THE TIMES, WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2006
Adventures in the twilight zone
At this time of year we become aware of the sun going down ever earlier until that most depressing Sunday in late October when the clocks go back and dusk suddenly seems to invade the afternoon. Dusk is at once beautiful and sad, the dying of the day, the sky shot through with a plangent tone.
The powerful effect of dusk came home to me when I experienced the total eclipse of the sun in Devon in 1999. The accelerated failing of the light and the sudden chill at ten on a summer's morning, the birds going quiet, cattle lying down, I found profoundly moving. Day is life. Night is death.
The artist Michael Atavar has been reflecting on dusk a lot. He went to Shanghai on a British Council residency and was struck by the feeling of permanent twilight in a city shrouded in humidity and pollution. From his 34th-floor hotel room huge modern towers loomed out of the gloaming.
He prefers dusk in the city, the lights coming on against the deepening blue of the sky. The poignancy of the falling sun is perhaps leavened by anticipation of nocturnal pleasures. In the sterile modern city the sky is an ever present swath of nature. 'Dusk,' says Atavar in his web art work, 'provides a blank screen, a movie-theatre backdrop, silvery and empty, on to which all my fantasies can be projected.'
As well as his web art work Atavar will be conducting a performance piece on the theme of dusk on Friday in the Waterloo Sunset Pavilion at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank. I asked him what he would be doing and he replied that the audience would be 'setting the tone'. He would be 'taking the temperature of the room'. My wife is a psychotherapist and the jargon was familiar. It turns out that Atavar, as well as being an artist, also works as a Jungian therapist.
He wants to do something with very simple materials, a window, a microphone, a piece of tape. Like one of his influences, Bruce Nauman, he likes to keep things spare. He cites Naumanís infra-red film Mapping the Studio with its tiny sporadic actions, a flitting moth or a mouse scuttling about.
He is also a fan of the work of James Turrell, whose 'sky spaces' such as the one on Cat Cairn near Kielder encourage us to look up and experience pure simple light. Turrell's rooms with openings on to the sky are most dramatic at dusk. Atavar hopes to lead a 'seeing exercise' as the view of Waterloo Bridge framed in the windows darkens.
After telling me of his intention to use the I Ching in his performance, Atavar surprised me by saying that he was wary of being lumped in with the New Age search for spirituality. Using words such as 'shamanism', 'facilitate', 'liminal' and 'meditation', he is aware that he may be blundering into a minefield of scorn. To a British ear, sincerity and ridiculous earnestness can sound remarkably similar.
I can get very cynical if I suspect pseudo-religious fuzz is being attached to plain but beautiful sensory experiences. I agree with the philosopher William James, who said: 'Religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight or in a mountain gorge.'
Atavar is not the first artist to draw our attention to dusk over a bridge on the Thames. It was also the subject for one of Whistler's best-known paintings. His depiction of old Battersea Bridge, Nocturne in Blue and Gold, evokes the binary colour scheme of our retina's night vision and also the graphic simplicity of Japanese art. Atmospheric and spare, it is a direct descendant of Bamboo Bank, Kyo Bridge by the Japanese artist Hiroshige.
One of my most beautiful memories from my recent visit to Japan was sitting quietly in a lovely old traditional house. Through the open paper screens we watched in silent chilly stillness as dusk descended over a tiny moss garden, a candle glow in an old stone lantern gradually becoming more apparent.
In his 1933 essay on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows Junichiro Tanizaki says of the Japanese traditionalist: 'We delight in the mere sight of the delicate glow of fading rays clinging to the surface of a dusky wall, there to live out what little life remains to them. We never tire of this sight, for to us this pale glow and these dim shadows far surpass any ornament.'
We in the metropolitan West have often developed too much of an ironic distance to allow ourselves unselfconsciously to celebrate these tiny natural dramas such as dusk. We may be missing out. Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico , taken by Ansel Adams in 1941, perhaps the most famous fine-art photograph yet, is a breathtaking image of dusk over the Rockies, but still I would not swap it for the sight of a harvest moon silhouetting the Gherkin as I come down the slip road on to the A12 in Leytonstone.
Michael Atavar will give a performance lecture about dusk at the Waterloo Sunset Pavilion, Hayward Gallery, SE1 (020-7921 0813), at 7pm on Friday. Contribute your experiences of dusk at www.atavar.com
© Grayson Perry/The Times Newspaper 2006