Artists throughout history have been fascinated by light, from Turner’s awesome seascapes to Monet’s Impressionist paintings of his sun-bathed garden in Giverny.
But over the last 100 years advances of technology have enabled light to become a spectacular vehicle for modern artists experimenting with dramatic displays of illumination.
Art, science and technology collide at the Light Show, the Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition, which is currently wowing audiences in London.
This blockbuster show is definitely a must-see event if you’re looking for a visually stimulating, immersive experience
Sensory overload is 100% guaranteed. The blockbuster exhibits range from flickering light rods to illuminated rooms and star-spangled, luminous bulb fountains.
But first, a quick health warning. This is not an exhibition for migraine sufferers or the faint-hearted who feel squeamish in clubs with strobe lighting.
Conrad Shawcross’ exhibit, Slow Arc Inside A Cube, made me feel so dizzy that I had to leave the exhibit after only a few minutes. Its shifting geometric and cosmological patterns reminded me of being on a ship suffering from bad motion sickness.
As I staggered outside, a young man was being helped up after fainting!
A spectacular room filled with Olafur Eliasson’s sensational strobe-flashing exhibit called Model for a Timeless Garden had a similar effect and I had to run for the door.
That said, the installations are both brilliant. It’s hard to resist the flashing lights and motion exhibits, a bit like going on a death-defying fun fair ride.
Light Show stimulates a wide range of visual reactions from over-stimulation to a calm, relaxed lightness of being.
As I reached for my migraine tablets, I felt on more comfortable ground with Katie Paterson’s serene Lightbulb to Simulate Moonlight which tries to recreate natural moonlight.
A single hanging lightbulb projects a pure glow and muses on the nature of light during a century when air pollution is “murdering our moonlight”.
An older couple weren’t convinced, muttering something about the emperor’s new clothes but I grew to admire the paired-down quality of this work.
The sparkling Cylinder by American artist Leo Villareal is equally seductive; a mix of 19,600 white LED lights are orchestrated to create endlessly changing patterns and shapes.
This work is designed to evoke meteor showers, fireworks, falling snow and waves of phosphorescence but it reminded me of frozen icicles dripping in the early morning light.
As the lights shimmer and oscillate between dim and bright, it’s hard not to become intrigued by this constantly evolving installation.
Next to it, Magic Hour by David Batchelor recreates dusk in Las Vegas with a spectacle of colours drawn from the twilight sky of the world’s gambling capital.
The work is made up from discarded commercial lightboxes acquired from skips and salvage companies, but I have to admit that this was one of my least favourite works in the show.
The lightness of being
Light Space is not simply about visual eye candy. Many of the works have deeper, more complex meanings and draw strongly on how we experience light from a psychological perspective.
Reality Show (Silver) by the Chilean artist Ivan Navarro is one of the stand-out works combining visual sensation with more complex references to surveillance issues in his homeland during the Pinochet regime.
The brightly-lit, mirrored phone box cubicle invites visitors inside where a series of reflections appear in infinite sequence, in an illusion created by one-way mirrors.
Strangely your own image does not appear, but can be seen by the visitors outside. Unsettling it certainly is – and thought provoking at the same time.
But to see this work properly be prepared to stand in a long queue if you want to venture inside the cubicle.
Further back from the cubicle another gallery houses works by the master of illuminated art – American Dan Flavin.
His electric light art installations created huge waves in the 1960s – and remain as impressive now as then.
One of my favorite installations in the show is his Wheeling Peachblow, a subtle work made from flourescent tubes with a limited palette of subdued colours.
The minimalism and simplicity of the work is really powerful and I was intrigued to learn that the white, yellow and pink flourescent tubes were designed to mimick the hue of 19th Century Peachblow glass produced in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Light and shade
Another minimal but effective work is Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal, a ‘solid light’ installation that puts the viewer at its very heart.
A video projector, haze machine and computer create the illusion of a solid beam of light that becomes intangible and fluid when you walk through it.
The experience is a bit like walking through a film projector’s beam in a futuristic cinema.
It’s also one of the best works in the show with its complex, three dimensional sculptural space and wave-like beams of light.
Another favourite was Doug Wheeler’s experimental space, Untitled, which creates the illusion of a large light-encased square that appears to float before your eyes.
This visual trick is more complex that it first seems and creates a spatially ambiguous environment where it’s easy to lose any sense of time and space… which I certainly did!
There’s much to admire in all of these experiential installations.
Yet more visual tricks lurk around every gallery corner.
A light bulb is reflected in a mirror in Bill Culbert’s Bulb Box Reflection. The mystery is that the actual bulb is not lit whilst its reflection is brightly illuminated.
