Lux Vivens: Entoptic Phenomena, Preternatural Light and Phenomenological Unity as Experienced Through Dan Flavin’s Untitled Barrier Piece at DIA:Beacon

by Ben Rose

Winter 2012

For decades, scholars have described minimalist art as an exploration in phenomenology that is essentially devoid of higher “spiritual” meaning. A major artist of the movement himself, Robert Morris, described the style as an exercise in establishing “relationships” between the viewer and the piece, as one “apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.” Drawing from French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Rosalind Krauss further argued that minimalism had shifted the focus of art from “idealist” meaning to the body and its basic sensory experiences. Yet why must the two be mutually exclusive? Can sensory experience in and of itself be endowed with spiritual, “idealist” meaning? One major omission in the canonical interpretation of minimalism (and in phenomenology generally) is one of the most literal and omnipresent indicators of one’s relationship to surrounding forms in space: entoptic phenomena. For thousands of years and across myriad cultures, entoptic imagery—essentially everything we see that is not “normal” vision, including afterimages, floaters and migraine auras—has been endowed with profound spiritual and creative significance. Researchers have even argued that entoptic phenomena are literally the subjects of the very first known instances of art—drawings found on cave walls in France. Amidst a culture obsessed with psychedelics and op art, it is rather remarkable that few have ever discussed minimalism’s relationship to entoptic imagery and its role in “idealist” meaning, establishing and exploring relationships with art, and the very nature of perception and being. Citing light artist and noted minimalist Dan Flavin’s 1970 barrier (a replica of his piece that resides in Donald Judd’s bedroom) installed at DIA:Beacon in Beacon, New York, we discuss the implications of the entoptic phenomena it evokes.

The visual phenomena most pertinent to this discussion are afterimages, phosphenes and floating “visual noise,” and each possesses its own unique sources and characteristics. Afterimages are the colored forms that remain in our eyes following light-based stimulation of the retina. This phenomenon is caused by overstimulation of the eye’s photoreceptors. In the visual system, each color has its own “opponent,” or opposite, color. As we are exposed for a prolonged period to, say, a red line, our brain begins sending green signals to counteract the effect. Our eye often adjusts by twitching to expose different sets of cells, but afterimages are created instantly and can grow in intensity commensurate with the length of a stare. Phosphenes are similar in appearance to afterimages, but are usually caused by mechanical and electrical stimulation of the retina, such as when we rub our eyes. Some phosphenes are linked to various physiological and mental disturbances, including schizophrenia and the onset of migraine headaches, but some occur with no explainable provocation, leading many cultures and individuals to believe them to be of preternatural origin. The final visual phenomenon—visual noise—is comprised of floating lines and circles that are in reality the textures and cells of the vitreous jelly within our eyeballs as perceived by our retina—the jelly being essentially a filter through which we see.

All three visual phenomena are visible at every moment, although they are perhaps most noticeable when we close our eyes. It is impossible to see anything independently of the lens of entoptic phenomena; it is an inescapable presence and an inherent physiological fact of our bodies. They are the tinted glass through which our eyes look outward and inward at once, for they are constantly presenting us with the workings of our eye and, in the case of visual noise, what the interior of our eyeball actually looks like. The eye confronts us with its own workings at every moment, constantly striving to make us aware of its presence and its being as a living, working organ.

Afterimages necessarily play a crucial role in the viewing of an intensely colored light art such as Flavin’s; even a glance at a mere photograph of a Flavin piece can produce rather vivid afterimages. These play a particularly important role when encountering a large Flavin piece such as the Dia:Beacon barrier. It stands eight feet tall with its modules subtly staggered along the wall for a distance of over sixty feet. Each module is an 8’ x 8’ square, although Flavin’s staggering technique creates a vertical bisection of each, creating a formal perceptual play and the subsequent illusion of a greater fragmentation within the work. Even the reoccurence of the modules can be difficult to notice without approaching the piece from the proper angle. Only upon close examination do the individual modules and their composition become apparent. There is a constant interchange between whole and part, creating a sense of perceptual confusion, as mediated by the standard minimalist method of formal repetition. The precise boundaries of the work appear obvious at first, yet its underlying formal structure is somewhat different from the initial perception, engendering confusion over the binary of form and appearance—one of several binaries destabilized by Flavin. In nearly all of his works, and certainly in his DIA:Beacon barrier, Flavin aggressively raises the question: Where does this work begin and where does it end? Although the light cast onto nearby surfaces is not an object, it certainly cannot be separated from the artwork itself and the viewer’s experience of that work. Thus, the ethereal presence of light is granted equal, if not greater, status than the tubes themselves.

