The Art of Darkness

Sixteen enlightening examples of how art, science and literature have drawn inspiration from the shadows

For centuries, artists, authors and alchemists have gazed into the void and extracted new ways of seeing and thinking about our place in the universe. Second Home members super/collider invited two experts in dark matter — Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomer Marek Kukula and curator Melanie Vandenbrouck — to our Spitalfields campus to discuss the most notable visual examples of darkness in art, science and literature.


Robert Fludd — Utriusque Cosmi

Published between 1617 and 1621 by Robert Fludd, an occult philosopher, physician, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, Utriusque Cosmi observes the history of the worlds — the microcosm of the universe and the microcosm of life here on Earth. He suggested that prior to the former being created, there was a nothingness, a pre-universe. Fludd’s darkness has no bounds. He wrote “Et sic in infinitum”, which means “so to infinity”, on all four edges of a square. Fludd believed in three generative principles: darkness, light and water, from which emerged the element that constituted matter. His image of nothingness is both revolutionary and prescient.


Ursula Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness

Science-fiction can often act as a crucible to explore ideas that mainstream literary fiction can’t quite so easily. Set on a wintery planet inhabited by genetically engineered humans who have no fixed gender — they become male or female according to their own personalities and the personality of their partner. Le Guin uses this society to explore how we, in our gender-polarised society, like to polarise everything and set up these perhaps false dualities. The title of the book comes from a song from her fictional world, “Light, Of Course, is the Left Hand of Darkness and Darkness is the Right Hand of Light”.

“Le Guin uses this society to explore how we, in our gender-polarised society, like to polarise everything and set up these perhaps false dualities.”

Isaac Asimov – Nightfall

This novel is set on a world with three suns — there is no night at all, it’s permanently daylight. There’s a civilisation there, perhaps technologically equivalent to ours, and as the story begins their archaeologists are puzzled by the discovery of evidence of many, many previous civilisations, all of which seem to have destroyed themselves by fire.

At the same time their astronomers make an astounding prediction that an extremely rare event is about to occur — an eclipse of all three suns at once. Sure enough, the eclipse occurs, night falls for the first time in thousands of years, the sky goes dark, the stars come out, and their technologically advanced, civilised society, destroys itself — they set everything on fire and destroy their civilisation just as every previous one had done because they are not used to darkness — the experience of it is quite terrifying.

“The eclipse occurs, night falls for the first time in thousands of years, the sky goes dark, the stars come out, and their technologically advanced, civilised society, destroys itself — they set everything on fire”

NASA – The Earth by Night

On Earth we have only just rediscovered our connection with darkness. In the last few years, NASA has released a series of images which they call the black marble images. In contrast to the famous “blue marble” images, this is the Earth by night. You can now see human influence on our planet – the lights of all of our cities. Of course, those lights, powered largely by burning fossil fuels, are changing the composition of its atmosphere. It’s an invisible change but a very significant one. The light’s indicating a more subtle, but also perhaps a more profound change that we’re exerting on the planet. Those kind of images have made us think again about how we value the night and how we value the dark.


The International Dark-Sky Association Map

If you’re willing to go through the rigorous application procedure, you can have your site certified by the IDSA as officially dark, and there are various gradations of darkness. Surprisingly, a lot of dark sky parks are in the developed lit-up part of the world, perhaps because now, with our light-polluted skies, we value those regions of darkness. Even in light-polluted Britain there are places you can go where perhaps they’re not the darkest skies on the planet, but they are pretty dark, and the people who live and work there have agreed — by undertaking the International Dark-Sky Association’s criteria — to try and preserve that darkness. You can still experience the dark, even here in London.


NASA – The History of the Universe

This, in a sense, is our modern version of Fludd’s illustrations — this is the now iconic NASA illustration of the history of the universe. Again, just like Fludd’s conception, we still have this idea of light from the darkness — the blaze of The Big Bang. When the initial blaze of light and radiation had faded, we have what we call the dark ages — the period of a few million years between The Big Bang and the formation of the first stars – so there were no sources of light. We think that it’s in that period that the foundations for most of the structures that we see around us in the universe began to form. We’re very interested to try and see what’s going on there, but how do you see what’s going on in a period where nothing is giving out any light?


