By Robert Such. Published in Lighting Equipment News.
A mid-afternoon stroll around French artist Yann Kersalé’s garden wasn’t such a good idea. Not if I wished to appreciate the effects of his coloured lamps sheltering beneath the trees that even as we spoke were thinning and dropping leaves onto the path. Beneath an overcast sky, long thin rods sprouting bouquets of white LEDs stood in the shrubbery. They resembled outsized electric snowdrops and are destined for the grounds of the future Museum of the Early Arts in Paris. As the temperature drops, their white light will turn bluish. As the temperature rises, they will become redder. In other corners of the garden, lamps cast blue and green light palely on the underside of foliage. But there was still too much daylight to appreciate anything fully. So we headed back indoors.
Indoors is a studio in the east Parisian suburb of Vincennes where Kersalé has worked for the past 18 years, and where he torches another cigarette with his cigar lighter and rolls out a sequence of coloured crayon sketches on the floor. This is how he begins a project, with sketches. On the walls are more colourful drawings of skyscrapers. The one on the floor is of Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar, a futuristic bullet-shaped 40-storey skyscraper for the city of Barcelona. As with all his architecture-related projects, “I’m involved with the architect right from the beginning,” he says. “I’m a co-creator with the architect who enters the competition.” Architects contact him when they have some venture in mind. “I don’t participate in competitions,” he says.
Kersalé kneels, a length of ash falls from his cigarette, he flicks it away and talks about what he has in mind: a tower continuously changing appearance. He’ll achieve this, he says, by painting the building’s concrete shell in red, blue and yellow patches. An envelope of louvered glass panels will soften the effect of 120 computer-controlled light sources, which will create a subtly shimmering patchwork as light interacts with paintwork.
Movement is central to Kersalé’s work, rarely is anything static. He gestures with his hands as he describes the lighting of another of Jean Nouvel’s buildings, the opera house in Lyon. In the dead of night, with only security guards on patrol, two horizontal red bars on the glass vaulted roof signal dormancy. A full house sets the roof pulsing red neon, “breathing,” says Kersalé. “Light,” he emphasises, “gives meaning to a place only at night.”
Registering phenomena of some kind or other and using the data to create dynamic light-based artworks is a Kersalé hallmark. In the case of the Lyon Opera lighting scheme, Kersalé links the building’s internal life to its outward expression. At the Grand Palais in the mid-eighties, he gave the exhibition hall’s roof a throbbing blue-green glow for the duration of an artists’ salon. Inspired by the salon’s theme, “Time”, Kersalé had the halogen-lit roof pulse in time with data received from the Paris Observatory, home to the International Time Bureau (BIH).
He refers to himself as an artist, not a lighting designer. As for art, it opens the mind, he says, and, ”I express what I feel as a human being.” Deleuze made a big impression on the young Kersalé. He paraphrases the French philosopher. “If the philosopher creates concepts, then the artist creates ‘percepts’,” he says. The artist’s role is “to give meaning and to give feeling.”
Le Songe est de Rigueur (Dreaming is a Must) dates from 1986. The temporary installation on a rocky Brittany peninsula, Pointe de la Torche, resembled a collection of miniature lighthouses, giant molluscs even, or perhaps some sci-fi landscape. A dozen 1200 HMI lamps with rotating filters in specially built three-metre long casings shone their thin twitching beams into the night sky and across the water. Kersalé met with oceanographers and used “software which recorded wind speed, tides and currents,” he says. Changes in the captured data, meteorological and otherwise, altered the rotational speed of the filters. As the wavelength of the waves increased, for example, so the filters would rotate quicker.
The central nervous system of a building often holds the vital input that Kersalé needs to realise his kinetic artworks. “It’s as if I were in the brain of the tower,” he says. For example, the hourly changes in frequency of the ups and downs of lifts within a building could switch lamps installed on the façade between blue and red.
When asked to light a Romanesque church in Melle, western France, budget restrictions meant that such a high-tech approach was impossible. Instead, he decided to use a single lamp and a revolving diachromic mirror. The lamp was hung 30cm above the church floor, held by a single chord. “The Romanesque churches have extremely small openings,” he recalls. “In practice, hardly any daylight enters Romanesque churches.” Within this dimly lit interior, the suspended lamp could be set swinging, filling the naves and vaults with pendulous shafts of primary coloured light. “There was this perpetual aspect of time and the rocking of the vaults,” and when the light began moving, ‘there was the impression that the church was pitching like a boat, when the horizon doesn’t stop tilting,” he explains. “The idea was to produce a destabilisation, a dynamic in something static and massive like a Romanesque church. To give lightness to something that is the opposite.”
Although born in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt, Kersalé moved to Brittany with his parents early on in life. His schooling took place in Brittany and in 1978 he graduated with a diploma in the plastic arts from the Beaux Arts de Quimper. Workshops, however, wouldn’t be for Kersalé. “I didn’t want to be shut up in an atelier,” he explains, and so took to the theatre, in Lyon. Work in the music industry followed.
Kersalé is vague about how he came to do this or that. It seems that his work mostly came, indeed still comes, from contacts and references. At the beginning of the eighties, he rigged the stage lighting for Culture Club at the Palace nightclub in Paris. His contacts also led him to Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), the Romanian classical composer. During Xenakis’ performance, the composer shared the limelight with a roaming bull — bathed in blue light — in the Arène de Nîmes (the Roman amphitheatre in Nîmes).
Kersalé gained his beaux arts diploma using a methodology that he still pursues to this day: what he refers to as mise-en-abîme (‘embeddedness’, the story-within-a-story, or the picture-of-a-picture-within-a-picture). He started out photographing sand and algae on the beach. These images were then slide-projected onto nudes, which he subsequently photographed — a process that could in fact be continued indefinitely.
Nature is not always a starting point, which I was beginning to think was the case. The street can also be a point of departure, too. In Lightjack, an installation for a Tokyo gallery, multiple projections swung back and forth across a narrow humpback-shaped granite rock pasted with Japanese paper. The projections themselves were photographic fragments of neon signs that Kersalé had shot in Tokyo. The project brought together the traditional and the contemporary, elements that co-exist so closely in Japanese society. Lightjack “establishes a virtual rapport between things and time,” he explains.
More recently, Kersalé has returned to the natural world for his subject matter, packing his digital camera and venturing beyond the Arctic Circle. Relique de la Calotte is the result of that trip (calotte puns on a cap that is worn and the ice cap) to capture the special light of the northern latitudes. Back in Paris, Kersalé projected his beautifully lit arctic images of ice and water onto inflatable balloons, which hung against a black background. They recall strangely patterned green planets in the night sky.
On the walls are planets, but the anticipated night hasn’t quite arrived yet as I sit interviewing Kersalé. Through the back window, though, dusk is silvering the sky. As the late afternoon light fades a breeze sets the leaves fluttering and the LED bouquets twinkling. When night falls, says Kersalé, “we can set out again to discover everything, the world”. It’s time to take another turn around the garden.