Yet the most crucial binary Flavin deconstructs is that of the viewer and the work of art, and this is mediated through the eye and its processes, if one is only willing to acknowledge the phenomena produced by one’s eye. Even a quick glance at the piece results in a noticeably intense afterimage of the red lights; every time we move our body or even our eyes, a new afterimage is created, layering itself over those created in the moments prior. Even if we stand still and stare, our eyes begin twitching slightly in order to keep their photoreceptors fresh. The longer we look at Flavin’s piece, the more involved our eyes become, the imperceptibly infinite number of layers of optical effects increasing with every passing moment. With Flavin’s barrier, the experience of viewing the piece changes with time, as each impression brings a deepening of the lights’ imprint in our photoreceptors.

When viewed from its “beginning,” the barrier’s interaction with our eyes becomes most noticeable and significant. If we stand from this point and look toward the end of the staggered row of red lights, the illusion of a continuous bar of red lights can be perceived, even without afterimages. If one moves one’s head slightly to the right, the continuity between them nonetheless remains for several seconds thanks to the layers of afterimages. Despite the fact that the mind knows the lights are four feet apart, as the head moves back and forth to create a kind of accordion effect, the continuity between the lights remains in our own perception. The longer we view the piece from this perspective, the more intense the continuity effect becomes, as the piece becomes one unstably grand, unified field of form. After even three minutes, the ongoing exposure to the light creates such vivid afterimages that the difficulty distinguishing between illusion and reality becomes disorienting and even dizzying, engaging the viewer’s body even further and making it nearly impossible to perceive the barrier independently of the layers of afterimages. The piece itself becomes buried beneath the process of vision, giving the eye its light as the eye equivocally gives the light its own distorted reflection, engaging in an endless exchange of color and form, external and internal, passive reception and active perceptual creation. Flavin’s barrier, and his work in general, aggressively forces us to acknowledge the functions of our eyes and the effect they have on our visual field.

As in Morris’s text, at each moment the viewer is establishing new “relationships” with the work, at each moment and from different angles taking the importance of spatial and light conditions to an entirely new level. When reading Merleau-Ponty, it is shocking that his explanations of the body’s encounter with objects in space are not, in fact, descriptions of the process of creating and perceiving afterimages, and a call for increased attention to that process. He states:

“Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system…The thing, and the world, are given to me along with the parts of my body, not by any ‘natural geometry,’ but in a living connection comparable, or rather identical, with that existing between the parts of my body itself.

Here Merleau-Ponty describes poetically what could easily be the constant interplay between the eye and its afterimages and Flavin’s barrier piece, and indeed between the eye and the world at large. In encountering Flavin’s barrier, we enter into an endless interchange in which the lights are, at every moment, burning themselves anew into our photoreceptors as our eye, in turn, reacts by actively producing afterimages that drape themselves over the piece and the visual field with equal rapidity, engendering an endless circle of inscription with the viewer’s eye (whose view is of course affected by the positioning of the body, as in Merleau-Ponty) and the barrier each producing images of tremendous power. The two merge into one, and if the viewer truly engages with the body through the eye, and acknowledges its presence through afterimages, the result is an inseparable unity that is at every moment changing, a “living connection” mediated by the organism that is our body and its organ that is the eye. Just as the distinct red tubes of the barrier appear as one from the viewpoint of the barrier’s beginning, the viewer enters into a unified system of interconnection with the artwork, as the binary between viewer and work of art—or the entire outside world—is essentially deconstructed in a process of imperceptible, manic rapidity.

But what is the meaning of this resultant unity? If we fix our gaze on one particular spot on any of the red lights on the barrier, we can literally perceive an additional manifestation of our photoreceptors’ fatigue. After a few seconds, or a few subtle twitches of the resilient eye, the color of the tube as we perceive it begins to change, becoming alternately darker and lighter in waves of varying gradation. The cycle continues as a green glow begins to emanate from the space immediately surrounding the form of the red tube, creating a luminous outline. As the waves of changing tone commence and begin to mesmerize, something remarkable occurs: phosphenes begin to appear. Despite the lack of any mechanical or known electrical stimulation of the retina, phosphenes begin to manifest, adding to the already powerful layers of afterimages and the morphing tone of the red tubes. Additionally, near-hallucinatory colors of unpredictable forms begin to move across the field of vision, unbound as afterimages are by the necessary condition of reaction to perceived form, though somehow created in reaction to the barrier. Prompted by the encounter with the Flavin, the eye can begin to produce colorful forms of its own invention, taking the creative helm and becoming its own artist, marking the canvas that is the field of vision with its own retinal paint.

