Sonja Thomsen

Teaching Page

Click images to enlarge | Jump to Content
Sonja Thomsen: in the space of elsewhere (installation view), 2017. Mixed-media, site-specific installation. Photo by Fred Croen.
Sonja Thomsen: in the space of elsewhere (installation view), 2017. Mixed-media, site-specific installation. Photo by Fred Croen.

This teaching page provides analysis of the work of art, background information on the artist, key ideas, discussion questions, and online resources for additional learning. You can also download a PDF of this teaching page and two large images (image 1, image 2) of her installation, in the space of elsewhereSonja Thomsen: in the space of elsewhere is on view through December 17, 2017.


Sonja Thomsen created her installation in the space of elsewhere expressly for the lobby of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Such “site-specific” art is the result of a collaboration between the museum and the artist, in which the artist has given careful consideration to the specifics of the space before making a unique work of art. Responding to the prominence of natural light streaming into MMoCA’s lobby, Thomsen delved into the many ways light operates in this 2400-square-foot César Pelli-designed space, with its signature glass staircase and triangular architectural details.

Thomsen hung a variety of three-edged polycarbonate shapes in the lobby’s ‘icon,’ the point at which glass walls come together to form a flattened apex and echo the shapes of adjacent buildings. Thomsen's triangular forms, some with mirrored and some with colored surfaces, can be seen from different vantage points within and outside the museum. Thomsen also used an unusual material―reflective Aluminet shade cloth (usually employed in agriculture as shade for growing plants)―to form elongated triangles that stretch across the glass atrium. Photographic wall murals cover two floors of the lobby and reiterate in large scale the colors, textures, and shapes of the installation’s sculptural components.   

Thomsen’s installation explores the qualities of light for reflecting, or bouncing off surfaces; refracting, or bending and breaking into colors; and creating shadows where beams of light are interrupted in their passage. It invites visitors, as well as passersby, to wonder at the play of light within the museum’s soaring architectural features, and to look for visual relationships between the building’s triangular design and the installation’s diverse elements. Thomsen has explained that her artistic interests are in “creating spaces that highlight the inaccessible. As we get closer, comprehension moves further away. . .There should always be a place for wonder; it is a direct line to new knowledge.”


Sonja Thomsen was born in 1978. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2004. Her practice combines photography, sculpture, interactive installation and site-specific public art. A resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Thomsen is a member of the international photography collective Piece of Cake and co-director of The Pitch Project, and is a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Thomsen has been developing her expansive approach to photography for the past twelve years, finding inspiration “from photography’s history of experimentation and alchemy.” She has said, “Light makes time perceptible. It takes approximately eight minutes for the photons from the sun to reach us. We construct our own timelines by counting sunrises. We understand scientifically that light is both particle and wave. I use the language of light, in image, projection, reflection, and refraction, to create experiences that highlight the inaccessible.”


  • Site-specific art that results from a collaboration between artist and museum
  • Installation that contains sculptural, photographic, and unusual, non-art materials
  • Light as a subject and material of a work of art
  • Art that evokes a sense of wonder and curiosity


  1. What are some ways that you use light in your daily activities? How is light useful to you?
  2. How does the quality of light change from morning to afternoon and evening? Where can you find patterns of changing light in your home, school, or outdoors?
  3. Sonja Thomsen wants viewers to feel a sense of wonder when experiencing her work. How do you define wonder? What places inspire you or spark your curiosity?
  4. Imagine that you have been asked to make a work of art using light as your material. How might you capture, guide, block, focus, or otherwise play with light in an interesting way?


On the Artist
Video interview with the artist
Essays on Sonja Thomsen's ideas and processes

Art Methods
History and examples of installation art
Description and examples of site-specific art

Light as a subject of art-making