On an ethics of light in Carmela Gross

Luisa Duarte



The interview with Carmela Gross that appears elsewhere in this publication contains the following statement about her work EARTH (2017, p. 194): “(It is) a sign that is not visible from the ground, that can only be seen from a certain height, from another place; one that is no longer the museum’s exhibition space. In proposing the neon sign EARTH that no one could immediately read, I wanted to work with the world’s un-visibility, as opposed to the idea of a world saturated with visibility by images and more images. Suddenly, you have a work that is not visible, about which one merely hears. And so each individual must imagine or think she saw; or suppose or want to see… I wanted to work on the idea of unmaking a world revealed by the image. At night when it grows dark, it is impossible to see anything but a blue aura atop the museum.”
The excerpt is brief but generous, leading us to think of a greater meaning present in the work of Carmela Gross. Her work seeks to subvert a world revealed by the image, as well as by words. A world that was never as inhabited by images as the present one and yet, simultaneously, was so unable to grasp them. This is the world that awaits us the second we open our eyes. A world permeated by cities that have become illegible, precisely insofar as they have become too visible. The vortex of visual signs transformed human perception, making it less sensitive to the power that the images might have, in being a shock to thought. The city of excess images is the same one that no longer facilitates ordinary vision, one that does not easily offer itself to the gaze. The city showed itself so much that it disappeared. Excess light reveals nothing – it blinds. We are visual illiterates in a world in which images have gained unprecedented sharpness. The conclusion at which Czech thinker Villem Flusser arrives – that we are “optically deaf” – does not lie far from the one reached by German sociologist Georg Simmel at the start of the last century. For him, “metropolitan man develops an organ protecting himself from the threatening currents and discrepancies of the urban environment.”[1] In other words, as a reaction to the visual pollution that infests large cities in the twentieth century, man developed a type of perception we might call “restrictive”.
Even as the artist’s work dialogues with issues seminal to the idea of perception in modernity,[2] it also leads us to think of authors who devote themselves to elaborating a present as multiple as it is turbulent. In 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, North American essayist and art critic Jonathan Crary writes: “A 24/7 world is a disenchanted one in its eradication of shadows and obscurity and of alternate temporalities. It is a world identical to itself, a world with the shallowest of paths, and thus in principle without specters. (…) With an infinite cafeteria of solicitation and attraction perpetually available, 24/7 disables vision through processes of homogenization, redundancy, and acceleration. Contrary to many claims, there is an ongoing diminution of mental and perceptive capabilities, rather than their expansion or modulation. Current arrangements are comparable to the glare of high-intensity illumination or of whiteout conditions, in which there is a paucity of tonal differentiation out of which one can make perceptual distinctions and orient oneself to shared temporalities.”[3]
Crary’s study emerges from the core of countless others that update the changes in perception examined by Simmel, Benjamin and Flusser throughout the twentieth century. The author compares the characteristic flash of intense light to whiteout conditions; in other words, both are situations in which we are no longer able to make out nuance, in which everything is flattened, a sort of “uninterrupted harshness of monotonous stimulation” that freezes and anesthetizes rather than adjusting or stimulating our perceptive ability. Ours is the age that acts against the gaze, even as it surrenders itself to the gaze above all else. An age that incessantly praises acceleration, wakefulness, and is the enemy of leisure, of contemplation, of sleep, of dreams, of imagination and is, therefore, disenchanted. A world with no past and therefore with no memory. A world without ghosts, therefore without fantasy, a world without alternative temporalities, and therefore enclaves by the productivist order of capital; a world that pursues us daily with a brightness that resembles harshness to the eye, in an uninterrupted dynamic of monotonous stimuli that eventually atrophy our ability to perceive. It is a precisely critical dialogue that Gross’ work seeks to establish with this world, not by turning its back on it, but by appropriating its signs as a means to establish a way of seeing that might also enable us to see its surroundings. The series of works in which we witness the use of words written with light exemplifies this critical incorporation of imagery from urban life. We have before us works that are at once paintings, installations and sculptures, but, above all, are highly politically charged poetic strategies that target the unmaking of perception which is as automatic as it is numb.
In EARTH, the artist chose to execute the work atop the marquee of a building designed by Paulo Mendes da Rocha – a place inaccessible to the gaze of any visitor. One enters and exits the museum without being able to see the roof that is essential to the architectural design. It was precisely in that area condemned to invisibility that Gross chose to carry out her intervention. From the outset, it was something of a gauche choice, for the work is and is not part of the place. Whereas, on one hand, it possesses the scale of a billboard, on the other hand it emerges as a poetic event that unfolds counter to spectacle. The work operates a kind of simultaneity in the divergence (it reveals itself and it hides itself) that only leads us to spy, to see partially, to “hear about.” The very opposite of an age marked by the regime of high visibility in which everyone and everything shows itself constantly, in excess, excluding room for doubt or curiosity.
