Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Review: Light Show visited by Show Lighters...

As a student of art, many years ago, I wrote a final essay arguing that all forms of theatrical design could be considered to be art, but that the context might be the thing that was stopping people from seeing set, costume and lighting design (among others) as art in a pure form. The trouble being that, much as I might have tried to convince people with my own slightly feeble attempts at light installation art in the school drama studio, it wasn't often that one was invited to look upon light as an art form rather than as a means to illuminate something. So it is perhaps unsurprising that when the Hayward Gallery announced its intention to hold an exhibition of light installations that I would want to see if it lived up to my expectations.
Very helpfully, being part of an organisation that is somewhat involved in light and art (Ahem... just somewhat involved...) has its advantages and this morning, along with eighteen other ALD members, I headed into the Hayward's galleries not really knowing what to expect but interested to see artist's interpretations of light as art. As an added bonus, we were joined by the electricians who put the show in who were able to shed some light (yes, I know, awful pun, are you not used to this by now?) on the practicalities of making art out of lighting fixtures.

The main gallery contains five works, the most dominant of which was Leo Villareal's Cylinder II (2012), a cylinder (funnily enough) made up of concentric circles of LED strips floating just off the floor. An image is mapped onto it to give the illusion of random patterns which are in fact created from a picture of a cloud. I was reliably informed that it is meant to be viewed in a room with no other light sources to experience its full effect, something which appeared to have been ignored in this particular instance. Although I agree that it would be a different experience were one to view it alone, I didn't think it suffered from being in a context with other works. For example, on the wall to the left of it was a multi-coloured work and behind, on a slightly higher level, several pillars of light and a neon tube installation, all of which reflected off the well-polished silver surface of Cylinder II, giving it added dimensions. 

Image via google images:

Upon walking up the slope to access the upper level of the main gallery, I encountered the first of a few theatrical fixtures. In this instance, it was a profile on a stand with a splat gobo in it. I've seen this work before and apart from an initial reaction that from a distance it does indeed look like a paint splat on the floor, I couldn't help but think it was a tad simplistic. I think my main objection to it was that its obvious that the splat is made of light, despite seeming to want to trick the viewer. Another work by the same artist, Ceal Floyer, which consisted of a light switch projected on a wall, was more successful at playing this game as most people, understandably, tried to switch it on. I couldn't help but think that this work would be more successful removed once again by context to a place where people might actually mistake it for a paint splat, although perhaps I have missed the point and it is in fact attempting to show us, simplistically, that light can be used in a similar way to paint. I showed the image to my flatmate (also a production electrician) and, amusingly, his main objection was not the 'light art' itself but the (presumably conscious) decision not to tape the connector to the stand. 

Two of the works in the exhibition employed the use of a haze machine, something which to us theatre types is not that groundbreaking, but to the general public, creates amazing and mysterious effects. I walked into one such piece which to the trained eye was clearly a video projection through some haze, creating what appeared to be solid lines of light in the air. Most people in the room were batting at the lines to work out if they were solid, and I'm afraid my cynicism kicked in slightly. It is, however, a good example of context changing people's views of things. Most people have probably seen a similar effect done either on stage or in a club but when its close to it becomes all the more fascinating. I suppose this is part of the point, that the general public don't have access to 'artworks' like these on a daily basis and to them they are as fascinating as a dancing fountain would be to others (although a fountain installer might see it as something menial and everyday, the majority see it as beautiful and intriguing in its own right).  

Red/Blue Rooms of Chromosaturation
Possibly one of the most interesting pieces in the exhibition from the point of view of colour theory was an exploration of red/greee/blue (although admittedly in a different order), called Chromosaturation (1965-2013) by Carlos Cruz-Diez. For those unversed in colour theory, exposing ones eyes to first an entirely blue room, followed by and entirely red room, followed by and entirely green room changes ones perception of each colour. For example, although the blue room did not feel particularly blue when standing in it, looking back at it (and a helpful suspended white cube hung at a 45 degree angle) from the vantage point of the red room makes it appear much bluer. As was pointed out by one of the other members, it is not often that you get to experience colours individually (especially in a white room) without any distraction from other sources.

Hanging from a normal plastic pendant fitting in a slightly grey room by itself was Lightbulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008) by Katie Paterson. Although an intriguing idea, I have to admit that I was not convinced of its moon-like quality. The scientific nature of the work, however, was quite fascinating and one has to give the artist points for effort on that front. She measured the light, amperage and temperature on the night of a full moon (presumably in an area with no light pollution, since the aim of the piece was to re-create moonlight in a form lost to us urban city-dwellers) and translated it into a halogen bulb specially manufactured for the purpose. The point still remains, however, that I have seen more convincing moonlight on a stage many a time so I'm afraid I shall take my moonlight in the countryside or, failing that, with a bit of 201 in front of it. 

