In this assignment, we are considering light and dark and their associated dichotomies. In conjunction with our light project, we have two excellent readings, “A Negress Speaks out: The Art of Kara Walker” by Annette Dixon and William Kendridge’s “Black Box: Between the Lens and the Eyepiece.”
Kara Walker’s “Negress” installation series uses the old craft of silhouetting to describe power dynamics of race and slavery in The South, pre-Civil War. The seductive Negress is both powerful and powerless in relation to her white master. (In looking for the male equivalent of the word “mistress,” I realized that there isn’t one. The words “lover,” “paramour,” and “gigolo” fail to match the connotation of “mistress.” How interesting.) Walker also uses the swan to reference the classic story of Leda and the Swan, where Zeus assumes the form of a swan to seduce Leda, the wife of the King of Sparta. She bore two of Zeus’ children. Plantation owners often impregnated slaves to create more slaves, and a “black swan event” is one in which the unexpected has big consequences. Power is often like that – hidden, creating change where and when it is not expected.
William Kendridge’s take on light and dark moves from considering it literally to considering it metaphorically, as with Plato’s analogy of the cave as it relates to the concept of “forced” enlightenment, “enlightened” despots, and colonization. Personally, these days I have been thinking a lot about the human assignment of meaning to things and events and how we use that to justify events or our actions. I have been thinking about the platitudes people offer to those who hard things have happened to. “It was God’s will,” “it was/wasn’t meant to be,” and “it was their time” are platitudes that are actually intended to make the speaker feel safer from tragic events. It generally does not soothe the recipient. At least not me. It reminds me of the concept of Manifest Destiny, where Europeans’ crimes against indigenous peoples were justified by the concept that because God allowed it to happen, that it was supposed to be that way. I can’t buy that, big scale or small.
This assignment also reminds me of a line in the new Star Wars series of movies that I saw in January. Early in the movie, it is explained that both the light and the dark are required to maintain balance in the Universe. In a more yin/yang way, I agree that expansion and contraction balance each other – for every in-breath, there is an out-breath. All that arises shall pass. I know that there are alternate versions of Star Wars where the Dark prevails over the Light. The statement that dark and light keep each other in balance feels to me more like justification of bad behavior. I don’t believe that peace requires violence or that joy requires suffering. I just don’t.
Visually, though, areas of light and dark help to define each other to our eye. We rely on contrast (or lack thereof) to perceive forms to which we assign meaning. This is how most of us navigate the world. Kendridge also said that we can’t help but suspend disbelief when an image registers to our brain as representing a particular thing. We can’t not see it.
Light and dark is a fascinating topic. We can look at it literally or figuratively. It is easy for me to get lost in color, but simple light and dark is really powerful.