Dancing in the Dark

Photo by Megumi Shauna Arai

Photo by Megumi Shauna Arai

LILIENTHAL|ZAMORA change the way you look at light, dark and the spaces in between.

In early September, a new installation takes shape at Suyama Space in Belltown: Hundreds of slender fluorescent tubes sizzle, stitching together a staggered pattern of light. It’s the work of Etta Lilienthal and Ben Zamora, a collaborative duo whose overlapping interest in performance design brought them together six years ago. They measure the space, surrounded by a small army of volunteer assistants who suspend from the peaked ceiling a latticework of fluorescent bulbs from one end of the room to the other piece by piece. The half-finished piece looks like a chandelier shattered into a thousand fragments, frozen in free fall.

A pen-and-ink sketch of the work describes a trajectory of tangled tubes coming at each other from opposite ends of the room, exploding from a starburst in the center. Its title: “NEVER FINISHED.”

“It’s true,” Lilienthal says. “We’ll never feel like it’s done.”

Lilienthal is slight, with short, untamed hair that falls in curls around her ears. Zamora looms by comparison, his heavy brows furrowed across a face that frequently breaks into wide smiles. The two artists are in the first of four weeks of installation. They both have day jobs, so the work here at Suyama Space is rigorous. They’ve been arriving at 7 p.m. and continue to work until nearly midnight each night.

Since coming together in 2008, LILIENTHAL|ZAMORA, as they’re collectively known, has made sculpture out of lights. They follow in the footsteps of 20th century artists experimenting with color, light and space in a sculptural context such as like Dan Flavin, who pioneered the use of colored fluorescents in sculpture, or Robert Irwin, a Southern California native whose subtle manipulations of lighting in interior and outdoor spaces transform commonplace environments into ethereal, nearly spiritual situations.

Neither Lilienthal nor Zamora set out to weave mountains of tangled lighting in the name of art. Both began as theatre nerds. Lilienthal, who was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, and came to Seattle by way of Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod, loved the stage in high school. It made sense to pursue theatre, fine art and art history at Smith College and later Glasgow School of Design. But neither of those schools was a good fit; it wasn’t until she enrolled at CalArts in the late ’90s that she experienced an epiphany. She was working with a fellow student to construct a theatre set with a clear plastic ceiling containing water. The theatre lights passed scattershot through the water from above, and the effect was unlike anything Lilienthal had experienced.

“It was all about the light and its container, light and object,” Lilienthal says. “One without the other doesn’t work. I realized the theatre was simply a huge sculptural space. If I’m honest, I’m not really interested in theatre itself. I was never really interested in actors and I don’t even like plays that much. I just love the space.”

During her time at CalArts, Lilienthal buried herself in the school library, poring over a massive collection of art catalogs that chronicled the exhibits of artists like Flavin, Irwin and James Turrell, whose constructed rooms and tight spaces permit slivers of natural light to filter into artificial space, as they do in the Henry Art Museum’s “Light Reign.”

“I spent hours and hours with that imagery, absorbing it,” Lilienthal says. “Then I was basically trying to put it all on stage. It didn’t always work. Sometimes it did.”

Meanwhile, Zamora was studying at the University of California in Santa Cruz. He was also a fan of theatre and the arts, but his obsession with light didn’t start between the pages of an art history book. It started with raves.

For years, Zamora wouldn’t commit to declaring a degree in college. Instead, he tinkered around in art classes. One of those classes taught lighting design for theatre. There Zamora met some students who were throwing dance parties in the woods—small affairs that cops usually shut down right after they started. Eventually they asked Zamora if he wanted to work on the lighting for one.

“Next thing you know, we’re at an old, abandoned Home Depot in Oakland,” he says, laughing, “and it’s not like we’re just putting a few lights in. There are trucks with thousands of dollars worth of equipment. We’re setting points into concrete in the building, totally illegally.” Some 15,000 people showed up for that rave.