On the upper level of the gallery, which was almost entirely populated by works made of white light (mainly fluorescent tubes), was another example of a theatrical effect taken out of its usual context. In a white room , behind a closed door was this work, entitled Rose (2007): 
Rose (2007) Ann Veronica Janssens

As you can probably see, its seven lights that appear, again with the addition of a haze machine, to create a floating shape. If one stands anywhere else in the room, however. the illusion is lost and it appears to be seven random spots of light on the wall (one of which, the slightly picky part of me wants to point out, needed its gel changing). It was, nonetheless an interesting effect and although its something that most of us had seen before, it was interesting to view it in its own right.

The final work in the exhibition was Olafur Eliasson's Model for a Timeless Garden (2011). It carried with it a warning seen on many an auditorium door 'This installation contains strobe lighting', and it wasn't lying. The piece consists of a line of strobes, masked to focus downwards with the use of some black wrap, pointing at a line of twenty-seven fountains. The strobes being the only light in the room makes the fountains appear frozen and each flash reveals a slightly different view. I have to say this was my favourite piece as I felt it had artistic merit of a different kind; it was something completely different to the rest of the installations and, unlike most of the others, was housed in a black room to accommodate the effect. It formed an illusion with light and was really quite simple in its make-up, but it completely changed ones view of the water, something relatively everyday when you think about it. The main disadvantage, according to one of the electricians, was that strobes do not last as long as they might in a theatre when left on all day every day and hence had to be swapped out regularly. 

All in all, I did enjoy the exhibition, especially when I started to get into it a bit more and leave my scepticism behind. I suppose as someone who has always been affected profoundly by light, and who works with it on a daily basis, I was bound to be more critical than your average member of the public, but it certainly does have some interesting pieces. I still find it amusing, though, that the context of a gallery can so easily lead people to refer to something as art. Looking at one particular piece with a colleague, I quipped, 'It's less art, and more fluorescent tubes...', which I humbly suggest to be the slogan for the next edition of Focus...

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Where the hip and trendy are at...

A few months ago, I left Oxford and my North London sensibilities behind me and moved South. I ended up in Brixton, somewhere that immediately brings to most minds images of 80s rioting and police sirens. I have to admit that that is what it brought to mind with me too, and my first visit did nothing to disavow me of this opinion.

Having been given incorrect directions by the friend I was staying with (being told to turn right out of the station rather than left), I ended up on a slightly shady road thinking that I should really be at his house by now. I hailed a taxi, giving up and thinking that it was a bad idea to wander any further. The taxi driver did nothing to help this opinion by saying 'Oh no, love! [put on some form of vague cockney accent here] Y'don' wanna be wanderin' here at this tima night!'. 

After arriving at the aforementioned friend's house (and chastising him for giving me the wrong directions...twice), I fell asleep and tried not to think about the sirens I could hear in the background.

It was about a month before I managed to actually visit Brixton proper, apart from the daily trip to the tube station. I was intrigued by the idea of living close to such a famous market and excited to be back near a Picturehouse cinema, given that I was missing the Phoenix quite a bit.

Putting the terrors of my first visit behind me, and noting that anywhere is less terrifying by daylight, I headed down towards the centre of Brixton, aiming for the market. I was immediately reminded of the Covered Market, another thing I'd been missing about Oxford. Fortunately, though, unlike Oxford market, Brixton somehow seems to have managed to stay relatively non-commercial. It contains a number of restaurants and cafes, little independent shops as well as butchers, fishmongers and grocers. I fell in love with the place there and then and, at the first available opportunity dragged my flatmate down to it, not believing that he'd lived in Brixton for a year and never been to it.

It wasn't until recently that I made it to the Ritzy Cinema but when I did I was just as impressed as I'd hoped to be. The main screen is beautiful, with a vaulted ceiling, uplighters in the walls and the Picturehouse's usual comfortable seating.

I've now noted that there is another opinion of Brixton, other than that of a constant riot, and that is that its one of those 'Up and Coming' places where trendy young things hang out and generally be hip and cool. And I suppose, it is, in its way, but that does seem to mean, to its advantage, that there is a lot going on here. And much as one might want to hate the hipsters for making things cool by liking them before they were, without them we probably wouldn't have the vintage shops, the local-artist print shop, the vegan cupcake stall and pubs that are much nicer to sit in than your average wetherspoons. 

