The Light Show

I went to see the Light Show today at the Hayward Gallery. You can view some of the works by clicking on the artists in the left menu here

This is a marvellous, joyful show that is highly accessible to more than the standard audience for art galleries because it is more sensory than the usual exhibition. This was heightened for me on arrival where a visually impaired lady and her partner were being introduced to the exhibition by a gallery guide and the lady was exclaiming ‘I can see it! I can see it!’. I later asked staff if this was a consideration when they were curating the exhibition and they said it was – that they aimed to have this as a widely accessible exhibition because of the nature of the material.

So, to the exhibition. How could it not be joyful? For a start light plays a very important part in all our lives – of course without it we could not see – but it goes beyond vision, stimulating basic functions within us, creating vitamin D, defining our body clocks, mood etc. It is the sun; it is the moon; the twinkle of small lights suggest magical happenings, Christmas and fireworks. In previous lives humans have worshipped sun gods – the bringers of light. So it holds a very strong physical as well as visual connection for us.

This exhibition is split over two floors, the lower one is darker and more atmospheric, whereas the upper level is much lighter and whiter. Interestingly none of the works have a detrimental effect on one another, as you might think, with the realms of their very material unable to be contained.

It begins with the magical Cylinder III by Leo Villareal. It dominates the space and draws one into it. It’s individual lights are quite bright and the patterns and movement of the LEDs moving up and down the poles suggest shimmering water suggesting a warmth and summer memories. Close up it is as though you are in an alien world – it is like watching the manifestation of the matrix in front of your eyes. At a height and from a distance it looks like a spaceship and reflected in the glass bannister it appears as a slow motion jumping fountain. It is quite beautiful and mesmerising and says quite a lot about man’s interaction with and worship of light.

The next piece is Magic Hour by David Batchelor. This is a grouping of back to front light boxes with coloured gels on them. What this then shows is a colourful glow of light around the edges of the grouped boxes and through little gaps in between them. It seemed strange to me how you begin to ignore all the gubbins of the things that create the work on concentrate just on the edges, where the colour and light is – almost as though the physical things that create it don’t exist and aren’t important. It’s also good that you can see (just) around the back of it to see how it is made. There is a lot of that in this exhibition – needing to know how it’s been done…

Ceal Floyer’s work Throw is a ‘splat’ of light shone onto the ground with a stagelight. People want to interact with this, to interrupt the shape, to have it projected on them. What I found interesting was it its opposition to how you would usually see a splat – created by something physical, yet here it is created by something ethereal. Yet, we speak of light being ‘thrown’ on something – I thought this was very clever wordplay: then I read the description of this piece and found that visual puns are integral to her work.

Francis Morellet’s work, Lamentable, is a grouping of gently curving cyan coloured, neon lights. His description says he is interested in mathematical rules and systems and these curves are dislocated sections of a circle. It views like a 3d scribble in light. Is it collapsing or drawing up? This piece doesn’t do much for me.

The main focus of this mezzanine is Cerith Wyn Evans’ piece S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill underlying motive’s overspill’). These are 3 illuminated columns that are really very bright and create a warm light particularly as they fade in and out as the filaments in the tube glow through orange to white. They also kick out an awful lot of heat! The artist likens the columns to breathing and that really is what it feels like as you stand there. They are oddly reminiscent of jelly fish to me (where their movement is so subtle and smooth and pulsating – plus the wiggling filaments of the lights also look a bit like stingers!). You don’t realise just how bright this work is until you view the next room and exit it. It is almost unbearable and there is a lot of playing with the physical effect of light on the eyes also going on in this exhibition, that at times is uncomfortable and disconcerting.

Anthony McCall’s installation You and I, Horizontal is a really joyful piece – but only made so by the audience. I can imagine as a solo viewer this is quite a desolate and stark piece that can emphasis the singularity and loneliness of the viewer. However, with a group of viewers it is delightful. Children and adults are giggling and in awe of how they can affect and what they can create, with nothing more than the interaction of their own body in circular beam of light (shown to the best of its effect with a light use of a smoke machine). It’s simple, cinematic and feels epic, but at the same time we marvel at the simplicity of our joy and wonder why have we never been able to do this before? Well, because in our light flooded world, you can no longer find the opportunity. People of a certain age will remember a time when films at the cinema were projected by a single beam and people could smoke inside; providing similar atmospheric conditions as this piece. The films used to ‘roll’ continuously and you arrived when you arrived – sometimes in the middle of the film and kept watching the ‘roll’ until you got to the same place and left – so people were getting up and down all the time and in small theatres could ‘break’ the projected beam in a similar way. But now, I cannot think of a way to experience this except as a piece of art. So for adults it is also a memory of times past and for children a chance to experience something previously unknown and unseen.