In another work that deals with the word and light binomial, FOR SALE (2008), we are in the presence of a gesture that is skeptical from the onset. Having become merchandise, art for sale advertises itself. Yet the crooked lettering that alludes to the Hollywood sign points to a modus operandi that far exceeds the business of art works. The artist reminds us that, nowadays, everything and anything is for sale – subjectivities, ways of thinking, desiring, and dreaming. We stand before the game of the “capitalist-colonial unconscious”,[4] the one that debilitates vital forces and leads us to believe that by obtaining the material and immaterial goods that consumer society commands us to obtain we shall come out stronger and ready to follow the course whose arrow points forever forward and to more. for sale mocks the fallacy at play within this dynamic and echoes a phrase by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, according to whom “God did not die; he was transformed into money”. In speaking of for sale, the artist herself sums up: “Because it does not refer to anything, it encompasses everything – a capitalist oracle.”
In AURORA (2003), one may notice a type of use of light that is important to Gross and that differentiates the way she appropriated it in her work, which could otherwise merely extol the values signaled by Crary in his essay, to wit: those of a high-visibility regime, awake 24 hours a day, seven day a week, typical of advanced capitalism’s full functioning mode. Light and its use as dealt with in the artist’s works does not mirror a herald of the economy of services, of consumption and of entertainment.
A series of connected violet-hued pink fluorescent tubes make up the word AURORA. Because of its full extension and great number of light bulbs, AURORA tints the entire environment when uttered in space, washing it in rosy light. In a text on the work, the artist reminds us that Aurora is a woman’s name as well as a street name – the street known in S.o Paulo for its prostitutes and porn theaters, the street of business of the flesh. The tubes that make up the work also have an ordinary, mundane origin. They may be found in any sidewalk kiosk. In this choice, in the jagged, not quite linear sequence – the word does not emerge evenly because the world from whence it came is uneven – AURORA exemplifies the idea of light that is present in the artist’s output: “The city is the material that permeates and pierces my work. It is both its material and its critical reason. Why work with fluorescent light or with neon, for instance? The light of the bakery, the light of the bar, of the cheap hotel, the blue light that tinges a street corner at night. That is of interest. To notice how these red, pink, yellow lights multiplied in many ways through the cracks in the city, and are part and parcel of the city’s most degraded living conditions. It is nearly always that which is most fragile that is associated with it. Very often it is the dangerous or the perverse… This is why colored lights captivate, as a synthesis of the multiplicity of human experience. Far away from design-light, from the chic lighting of hotel lobbies, from the fashion-light of windows, you see? These are very different parameters of light. This neon, this tubular fluorescent light, it comes from very simple, occasionally precarious, degraded environments. That’s what I’m talking about, that’s what interests me about light.”
Clearly, the light of which we speak is not that of Dan Flavin’s minimalism, nor are the words ones appropriated by Pop Art. Whereas her work occasionally echoes both movements, it does so only on a threshold of the former, being more involved with the world it inhabits and, therefore, more political; and with regard to the latter, it is simultaneously less cynical and more critical and poetic.
EARTH, FOR SALE, AURORA are all words/images that have been diverted from their purposes. Language as instrument, as something to be used in the construction of a speech whose port of arrival is more important than the crossing, is the opposite of what we witness in the artist’s work. Nevertheless, this absence of purpose must not be mistaken for alienation from its surroundings. We stand before words/images that might almost be mistaken for the ordinary landscapes of the city, yet clearly differ from them. Each work emerges as “a constructed object like others, apparently the same as others – or nearly so. But that, at some point, for some reason, incarnated a meaning. It became a body.”[5] The artist incorporates a visuality of what is familiar to us, only to trigger an immediate sense of strangeness. The scale is that of advertising, the crooked letters recall the Hollywood sign, but nothing allows it to be mistaken for them. Her AURORA is that of the city’s cracks, like the street in the S.o Paulo city center that bears that name; her FOR SALE exposes the perverse logic of capital, rather than cynically pledging itself to it; the huge letters of her earth remind us how blinded we are by an excess of images, asserting an un-visibility, as opposed to a world saturated with visibility.
Thus, Carmela directs us to an ethics of light in times of 24/7. We are not in the presence of the characteristic sheen of great financial conglomerates, of luxury hotels, of luxury stores, of entertainment or supermarkets, but rather of a luminous radiation that still allows us to see, that calls forth the lights of the city outskirts rather than that of its central spaces. In an age marked by excessive visual stimuli, by fragmented words sent by cell phone, and by the paradigm of spectacle, the words/images of Carmela Gross remind us of our visual atrophy, only to restore our sight in the same instant. Thus, they function as oracles for and antidotes to the 24/7 world.