“It was really beautiful, that time in the early and mid ’90s. I took something from it: a common, shared experience with all these people, all different, all races, all types, some old, some young, some assholes, some sweet. But something happens when all are clued into one moment.” Lighting was the key ingredient to create that moment.

After graduating with a theatre degree, Zamora knew he wanted to work with light and he knew how he wanted it to feel. Unsure of where to turn next, in 2002 he enrolled at the University of Washington to pursue a master’s degree in lighting design.

Right out of grad school, he landed a dream gig designing artistically outré opera with director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola. Zamora was lighting designer for The Tristan Project, a modern staging of the opera Tristan und Isolde that projected Viola’s video on a large screen suspended above the stage accompanied by Zamora’s lights. The synaesthetic maelstrom of color and image culminated in Isolde’s finale note, drenched in diminishing, climactic blue light. This kind of work would be his bread and butter for years. It was foundational—and a stroke of luck for an artist who still didn’t know what he was doing as he traipsed across the world.

“I was homeless, sleeping on couches and breaking into studios to sleep,” he says.

In 2008 Lilienthal and Zamora’s paths finally crossed. After graduating from CalArts in 1999, Lilienthal moved to Seattle to be near family and friends. Zamora continued to dip in and out of Seattle between opera gigs across Europe. They met on the set of a play called God’s Ear at the pint-sized Washington Ensemble Theatre on Capitol Hill where they worked to build the set. Lilienthal’s concept for the space was incredibly abstract: circles carved into a backdrop, tunneling into the distance like a cartoon vanishing point that would be transformed by Zamora’s lights. The creative chemistry between Lilienthal and Zamora was instantaneous.

“It was like bang, we have to work together,” Zamora says. “Let’s make something.”

So marked the birth of LILIENTHAL|ZA-MORA—although the twosome didn’t actually create a piece together for two more years. Their first work as a duo was an installation called “THIN PLACE,”constructed for the set of a play at Intiman Theatre in 2010. It was made of layer upon layer of gauzy, square scrim panels shot through with shifting, colored light. A ramp rose up through the center, passing through the shapes to nowhere.

“The piece was hard to pull off because the panels were enormous,” Lilienthal says. “At one point [director Andrew Russell] wanted tables and chairs, which we absolutely didn’t want. Then it’s like, oh yeah, we’re designing for theatre. This is not a sculpture.” But  LILIENTHAL|ZAMORA’s abstraction gave the play a heavy dose of something sublime and ineffable, which ultimately worked in its favor.

“It was a play about someone trying to find their spiritual home,” Zamora says. “We’re not religious at all. We’re atheists. But there’s something about that search, whether you find that in art or whatever. We were trying to make a piece that spoke to all of that, to the universal. Something that makes you connect with the people around you.”

UnderbellyA steady body of work followed in the next two years. In 2011, LILIENTHAL|ZAMORA installed more shifting color fields and temporary translucent walls at Hedreen Gallery. In 2012, they constructed “APEX,” a site-specific installation in the courtyard of the Intiman Playhouse (now the Cornish Playhouse), drenching the space with bouquets of upward-thrusting yellow and blue fluorescents. Later that fall they collaborated with Degenerate Art Ensemble and Olson Kundig Architects for Underbelly, installing a mammoth, mechanized framework of tube lights that descended over DAE’s Haruko Nishimura like a bunch of jumbo glow sticks as she danced in subterranean chambers beneath Seattle Center. After that, they flew to the desert to install another version of “APEX” at Coachella, where monuments of alternating blue and yellow tubes were mounted amongst a grove of palm trees.

They finished that year with their largest undertaking yet: a fluorescent installation commissioned by Frye Art Museum as part of the [Moment Magnitude] exhibit. Called “THROUGH HOLLOW LANDS,”the piece snaked its way through an entire museum gallery, carving a furiously bright, white-hot grid of light through the air.