In the next room you are required to wear overshoes – not something I am used to doing when viewing fine art! I think I have done so in a place of worship or somewhere with delicate floors… here it is to ensure the whiteness of the environment is maintained. Doug Wheeler’s ‘experimental environment’ Untitled relies on the viewing environment remaining pristine and mark-free to enable the optical illusion his diffused neon square of light provides. I think this piece is a very personal experience and for me it felt as though the room faded away into smoke and I felt as though I was falling into the lit square. The artist speaks about other viewers becoming 2 dimensional in the environment – but they spoiled it for me… I wanted the whole space to myself, to indulge in the illusion and immerse myself fully in this illusional environment. You have to queue to go in to this room – which is actually good, because it ensures you get a good experience of the work without it being too crowded. You are also able to walk up close to square and see how it is constructed and positioned in the room: again there is much marvelling at something so fascinating being created from something so simple.

There were only a couple of works in the whole exhibition that I didn’t ‘get’ or feel a connection with and Bill Cuthbert’s Bulb Box Reflection II was one of them. It is a turned off lightbulb apparently reflected in a mirror – and the reflected bulb is turned on. Perhaps I should have been more impressed given it was created almost 40 years ago – but there were no lightbulbs going off over my head for this one I’m afraid. Lots of people were ‘deconstructing’ how it was made and were finding lots of ‘flaws’ in the reflection etc. which kind of spoils it too – it isn’t a magic trick, it’s art – or is it?

Jim Campbell’s Exploded Views (Commuters) was one of my favourite works. It is simple, but genius and cleverly positioned in the space to be carefully considered. You queue around this work to enter one of the ‘restricted number of viewers’ rooms. This is a rectangle of hanging lights that appear to create patterns and twinkle as the lights in the strings and across the rectangular shape turn on and off. From the shorter edges they seem to be waves of light travelling at you; at the corners they are just twinkling lights, but as you stand facing one of the long edges you can see that the lights that turn off are actually in the shape of people moving across the ‘space’ created by the lights. Again, you begin to wonder how this is possible – and assume that these are shadows being cast by people walking around the exhibition: then realise this is not possible because the light source is from the lights that are turning off. As people realise this and the effort that has had to go in to creating this impression you can see the wonder on their faces. Something so familiar, yet created in an unexpected way and existing in a format one would think impossible. Genius piece of work.

Wedgework V is an experience room by James Turrell. It is fascinating to think how he has created the sense of various rooms in front of you just by the use of light, but overall I found this quite disappointing. Perhaps this is because there is a great deal of anticipation around the work: one has to queue, enter down a completely dark corridor (almost by touch alone) and be seated in front of the work when you can’t see where you are. Everyone sort of expected a piece of light performance, perhaps a sequence, but the light remained static and after a while, although I was intrigued with how it had been done, I was quite bored. You also couldn’t inspect the created space or get any closer to it because it was heavily guarded (a health and safety nightmare I suspect) so it felt like it was too removed from me to allow me to connect properly. That said, the clear creation of planes from light is very intriguing.

Inside another space is Conrad Shawcross’s work Slow Arc inside a Cube IV. This is one of the items that had made me want to see the show. This is a moving light inside a geometrically patterned metal framework box. The bulb moves with the aid of an elliptically moving arm – pushing the bulb smoothly from the bottom left corner to the top right over and over again (at least from where I was stood). The great thing about this is the shadows that are cast in the white cube room the work is placed in. They create a constantly moving, dizzying surface pattern to the walls that make you feel mad and unstable on your feet. One viewer left because she said it was ‘challenging her varifocals’!

Another puzzling work for me was Katie Paterson’s Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight. A frame containing 289 blue lightbulbs (which don’t light up) outside the room and inside a single, bare, low hung lightbulb inside the room. Yep, it looks like moonlight and the shadows are interesting but… I just didn’t get it. On reading the information it appears the extra lightbulbs are there to ensure a lifetime’s supply of moonlight and the bulbs were specifically engineered to be the opposite of daylight bulbs – there was also a log book. Without reading this I would not have understood the work as the artist intended – so I feel rather lost about this piece in general.

The next installation was my favourite of the entire exhibition. Chromosaturation by Carlos Cruz-Diez is a white-painted space (this time you remove your shoes) which is partitioned by white walls and each ‘section’ is lit by blue, red and green light. Inside the space there are some cubic forms from which the colours from the other areas reflect. It is advised that you move slowly through the space – so initially I spent a lot of time concentrating on the diffuse qualities of the light and what the colour cast did to my skin and familiar items. By the time I came to move on, the blue area was almost white – there was a reason for this… As I moved into the red area it was almost unbearably painful for the eyes: the light was still diffuse but the sudden change from the immersion from one colour into another was extreme. Looking back to the blue area the colour was now very intense – where a few moments ago it was incredibly weak and pale. Now I was starting to understand why they were suggesting you moved slowly through the areas… as my eyes adjusted to the red light, it became pinker and paler until it was almost white again. I then moved into the green area. Again there was intense pain in the eyes and head when everyone tried to adjust to the new light (but it wasn’t about intensity of light – although it was the same reaction as if you had walked from complete darkness into bright sunlight – it was about the change in colour). Suddenly the pale pink from the previous room now appeared vibrantly red. Again the green waned in intensity after a period of time – becoming a wash of yellowish/lime light. I tried moving into the blue light – but the effect was less pronounced this way. Perhaps this is because you had to pass the entrance to the space and ambient light washes in or perhaps because we have less difficulty adapting to blue light because of its prevalence in everyday vision? I thought this piece was extremely effective – but drawing on physiological responses to colour it makes us question our actual perception of colour over time and our familiarity to it – ultimately proving that what we see is unreliable. I loved this piece – tapping into the biology of the eye and making us ‘colourblind’ by overstimulating one particular colour cone is an impressive feat to make us appreciate the physicality of other colours. If it wasn’t so physically uncomfortable I could have gone round and round. Another viewer posited why did we bother with painted colours and wallpaper when we could do this with light? Personally, I don’t think my eyes could take the repeated shifts!

