REVIEW | Sonja Thomsen: Glowing Wavelengths In Between
July 8, 2015
Sonja Thomsen: Glowing Wavelengths In Between DePaul Art Museum
“All that is visible clings to the invisible. . . . Perhaps the thinkable to the unthinkable.” – Friedrich von Hardenberg, an early German Romantic better known as Novalis
Glowing Wavelengths In Between, the latest series by Sonja Thomsen is a body of ideas operating as a lens, (in her own words) “a rumination on the very physicality of seeing.” This multifaceted exhibition combining photography, sculpture, and interactive installations is evidence that Thomsen is not appeased by simply looking, but rather she is conducting experiments to reveal specific properties of light, and in turn, specific properties of self (the individual and the collective). Springing from extensive experimentation with optical phenomena and research into philosophical debates regarding the mutability of scientific knowledge, Thomsen has created tangible and accessible works to experience the ephemeral qualities of light. Vibrant color photographs, immersive photographic murals, and faceted metallic sculptures shift between direct documentation and destabilizing abstraction; thereby recalibrating my perceptions of the visible world not only in reality, but also in the broader contexts of space, time, and possibility.
Construct is a bold, large photograph of a lens suspended by mechanical arms whose sources of stability are out of view against an intense black abyss. Beginning with the material that serves to refract and reflect light, the stark image of the lens typifies the precision and the representations (actual and ideal) it can produce – it is a powerful, opening punch where the object becomes image becomes object, magnified and oversized. The lens represents an interesting analogy where the material expresses an idea, whose product is a representation; and if I am willing to follow this logic, the lens then becomes a stand-in for ideas – notions to be considered as representations and interpretations of reality.
Dutch philosopher and mathematical lens grinder Baruch Spinoza once wrote: “We must investigate, I say, whether there is any other affirmation or negation in the Mind except that which the idea involves, insofar as it is an idea…so that our thought does not fall into pictures. For by ideas I understand, not the images that are formed at the back of the eye (and if you like, at the middle of the brain), but concepts of Thought [or the objective Being of a thing, insofar as it exists only in Thought].” Thomsen’s images, such as Opticks (37), pictured at top, launch fantastical ideas that, in the round, become more acute in their perception and the lens itself becomes more capable of opening dimensions, expressing longing, and spurring action. The absolute materiality of the lens is parallel by the manifestation of concrete ideas, which in turn hold shape, express the very constructs of our existence, and end up producing very affective experiences of the world and ourselves. As I work to determine if the triangular lens or the cavernous background is the illusion, I can’t help but think Thomsen wants me to spend time deliberately thinking about what it means to be by considering what it feels like being a lens.
Of her work, Thomsen notes: “I think that wonder is important. If I can make you, for even a split second, get lost and find yourself in a new space, then that’s really exciting.” I am immediately drawn to Opticks (92), a large image of two oceans (or perhaps the same) separated by an equally infinite blank space sandwiched in-between the two vast expanses. At first glance, the center appears empty and white; though the longer I gaze, a subtle lilac hot spot in the bottom right hand corner emerges. As I focus on this delicate and unexpected pop of color, a beautiful and delicate prism materializes across the pristine surface. It is mesmerizing and an excellent introduction to the precise type of wonder Thomsen seeks to suggest.
In the same delicate manner, Proof (g) is of a white object with the softest shadow to validate it is a three-dimensional object appears to fade into and/or emerge from a void of velvety white. Undecided if the object represents me or if I am the ground, the image is an affecting depiction of my own limitations, perceptions, and potential. An ocularcentric vision dancing between knowledge, truth, and reality, Thomsen offers glimpses of passing realities, of fleeting moments, of a perpetually expanding carousel of possibilities. I find this image hard to walk away from; it is captivating in its simplicity and whispering insinuations.
The largest three-dimensional work, Trace of Possibility, is an enormous metal sculpture that engulfs and overwhelms the entire gallery where it is placed. Of it, Thomsen notes: “Ultimately, I’d
been exploring what can happen when you’re physically in the experience of light, as opposed to her earlier photographic work that had been about the perception of light and how light behaved on a two-dimensional surface…[I’ve] been working backward to try and understand it as an artistic gesture as well as its relationship to photography, light, perspective, and distortion.” While it is apparent that this object (and others like it such as Compass 3, 4, 5) can be identified as the source for response for this body of work, I find the sculptures far less evocative and in several ways unnecessary. Its sheer size and dense material loses the softness and subtly that is so engaging in Thomsen’s photographs, and its presence both physically and conceptually impedes my experience with the other works confined to the same space. Sometimes the absence of an actual object is far more impactful that its presence – the very tenant I’ve felt Thomsen was trying to convey.
In Depth of Field (an essay accompanying the exhibition), author Nicholas Frank writes: “Buckminster Fuller’s vision of us on a boat together [based on his perception that the earth is a vessel careening through the universe] in endless space reduces us, and simultaneously places us within scales beyond perception.” This dichotomy, this push and pull of the micro to the macro is at the crux of Thomsen’s work, the joy has been realizing that I can function both as the vessel and the universe.