Installation art, or cabinet theatre as I call my scenarios for it (to acknowledge a theatrical orientation inevitable for one whose early career was spent largely in writing nonrealistic plays served by stage spectacle), needs little more than an object in light – together with a narrative no matter how tenuous – to enact a drama. And no drama may be more suitable to an installation’s suggestive power and purity of image than the enactment of private myths like The Descent of Light or other installations I have proposed, such as The Balcony of the Moon, This Most Ancient Isthmus, and Cellar of a Dying Star. Their narrative, or action, is comprehended in their titles and in the visual language of objects whose syntax is light. There is meaning – we sense its presence; but it can never be entirely known or definitively stated.
A formation of ladders within a dimly lit theatrical space: two to the rear, three in front – arrayed so that the rungs of all five ladders can be seen from either vantage, although the work’s frank appropriation of stage properties may seem to favor a frontal view as if through a proscenium arch. (This framing architecture can, in fact, be erected, so long as its design is simplified to harmonize with the purity of the ladders.) The ladders are slender, obviously useless for climbing; constructed of stainless steel or polished aluminum tubing; or perhaps the base material is finished in a mirror-like coating to reflect a maximum of light. They should be as faultless in their construction as feasible – seeming, ideally, to be other than a product of humankind or its machines.
The ladders rise on a perpendicular to the stage, though ‘rise’ is contrary to the intent of the work, which is to suggest the original descent of light from a primordial radiance – enacted as in a rite or in a dream. The ladders may also be thought of as trees conducting the amber light of sap, filaments of cosmic plasma – or what other fancy the spectators’ imaginative engagement with the installation can conceive.
White lights will move in unison slowly down the ladders, from a radiance out of which they seem to descend – carrying an illumination earthward. This radiance, too intense for the eye to bear, is produced by a fixed white light projected from an unseen source onto a mirror or other reflective material installed at the top of the installation. (Or the ‘stage’s’ flies.) If the spectators are able to encircle the ladders, five white lights will also appear to descend, as one, down the ladders’ backs.
When the light has traveled down the length of the ladders, it will – after a minute’s pause – begin its descent once again. The radiance from which the light is presumed to originate remains always at the same strength. The moving light – to be clear – does not, having reached the floor, ascend. The Descent of Light is a myth of light’s origin and gift.
The action is implicit in the work’s title and in its lighting plot. But a much ampler narrative is intimated, however rarefied and, ultimately, unknowable.
Silence, as near to absolute as feasible. (If sound is desired, anything naturalistic is to be shunned.)
Music is possible, though nothing programmatic or otherwise descriptive is desirable. Nor is an evocation of melodrama or drama. Purity, transparency, solemnity, and simplicity are suitable attributes. Should there be a musical accompaniment, it must be synchronized with the action, i.e., the lighting plot.
Norman Lock’s newest book is Love Among the Particles, stories published by Bellevue Literary Press, New York City. His newest play, The Monster in Winter, has just been translated into German by Per Lauke Verlag. His newest radio drama, Mounting Panic, was recently produced in Germany by WDR. Lock won The Paris Review’s Aga Kahn Prize (1979) and fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (2009), the New Jersey Council on the Art (1999, 2013), and the National Endowment for the Arts (2011). His work has been translated into Dutch, German, Turkish, Japanese, and Spanish. He lives in the U.S.