Ann Veronica Janssens’ Fog Star at the Baltimore Museum of Art by Kerr Houston
“It’s still magic, even if you know how it’s done.” -Terry Pratchett
Ann Veronica Janssens’ Fog Star, which opened to the public last week, is a testimony to the potential appeal of a simple, interesting concept executed precisely and with restraint. In the BMA’s often-overlooked Spring House (a small, temple-like structure designed two centuries ago by Benjamin Henry Latrobe), Janssens has introduced a haze machine and mounted seven bright lights in a pattern on a wall at the far end. In a thin fog, seven beams of light thus coalesce into a star – or break down into a cacophony of swirling beams, depending on where you stand. The result at once delightful and subtle: a piece of eye candy that will please the selfie crowd, but also a coy meditation on space, light, and history.
Janssen, who was born in England in 1956 and is now based in Belgium, has worked with light for years, and has frequently spoken of her desire to prompt viewers to experience familiar surroundings in new ways. Fog Star combines these interests. From a distance, the piece is all flirtation and unresolved promise; partial glimpses of the light bulbs and the pinkish red interior seem calculated to attract attention, without revealing too much. Come closer, though, and the piece rewards you. As you approach the threshold of the spring house’s central door, the seven bulbs are suddenly all visible, and snap into a crisply distinct configuration: an ethereal heptagram, suspended in a mist.
It’s a potent, inspiring effect. The form, insubstantial and yet definite, seems to hover in the air. Radiant, it suggests something holy or numinous – an appropriate association, given the religious vocabulary of the facade of the spring house. Like an ancient Greek worshipper standing before the eastern end of the Parthenon, we see an abstract idea assume a concrete form. And when we decide to step inside the structure, this tension is maintained. From some angles, the light is merely diffuse, filling the space with an artificial glow. From other angles, however, the light reads as distinct shafts, almost columnar in their apparent solidity. Again, divine analogies come to mind: you might think of the fluid metamorphoses of Ovid’s gods, or Correggio’s painting of Jupiter and Io, in which a cloud condenses into firm, desiring flesh. In short, this is a light that hints at potential and embodiment.
Detail of Correggio
But if Janssens is reminding us, here, of the religious traditions that inform Latrobe’s building, her piece is also an extension of another, very different art historical tradition: that is, the Light and Space movement that flourished in California in the late 1960s and 1970s. Much like Doug Wheeler and Robert Irwin, Janssens effectively uses light as a sculptural medium, shaping it and exploring its physical properties. Like those artists, too, she uses light to call attention to our own presence and position. As we move through the beams of light, we interrupt their integrity, and can watch as the fog responds to our gestures, curling into lively eddies. Then, too, there’s the fact that the star only coheres when viewed on axis; perceived from an angle, the arrangement feels random and scattered. Dawna Schuld once wrote, of a piece by James Turrell (another artist associated with the Light and Space group), of “the delightful awareness that one can return to the illusion simply by repositioning one’s body vis-à-vis the sensing space.” Janssens’ work, similarly, employs luminous effects in order to foster a phenomenological inquisitiveness.
At the same time, however, she also seems intent on nudging us towards a heightened sense of our environment. As I explored the room, I eventually realized that the seven bulbs converged on a single focal point – which happened to lie in the precise middle of the space. Like Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling frescoes in Sant’ Ignazio, in Rome, which cohere when seen from a point in the nave marked by a brass disc, Janssens’ lights anticipate and privilege a certain viewing angle. And then they reward it, as well. For, as I stood in the middle of the room and look about us, I began to notice details that had previously escaped me: the asymmetry of the spring house windows, for instance, and the lively, intricate coursing of bricks on the floor. Momentarily transfixed, by Janssens’ program, in the center of the structure, I began to see Latrobe’s building in ways that were new to me.
Finally, I realized something else, too: that although I stood at the exact center of the spring house I was simultaneously occupying an off-center position in a second relevant space. Janssens has mounted, that is, the seven lights on an artificial wall that is set about three feet from the actual wall of the spring house, resulting in a temporary space that is slightly smaller than the one designed by Latrobe. Interestingly, this creates two slightly different perceptual frames, which share an axis but challenge our senses of position and stability. The resulting tension is something like the push and pull, explored by 1960s Minimalists such as Robert Morris, between perceived form and understood gestalt: our vision does not always match what we think we know. Which, you might say, is the very point. Morris once wrote, of a viewer engaging with his work, that “One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.” The same, I think, could be said of Fog Star.
One final point. Although Janssen’s work thus subtly foregrounds our place in a particular spatial environment, it also lends itself to the entirely disembodied medium of digital photography. This is work that fluidly suits the age of Instagram: it’s richly colored, visually spectacular – and ephemeral. Like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror rooms, in other words, Fog Star supports a unique experience that is predicated on presence – but can also thrive on a cell phone screen. And, indeed, the BMA seems to recognize this; just outside the spring house door is a placard that tells viewers that “non-flash photography is encouraged in this exhibition.” Not simply tolerated, but encouraged: the museum senses the viral potential of this work.
That said, it would be a shame to rely solely on pixelated reproductions of this installation. This is work that is designed to be about, in both senses of the word, one’s body. Try it out; pass through the columns of light; watch the softly swirling fog; re-see your surrounds. You will, I think, be moved.