The coming or presence of light is a crucial element in many religions. We are familiar with Helios, the sun god from Greek mythology, and traces of a perhaps 5,000-year-old sun temple have been found at Rispebjerg on Bornholm. Light and the sun have always been the subject of artistic contemplation and scientific enquiry.
Many aspects of decisive scientific breakthroughs in our perception of what light is have been provided by Danes. From Ole Rømer (1644-1710), who registered light’s “hesitation”, i.e. the speed of light, to H.C. Ørsted (1777-1861), who discovered electromagnetism, to the recent pioneering research of Lene Vestergaard Haus (b.1959), in which she has demonstrated that the speed of light can be slowed down or even stopped and that light can be stored. Nevertheless, we are far from finding a conclusive answer to what light truly is. Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) believed he had proved that light was particles, whereas his good friend Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) believed that light was waves.
It was not until the early 20th century that Albert Einstein (1879-1955) came up with the currently accepted explanation model, that light is electromagnetic radiation, i.e. photons, that are both waves and particles but without mass.
Since the Renaissance, art and science have gone hand in hand whenever fundamental questions about life and its essence have needed to be explained.
In this basic search for answers, light has held a key pivotal role as both concept and phenomenon. At the same time as Isaac Newton was studying light scientifically, artists such as Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678), a student of Rembrandt, were producing peepshows, which can now been seen at the National Gallery in London, among other places.
It is also hardly accidental that Romanticism, the prelude to our modern era, which we in Denmark refer to as the “golden age”, was heralded in the early 1800s by Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger (1779-1850), who in his Sankt HansaftenSpil (Midsummer Eve Encounter), from the collection Digte (Poems) from 1803, introduces us to “an old man with a peepshow” in which life may be viewed.
Perspective, from the Latin word percipere, to perceive, to put human existence into perspective by studying transitions from one stage to another, has been a recurring motif, both materially and pictorially, for visual artist Nicolai Howalt (b.1970). Just like Adam Oehlenschläger’s old man, Howalt sets up a peep show for us, allowing us access to a visual acknowledgement of both past and present through ever-changing tableaux. In so doing, Howalt breaks with Jean-François Lyotard’s (1924–1998) postmodernist dogma that says of the grand narrative that it no longer exists.
Howalt’s photographs appear to us individually as images in which he has combined photographic techniques with artistic imagery in a style where the narrative has been subjected to an acute awareness of aesthetics, while at the same time his work, as a whole, tackles ever greater existential issues, such as the razor-sharp divisions between life and death. From Howalt’s early series Boxer (2002–2003) and How to Hunt (2005), created together with Trine Søndergaard (b.1972), of which Bornholm Art Museum owns the piece Langjord, to Car Crash Studies (2009), Howalt has continuously sought to identify the boundaries between the two.
In Howalt’s most recent work, he has removed himself almost completely from the task of interpretation and representation, instead evolving his photographic work in the more watchful mode of contemplation directed towards existential issues concerning the conditions of life itself. In Endings (2013), the universal circle encompassing both the creation of stars and the human body is bound together through an insentient yet sensitive documentation of the inorganic remains of human beings after cremation. These ashes consist almost exclusively of the two primal elements strontium and calcium, like stardust, the building blocks of the Universe. In Light Break (2015), using the original quartz lenses of Niels Finsen (1860-1904) to capture sunlight onto photosensitive paper, particularly those rays of the spectrum we normally cannot see, Howalt pays homage to Finsen and his awareness of the healing powers of sun and light. In Elements (2016) Howalt explores metallic elements as image-creating objects, playing the role of mediator as he transfers the photographic process onto various metal plates, allowing medium, motif, light and photographic silver bromide to interact and create their own images.
In recent years many researchers from the exact sciences have resorted to the field of aesthetics and art in their pursuit of explanations to otherwise inexplicable phenomenon. Howalt’s photographs offer just such an awareness, not exactly of scientific phenomena but of how these phenomena interact with human existence. He may do this from a scientific vantage point, but he uses the artistic process to literally reach out to the stars. Through his images, Nicolai Howalt renders the invisible visible.