‘Which light kills you’, the work that lends its title to Mircea Cantor’s first exhibition in Scotland, consists of a lightbox-mounted photograph of an old light bulb, its surface spotted with the tiny corpses of dead flies.
A particularly spare and economical work in comparison with some of the other photographs, films and sculptures included here, it nonetheless aptly sets the tone for the show as a whole; as is often the case in Cantor’s practice, his wit and lightness of touch open onto worldly concerns. Here, an expired source of illumination re-lit by a convention of gallery display, an ordinary object is revealed as a fatal lure. And by means of Cantor’s simple presentation, the object is also a metaphor for thought, an intimation of mortality, and perhaps also a pun on photography’s relationship to ‘aura.’
On the ceiling, ‘Ciel Variable’, (also the name of the work), is written in reverse (as if viewed in a mirror) using candle smoke. As with ‘Which light kills you’, an absent light source becomes the vehicle by which illuminating and poetic questions are raised. The juxtaposition of these two pieces bring to mind Cantor’s previous evocations of change and indeterminacy, as well as previous uses of light boxes to display photographs of statements written in condensation, such as ‘Unpredicteble Future’ [sic] and ‘The Need for Uncertainty’.
Though Cantor’s work celebrates uncertainty and unpredictability as necessary to artistic practice, it also reflects upon the forces which foster them in our everyday lives. ‘Diamond Corn’, 2005, an exquisite cast crystal sculpture, transports the quotidian and mass-produced object to the world of luxury. This piece doesn’t quite identify itself with either extreme, but consistently seeks to mediate them and reveal connections to both. Even as the beauty of the sculpture offers transcendence of that which it represents, the ‘plinth’ is made from cardboard, just like the packaging for shipping corn. Cantor can be counted among those contemporary artists who address the political poetically, and vice versa.
Particularly poetic is his film ‘Tracking Happiness’, 2009, which presents a beguiling yet ultimately insidious image of erasure. In an ethereal setting of pristine whiteness and seeming purity, a group of seven women walk in sync across fine sand, first in line and then in a tight circle. As they do so each figure brushes away the footprints of those in front of them. And as in previous work, most notably ‘Deeparture’, 2005, Cantor offers us what seems to be the fragment of a myth.
However, this work is as much a reflection of contemporary reality as an escape from it: ‘Tracking Happiness’ was apparently inspired by the immateriality of digital data, which tracks our presence in the world, but often does so without leaving a tangible trace. The film’s immersive and lulling quality is in some contrast to the quickfire wit of many of Cantor’s other works, but it shares with them an investigation of mark-making. Seen alongside other works, the film takes on a more unsettling air, inviting us to consider where we would be without the markers of our presence in the world, and how long we can hold back the thought of death from a scenario in which human traces are inexorably erased.
Indeed, it is notable how much of the artist’s work has to do with revealing traces, and this interest is visible across several registers—from the indexicality of the fingerprint to markers of national history. ‘Chaplet’, 2009, an image of barbed wire made by the artist’s inked fingerprints, suggests identity as bind or barrier, and works well installed across a grand mirror, where the work functions as a light, ephemeral gesture and also plays on artistic self-reflection.
‘Hiatus’, 2008, a large, uncanny photographic print, records the installation of a piece of carving derived from Romanian craft techniques around a tree. It’s tempting to read Cantor’s work, with its interest in identity and change, against the backdrop of recent Romanian history, but it speaks most clearly of his experience as a global, nomadic artist in the contemporary world in the same way images are (or commodities like corn). His practice bears the imprints of the world in which it is made and often points to the way social forces themselves leave traces.
Beyond its mining of the indexical, the artist’s work seems imprinted by a logic derived from photography’s uses in the world at large. In 2005 Cantor used a marker pen to pluralise a famous newspaper nameplate to ‘LeS MondeS’. Building on the suggestion of François Quintin, this gesture marks the transition from the world of the ‘print capitalism’, which underpinned the emergence of modern national identity, to what philosopher Peter Osborne terms ‘photo-capitalism’—a distinctively trans-national (and translinguistic) cultural-economic form’. Which light kills you gives a sense of Cantor’s work as operating on the logic of this uncertain terrain.
Dominic Paterson is a lecturer at Glasgow University