Visual art review: Massimo Bartolini | Light Show

Italian artist Massimo Bartolini’s new show at the Fruitmarket uses one of the few wholly new art forms of the last century, the electric light, to stunning effect



Star rating: * * * *



Star rating: * * * *

Walk past the Medici Palace in Florence – right on the street, its bulk is overwhelming. The Medici owned the street. Along the façade, massive iron rings are set into the stones. These were for torches. When they were lit, the building was aflame with light. The Medici owned the night, too. Light was expensive and light was power.

It is a futile echo of such historic displays of power that office buildings are lit at night so wastefully, but being cheap, electric light is also democratic. For millennia, only the rich could claim the night. For the great majority it was illuminated by no more than a flickering rush light. Now the people own the street. Stating their claim, in Sicily people took to decorating their streets at times of festival with elaborate coloured lights.

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At the Fruitmarket, Italian artist Massimo Bartolini, paying homage to this democratic tradition, has transplanted wholesale a set of these street lights on their supporting frames and laid them out to fill the floor of the gallery. He has called this installation La Strada di Sotto, or The Street Below. Instead of a street filled with light from the walls, the street itself is made of lights. You can’t walk on it, but that it is what it looks like. With Bartolini’s work you always need to look a little more closely, however. The lights quiver and flicker. Little ripples run across them. A film is showing in the adjacent small gallery. In it, Don Valentino, an elderly Sicilian, reminisces gently about life in his home town, about the bands in which he played, about feuds, local politics and personalities. It is all very conversational, but as he speaks you realise that the flickering lights on the floor follow his speech patterns, blazing up at the stresses and dimming in the pauses. Then you learn that all his life Don Valentino has been responsible for setting up these same street lights in his home town in Sicily at festival times.

The link between his speech and the lights on the floor becomes a kind of symbiosis, the lighter lit, you might say. It is like a 17th-century genre study brought to life, the backstory to some background figure in a painting by Caravaggio perhaps, first master of light who incidentally also worked in Sicily.

It is charming and low key and this is true of Bartolini’s work generally. His show is called Studio Matters + 1. He explains the title as follows, “‘Studioworks’ I make on my own and works ‘plus 1’, I make together with other people.” Studio works then became Studio Matters. It is a selection of 50 or so small works arranged upstairs. The “+ 1”, the added unit in the title, refers to the collaborator he has employed both for this installation and for a parallel installation at the SMAK gallery in Ghent, the Fruitmarket’s partner in what is in fact a two-part show. In Ghent, Bartolini has created an organ out of scaffolding poles, but whether here or there, the “+ 1” strikes an ever so slightly off-key note in an otherwise enjoyable show. When Miró worked with a collaborator, for instance, as he often did, he always insisted he or she signed the work as an equal partner. He would never have supposed he had fulfilled any obligation he felt to someone on whose skill he depended with such an anonymous “+ 1”.

The Studio Matters are a diverse selection of small works. Some are three dimensional and are mostly laid out on a wide platform. Others are two dimensional, more or less, and are hung on the wall. One or two enigmatic works are distributed elsewhere in the space. Three concrete rods leaning in a corner might have been left by accident, but are a work called Fondamenta. Left over from strengthening the foundations of the artist’s studio, they have their own story. A chair in a corner might be for an attendant, but is made of alabaster not plastic and has a spiky teazle on it. Called simply Chair, as gallery director Fiona Bradley points out, it is an echo of the incongruous associations, the umbrella meeting the sewing machine, so beloved of the Surrealists.

Many of these smaller works have this flavour. A vice with pearls jammed in it like snaggly teeth is called Sheep Smile, two fig cakes side by side become Dark Eyes, a roll of fax paper, the type bleached out by the light, becomes a Story on Fax Paper. Bartolini, however, denies he is a Surrealist. He describes these works more as happenings, as unexpected conjunctions, or unintended meanings that come about from an unconscious process of association. He quotes the pioneer American performance artist Ray Johnson to explain: “I wait, not for time to finish my work, but for time to indicate something one would not have expected to occur.”

Certainly there is a kind of poetic definition to these works, a sense of their completeness, which is different from the potentially anarchic open-endedness of the Surrealist and Dada tradition. Perhaps the Italian sense of classical order is too strong. Certainly there is a kind of elegance about these works which does look very Italian, but it is none the worse for that.

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The advent of electric light produced one of the few wholly new art forms of the last century, but it took a long time for artists to cotton on. Neon advertisements, the popular street light artists of Sicily, or their northern counterparts with flashing Christmas trees and electric Santas were way ahead, or perhaps the artists simply disdained anything so obviously popular and democratic. There were experiments in the Dada and Bauhaus generation.

Notably the Italian artist Luca Fontana used fluorescent tubes in his work in the 1950s, but in Light Show at the Hayward Gallery in London, the real pioneer of the modern exploitation of light as a medium is the late Dan Flavin. He started to make light sculptures in the early 1960s. He used fluorescent light, not only presented directly, as here in one of his earliest works in this medium, a sequence of one, two and three white tubes, The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham) from 1963, but crucially for its ability to induce colour, what he called “retinal optics”, the power of light of one colour to make us see light of another. Here in Untitled (to the “Innovator” of Wheeling Peachblow), yellow and white lights set up in a corner create a field of complementary violet.

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In this show, it is the artists who work in this tradition who make most impact. Carlos Cruz Diez has created a marvellous environment of luminous colour, like walking through the end of the rainbow. James Turrell is the acknowledged master of this form. In a darkened room like a cinema he creates an abstract painting out of light, and because it is made of light, it creates a space that is deeper and more mysterious than any painting. Doug Wheeler does the same with less drama using a simple square of light.

Against such minimalism, paradoxically so rich in its effects, some of the others here like Cerith Wyn Edwards, for instance, or Jim Campbell, are perhaps a little bit to close to the school of flashing Santas. Katie Paterson, however, goes in the opposite direction to great effect with her poetic single bulb, Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight. Altogether it is an enjoyable show. When I went it was full of people having fun – no bad thing in an art exhibition.

• Massimo Bartolini until 14 April. Light Show until 28 April