The Subtlety of Shadows: Mary Temple's Light Installations

Mary Temple's Light Installation at the arts center. Photo courtesy John Varghese.

It's easy to miss. Mary Temple's installation at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery is so subtle, she says, that "I feel that only about 10 per cent of people who look at actually see it, and 90 per cent don't. It can be discouraging."

The Brooklyn-based artist's installation, in the On Site exhibition at the NYUAD Art Gallery, consists of white paint on a white wall; it takes patience and good eyesight to see that the tracery of shadows is not really shadow.

The work is part of a series called Light Installations (2002-Present). A video linked on the artist's website shows the process: first, colored adhesive tape marks out a space on a white wall. Then photographic slide images of plants, trees, and architectural elements are projected onto the marked space. With those as a guide, the artist or her assistants paint the shadows, in a white subtly different from the background shade of white.

When the projector is turned off and the border tape removed, what's left is a "shadow" that never changes as the sun moves across the sky.

"We all know light," Temple says. "People tend not to question it. So I'm asking people to reconsider their whole philosophy of life – and of the political. 'You believe this? Really? Have another look!' "

The effect, she has said, is that the work "celebrates the idea of doubt." And that, she says, makes the works political. "Look at George W. Bush, with all his firm beliefs, and how that worked out. And then Barack Obama has a lot of questions about things, and he got beat up for that."

"So it's political. And it's beautiful. Sometimes in your life you're in a place where you just wish everything could stay the same, and this is like that."

Ultimately, Temple says, these subtle false shadows are "about truth, finding truth, what to believe in. This is me trying to make something so believable that it is without question accepted."

Temple created the On Site installation without ever visiting the UAE. But she knows about fierce sunlight. "I'm from Arizona," she explains. "What you have in Abu Dhabi is the same sunlight I grew up with; shadows are a black hole. Here in New York where I live now, some days you're pressed to find a shadow at all."

Starting with pictures taken for her by NYUAD Art Gallery director and chief curator Maya Allison, Temple planned the installation and dispatched her trusted assistant Sabrina Saneaux to get the images onto the walls at the Saadiyat campus Gallery.

"We did everything through Skype and drawings. Sabrina showed me the room as the work went on. At every step of the process we talked. She painted for a solid week, and it was a week of long days, with little brushes," Temple says with a laugh.

"You know, we could have made this in just one day with vinyl cut-outs. I've experimented with that. But I hate it. As soon as you see the edge of the stencil, you lose the idea that it's light making the image. Really, for the viewer finding the brushstrokes is part of the piece."

Her Light Installation works are just one part of Temple's varied artistic practice. More recently she's been painting on canvas.

"For 10 years these installations kept me running around," the artist says, "but I'm doing them less often now, and it's mainly my assistants.

"I like it that the pieces don't last; I rarely make them in a permanent space, most of the installations, like the one in Abu Dhabi, are taken down eventually. They move through space the way light moves through a room."

On Site runs until January 17, 2015, at the Art Gallery on the Saadiyat Island campus of NYU Abu Dhabi. The Gallery is open 5 days a week and admission is free.

The artist's website is