Let There Be Light


Dan Flavin, monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death), 1966, photo via diaart.org

The presence of Dan Flavin’s light sculptures are difficult to describe; words—and even photographs— do a poor job of capturing the all-consuming effect of his work. The electric light given off by Flavin’s trademark fluorescent tubes dominates the space they occupy, spilling out over everything until the space itself becomes a part of the installation. His Monument 4 those who have been killed in an ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death)(1966) is a shining example of his work, one which eludes instantaneous understanding but, when the elements that comprise the work are approached one by one, opens up and divulges meaning.

Monument 4 those who have been killed in an ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death) is a sculpture that consists of four fluorescent tubes. When installed, the sculpture sits floating, in the corner of a small room. Two of the lights run along adjacent walls, parallel to the floor, till they meet in the corner. A third light intersects these two, forming an isosceles triangle. The fourth light, also originating from that same meeting point in the corner, bisects this triangle. Jutting out beyond the boundaries of the triangle, this fourth light leaps towards the audience. However the arrangement of the fluorescent tubes makes up only part of the final sculpture, for the lights are just that, lights. When supplied with electricity, the lights blaze brightly, emanating a powerful red glow. The lights, the only source of illumination in the gallery, permeate the space with this glow. It’s the totality of these elements that forms what we know as Monument 4 those who have been killed in an ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death). As art critic Hal Foster elucidates, “Essential to our experience of a Flavin fluorescent is the relay of our attention between fixture, gas, luminous tube, extended glow of color, and spatial diffusion of light” (160). This relay of attention between the different stimuli is at the heart of Flavin’s art, influencing our reading. Only when we sense every aspect of Flavin’s sculpture simultaneously are we truly confronted by Monument 4 those who have been killed in an ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death), for the whole is other than the sum of its parts.

In spite of this gestalt proclamation, I believe that the deconstruction of the whole into its parts, and the examination of each component, must occur before we can wholly understand Flavin’s take on minimalism. The misunderstood teenager of modern art, Minimalism was a movement in the art world that began in the 1960s, considered a reactionary break from Abstract Expressionism. Like any teenager, minimalists rebelled against their forefathers. They sought to exclude the pictorial, illusionistic and fictive in favor of the literal. Through its simplicity and gestural ambiguity, Minimalism carried on the legacy of the Cubist movement of the early twentieth century. Minimalism extended the geometrical abstraction of Cubism and subverted artistic tradition by abandoning representational subject matter entirely. This characteristic deconstruction is extremely evident in Monument 4 those who have been killed in an ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death). Devoid of representation, the work seems to me to contain within it nothing but messages and themes.

This absolutism is simultaneously daunting and liberating. I approached the work expecting meaning to jump out at me, shove itself down my throat, and forcibly making itself clear. But, in a turn of events that caused much vexation, I found that upon engaging with the work I was finding nothing of substance. I knew there was meaning contained in the work, but the message seemed to pass me by, leaving me even more confused than before. Defeated, I turned to the one avenue left open to me, the title. Monument 4 those who have been killed in an ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death). At first glance it seems to be verbose gibberish, a nonsensical expression of Flavin’s hubris. However, the beauty of the title is, as Joachim Pissarro points out, “The title was forthright in its literalness. And then again, it was not. It remained elliptical in that it addressed every fact about the piece but one: its medium. That the work was made out of light—or, more accurately, out of a neon tube that projected cool, quivering, fluorescent light—was not mentioned” (85). By not addressing the medium, Flavin is fully engaging directly with the abstract ideas contained within the sculpture. Once I grasped this, I felt liberated from my previous attempts to comprehend the neon by itself. Instead, I was provided an entry point into the world beyond the concrete, the world of messages and meanings.

The title poses this work as a monument to fallen soldiers, killed in a dishonorable fashion. Upon reading the title I imagined what it would be like to be ambushed and killed. I was, like Flavin himself, reminded of death. My immediate reactions to my ambush ‘fantasies’ were, perhaps unsurprisingly, feelings of loss, anger, even regret. With these thoughts in mind, thoughts that originated from Flavin’s title, I turned back to the sculpture itself. Through these new lenses, I found aspects of the neon creation that finally connected to me. Flavin’s title empowers viewers who have exhausted their initial encounters with his work by adding another dimension. The dimension of written language, separate from the sculpture’s aesthetic modes of communication, gives a new foothold to those viewers who, stymied in their original forays into the work, were on the verge of abandoning it. As one such viewer, not only did the title re-engage me with the artwork, but it did so in a manner that prompted a closer and more vigorous examination of the work than the examination that occurred before the title was included in my analysis.

Exploring the sculpture, searching for something that resonated with the title, the first of Foster’s elements that I connected with was the omnipresent “extended glow of color, and spatial diffusion of light” (160). The color of the light, that saturated red, in particular called to me. Thoughts of death and ambush fresh in my mind, the hue of the light, deep vibrant red, and the way it spills out from the fixtures, covering every surface in the space, it all screamed blood. The beautiful red glow was transformed into something sinister, a fallen soldier’s lifeblood. The blood that once filled the soldier’s body was transported and transformed, now filling the space of the room. However, the longer I entertained the thought of color as a metaphor, the more my mind began to make connections with other meanings society has imbued the color red with. While it’s a color closely connected with blood and violence, I also associate it strongly with love. With this revelation a metamorphosis began to occur in my reading. The light’s affiliation with blood remained, but now it was augmented by red’s connection with love. Filling the entire room, the red light colors everything and, more importantly, everyone within the room red. I read this simultaneously as a plea for me to love those looking at the art while concurrently associating them with the blood of the fallen soldiers. This speaks to the violence of the soldiers’ deaths and the love that is felt for them, all while implicating the viewer as having some responsibility. Flavin’s title ushers the viewer into considering the light in one way, but with prolonged analysis the glow gains additional meanings, even involving the viewer in the artwork.

