Optical Poetry

By Donna M. F. Brett - Art Gallery of New South Wales

Sol y Sombra: sun and shade, lightness and darkness, presents a duality in nature; a balance in which creation exists and in which the interplay between life and death, science and religion, is enacted.

In her exhibition, Sol y Sombra, Marion Borgelt has taken this duality and twisted it, incised it, transforming and extending its application in nature to a different materiality. She explores lunar cycles, tidal flows and oppositions in light and dark; occident and orient; words and objects; specificity and universality; through the poetic language of rhythm and nature.

Lightness and darkness are experienced corporeally in Lune Lumina and the Liquid light series by the visual friction established between the work and the viewer. The moonlight presence in Lune Lumina flows in and out of a lunar warp from shadow to light and light to shadow in a rhythmic, circadian pulse. In one work from the Liquid light series, elliptical shapes of intensifying red tones evoke the sun’s daily passage while others bring an optical effect, reminiscent of Bridget Riley and James Turrell, into a sculptural receptivity. A tidal, fluid disruption is played out in another: its four vertical panels seemingly drown within themselves with the heave and flow of a sour-sweet citron sea.

These works explore the universal opposition between interior and exterior within the cutting, twisting and pinning of the canvas. This opposition reveals the works’ inner world of manipulated colour, light and shadow, in a concert of interactive optical play. Like Robert Morris’s Untitled, 1968, Borgelt disturbs the ‘planar geometries’ (1) with regular slashes in the material, yet the visual effect is not due to gravity, as in Borgelt’s earlier work (nor in the Morris work), but within the ‘space of negotiation’, (2)  in the fluid yet violent disruption of the surface. This disruption forms a dyad with the emanation of light that Borgelt reveals through these surfaces. Depth of light and shadow are integral to the movement and the optical effect achieved, and as in the sculptural works of Turrell, articulate the ‘transitory moments between light and dark, reality and dream, between sight and blindness’.

In A Cryptologist’s Memoir, books of disparate genres – literature, science, religion, medicine, cosmology or history – are laid open and carved by a blade through chapters and words, pictures and diagrams. The voids are exchanged with wax formed into symbols sourced from archaic languages, distorted and altered, evoking the Greek interpretation of cryptology: kryptós (hidden) and logós (word). In the veiled translucency of the object, what was hidden is revealed by the poetic discourse between symbology and the private language of books; their vocabulary extended into a crosscurrent of cultural boundaries – exposed, incised and waxed. This sense of ‘object’ is expanded in Ocular Suite, where microscopic images of eye tissue are affixed to a surface onto which wax and symbols have been applied, creating the veiled translucency of a visual cataract or Lacanian scotoma. The floating ocular poems challenge our clarity of sight in rendering a transparent source of light within the configured layering and veiling.

Borgelt has brought the duality of light and dark, sun and shade into the 2004 sculptural commission, Time and Tide (wait for no man), in which she attempts to reawaken us to the powerful interplay of forces that are constant in the lunar cycle mediating our tides, emotions and circadian rhythms. The work traces the waxing and waning of the lunar phases from waxing crescent, first quarter, gibbous and full moon through to waning crescent in a spiral construction mirroring the moon’s elliptical orbit.

Borgelt’s work has consistently brought to the viewer a means of understanding the connection between culture and nature, whether it is through language, symbolism, corn mazes and primal emotion or through oppositional elements. Sol y Sombra brings a material, bodily connection to the rhythmic pulse of nature, a universality that can be felt and experienced within the abstract.


1 See Rosalind E. Krauss, The optical unconscious, MIT Press, Mass., 1996, p. 294.

2 Thanks to Tom Loveday for our discussions on the ‘Darkened Room’.

3 Rhys Graham, ‘James Turrell’, Space Odysseys: Sensation and Immersion, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2001, p. 52.

Related Content

Liquid Light

Just like the changing light from morning to nightfall of any day, the Liquid Light works change with the viewer’s movements, each one opening and closing like the pupil of an eye. Every degree of movement reveals yet another image where the game between artwork and viewer endlessly unfolds.

Cryptologist’s Memoir

Marion Borgelt’s Cryptologist’s Memoir series, 2004-07, was inspired by a newspaper article about the death of Yang Huanyi in September 2004 at the age of 98. She was the last living person fluent in Nushu, a secret women’s written language in China that was over a thousand years old. It was believed to have been …