for every sunset, we haven’t seen - (2019)
Nicole Kelly Westman at Critical Distance
The afternoon sun passes across my bookshelves and I have been sitting here trying to describe the smell of a beeswax candle. It’s somewhat dusty and sweet, but also sharp, prickly—maybe not unlike a piece of ginger growing stale and wrinkled on a kitchen counter. A quiet, bright, dense smell. A scent with a skin. It warms under my fingertips and leaves a gentle squeaky residue.
Beeswax candles, I’ve heard that they neutralize the air—negative ions, right? I imagine the air crackling silently in the aura of a candle’s flame, maybe something close to the vibratory grain in a projection of Super8 film.
How did I get here? Nicole’s work has been prompting me to think about how I spend time alone, amongst my things; how my eyes recalibrate to the slowly-changing light in my apartment. A day without talking to anyone. A day spent watching, reading, writing notes. A day that can feel restorative, or lonely, or safe.
A short story by Lydia Davis, titled Tropical Storm:
“Like a tropical storm,
I, too, may one day become ‘better organized.’”
Just now, I googled “why does the sky sometimes seem mauve just after a thunderstorm?” I have a photo on my phone of my partner looking out the west-facing windows of our apartment, her head a dark silhouette against the luminous violet churn of the sky.
I learn that it’s a process called scattering—light from the sun meeting the molecules of the atmosphere. Wavelengths of colour scatter at different rates, given their lengths: blue and violet light are the shortest, so they disperse in the air the most. However, on a pleasant day, the sky appears blue since our eyes cannot perceive violet light as clearly. We are, after all, creatures perpetually assuming, grasping, filling in gaps; just because something is illegible to our bodies, doesn’t mean it isn’t there, swirling in the distance.
After a storm, the sky is so saturated—clouds are low, dense and potent with moisture. Storms make the very stuff of air feel more abundant somehow; soupier, like a thicker weave. In saturated air, there’s more matter to disperse spectral colours, and violet’s short rays are amplified, brought into focus. That a thunderstorm operates like a pair of prescription lenses, the atmosphere adjusting our vision to something otherwise diffuse or unclear—I like this idea.
In these moments, I’m reminded that purple is such an electric colour, charged and vast and full of possibilities that I cannot wholly reckon with. There have been so many storms this year.
On the phone, Nicole tells me about building a cucoloris for a project and at first, I hum with recognition, before turning back on myself. Sorry, can you repeat that? A cucoloris. A what?
She tells me that it’s one of those strange, niche words that is so mutable no one can agree on its spelling. Cucoloris, cuculoris, kookaloris, cookalorus, kook, cookie, coo-koo. I think of birdsong, that first warm morning of the year when you wake to soft chirping in the tree just beyond your bedroom window. That bird was probably there the morning before, but this is the first time you take notice.
It’s a word that fluctuates; as diffuse as its process. A cucoloris produces soft patterns of light and shadow in a photographer or filmmaker’s studio: a stencil hand-cut with haphazard shapes. Held at a significant distance from its light source, a cucoloris produces patterns that are soft and amorphous, like sunlight dappled through the branches of a tree. A staged environment that approximates what’s “natural” while rendering it transactional, generalized. As Nicole tells me, it’s not any one tree, just the implication of tree: a simple equation in globular forms.
When faced with something general, we are quick to rush in with our specificity. In these contexts, what can natural lighting feel like? How does it prompt memory, build trust, serenity, awe, intimacy, foreboding? It’s a carved-out space for old sensations, made seemingly fresh and newly possible.
During a clear day, I squint out the window; I pull the curtains to dampen the sun. At night, I relish those moments when unforeseen colours crackle on the insides of my closed eyelids, shimmering like caked dust on the windowsills of a sunlit apartment. I try to find language for these colours, but I cannot. After all, they are electrical charges produced by my retinas as they rest. All interior, they have no equivalent beyond the threshold of my skin.
Nicole films dappled light through the gentle wave of a curtained window, another delicately-covered threshold, more blooms of ambiguous colour. The thrum of her soundtrack—thunder, birdsong, low ambient tones—meets the noise of blood pumping in ears, breath rising and falling. The longer I sit here, I grow confused about my vantage point: I look through a window, a laptop, a curtain, a camera, my glasses, my corneas, the entirety of a body. I look inwards and outwards at once.
From Maggie Nelson’s Bluets:
“38. For no one really knows what colour is, where it is, even whether it is. (Can it die? Does it have a heart?) Think of a honeybee, for instance, flying into the folds of a poppy: it sees a gaping violet mouth, where we see an orange flower and assume that it’s orange, that we’re normal.”
The mercurial, amber-gold crackle of Rosco gels on Super8: I’m seeing Nicole’s colours throughout my environment now. That half-used beeswax candle (dusty, golden, wise); a fading bruise on my thigh (blue-green, muddy, cosmic); the yellowing leaves of an under-watered houseplant (dry, sickly, accusatory). It’s interesting when the boundary between what you’re watching and what you’re living starts to become translucent; like excess light passing through gauzy fabric.
Like a cucoloris, coloured gel lighting is a careful wager between the so-called artificial and the natural. The one stage lighting trick I know is that a synthetic colour can be made to seem more realistic if paired with its opposite: orange or amber light becomes less harsh when given a small dose of blue. It becomes dimensional; somehow, it contains more. I imagine this trick works because seeing light in the world means taking in so many variances and contradictions, visible or not: like what’s unseen alongside blue wavelengths scattered across the dense matter of the sky. The impossible largeness—of perception, of sensation, of memory—held within a spectrum.
One last fact that I’ve learned about the colours in the sky: the fiery tones of a sunset are produced through sheer distance. As it sets, the sun is at its furthest from your vantage point, its light has the longest to travel, giving more opportunity for the longest wavelengths—orange, red—to scatter into the stuff of the air.
I find it strange to think of red as a colour that denotes a separation, given its associations with passion, violence, and so on. All things relating to closeness, to the immediacy of a body. But maybe that’s all the more appropriate, somehow. Like warm, amber light that contains a kernel of its opposite, maybe there’s more distance folded into my body than I initially anticipated.
On the phone, Nicole asks me: “what does it mean when you need to draw the blinds and turn away from the most beautiful part of the day?”
I still do not have a clear answer. Yet, as I watch the muted sunlight inch slowly across the surfaces of my apartment, I see more than I realize.
FRAGMENTARY ESSAY: Daniella Sanader
CURATED BY: Steffanie Ling for IMAGES FESTIVAL
PRESENTED BY: Critical Distance
FOR EVERY SUNSET, WE HAVEN'T SEEN (7:15) - VIMEO LINK
IMAGES ARTIST TALK: NICOLE KELLY WESTMAN - VIMEO LINK