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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Anthony McCall's Enchanting Film Installations

A journey through Anthony McCall’s light sculptures.

In the dark of a theater, we all sit facing the screen, waiting for the projector light to turn on so the movie can start. Imagine doing the reverse: trading places with the screen while the projector light focuses on you. British artist Anthony McCall subverts an ordinary film experience, and allows us to travel inside a large tunnel of light where images only become visible with the presence of smoke.


That's how McCall’s Solid Light Films installation series unfolds. Originally conceived in 1973, the artist wrote in “Line Describing A Cone” that the project was “the first film to exist in the three dimensional real space.” In the film, each viewer’s position embodies a different aspect, moving through the form made by light, which emerges slowly.

Before developing the Solid Light Films project, McCall made five short films about performances he accomplished, including Landscape for Fire, which is shown below. A group of artists called EXIT, who would later become the avant-punk band Crass, runs the filmed performances.

In the late 70s, Anthony McCall stopped making original artworks, and started working with graphic design. He began using the computer long before the general art world did. In an interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist in 2007, McCall talks about this stage: “I started doing design because I could not support myself with avant-garde cinema […]. It turns out that I actually dropped the art world for twenty years.”

Fortunately, McCall resumed his artistic production in 2000, this time focusing on continuing the Solid Light Films series. But the 16mm projector gave rise to computer projection and a digital archive, and he also incorporated a smoke machine, a new innovation in the 90s. In both Line Describing a Cone 2.0 and Meeting You Halfway II, two installations in the artist’s retrospective exhibition at the Gallery Luciana Brito in São Paulo, the smoke highlighted nuances of the work that audiences hadn’t picked up on before. In addition to the movement of light, drawings were formed by the release of the smoke.

The first few times McCall exhibited his light sculptures, he could count on dust in the old shed and smokers present at the installation to give better visibility to the shapes the projector created. Then one day, at a major exhibition at the Swedish Malmö Kontshall, the unexpected happened. The lights went off and the projection began as usual, but minutes went by and the smoke forms just wouldn't appear. When he noticed the problem, McCall says that he rushed to the nearest tobacco shop and returned with three lit cigarettes in his mouth, steaming them toward the light beams. He was then expelled from the room by the gallery’s security staff.

Below, you can see images of Meeting You Halfway at Gallery Luciana Brito, recorded by the The Creators Project staff in São Paulo.