desperate desire “to paint the air in which the bridge, the house and the boat are to be found - the beauty of the air around them - and that is nothing less than impossible”. It is also what Hazlitt implied when he condemned Turner’s
explosions of light as “pictures of nothing, and very like”.

What makes this the most thought-provoking show currently on view in Edinburgh, is that, for all the apparent detachment of his technological ingenuity, Barker-Mill shares with Turner and Monet a preoccupation with the physical nature of the observed world and attempts, like those earlier artists, in imitating its everyday wonder, to divine something of the truth of our existence.

The List 7-20 Feb 1997
Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh
Until Sun 16 March.

REVIEW by Mark Cousins

The media are becoming tiresome in their portrayal of the science “boffin” as someone who’s seriously sexy, but potent stereotypes such as the stodgy physics master live on. But science can prove unusually stimulating, even if it is an intellectual minefield. Consider the physics of light. We know that light can either illuminate space, reveal form or elevate the prosaic. And artists who use light as a medium often explore the mysterious symbiosis between perception and psychology.

Photosynthesis at Inverleith House is seriously sexy, and features the work of Adam Barker-Mill, widely acknowledged as one of the most interesting exponents in this field. Anyone who has seen the Fruitmarket’s current show Northern Lights will be familiar with his sparse, abstract, light-based works.

This solo exhibition is the culmination of five years’ work and contains a diverse selection of 22 pieces, demonstrating how an astringent economy of means can heighten our understanding of the visible spectrum. He adopts a minimalist approach, using both natural and luxuriating coloured light to create something profound and often sensual.

The exhibition centres around a brooding installation. A room within a room, the dark space envelops the viewer in front of a slender aperture that ebbs and flows with colour, while an aural avalanche of electronic music fills the air. The work oscillates between the serene and the scary.

The subtleties of such a complex work cannot be absorbed by the casual viewer who drifts in for a few minutes after lunch - it demands serious attention. An amalgam of cerebral and conceptual, optical and spectral physics creates an ethereal “other” world, which at times transgresses boundaries between the real and the imagined.