I’m pretty sure that one way mirrors are involved in this fascinating trickery!
On a much larger scale, Wedgework V is a striking red room of an installation from the reigning king of light art – James Turrell.
In common with many of Turrell’s works the visitor walks down a dark corridor before entering the brightly-lit box which sits diagonally across the gallery space.
It takes some time for your eyes to adjust to light, during which time perceptions of the space shift and evolve.
Fifteen minutes inside the space are recommended to get the full effect but the longer you stay inside the box, the more disquieting it is.
Smoke and mirrors
Some of the installations in Light Show do have a lighter, playful feel, which makes for light relief (literally) after the more intellectually challenging works.
Ivan Navarro’s installation, Burden, challenges us with a series of visual illusions as you peer inside a tower, creating the feeling of vertigo. Time for me to grab another migraine tablet.
Again, this architectural effect is created through one-way mirrors and a neon light box, which is fun but something of a one-trick pony.
Rose by Ann Veronica Janssens (top photo) is more impressive with its immersive environment created with light, artificial fog, colour projections and mirrors.
Its hallucinogenic, soporific effect makes for an engaging and puzzling visual experience.
As you walk around the room, the sculpted light transforms itself into a beaming red and white luminous star which then dissolves as you move around the space.
Another immersive space is Chromosaturation (Carlos Cruz-Diez), a series of rooms where colour interacts with the gallery visitor as you wander between three colour chambers in red, green and blue.
Take off your shoes and wander barefoot (or wear special shoes) as you pad around this brightly-lit environment which reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s space ship interior in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Sensory overload is on the menu and once again I found myself recoiling from the acidic green room which over-stimulated my eyes.
Any more spaces like this and I’ll have to pop out to the pharmacy for another pack of migraine pills!
Fortunately, the next gallery housed a less visually demanding installation called Light Steps by Austrian artist Brigitte Kowanz, who specialises in artificial light which dissolves the room’s actual corners.
It’s a bit like being inside one of those Science Museum exhibits where the size of the room shrinks or grows depending on where you’re standing.
White flourescent tubes span the space like a series of ascending steps – a simple but clever and perplexing installation.
There was some blurb in the exhibition brochure about the space-time continuum which I didn’t really understand but reminded me of the Hollywood film, Back to the Future.
Finally, it was time to exit through to the gift shop, a surreal experience because my eyes had become adjusted to the visual bombardment of the previous hour.
Almost all of the 25 works in the Light Show use artificial light to conjure up a sense of sculptural space that calls into play our perceptual responses.
My senses were actually starting to crave an excess of visual stimulation.
Carpets of light, columns of illuminated bulbs, sensory rooms of colour – bring them on!
Inside the Light Show
The Hayward Gallery is open Monday 12 noon-18:00 and Tuesdays to Sundays 10:00-18:00. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays also have late night opening till 21:00.
Booking for the Light Show is strongly advised during busy times including weekends and evenings.
Look out for special talks and events to tie in with the Light Show exhibition.
Star exhibits: James Turrell’s Wedgework V, Dan Flavin’s Wheeling Peachblow, Olafur Eliasson’s Model for a Timeless Garden, Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal.
Image Credits & Copyright
Images are courtesy of the Hayward Gallery, London.
David Batchelor – Magic Hour (2004-2007) – ©the artist/DACS. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Leme, São Paulo. Photo: Linda Nylind.
Jim Campbell – Exploded View (Commuters) (2011) – ©the artist – Courtesy Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York and studio of Jim Campbell. Photo: Linda Nylind
Carlos Cruz-Diez – Chromosaturation (1965-2013) – ©the artist/DACS – Cruz-Diez Foundation. Photo: Linda Nylind.
Ann Veronica Janssens – Rose (2007) – ©the artist/DACS. Photo: Linda Nylind.
Brigitte Kowanz – Light Steps (1990-2013) – ©the artist. The artist, courtesy Häusler Contemporary, München/Zürich; Galerie Krobath, Wien/Berlin; Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska, Salzburg; Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York. Photo: Linda Nylind.
Anthony McCall – You and I, Horizontal (2005) – ©the artist courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers Berlin London. Photo: Linda Nylind.
Iván Navarro – Reality Show (2010) – ©the artist Courtesy the artist and Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris. Photo: Linda Nylind.
Iván Navarro – Burden (Lotte World Tower) (2011) – ©the artist – Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery. Photo: Linda Nylind.
Leo Villareal – Cylinder II (2012) – ©the artist. Courtesy the artist and GERING & LóPEZ GALLERY, NY. Photo: Linda Nylind.
Cerith Wyn Evans – 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…’) (2010) – ©the artist – courtesy the artist and White Cube. Photo: Linda Nylind.