After engaging with the quality of light filling the room, I found the next logical step to be to follow that ever-present glow to its source; to interrogate the light’s origin, that “fixture, gas, [and] luminous tube” (160) that Foster speaks of. If the glow of the lights imparts so much meaning, then the lights themselves are the origins of that meaning. Indeed, they hold within them an even deeper luminescence. They’re horizontal bottomless oceans of color. I struggled with the lights themselves, a fact that Flavin himself acknowledged was an issue, for he knew that “the ‘brilliance’ of the light can ‘somewhat betray its physical presence in approximate invisibility’” (Flavin qtd. in Foster, 161). This “approximate invisibility” makes finding meaning difficult. I discovered myself straying away from the sculpture itself and thinking more about fluorescent lights within their larger context. They have a ubiquity in our lives, lighting everything from our classrooms and office buildings to subway stations and restaurants. Flavin’s transformation of such an everyday object into art brings the outside world into the space of the sculpture, but it also places the sculpture in a context that’s much larger than the confined space of the installation. The art becomes everyday and our everyday becomes art. Those feelings of sorrow, guilt, and love all gain new dimensions, but it’s guilt that has the greatest metamorphosis. Our guilt, the responsibility of the viewers for the death of the soldiers, doesn’t exist just within the installation space. The ambushed soldiers fought for the everyday life of the audience, and so the guilt resides there as well, perhaps even more strongly than within the space occupied by Flavin’s sculpture.

The realities conjured up by the idea of the fluorescent lights belie the effect of the material lights have on the sculpture’s audience. Although Flavin may have been worried about the betrayal of the light’s “physical presence,” he also knew that “the physical fluorescent light tube has never dissolved or disappeared by entering the physical field of its own light.” (Flavin qtd. in Foster, 161). The tubes are there to be acknowledged, to confront, for their placement is very deliberate. It is perhaps ironic that I abandoned dealing with the physicality of the sculpture in favor of the sculpture’s title, considering the sculpture’s physicality last, only after re-engaging, given that I find the layout of the lights has the most to do with a literal interpretation of the title. The fluorescent tubes that run along the walls reach out to the viewer and, like the outstretched arms before a hug, beckon the viewer toward the corner in a welcoming fashion. Approaching the corner, you run into the hypotenuse of the triangle. This barrier prompts hesitation, existing almost as a warning. The warning is about that fourth fluorescent tube, the proverbial ambush of the sculpture. The furthest light from the viewer, height wise, it leaps out at you, echoing the barrel of a gun or other weapon descending directly at your head. This, extremely abstracted, recreation of an ambush creates the very experience it memorializes. This gives the audience a personal history with ambush, heightening the performative affect of the work.

All of these elements come together to create a work of art that places violence and war in a negative light. To me, this seems to be directed towards the war in Vietnam, which was in full swing at the time Flavin created this piece. However, Flavin avoids dealing directly with the conflict through his title, posing the work as a monument to all soldiers who had died in an ambush, not just the ones in Vietnam. By doing so, Flavin leaves this interpretation up to the viewer. By giving the viewer this independence, every interaction with the art will be uncolored by the political context within which the work was created. The universality of the art is not diminished, for it remains effective to me, someone with no personal connection to the Vietnam War.

The multi-faceted nature of this artwork allows for a broad range of possible interactions and connections. Coming from the place I do, I searched for an experience centered on humanity and empathy within the neon, and succeeded in having one. However, the experience I had with the sculpture isn’t ‘the right’ experience, nor is there one ‘right’ experience. Someone better versed than myself in art history could have a wholly different experience than me with this installation, one centered around the Flavin’s reductive approach to art or the piece’s transformative qualities. All of these readings are equally correct. It’s this comprehensiveness that makes this an effective piece of art, for it contains the possibility to engage nearly any viewer. However, the true brilliance of the work is how every element of the sculpture contributes equally to its meaning, regardless of the approach a viewer might have. The light of Dan Flavin’s Monument 4 those who have been killed in an ambush (to P.K. who reminded me about death) envelops and engages its audience, and the following examination of the work’s individual elements elucidates meaning within the artwork.

Works Cited

Pissarro, Joachim. “Dan Flavin’s Epiphany.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 1997, 84-87.

Ho, Christopher K.. “Dan Flavin’s Corner Square: Before and After the Mast”. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 26.3 (2004): 35–44.

Foster, Hal. 2005. SIX PARAGRAPHS ON DAN FLAVIN. Artforum international. (Feb 2005): 160-161,206.

Cassidy, Victor M. “No Trespassing: The Art of Dan Flavin.” Artnet® Magazine – Reviews – No Trespassing: The Art of Dan Flavin by Victor M. Cassidy. Artnet Worldwide Corporation, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

Monument 4 Those Who Have Been Killed in an Ambush (to P.K. Who Reminded Me about Death). 1966. Artnet Magazine. http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/cassidy/cassidy8-4-05_detail.asp?picnum=8. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.