Mirror Mirror

Josiah McElheny puts a new spin on the term "light reading".

Paul Scheerbart's short story "The Light Club of Batavia" is the inspiration for Josiah McElheny's Model for a Film Set (The Light Spa at the Bottom of a Mine), 2008.

Paul Scheerbart's short story "The Light Club of Batavia" is the inspiration for Josiah McElheny's Model for a Film Set (The Light Spa at the Bottom of a Mine), 2008.


With their shimmering light and color and reflective surfaces, Josiah McElheny‘s works can make viewers feel as if they’ve entered a hall of mirrors. In his book The Light Club: On Paul Scheerbart’s “The Light Club of Batavia,” out in May from the University of Chicago Press, McElheny performs a similar sleight of hand–this time applying it to a short, obscure tale.

It started with an English translation of a little-known German novel, Paul Scheerbart‘s 1914 The Gray Cloth. The book tells the story of an architect so obsessed with the appearance of his glass constructions that he makes his wife dress only in gray and white so as not to clash with them.

While reading the novel, McElheny found a reference in a footnote to another, untranslated Scheerbart work that piqued his interest: the seven-page-long “novelle” from 1912, “The Light Club of Batavia.” (A “novelle” is a short story whose plot is “described in a brief, schematic manner,” according to McElheny.)

Scheerbart’s tale features Mrs. Hortense Pline, an “engineeress” who suffers from an addiction to light. An architect friend suggests she satisfy that addiction by turning a mine shaft into an artificially illuminated light spa. She follows up on the suggestion–and spends her entire fortune in the process.

In his introduction to the book, McElheny writes that he aimed to create “a series of varying frames” through which to view the story, in which he found “layers and layers of problems.” Included in the book is the novelle’s first English translation, commissioned by McElheny, as well as essays, a poem, and a play–all of which expand on the story’s themes. McElheny’s own short story, “The Light Spa in the Mine,” recasts “The Light Club of Batavia” as a sort of shaggy-dog story being told in a present-day bar. (“I’ve already been in many bars telling this story,” he adds.) Illustrating the book are stills from Light Club (2008), a film McElheny made in collaboration with Jeff Preiss.

The book is the latest in a series of projects that McElheny has based on “The Light Club of Batavia.” At Orchard, a former exhibition space on the Lower East Side, he staged a performance modeled on Scheerbart’s story. In the sculpture Model for a Film Set (The Light Spa at the Bottom of a Mine), 2008, multicolored stacks of glass cubes are surrounded by high walls of clear glass blocks. McElheny says the abstract work is “supposed to be a model of the soundstage on which you would film the final scene of the story.”

The artist is also subjecting his own career to the same treatment The Light Club gives to Scheerbart’s story. Josiah McElheny: A Prism, which he edited with Louise Neri, was published by Rizzoli in May. Alongside images of McElheny’s work are interviews, critical commentary, and such texts as Adolf Loos‘s 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime” (a tirade against what Loos calls the “epidemic of ornament”) and the 1964 Jorge Luis Borges poem “Mirrors” (which reflects upon the “horror of mirrors”).

McElheny has organized “Crystalline Architectures,” a show of works by artists like Robert Smithson and Modernist architect Bruno Taut. The show will go up in late June at Andrea Rosen Gallery, which represents him. And he has plans to make a second film based on “The Light Club of Batavia,” to be shot at Miami’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens later this year.

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