Out of the Shadows

Ingo Mauer uses live fish to make us consider the slippery nature of light.

“I believe very much that a lot of things in life are by chance, and not by intention,” lighting designer Ingo Maurer says of Tableaux Chinois, his recent installation at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris. A fishbowl table refracted into a moving light mural, it is both highly scripted (he has made four adaptations of it in 18 years, beginning with a much larger version shown at the Fondation Cartier, across the Seine) and completely unpredictable (it is designed around live animals). “Every moment is an original,” Maurer says.

The structure is a seven-foot-long mirror-bottomed aluminum basin filled with water, floating oblong mirrors, and goldfish. A high-­powered projector, typically used in filmmaking and architectural lighting, is mounted on the ceiling and angled down at the table. On the wall behind it, the fish’s cal­ligraphic shadows are overlaid with the mirrors’ amoebic reflections. Typical for Maurer, the materials are simple but carry great emotional depth; the random movements make an entrancing shadowy film. “I’m interested to turn an ordinary project into a kind of a dream, an illusion,” he says.

The designer’s best-known works—including the winged Lucellino and the Bulb table lamp—are unmistakably airy, but with water he is hardly out of his element. Maurer, who will be 75 in May, grew up on an island in Lake Constance, in southern Germany near the Swiss border. More unusual, especially for a lighting designer, is Tableaux Chin­ois’s preoccupation with darkness, although Maurer does not fully accept the characterization. “A shadow for me is the remembrance of the light,” he says. “They are a couple: one cannot do without the other.”

The installation’s playfulness comes from the 16 or so goldfish whose movements give it life. Maurer took great pains to ensure their well-being during the piece’s inaugural exhibition, Images Mouve­ment, which closed in January. “We only lost one because the work was guarded by somebody who knows about fish and the water and the right things,” Maurer says. “They feel well—otherwise I wouldn’t do it.” His upcoming retrospective at the Cooper-Hewitt, Provoking Magic, which opens this fall, will include yet another version; and although Maurer is somewhat elusive on the specifics, he clearly hasn’t yet tired of his materials’ ability to surprise. “I will work with the fish again,” he says.

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