“We keep upping the stakes on each piece, purposely trying to find ground that’s uncomfortable” Zamora says. “THROUGH HOLLOW LANDS” proved more than uncomfortable at times, as Lilienthal and Zamora wrestled with 30-foot-long power cables, trying to make fluorescent tubes do things they weren’t meant to do.

“But why bother to do something if you know you can do it?” Lilienthal says.

Their sweat and actual tears paid off. Visitors were stupefied and delighted. The duo achieved the Turrell-effect they so admired: a marriage of light and its container that totally engulfs the unsuspecting viewer.

A year of nonstop work took its toll. Zamora was on the brink of breakdown. Between work on ever-expanding LILIENTHAL|ZAMORA projects, he’d been teaching full-time, flying to Europe to work on opera sets, to LA to work on theatre sets, sleeping two or three hours a night for months at a time. Lilienthal had also been working full-time as an exhibit designer, splitting her time between coasts as well as providing art direction for shows around the country.

That’s when Suyama’s curator Beth Sellars asked them to do a piece. They said yes but with a caveat, Zamora says: “It’s going to be dark and broken. Like breaking “THROUGH HOLLOW LANDS” and going crunch.”

An open-beam ceiling crowns the space. Bright, natural light filters through windows overhead. Faded traces of the past are still legible: text printed on the beams and deep grooves etched into plank floors betray the space’s past life as an auto repair shop. A hundred years ago, the basement level served as a livery stable. Since 1998, it’s been dedicated to large-scale art installations that are changed every four months. Artists from all over the world have worked here.

Like much of their past work, LILIENTHAL|ZAMORA’s approach to the space and its history isn’t literal. The assemblage of lights pits the artificial against the natural, redoubling the brightness of the gallery with both an inner and an outer glow. They selected a shade of “cool white” tubes to match the color of daylight. There’s something undeniably ecstatic, bordering-on-spiritual in the lightness.

Yet, as they fasten the tubes from the ceiling, they are painting many of the bulbs black. It’s something they’ve never done before. Every last component is fully wired and lit, but nearly half the lights are being blotted out. What’s left is an explosion of light, fractured, receding into the suggestion of voids.

“This piece is about those two forces, darkness and light being drawn together and pushed apart simultaneously,” Zamora says. “Then there’s the middle where they intersect. I think that it’s all beautiful—both the lightness and darkness. It’s not meant to pass judgment on one or the other. It just is.”

Sellars, Suyama’s curator, anticipates the way the changing season will alter the sculpture. “The spaces between lights and the surrounding environment will be perceptually altered each day as the approaching winter sun drops in the sky, shortening the days, bringing darkness in through the gallery lined skylights,” she says. “Placing the viewer inside this kind of an environment of awareness as an active participant is one of the key goals of Suyama Space.”

Amid what seems like miles of coiling extension cords, scaffolding and scissor lifts, the two artists huddle beneath hundreds of dangling black wires and look up into the swarm of lights. They discuss the optimal density of light in the area directly overhead. Three assistants are bent over a nearby table soldering. As each bulb is slowly assembled, “NEVER FINISHED” emerges out of thin air—a web more complex, more flawed, less clinically sublime than past work. Without a clear definition of where this thing is going or where it begins or ends, the pieces casts light on a side of LILIENTHAL|ZAMORA that was hidden until now.

“When I ask myself whether I would make a piece of art without light, I get stuck,” Lilienthal says. “We’ve always wanted to make environments where people are encased by light, creating a sense of overwhelming experience—in a good way. In this kind of space, you can’t fade away. You are there, present.”

Top: Ben Zamora and Etta Lilienthal, photo by Megumi Shauna Arai.
Center: Underbelly, a collaboration with Degenerate Art Ensemble and Olson Kundig Architects in 2013, photo by Bruce Clayton Tom.
Bottom: “THROUGH HOLLOW LANDS” at the Frye Art Museum in 2012, photo by Malcolm Smith.