Lumia, Projected From the Silence

On the top floor of the Yale University Art Gallery, there was a room kept dark for five months. The only light came from the square and rectangular screens showing projections of light, swaying in and out of their forms like the ebb and flow of the ocean tide. The exhibit was called Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light.

I had gone to the exhibit with Sean, a friend of mine who is a recording engineer and saxophonist. It was the last day to see Wilfred’s works. We walked up to the fourth floor, not entirely sure what to expect. Drawing open the big door, we stepped into something that reminded me of my elementary school field trip to the Planetarium. We walked around the gallery in silence, trying hard to fit the displays into a frame of reference. This wasn’t like other art I’d seen. It wasn’t painting or sculpture, but neither was it a movie or an avant-garde installation. Many others shared my puzzled look. People were sitting quietly on the benches in front of the monitors, observing the elegant movement of the light-art, as the fans of the projectors hummed in the background. Sean and I finally stopped in front of one of the vertically hanging monitors to take a closer look.

I couldn’t find the words, so I began to wonder, do I need them?


The light on the screen moved slowly, capturing my attention. A solo figure emerged—a flame, which, spun deliberately, folding into itself and stretching out in a new direction. The figure thickened and faded out, approached and moved away. Although it was a two dimensional representation, I could see the many layers. I could imagine reaching through to touch the back ones. The colors gave a personality to this unusual light dance: something warm, but at the same time harsh. Something that made my heart beat faster. The colors shifted from an inviting orange to yellow and green and then a turquoise-white, constantly redefining itself.  

I stepped closer to read the plaque: Untitled, Op. 161. The cycle of the piece was 1 year, 315 days, 12 hours. Every person who walked past the monitor during the exhibition had a different experience of the work (the artist himself never experienced the work fully).

Sean leaned over to me and broke the silence: “I want to write a saxophone piece for this projection.” No reaction seemed more fitting than this. Not a musician myself, I began to wonder if I could write a poem about Op. 161.

Lumia | Photo from Creators

Lumia | Photo from Creators

As the title of Wilfred’s pieces suggests, there is some connection between his work and music. Wilfred chose to use the word opus, most commonly used to number pieces of music in chronological order, instead of, like artist Mark Rothko, naming his art No. x or, simply, Untitled.  Perhaps Wilfred chose to draw a connection to music to emphasize its absence. The movement of the monitors seemed so clearly a visual representation of something the author could hear and we, as the audience, could not. It frustrated and spurred a desire to create a supplement.  

I read the next day that Wilfred coined the word "Clavilux" to describe his arts, which translates from Latin to "light played by key." Wilfred, a Danish-born artist living at the beginning of the twentieth century, was a musician himself. In Lumia, we see the color of music, but there is no sound to fulfill and gratify our emotional response. Wilfred used metal, glass, electrical and lighting elements, and frosted-glass screens in an oak cabinet to create color, shape, and movement. In music, this corresponds to melody, harmony, and rhythm. Perhaps then Wilfred wanted to intentionally challenge our perceptions of both art and music.

I don’t know if Sean tried to write his saxophone piece, but I know I never wrote that poem. I couldn’t find the words, so I began to wonder, do I need them?  Maybe I was scared of silence in that moment: the frustration made me uncomfortable. Maybe I wanted the sound of a melody or the rhythm of speech to distract me from my emotions. But maybe what Wilfred really wanted was for me to sit in the silence.

Lumia | Photo from Yale

Lumia | Photo from Yale

Rarely are we left to experience powerful emotions in silence. In a movie, your favorite character’s death or the happy-ever-after wedding are both accompanied by murmurs of voices and a soundtrack. At a classical music concert, we see the musicians moving their bows under the baton of the conductor. Their faces tell us something about their emotional reaction to the movement, but hearing the instruments come together creates a harmony of sound that satisfies us. In ballet or any dance, the dancers personify the music. But imagine how different it would be to see the movement and not hear the music the dancer was embodying? How frustrating would it be to sit in silence and observe the intensity of their experience, knowing only half the story? This is precisely what Wilfred offers to his audience: a silent passion. A dance that lasts upward of two years, Thomas Wilfred’s light-art is a medium that intrigues, but does not let us in on the resolution.