In a high school back East, the valedictorian once in Latin class discussed an ancient text through the dichotomous lens of light and darkness, good and evil. The teacher gave her a book on political correctness and opened her mind.
Mayumi Nishida’s works in Luminous depend heavily on light and darkness, but are thoughtful enough to know that 222 Shelby Street Gallery has many windows to illuminate and many walls to obscure.
The works are mostly raised boxes hung from walls, with hundreds of glass beads glued symmetrically at the foregrounds and mirrors placed at the backs. The result is a symphony of refracted light, perceived differently at a distance, up close, and from everywhere and every angle in between.
An optical illusion we choose not to question (nor have the capacity to figure out, since we are not the above-mentioned valedictorian) causes large darkened orbs or honeycombs to appear in the pieces when standing across the room. Up close, each glass bead beacons with tiny bulbs and blackouts, appearing like the entire piece in micro.
On the floor, we found a stray bead that proved the glass is translucent and not marbled as it appears en masse. The interest, therefore, comes from the interplay between the viewer and the varying light, an interaction we suspect is never the same twice or in two places. In “Refrain,” at the right angle, one’s head appears intermittently as a black target, a point of reference or something dissolved into the piece completely. Depending on the time of day, quality of light and one’s height, the effect changes—and all of those qualifiers are necessary to experience the exhibition fully.
Indeed, upon receiving, prior to the show, a high-resolution image of one of the pieces, “Unison,” our interest fell apart. The rectangular piece is made of red glass beads fitted with blue beads in a diamond pattern. In person, the piece is nuanced and articulate; the photo, on the other hand, could be of discarded car taillights from a defunct model, never to be illuminated again.
Nishida’s work encourages, allows and demands interaction of the viewer and the light, especially in the case of “Ardent Box.” The singular piece is a box constructed from the floor, as opposed to extending from the wall, to approximately thigh level. Ashes of Nishida’s old documents (and, by extension, life) fill the black box up to a sheet of glass, creating a mirror as in the rest of the works. Thousands of tiny orange beads, tantalizingly similar to flying fish roe, spread out on top. Gallerygoers are encouraged to touch these beads and move them about like the sand in a zen garden, and to a similar, meditative effect.
In “Introduction to Water,” a clay pot balances above a large metal basin filled to the brim with rainwater sourced in an off-the-grid catch system. Water from the pot pours down into the basin while a nest of LED lights on metal wires dangles above, like rain caught mid-fall. The reflection is of the dazzling stars and solar systems in a black sky—and of the viewer’s relation to the piece as she walks near, in and around it.
Roland Barthes preoccupies himself, in Camera Lucida, with how whatever is touched by light becomes the subject. Just as light is quintessential to the photography he discusses, light is at the heart of these works (which adversely don’t photograph well). “A sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed,” Barthes says.
In Nishida’s work, light also binds the subject—in this case, the viewer herself—to the viewer. The viewer is the subject, thus the works are incredibly personal, predicated on her image. Therefore Luminous is as multifaceted as the person who looks at it—and likely possesses more interest than just light and darkness.