The installation is secured to the ceiling via 1,500 Perspex discs filled with a state-of-the-art adhesive.
How do you suspend almost 2km of swirling neon lights from a ceiling that you cannot drill holes into? That was the question faced by Tate Britain’s team of art handlers recently when they set out to install Cerith Wyn Evans’s dazzling light work Forms in Space…by Light (in Time) (2017) in the London museum’s Grade II-listed building. “The ambitious scale and intricate composition [of the installation] demanded a unique method suspend [it] from the ceiling,” says Elsa Coustou, the assistant curator of the 2017 Tate Britain Commission. The team worked with the Welsh artist’s Austrian fabricators, Neonline, to devise a system in which the work is secured to the ceiling via 1,500 Perspex discs filled with a state-of-the-art adhesive. It took three weeks to instal the piece. It is on display until 20 August.
This year’s work, Cerith Wyn Evans’s Forms in Space… by Light (in Time) is created entirely from neon tubing, a medium which – far from being novel in art, as Tate claim – has become one of the most grossly over-used in recent art, from Dan Flavin’s light sculptures to Tracey Emin’s wittering faux-handwritten pronouncements. Wyn Evans’s, however, must be among the most ambitious uses to date, involving two kilometres of white neon suspended from the ceiling in apparently random explosions of curves, loops and straight lines, stretching from the central rotunda to the far end of the galleries.
While the work is evidently three-dimensional, the impression is of walking through and beneath some vast, fizzing neon painting in space. And, while it may appear, at a glance, haphazard, the piece is organised in bursts, lulls and flurries of lines and curves that must, you suspect, have some quasi-musical structure behind them.
Born in 1958, the London-based Wyn Evans grew up in Camarthenshire with Welsh as his first language, which might help explain his preoccupation with translation, transcription and encoding – often conceived in terms of light. His 2006 work Astrophotography consisted of flashing chandeliers transmitting Morse code versions of texts by William Blake and the Marquis de Sade, while his 2003 contribution to the Venice Biennale projected an 18th-century text in Welsh over the city in a seven-mile-long beam of light, again in Morse code.
The ordered chaos in the third space is, we learn from the accompanying booklet, a transcription of a traditional Japanese Noh theatre performance, with the movements of the dancer’s body rendered in loops and curves, with what look like fragments of the British Rail logo representing stamps of the feet. If Noh’s arcane, ritualised structures make it an endurance test for western viewers, these are precisely the qualities that would make it compelling to an artist interested in language and comprehension such as Wyn Evans.
Abstract works are often described by curators as having been “choreographed”, but what we have here is an actual piece of choreography translated into a, literally, dazzling piece of aerial light sculpture. What the viewer gains from this knowledge is hard to say, beyond the fact that translating a form or an idea from one medium to another – which is one of the classic strategies of modernism, from surrealism to pop art – tends to open the viewer’s mind to new possibilities. But even without that background element, simply as a purely abstract, physical experience, this is one of the most dynamic and coherent installations seen in this space for some years.