When Le Corbusier traveled to Istanbul in 1911, he observed the city as all visitors tend to do: from the sea. A sprawling texture of wooden house frames punctured here and there by masonry towers and slim minarets glowing golden, or in gray repose depending on the intensity and acute angle of the sun, Istanbul's unceremonious dialog with light and shadow divulged itself in dramatic chiaroscuro to the young architect. Later, he asserted that "light and shadow reveal form," a conviction carried fastidiously into each of his building projects, now firmly entrenched in the legacy of architectural modernism.
Le Corbusier recognized the propensity of shadow to draw emphasis, rather than shroud, and sought to control its pitch. The shadow encroaches by varying degrees: Harshly, in the crisp outline of a child's hair ribbon from the pre-photographic nineteenth century, and hazily, in the early evening penumbra of a Los Angelene rush hour. "In Praise of Shadows," the current exhibition at Istanbul Modern curated by Paolo Colombo, explores the rich, form-revealing cast of the shadow in contemporary art.
A labyrinthine space in the museum's windowless lower level showcases drawings, silhouettes, statues and film by the likes of Haluk Akakçe, Nathalie Djurberg, William Kentridge, Katariina Lillqvist, Jockum Nordström, Christiana Soulou, Andrew Vickery and Kara Walker. Vitrines near the stairway contain the prosthetic accoutrements of traditional Turkish shadow play, whose title character Karagöz (or, Hellenized: Karaghiozis) serves as cultural referent and the exhibition's organizing principle. Dating from the Ottoman period, the devilish Karagöz enacted simply-structured allegorical dramas in folkloric profile; several scenes of which are on view as two-dimensional projections, with English subtitles.
Both the pre-cinematic and narrative qualities of Karagöz animation are reflected in the exhibition's more contemporary matter. In particular, the dark outlines of diverse intent strain towards problems of ethnographic and social assimilation, by either supplying a missing or marginalized narrative or by playing host to the viewer's own psychological projections. Jockum Nordström's large-format collages and graphite drawings reference Swedish popular culture, alluding to architectural formalism and repressed sexuality within a narrow color palette; Andrew Vickery's Do You Know What You Saw? recounts a pilgrimage to Bayreuth for a performance of Wagner's Parsifal via a kind of low-fi animation. William Kentridge's Procession, an extensive sculptural piece based on his video Shadow Procession (1999), is a stiff parade of misshapen objects with generalized human-like silhouettes. In bronze relief, his figures contain sometimes-unexpected forms: The buried octagonal curve of a stovetop espresso maker, or the metallic tip of a tape measure, for instance. Kara Walker's charged shadow-play films and signature oversized silhouettes work against Kentridge's aesthetic grain, with sharply cut, exaggerated folds that aggressively emphasize race and gender differences.
Screened in its entirety, Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is not to be missed. Produced by delicately hand-cut paper figures photographed at twenty-four frames per second, the first feature-length animation in film history is an exquisite exercise in filigree. Reiniger herself was an admirer of Karagöz, though Achmed is loosely based on Scheherazade's tales in 1001 Nights. A visual feast venerated by Jean Renoir, the film clearly delineates a formal fascination with "oriental" ornamentation. The intricate details of Princess Peri Banu's thick tresses and headdresses at once lend her figure a palpable feeling of fantasy, and make the viewer nostalgic for the days of pre-Pixar animation.
If the overlapping, at times diverging, narrative arcs of "In Praise of Shadows" do not always sit easily together (chronologically or teleologically), it is simply a reminder that shadow is a fickle medium-dissolving and draping in ever-changing value, thrown from off-kilter angles, prone to cultural manipulation. As a post-modern, post-colonial aesthetic motif, the shadowy form may be more complex than Corbu's early conclusions; equally deceiving as revealing.
[In Praise of Shadows travels to the Benaki Museum, Athens (23 May - 26 July 2009) and was previously shown at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (5 Nov 2008 - 4 Jan 2009).]