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Playing with light and shadow

French artist Damien Bénéteau’s Optical Variations exhibition is a mesmerising ode to light

Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow. -Helen Keller

His kinetic art pieces move silently, mesmerising, pulling the viewer in as light and shadow chase each other on his monochromatic, minimalist sculptures. Black to grey to white to grey to black — over and over ad infinitum. Like silent metronomes marking the passing of time, there’s a hypnotic and transfixing quality in the rhythmic repetition of these mechanical sculptures. The oscillation varies; slow and languid on some, more rushed on others, yet never frenetic. Calming. They encourage reflection, and — ironically — there’s just no telling just how much time you can lose staring into these pieces reminiscent of the grandfather clock. 

“It all started with a study on shadows,” says French artist Damien Bénéteau of the six illuminated pieces in his exhibition Optical Variations at the MB&F M.A.D. Gallery in Dubai, his Middle Eastern debut. 

Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow. -Helen Keller

Previously a professional photographer, at the age of 40 Bénéteau decided to change tack and embarked upon a path that sees him being one of the only light sculptors in the world. “It’s a little bit different, but still related,” he says. 

Influenced by magnetic art and horology, this gallery and its focus on Mechanical Art Devices (M.A.D.) is a natural fit. “Damien is a dreamer and an incredible self-taught artisan. To follow his vision of mechanical/optical sculptures, he left all behind and taught himself a whole set of new skills. His machines are one of the reasons the M.A.D. Gallery exists,” says founder and creator Maximilian Büsser. “His mobiles and his creative philosophy are the epitome of what we defend in our curation.

“This man is the Baryshnikov of sculptures,” Büsser says at the opening, referring to Mikhail, often cited as one of the best ballet dancers ever. “When you see [Rudolf] Nureyev or Baryshnikov dance, it looks easy, but they’ve got immense talent and they’ve worked tens of thousands of hours to reach that point. 

“On a piece like this, Damien has worked on size, length, counterbalance, magnetism, intensity of light etc to get to that effect.”

In eight years, he’s made seven sculptures, and a limited number of each. “I can’t make more than four per year,” he explains. “The first can take anything between three to six months to complete. After that, once I’ve worked out how to put it all together, the successors in that series go faster, but it still takes a lot of time.”

But these are more than mere oscillating pendulums. Bénéteau says he’s interested in “sobriety, apparent simplicity and geometry”. This gives his work an almost celestial quality. 

He says “the notions of time, space and impalpable forces are present”, as he explores the cyclical nature of light moving across and through objects.

Instead of a motor that would introduce noise, the sculptures move through electromagnetic energy. 

The abundance of black is another throwback to his former career in photography. “Black is not just black,” he explains. “It changes when you shine light on it — it transforms into grey and all the way to white even.”

Colour, though, would add nothing to the pieces, thus isn’t a consideration. Size is, though. 

Bénéteau tells Debonair the last sculpture he created is his favourite. “With every piece, you always feel there’s something you can improve on, and that feeds into every subsequent one, making it better. Even then, you can work on something forever, so you need to decide to stop at some point.

“With this one, I felt it was okay, so I stopped. But I can see it on a much bigger scale. It’s all about proportion.” 

Then there’s oscillation. “Friction is my biggest enemy,” he explains. “The slower you go, the more friction there is. It’s very difficult to go very slow without being stopped by friction.” 

He’s preparing to set that challenge aside for a while. His next exhibition won’t feature light or movement. It will though, also be linked
to photography. 

“My work is intimately related to my background in photography,” says Bénéteau. “In this form of minimalist kinetic sculpture, I am using all I know about light to sculpt it. Much like in photography, I use light to achieve a certain optical effect.”

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