Kasimir Malevich – Black Square

To 21st century eyes certainly Fludd’s black square is startlingly modern. Fast forward three centuries and you see his whole encompassing darkness as a forerunner of [Kasimir] Malevich’s Black Square on white ground from 1915. The absence of light, the absence of colour. To Malevich, this Black Square was ‘the face of the new art supremacism, the first step of pure creation’. It asserts a superiority of abstraction of nature — a rebellion against figurative art as much as it rejected the flamboyant, gaudily vociferous colours of early 20th century Fluddism. It was really a completely ground-breaking moment in the history of art.

In 1916, Malevich declared the square to be ‘the face of the new art, the first step of pure creation’, later adding that — trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world — he took refuge in the form of the square. His Black Square on white ground was displayed as a secular equivalent to Russian icons when it was first displayed in 1915, displayed in the corner of the room, high up, as you would have in a Russian home for icons.


Paul Nash – The Void, 1924

The first of his illustrations of the book of Genesis. Replacing Fludd’s et sic in infinitum, the hazy edges evoke the infinite, the immeasurable, the unfathomable darkness of pre-creation. Interestingly, The Void was also the title of one of Nash’s First World War pictures, perhaps his most famous painting — a hellish scene of chaos, destruction and desolation. Nash had served in the First World War, and he’d suffered a severe breakdown which led him to be diagnosed what was then called war strain, and what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. In the early 1920s he spent time convalescing on the coast, reconnecting with art. During his emotional recovery he began to incorporate abstraction into his work. As opposed to The Void of destruction in his earlier painting, in The Void of creation, the black, empty square of Genesis, pre-humanity’s form from Eden, is perhaps a way that the First World War had been seen by people who had participated in it. This void has got this kind of reassuring clean slate, unspoiled feel.


Ad Reinhardt’s Black paintings 1953 — 1967

Reinhardt sought to reach what he called the absolute zero in art, which is quite similar to Malevich’s own concerns — the ultimate in abstract painting, the all-consuming purity of blackness representing the ultimate point in abstraction. Indeed, Reinhardt believed after his own paintings there wouldn’t be any more, he proclaimed the death of painting. Concerned with art alone, his paintings make no reference to anything aside from themselves. Interestingly, none of these paintings of darkness are actually black — they’re different shades at the very edge of darkness, which, together, pretend to be what they are not. Reinhardt reveals that our relationship to darkness is one of perception. Peering into his paintings is like peering into the cosmos — a universe of multitudes of colours which our eyes are not equipped to see.

“Reinhardt believed after his own paintings there wouldn’t be any more, he proclaimed the death of painting.”

Katie Paterson — The History of Darkness

This piece is called The History of Darkness, it’s an ongoing project that she began in 2010, and she envisages carrying it on indefinitely. She’s exploring the limits of our knowledge and our technology, and our ability to detect and perceive the faintest objects in the furthest reaches of the universe. She collects astronomical images that show nothing. They’re images of the dark, empty parts of the sky. It reminds us how much of the cosmos is dark, at least to our eyes or the limits of our technology.

“She collects astronomical images that show nothing. They’re images of the dark, empty parts of the sky. It reminds us how much of the cosmos is dark, at least to our eyes or the limits of our technology.”

It’s rather anodyne in its form: it’s a box of old-fashioned slides, a sort of archive of hand-written slides in boxes — the sort of thing that your grandad would’ve kept his holiday snaps in — documenting these levels of darkness in different parts of space, meticulously recording their distances from Earth.

Paterson says that she collapses distances in space and time of unfathomable magnitude and then pops them into this rather neat box. So this relentless charting of immensity, you could call it futile, yet there is this gentle thread of absurdity and humour that weeds itself across her work and allows us to contemplate in quite a subtle way the serious matter of the universe.


Pierre Soulages – Outrenoir

Going beyond black, Soulages would make darkness in its ineffable depth and beauty by building up, carving, gouging, scraping, pressing and muddling all the sculptural layers of darkness on the surface of his canvas. He proclaimed: ‘My instrument is not black, but the light reflected from the black.’ The interesting conundrum here is that black objects are those that do not reflect light in the visible spectrum.

“‘My instrument is not black, but the light reflected from the black.’”

Hubble Deep Field

It’s not just artists who are fascinated by darkness and staring out into darkness, scientists have done that too. One of the things that comes out of that is [the fact that] darkness is relative. Where we see darkness with our eyes, our most powerful telescopes may see something rather different. Back in 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most iconic, powerful instruments ever built, was told to stare at one patch of sky for 10 days. It was a blank patch of sky that had no visible stars in it. Hubble costs about £50,000 an hour to run, but after 10 days of staring and gathering the very faint glimmers of light that were coming from that distant reach of the universe, this is what Hubble saw. For obvious reasons we call it the Hubble Deep Field — it was the first of several, the exercise has been repeated now several times over the sky.