[1] Simmel, Georg. “A metrópole e a vida mental”. In: O fenômeno urbano. Rio de Janeiro: Guanabara, 1987, p. 12-13.
[2] We understand modernity to mean that which Walter Benjamin designates as the transition from the concept of “experience” (Erfahrung) to that of “lived experience” (Erlebnis). Benjamin’s reading of Sigmund Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” was essential to his elaboration of these two concepts. Benjamin introduces his theory of memory in “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939), which principally references three authors: Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson and Marcel Proust. Benjamin resorts to the Freudian text in search of a more concrete definition of what appears to be a sub-product of Bergsonian theory within the Proustian concept of the memory of intelligence. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud establishes a correlation between memory and the conscious. In light of this, he hypothesizes that “consciousness arises in the place of the memory-trace (…) (and) would thus be characterized by the peculiarity that the excitation process does not leave in it, as it does in all other psychic systems, a permanent alteration of its elements, but is, as it were, discharged in the phenomenon of becoming conscious and vanishes.” (FREUD, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” The International Psycho-Analytical Library n.4. Authorized translation from the second German edition by C.J.M. Hubback. The International Psycho-Analytical Press London and Vienna, 1922). The conclusion of this hypothesis lies in the fact that the awareness and permanence of a mnemonic trace are incompatible among themselves within a single system. According to Freud, the function of accumulating memory in stimulus processes would be the work of “systems other” than the conscious. Thus, the function of the consciousness, not being that of recording mnemonic traces, would be precisely that of functioning as protection against stimuli. The threat of such stimuli makes itself felt through shocks. The more consciousness is permanently alert to these shocks, the less a traumatic effect may be expected of them. The more conscious man is, the less spontaneous memory he will have. As Baudelaire tells us, experience (Erfahrung) is less made up of isolated data rigorously fixed in memory than of accumulated and frequently unconscious data that flows through memory, this being linked to mnemonic traces. Its atrophy in modernity owes itself to a state of alert to the perception of multiple possibilities for shock that exist in large cities. In the modern world, man is increasingly bombarded by external stimuli that are transformed into shocks. It is this intermittent perception of the shock that confronts the city dweller that, incorporated into the inventory of conscious memory, is transformed into lived experience (Erlebnis). Rather, a lived experience would be exactly this meeting of shock and conscious memory – the use of which is to protect the big city dweller from traumatic effects. Thus, Benjamin is attempting to understand the psychic functioning in modernity’s typical living conditions. For the intense stimuli of modern life, as opposed to the appeasement of the pre-modern world, bequeathed to this city man a new way of understanding the world. In it, experience (Erfahrung) is understood as being correlative to the idea of tradition, and tradition as that which is transmitted almost unconsciously from generation to generation. In this manner, the content of this transmission is valid over time. This validity is exactly guaranteed by this continuity in time that is typical of the pre-modern age. Another mark of this time of experience is the interweaving of individual memory and collective memory. In turn, lived experience (Erlebnis) is precisely the typical experience of modernity, orphaned from tradition. For men of lived experience, it is no longer possible to do anything but repeat what others have done and be certain that this will set them on a good path. These men can no longer count on example. They are solitary men, deprived of collective links. For modern man, experience, that is, the link between past and present, must be built, for it is no longer spontaneously offered to him.[3] Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London and New York: Verso, 2013, p. 19, 33-34.
[4] Rolnik, Suely. See A hora da micropolítica. S.o Paulo: N-1 edições, 2016.
[5] Mammi, Lorenzo. “Desenhar, encarnar e organizar”. In: GROSS, Carmela. Carne. São Paulo: Centro Universitário Maria Antonia, 2006.


Published in:
FREITAS, Douglas de (org.). Carmela Gross. Rio de Janeiro : Cobogó, 2017.

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