chasing shadows

Whilst researching the legend of the Corinthian maid for a story last week, I came across this lovely opening to an essay by Simon Schama:
Art begins with resistance to loss; or so the ancients supposed. In a chapter on sculpture in his Natural History, Pliny the Elder relates the legend of the Corinthian maid Dibutade who, when faced with the departure of her beloved, sat him down in candlelight and traced his profile from the shadow cast against the wall. Her father, the potter Boutades, pressed clay on the outline to make a portrait relief, thereby inaugurating the genre (and wrecking, one imagines, the delicate shadow-play of his daughter's love-souvenir). 
For art, like memory, is never truly solid (even when made from stone or wood or metal) and seldom free of melancholy ambiguity; it presupposes the elusiveness, if not the outright disappearance, of its subject. Its deepest urge is to trap fugitive vision and passing sensation - elation, horror, meditative calm, desire, pathos - the feelings we have when we experience life most intensely, before routine, time and distance dull the shock and veil the memory.
(you can read the rest of the essay here)

Although Schama's essay is about visual art, this surely applies to literature and to all other art forms, too. And shadows, in their elusiveness, can embody the uncatchable that drives and frustrates artists, as well as provoking wonder, fear and fascination in their own insidious way.

There's a sense of our own shadow being an escaped part of us, a leakage of ourselves into the world that we can't control and this can feel dangerous, as in Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Shadow', where the shadow of a man takes over the man's life. Yet, the thought of life without a shadow is strange, and shown to be unbearable for Adelbert von Chamisso's Peter Schlemihl, who sells his shadow to the devil and is outcast from society (E.T.A. Hoffman borrows the character for 'A New Year's Eve Adventure'). For the Corinthian maid, and for the early Victorians who loved the art of silhouette portraiture, a shadow could be traced so that something of the subject would remain. In her chapter on shadow in Phantasmagoria, Marina Warner says silhouettes 'explore the inherent recognizability of an outline. The onlooker supplies features from memory, so that the act of looking and filling in the shadow activates his or her memories. The mind engages strongly with the 'unfinished thing': the aesthetic principle of non finito'.

Our shadows are bound to us, but apart. Sometimes there, sometimes not. We don't will them into being; they are summoned by the whims of light. Often, when we're out walking in the sunshine, my sons will try to stand on my shadow and on each others', to trap them. In this game, when someone is standing on your shadow you have to cry out with pain.

All of this was on my mind when I visited an exhibition of shadows, Dark Matters, a few days ago. The show brings together the work of ten internationally acclaimed contemporary artists, and is supplemented by shadow-filled works from the Whitworth's collection (including pieces by Paula Rego, Anish Kapoor and Rachel Whiteread).

In Dark Matters, technology merges with darkness and light to produce wonders such as Daniel Rozin's Snow Mirror: standing before a silk curtain, which seemed to seethe with static, I watched my image assemble from snowflakes and then dissolve as I moved away. In R. Luke DuBois's short film Kiss, the embraces of stars in old Hollywood films are reduced to scratches and points of light in the darkness, making new constellations. On the mezzanine floor, Brass Art's unassuming round table, swathed with cellophane and decorated with plant-like forms and tiny figures — one holding a net, another a tattered kite — is circled by a moving lamp, producing an astonishing whirl of shadow-forms that play across the walls and finger the ceiling. It was so beautiful I found it hard to walk away from. But I was drawn for longer still, to standing between the four black curtains of Barnaby Hosking's Dark Flood, where I was submerged in a rising tide of shadow. My breathing slowed as I watched the rippling black water diminish the sky until the last flicker of light was gone and I was staring at absolute inky darkness.

I emerged from the exhibition into the brief grey gap between the last of the afternoon sunlight falling away and the streetlights coming on. There were no shadows to be seen. We can't hold on to shadows. And any sense of us trapping them with art remains an illusion, but the illusion, at least, is ours to keep.

Dark Matters is on at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, until 15th January 2012.