The next piece was a criss-cross patterned plastic cup which rotated and had a light shone through it – revealing the refraction of light: by Fischli and Weiss the only thing I have written about Son et Lumiere is ‘Mmmmmm…’ and ‘rotating cup’. It was also noisy from the rotation.

Upstairs was an altogether lighter affair (no pun intended).

Brigitte Kowanz showed a very ‘utilitarian’ piece called Light Steps. For me it was OK when viewed at a distance or side on, but generally reminded me of some dodgy car park lighting where the lights were an afterthought and didn’t fit the building properly. I don’t think the Hayward’s building materials helped this piece – as it was near the concrete steps – probably where I got the car-park-feel from.

Marquee by Phillippe Parreno was great fun. It is a canopy over a door to another exhibit – one of the sorts you see outside theatres full of dancing lightbulbs shining their glory into the night. He calls them ‘electric tiaras’ and says he likes that this work acts as a portal to another artist’s work. I liked it too as it made me feel like a star! (and special!)

The work in this room was Rose by Ann Veronica Janssens and is a star of red/orange spotlights – again assisted by a little smoke. This was a nice, warm, ambient room to be in which was far less dramatic (and therefore somewhat less interesting) than McCall’s room. Janssens says the ‘idea is to offer a visual experience and make matter dissolve’.

Ivan Navarro had two works at this exhibition – both of which I really liked. Burden is a beautiful visual illusion of an infinity mirror (a thin neon strip surrounds the edge of the mirror and reflects endlessly to give the impression of looking down into something). It is part of a series of works based on the footprints of skyscrapers and his work certainly does create the sense of looking into a chasm of space. Reality Show (Silver) is a 4-doored ‘phone box’ with 1 way mirrors on all doors so you can see your reflection, but above and below you, all you can see is infinite reflections of a light rope – you disappear. It is a very clever optical illusion that is immersive and endless fun for children. The queue for this is massive – but it is worth the wait. The ability to question your visual existence in space is fantastic.

Dan Flavin also had two works here. The first The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham) I didn’t care for, but his second piece Untitled (to the “innovator”of Wheeling Peachblow is gorgeous. The play of tonally similar lights into one another and into the corner of the room works in a way that I have not seen in any other works here. The work creates a warm and inviting corner (reminiscent of the glow from a fire) but which ultimately you cannot cross into: inviting but forbidden. Despite its size and construction it is also an incredibly delicate work – the light conveys a fragility: which is understandable as Peachblow is a glass produced in Wheeling – his inspiration for the piece. I like the interplay of colours and also the interruption by the steel bars and white neon. This must be viewed from a distance – close up and the effect is ruined.

Probably the most controversial work here is Monument by Jenny Holzer. This is a tall semi-circle of LED message strips reproducing political messages – in this instance testimonies from those involved in the ‘War on Terror’. The texts include the censoring by the government as words are blanked out. The text is also layered with the use of colour and size in each strip giving a 3-d impression. Holzer uses words in her art so she can be ‘explicit’. This work actually benefits from closer inspection as the text continues in a pale cyan on the reverse of each ring. This attention to detail is great to see – there are no hidden messages here though – the text is just the same as the front, but it is great to see one of these pieces that works at a distance and close up. It is obviously evocative of the news ticker tapes from Times Square, Piccadilly Circus and stock markets.

Model for a Timeless Garden by Olafur Eliasson is a series of small fountains (the home garden variety) lit by strobe lights so the water is free-framed into a series of visual stills from reality. This is disturbing for both the eyes and the head! But close up you can see the light spectrum in the water droplets. It smells funny! Kids absolutely loved this exhibit.

Holes of Light by Nancy Holt is a space divided by a central panel into which holes have been cut. Lights on facing walls light in turn to cast shadows and holes of light onto the wall opposite. It seems quite ordinary as an experience in comparison with many in the exhibition – like a natural phenomena that could be seen in any architectural environment. She has drawn on the walls where the light falls though – which adds an area of interest when the lights are turned off and a crispness to the edge of the light (like a rim) when the lights are turned onto that wall.

What is fascinating about this exhibition is the ability to feel part of the work; that the work is created just for you to experience it; how you physically absorb the work and how it absorbs you into its grasp. It is not an exhibition where you see the work and it is removed from you – held at arm’s length by the velvet rope (some of these are still) but the very nature of light means it reaches out to you and touches you without you having to break the barrier. I defy anyone to go and not find something they find joyous here.

Images and video from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s