What attracts a moth to lamplight? Scientists have no definitive answer to this question, but existing theories suggest that moths (Lepidoptera) use light for orientation purposes. In ancient times the moon and stars served as reliable beacons, but the appearance of man disrupted the moth’s environment, bringing the bonfires, lamps, illuminated windows, street signs and car headlights that attract representatives of the order Lepidoptera. According to one hypothesis, when insects fly into a lighted area they perceive it as an open space, as distinct from restricted and alarming darkness: they literally make for the light in their bid for freedom. With photography this division into light and dark becomes a self-sufficient metaphor for the photographic process, while the pigmented marking on the wings of moths drawn to light is associated with colour prints.
In Italian the relationship between light and dark is called ‘chiaroscuro’ – a technique used in pictorial representation since Renaissance times to emphasise contrast and the interplay of light and shade. In graphic art the term ‘chiaroscuro’ denotes drawing on tinted paper; in painting, compositional distribution of light on a scene; in cinema, filming with low-level lighting; and in photography, three-dimensional modelling of volume in the manner of Rembrandt. In all cases chiaroscuro technique can be compared to footlights that present the principal characters of a drama to the audience, ushering them from the darkness where they awaited their exit into the
Tension linked to anticipation is familiar to audiences not only from waiting in office queues, but also from Greek tragedy. Described by Aristotle as ‘fear of cognisance’, it is referred to as ‘suspensus’ in Latin. Cognisance or the ‘transition from ignorance to knowledge’, like the shift from darkness to light, is an event already rehearsed in our lives yet at the same time unknown, unexpected, the Deus ex machina. Accordingly modern audiences who are probably not subject to nyctophobia, the fear of darkness, always suspect the presence of some alien object or person in the twilight zone – an extraterrestrial, a maniac, or just the neighbours.
Emerging from the theatre after an evening performance, the audience may be unable to distinguish between stage and urban décor: the same ‘drugstore, road, streetlamp’ become a lighting apparatus that denotes the area of role-play, orientation and freedom. Under the streetlamps lovers arrange trysts, while shady characters avoid the light. Occasionally and at random the faces of passers-by are lit by these nocturnal beams, for a moment they blaze with reflected light. All the rest is darkness, uncertainty, alarm.
Blackout, total darkness when tension falls to zero, reduces us to a state of benumbed horror. And then the principal character of the urban scene appears – the electric ‘god from the dynamo-machine’, and with it comes a different potential. The word ‘electricity’ is derived from the Greek for ‘amber’, and as we are well aware, amber charged with static electricity attracts dust specks, just as light becomes a magnet to moths. Amber is not only the colour of fossilised resin, but also a warning light against danger. The mosquito that ended up thousands of years later in a shard of amber on the beach was forewarned.
When we photograph a seaside town by night there is a definite feeling of suspense that has almost nothing in common with the suspense movies we know so well, where the leading role is played by narrative montage. If we exclude the spectator’s experience of an encounter with the unknown, this has nothing to do with Hitchcock. The paradox of photographic suspense lies in the absence of narrative, despite the outer resemblance of photo and cinema film. In these photographs information is glimpsed, but not completely exposed. The spectator is obliged to act as ‘do-it-yourself director’: he uses his own imagination to finish writing the screenplay of projected action.
Timofei Parschikov’s photographs call to mind both the light from a cinema screen attracting moths-spectators, a B-film – a mystical early-70s thriller along the lines of ‘Who Saw Her Die?’ where the action takes place in a small Venetian piazza by night, and Caravaggio, that great master of lighting effects, as in ‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’, where the light from a window symbolises the enlightenment of faith. This is accompanied by fear of losing your way in a strange town, the need to overcome childhood fears of the dark. The soundtrack recorded for the exhibition evokes a flickering fluorescent lamp, drizzle, a distant passing train, and most dangerous of all – unfamiliar, indecipherable human speech.
Yuri Avvakumov, 2010
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