“Everything you can see in this image is not a star, it is a galaxy of stars. Each one of those blobs of light contains billions of stars, probably each one of them with its own system of planets.”

Everything you can see in this image is not a star, it is a galaxy of stars. Each one of those blobs of light contains billions of stars, probably each one of them with its own system of planets. It has revealed to us really how much stuff there is out there in the universe if you’re prepared to look hard enough.

This patch of sky, the Hubble Deep Field, covers a region of sky about the same [size] as a grain of salt held at arm’s length. So if you imagine this kind of thing multiplied over the entire sky, not just the hemisphere we see, but the other hemisphere as well, you can [work out] the number of galaxies there. That gives us an estimate of roughly 100,000 million galaxies in the observable universe, each containing several hundred million stars. So a truly overwhelming concept coming out of that stare into the abyss, looking at the darkness long enough to actually see that it is in fact full of light.


Michael Light – Full Moon

An exhibition and book, which were produced in 1999 from a selection from Nasa’s archives of 32,000 photographs produced during the Apollo missions. The filters of the Hasselblad cameras used on those missions lacked the sensitivity to translate the emotions and perception that the Apollo astronauts describe — to translate that unfathomable, unfiltered blackness of space. For this project, Light not only had to come up with a new way of processing pictures, he also had to develop a special ink, which he called lunar nero. He said it would render the astronauts’ impressions in the truest way — even blacker than the actual Hasselblad pictures were able to show. As Light puts it: “The pictures themselves show immense sharpness because they depict a world without air, without atmosphere. It means basically that the photos have intense clarity.”

“The pictures themselves show immense sharpness because they depict a world without air, without atmosphere.”

Vantablack is made up of millions of carbon nanotubes, each measuring two or three nanometers — or roughly one millionth of a millimeter.

Surrey NanoSystems – Vantablack

This is a sample of Vantablack, the blacker than black pigment, developed by Surrey NanoSystems. It is allegedly the blackest thing that has ever been created, certainly by human beings. It’s hard to convey it in a photo. It is a nanosubstance. Things have colour because they reflect light off particular wavelengths. Vantablack absorbs everything. It works on a nanoscale. If you looked at it on the level of billionths of a metre, you would see that the pigment is made of little fibres — it’s furry — and the light gets stuck between the fibres and bounces around, and is completely absorbed. So Vantablack absorbs, swallows, all of the light that falls on it, and that is why it looks so intensely black.

It’s a pigment conceptually equivalent to a black hole. But why is it important? Because when you have a telescope like [the Hubble Space Telescope], you want to capture the light and funnel it down onto your cameras and your detectors as efficiently as possible. If you were building Hubble today you’d probably want to paint it with Vantablack.

“Vantablack is a pigment conceptually equivalent to a black hole. If you were building Hubble today you’d probably want to paint it with Vantablack.”

Miroslaw Balka – How It Is

Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2009/10. Alluding to the holocaust as a Warsaw ghetto and the truck that took Jews away to death camps in Poland. Balka’s chamber of darkness taps into our instinctive fear of the dark.

In his review for The Telegraph, art critic Richard Dorment claims that this immersive installation had ‘scared the wits out of him’ as, approaching the giant hole from the rear, he grasped how ugly, brooding and frightening it is — a piece from which there is no escape. As Balka puts it, slowly, step by step, you’ll have to touch darkness. It’s more about feeling fear. An overwhelming frightening sense of desolation.

“It’s more about feeling fear. An overwhelming frightening sense of desolation.”

Andy Goldsworthy — Coppice Room

It’s a chamber full of trees — inside, you shut the door behind you and you make your way between the tree trunks in the pitch black. As you go into the room the trees get closer and closer together until you’re squeezing between them. You lose all sense of direction; you start to lose sense of time. Also, perhaps paradoxically, after a few minutes in there you can also start to feel safe and comforted being jammed between the tree trunks. You feel protected by the darkness. When the door opens and the light washes in, it’s almost a shame to come back to the world of light. It’s almost like going back into the womb.

“When the door opens and the light washes in, it’s almost a shame to come back to the world of light. It’s almost like going back into the womb.”

This talk took place at Second Home, a creative workspace and cultural venue which brings together diverse industries, disciplines and social businesses. Find out more about joining us here: secondhome.io

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