All in all, I'm very happy with my move, not least because it means that my sofa surfing days are over, at least for now. And how could I not love somewhere that has a square lit with breakup gobos under its tree? Expect some more Brixton related this space

2012 The Uncharted Projects, Part 3: Knitting in the wings, just knitting in the wings...

For the past 3 or 4 years, I have had an aim when it comes to Christmas and its yearly ritual: namely, Christmas Shopping. I can't remember what prompted it but once the resolution was made, I couldn't see why I hadn't been doing it all along. The aim is simple: for at least 50% of the gifts I give to me homemade, second hand or bought from independent retailers. I usually succeed in doing this for well over 50% and I always feel much more satisfied with the gifts I give in this way. I always make preserves and biscuits for people (on one memorable secret Santa a few years ago, David Hasslehoff got chocolate shortbread...mind you, I never did find out if he liked it or not!) and in the past I've done paintings, made photo books, sewn cushions and crafted earrings from tiny baubles. The Christmas just gone, I had a new aim: to involve my latest crafting exploit by adding knitted gifts to my repertoire.

My main source of knitting based information, apart from my gran, is the wonderful 'Stitch and Bitch', which I'm fairly far behind the trend with but that makes it no less wonderful. As well as practical advice, it has some other useful knitting related tips one of which is relevant to the holiday season: do not knit for those who will not appreciate it. It tells a little tale of a woman who knitted a jumper for a lover. Jumpers, if you are not a knitter, take a relatively long time and, dependent on the pattern, would require quite a lot of effort and concentrated time to complete. If you want to show someone how much they mean to you through your crafting, by all means do it, but heed a cautionary tale that non-knitters may not appreciate just how unique and love-filled your gift was. Perhaps we have the ubiquity of mass-produced knitwear to blame for this, some people will inevitably have less appreciation for the skill involved. In any case, I did not set out to knit jumpers, not least because I knitted gifts for 5 people and to do so with jumpers I would probably have had to start this time last year...which would have been difficult since this time last year, I didn't know how to knit.

Instead I went for something simpler: wrist warmers.Regular readers will remember (perhaps) that my first foray into the knitting world was leg warmers, way back in March last year. Well the pattern for them also included one for arm warmers (a sort of fingerless glove affair, but with a hole for the thumb rather than another knitted bit) which I, perhaps foolishly thought would quick and easy.

I spent my Christmas at Hampstead Theatre, flying lights in and out. I hung out in the wings, but with one cue at the start and end of each scene, I had a bit of time to kill. Perfect time to knit! By the end of the first week after Press Night I had finished two pairs and thought I was well on my way to finishing all of them in time...

What a foolish thing to think! Cut to me on Christmas Eve, sitting at home with my mum and gran (two of the recipients of the aforementioned gifts...) waiting for them to go to bed so that I can finish them. It is nearly midnight and I have one day off (Christmas Day) and would dearly love to go to bed, but knit I must. It takes me until 2am but I finish both pairs, wrap them in what has become trademark brown paper with a little label saying 'Handmade for you with Love and Imagination Added' (see what I did there?).

Not content with torturing myself on Christmas Eve with a pair of knitting needles, I make myself a smaller pair on Christmas Day with some wool that reminds me of candy canes and then start on my secret santa present for boxing day. We had two shows on boxing day so had organised to do secret santa and have some food inbetween them to make it feel less crappy that we were working on boxing day. I knitted away manically on the bus on my way to work and nearly finished one. Pleased, and a little smug about my speed, I preset my lights, hoovered the stage and headed upstairs to finish one and start the second. I was definitely going to be done in time to give them to my secret santa recipient (also a knitter).

That's the problem with being cocky about things though, it'll come back to bite you in the arse. Just as I started the five rows of 1x1 rib that would finish off the first glove, I dropped a stitch. Now, if you are not a knitter, it's probably worth explaining that this is probably one of the most common problems. Usually, one can pick up the stitch, put it back on the needles and move on, forgetting all about it. Apparently, in this instance, this was not to be, not least because I didn't have a crochet hook, but also because I hadn't noticed the dropped stitch and it had worked its way all the way down to the bottom of the piece...

I tried to fix it, I promise, but at that point I decided to cut my losses. Gritting my teeth, I undid the whole peice, quietly calculating how much time I had to knit two more rather than just one. The answer came to about 2 1/2 hours. This was going to have to be speedy...

And I nearly made it too! I got one done in act one, or at least by the end of the interval. Being that the second act was only 40 minutes, though, I was very much up against it. By the curtain call, I had about 10 rows to go, along with sewing up the sides and finishing. With 5 minutes to go before the present swapping, I gave in. I had one completed and sewn but there was no way I would finish the second one in time. I sighed, put my backup present of chocolate shortbread into the present box and flopped down on the green room sofa, defeated by wool.

There is a happy ending to the story though. I finished them late and left a little wrapped parcel on the actor in question's dressing room table with a note apolgising for my lateness. She came to find me as soon as she got them to thank me, amused that we had pulled each other out of the hat (she gave me some wool and a beautiful brooch).

Its a good thing I finished. As I was giving her a hug to thank her for the wool I had a sudden realisation. It all worked out in the end, but I had definitely dodged a bullet by completing my project and not leaving someone who is allergic to gluten with chocolate shortbread...