This results in a heightened perceptual unity between the separate tubes, as well as a new level of color-morphing within the perception of the tubes themselves. With both, there is a tremendous feeling, with the draped layers of morphing and flowing colors, that what we see is alive. Adding to this further is the visual noise, the sight of the cells and textures of the vitreous jelly. The additional layer of visual noise gives the visual field moving texture, the lines and circles endowing the colors with depth and additional vividness, rendering it more real. As all of these layers unite, the result is the symbiosis of the eye, the body and the barrier, fitting perfectly Merleau-Ponty’s description of “a living connection comparable, or rather identical, with that existing between the parts of my body itself.”

Yet this experience goes beyond “a living connection,” beyond the simple Romantic wonderment of perception. This spectacular visual display closely resembles one of life’s rarest possible experiences, one which can only come from within: the encounter with what Aldous Huxley called preternatural light. Seen only in rare spiritual visions, the phenomenon of preternatural light is a spectacular and irreplaceable one. So what does preternatural light look like, and where does it come from? While it is impossible to describe with complete faithfulness and place it within the context of visionary experience, Huxley does an admirable job in his essay on mescaline, The Doors of Perception. Of spiritual visionary experiences, he writes: “First and most important is the experience of light. Everything seen by those who visit the mind’s antipodes is brilliantly illuminated and seems to shine from within.”

Huxley’s description of the self-luminosity and brilliant quality of preternatural light can describe the perceptual experience of Flavin’s barrier. Do Flavin’s tubes not already shine from within? Does the drapery of visual phenomena, of afterimages, phosphenes and visual noise not constitute a brilliant, shining light from within the eye? And if we follow Huxley’s line of thought, the experience of Flavin’s barrier resembles one experienced by the mind’s antipodes, the mind’s own inner eye. In traditional cultural contexts, the witnessing of preternatural light is inextricable from spiritual experience, sourced in what Huxley would call “the mind’s eye.” Preternatural light appears as a conglomeration of various smooth, lush and incredibly brilliant colors that move, shift, morph and flow into one another with an infinite fluidity, giving the inescapable impression that the colors are at once separate and unified, and that the light is, itself, a living being. It can appear as amorphous masses resembling phosphenes or as coated over and bursting forth from rigidly formal geometric constructions resembling Flavin’s piece as seen through the layers of visual phenomena described. As Huxley suggests, each form is indeed self-luminous, and the entirety of any experience with preternatural light is wrought with a powerful sense of oneness, of unity with what is seen. And while seeing this light is somewhat like watching a movie over which you have no control, and is undoubtedly from a source beyond our own conscious selves, there is paradoxically an inescapable sensation that you are producing it yourself, and that it is borne of your own being, from within, thus engendering and deconstructing another binary between viewer and the viewed. Such is the experience of Flavin’s barrier, where the same binary is broken down and unified through a similar perceptual process. The movement of the eye’s drapery over the visual field and its incredible brilliance, texture and movement gives the impression that the barrier’s red tubes are a living entity, much like the preternatural light.

Simply put, the experience of Flavin’s barrier can rightfully be considered tantamount to what many cultures would call a spiritual experience. Huxley argues: “Whatever, in nature or in a work of art, resembles one of those intensely significant, inwardly glowing objects encountered at the mind’s antipodes, is capable of inducing, if only in a partial and attenuated form, the visionary experience.” Flavin’s barrier—and his light works in general—matches Huxley’s description precisely. But note the emphasis on the word vision; despite the references to the spiritual, the experience of Flavin’s barrier has been described only in terms of what is seen by the naked eye, what we perceive. As many have argued, minimalist work such as Flavin’s is about perception, yet they never go so far as to assert what this perception can mean to the viewer. The sight of preternatural light is in itself spiritual, regardless of any accompanying experiences. It is so significant precisely because it is a phenomenon where the act of seeing, of perceiving, is in and of itself spiritual and divine. The perception of Flavin’s barrier is one loaded with wonder, which already resembles a perceptual experience so closely defined by its spirituality. The viewer becomes a kind of living record of the piece, the barrier’s impressions remaining in the field of vision for up to several minutes, even when the eye is closed. While one may choose to ignore afterimages, phosphenes and visual noise, their presence is undeniable and a scientific fact of our bodies; to see without considering them, while most common, is, in fact, to see conceptually. While generally easy to ignore, viewing Flavin’s barrier makes it nearly impossible to avoid observing the eye, its deceptively passive, taciturn façade coercing the viewer to become one with it, to create a symbiotic union in which the act of perception is given complete primacy and becomes a spiritual experience in and of itself.