Changing Light

Visitor watching the effects of the changing light installation on a Japanese screen

On my first day as a Preparations Intern at the Asian Art Museum, I was assigned the task of touching up the walls and borders of the In the Moment exhibition. I went around the room with a brush and cup of paint and covered up spots and areas that were missed during the first pass of the painting process. During that moment of duty, I thought about the purpose of an exhibition presentation—to bring attention and focus to the works being displayed.

Normally, when I walk through an exhibition, my attention is focused solely on the artwork. My eyes do not wander to scuffs on the walls, dents on frames, and patches of misplaced colors, because in a presumptive sense, there should not be any scuffs, dents, or patches of misplaced colors. However, at times, these slight imperfections can diminish the effect of the exhibition as a whole. It’s much like the use of proper lighting. There are many ways that lights can distract a viewer from enjoying a piece of art. To preserve a light-sensitive piece, the lighting can be too dim to really see the piece. Or if there is a protective layer of glass covering the artwork, the glare from lights could obscure parts of the work.

In the Moment features some theatrical lighting that I believe is ingenious. Lee Gallery features a Japanese screen depicting waves and rocks in an environment of fluctuating lights to mimic the passing of time from morning to noon to dusk; we’ve called it Changing Light. It makes the viewer focus on the artwork as the lights complement and complete the work to represent the cyclical nature of a day. Interestingly, electricity is used to convey a time devoid of electricity, in attempt to emulate natural light. For as the pamphlet provided by the museum mentions, before the advent of electricity, people saw folding screens and hanging scrolls under changing natural light. Paintings, especially screens with gold leaf, look different under bright or dim lighting conditions, and artists in Japan painted with an awareness of variable lighting conditions and their effect of perception.

To provide more insight, I interviewed Evan Kierstead, Principal Preparator and Lighting Specialist at the Asian Art Museum.

Josh Lee: How did the idea for Changing Light come about?

Evan Kierstead: The idea first came up a few years ago by Melissa Rinne (Associate Curator of Japanese Art) for Tadeuchi, the second floor gallery. At one time there was supposed to be a show with the screen and she wanted to do that kind of passing in the daylight. So I kind of figured out at that time how to do it and got the cost information and all that but then it never happened. But then it happened for this exhibit. Actually, the teahouse upstairs has a similar thing. There isn’t a screen in there but there’s a window that’s supposed to be the east and there’s a window that’s supposed to be the west and there’s a light that travels across.

JL: What’s the process in setting up such a display?

EK: Well, we have to figure out how to do it. I already kind of figured it out through the original idea [in Tateuchi] and the teahouse. So basically it was finding all of the equipment and the equipment in the teahouse wasn’t quite right for what we were doing. I was dealing also with an electrician who did the wiring. He had some ideas because he does some residential stuff and he does nothing like what we’re doing. But he and I had some ideas to deal with the dimming system and timing system. So first of all then, we had to figure out how to do it and I had a program figure out how to design it. Then I had to figure out the zones, zone being each area of light and how long each zone is gonna happen. It went from being a little longer and ended up going to three minutes because the sound loop was going to be three minutes long.

JL: Were there any major difficulties along the way?

EK: The whole thing was difficult. Figuring out the technology was difficult. What exactly we were gonna use because there were different systems and it’s hard to deal with the main factors. We ended up actually rigging something, a couple of different things, together. So that took a while. We had to install it. We had to program it. We had to get a laptop and get two different programs that are doing different things. One’s controlling the time; one’s controlling the dimmer. So trying to sync it all up was the challenge.

In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection will be up until September 22, 2013.