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...

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