Nicholas Mangan: Ancient Lights

This interview appeared in the Agenda section of Mousse magazine:

Nicholas Mangan, Ancient Lights (2015); courtesy the artist

Agnieszka Gratza: For your upcoming solo exhibition at Chisenhale Gallery, “Ancient Lights”, you will be using solar panels to power a film projection. Could you start by explaining how that’s going to work?

Nicholas Mangan: It works in the way that an off-grid system works: the solar panels are exposed to direct sunlight, which is transferred into the batteries that store and provide energy for the equipment and the projectors. It’s an autonomous system, detached from the grid and completely reliant on there being enough sunlight on those days.

AG: And how will you ensure that the projection is continual on, say, a cloudy day?

NM: We got eco-friendly projectors that use the smallest amount of energy possible so that the actual batteries can store up to two days of energy for what we require. It’s a calculated risk. The whole show is about a set of contingencies.

AG: The energy generated in this way will then somehow be transferred to the gallery spaces?

NM: A huge wire will run all the way down the back side of the building and into the gallery spaces. The coin film will be in the first room you come into and in that same room there will be a false wall on which the solar inverter and the batteries will be mounted. The longer of the two films will be projected in the main gallery.

AG: Does the coin film have a title?

NM: They’re both called Ancient Lights. I see it as the one work, just a split- or two-channel work.

AG: Could you comment on the title?

NM: You live in London. Have you seen “Ancient Lights” written underneath certain windows? It’s an old British law called “Ancient Lights”, the right to light. Basically, if you’ve had the sun coming in your window for more than twenty years, it’s illegal for someone to block your access to light. The title was a way of contextualizing the work within London, but it opened up to other ideas. The coin film, for instance, deals with the notion of solar variation, the idea that the sun’s energy is subject to flux and variation.

AG: And in what way does the film convey that?

NM: The spinning coin is like a metronome of the sun’s energy. The coin is not just spinning in one place; it’s dancing around and almost going into its own death throes and then somehow coming out of that again, as if triggered by another flow of energy.

AG: How did you get it to spin that way?

NM: It’s a secret. [Laughs.] I spent a whole day spinning a coin at a studio, using a high-speed camera. Eventually I found two takes where there was a match and then I stitched two pieces of footage together. The film brings two laws of thermodynamics together: one is that energy cannot be created or destroyed; the other is that energy can become unuseful—that’s entropy. The coin’s motion is defying those laws. But thermodynamics is associated with matter in motion, and any kind of movement and motion requires the sacrifice of energy.

AG: Your use of the term “sacrifice” seems to connect to the Aztec Sun Stone on the reverse of what’s in fact the Mexican ten-peso coin, which endows the whole project with a mythical dimension.

NM: I was looking at this mythical understanding of the sun and the idea that loss can somehow enable motion or movement. The Aztecs believed that sacrifice would ensure the sun’s perpetual movement. It’s something I came across reading Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share.

AG: How does all this relate to the ideas explored in the longer of the two Ancient Light films?

NM: The other film touches on what was inspired by the period where people were observing the sun and sunspots in particular. We never stare directly into the sun, and yet throughout history people have spent their lives observing the sun and counting its sunspots. Every single sunspot has a number. Galileo was the first to see one through his telescope. But it was only when the German astronomer Samuel Hendrik Schwabe discovered in the 1840s that there was an eleven-year solar cycle and that the sunspots had a periodical behavior that people started trying to correlate it to other cycles.

AG: This ties in with your interest in the research of the Soviet scientist Alexander Chizhevsky and social transformation.

NM: Chizhevsky was trying to work out how the sun’s activity, the eleven-year cycle and in particular the solar maximum where there are more sunspots, was affecting human behavior. He was not alone. The economist William Stanley Jevons was speculating on the connection between business cycles and sunspots, given that the sun’s activity affects crops. A. E. Douglass, who invented dendrochronology, was originally looking to explain the weather cycles through trees; then he became obsessed with trying to follow the solar cycle in the tree rings.

AG: What sparked your interest in dendrochronology?

NM: It’s a reference in Vertigo, La jetée and this other film called The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1966) that features a hand pointing at different rings, relating them to specific events. For me, the tree rings stand for spiral time. This goes back to a very physical idea of cinema as the coiled-up film itself.

AG: In the films you have a series of concentric circles—whether it’s the image of the tree ring, the bird’s-eye view of the Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant in Andalusia, or the Aztec Sun Stone featured on the ten-peso coin. Let’s turn to Gemasolar and how it connects up with the other strands. Were you able to film there?

NM: The footage with the mirrors is from there. Gemasolar is interesting because it’s a new technology. They were the first to ensure a 24-hour energy supply even when the sun is not shining because they store excess energy that’s produced during the day in molten salt. There are eight or nine of them in the States now, but Gemasolar claims to be the first place to have done it. The other reason I was interested in it is that it looked like something Robert Smithson would make if he was still alive. It reminded me of his Spiral Jetty.

AG: What do you think is the potential of this type of renewable energy? Is solar power the energy of the future?

NM: It’s the energy of the past. In Australia, more and more people are moving off the energy grid because it’s too expensive. And the more people move off it, the more expensive it’s going to become for the people who are stuck on it, so in the long run they will have to come over to solar as well. Elon Musk, who invented the electric Tesla car, has recently released in the States this new solar battery that’s going to transform our economic relationship to energy by allowing people to live off the grid.

AG: Could you talk about how the film was made, in particular how you effected the transitions between the different, almost static shots?

NM: There’s an interesting point of tension in that. I started with a rule that every piece of footage had to be in motion itself and the only way I could get around that was by using sound. When you see the static image of Mexico City, you hear the sound of the city, that other force of motion. It’s either motion or rest.

AG: One film is completely silent, whereas the other one comes with a soundtrack.

NM: Originally I was going to narrate over this work because there were so many bits of information that were important to get across. But I found in the end that it actually closed the work down. It stopped it from being an example of transformation itself; it just talked about transformation. I wanted to find a way to montage the work together in a way that created an experience, and I felt that the sounds in correlation with the images would operate on a deeper level than narration.

AG: If you had to sum it up, what would you say is the project’s conceptual core?

NM: The transformations of the sun, the way it gets into everything.

AG: It’s a song of transformations, then?

NM: That’s one way of putting it.


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