by Jo Joelson. Lund Humphries, April 2019. 176 p. ill. ISBN 9781848222533 (h/c), $89.99.

Reviewed November 2019
Sarah Mackowski, Acquisitions Assistant, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, mackowskis@doaks.org

joelsonWhat does light, an intangible effect of energy on other materials, offer to artists as a base material for creative expression? What counts as light-based art? How do changes in technology, such as the move from incandescent bulbs to LED, or the development of virtual reality interfaces, create new opportunities or challenges?

These are some of the questions Jo Joelson, herself an artist and educator with over twenty years of experience working with light-based art, asks other artists and designers in Library of Light: Encounters with Artists and Designers. Twenty-five interviews are presented alongside complementary essays by Joelson, bringing the different practices into conversation at both practical and philosophical levels, illustrating how truly varied are the types of works that are part of the tradition that Joelson refers to as “light practices.”

The composition of the book is essentially nonlinear, the interviews acting as case studies that can be read in conversation or as separate reflections. Technological highlights include use of fire, holography and virtual reality, and appropriated CCTV footage, alongside the more traditional projected lamp and LED based works, where conversation may instead focus on deliberate use of darkness or use of public space. Joelson’s essays begin with a microcosmic sampling of different types of light art in the specific context of political art, then expand into broader discourse of the inherent difficulties of creating a message with such an abstract medium, while also considering how light, as a form of electricity, has a massive impact on communication in our world, both artistic and commercial. Spectacle and performance are also considered, with commercial and military uses of light being highlighted in contrast with artistic expression, before Joelson leaves the readers with open-ended questions regarding absence of light. This final essay is not followed by any speculation by artists, instead inviting personal reflection.

While Library of Light by no means makes any pretensions at being comprehensive, there are some notable lacunae: especially missed are use of fiber optics, and religious inspiration or message (perhaps Joelson felt this was already covered in other sources). Additional viewpoints from more artists of color and more balanced gender representation would be appreciated in future explorations of the topic.

The book is heavily illustrated, which is to be appreciated in a publication on temporary or ephemeral works. Captions are descriptive and detailed, but should be reviewed critically, as items such as artistic renderings are referred to as “photos.” A brief bibliography and index are also included.

Library of Light would be an excellent addition to any art library and is especially recommended for institutions with a focus on modern or contemporary art, or art and politics.