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Dazzling Spectacle: The Hayward Gallery Light Show

The Hayward Gallery’s recent event attracted and inspired young and old visitors alike

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good.

That, of course, was before electricity. Le Corbusier, that other God, made the observation that ‘architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light’. Light was necessary to bring form to the void, but in Le Corbusier’s version, it plays something of a supporting role. At Light Show this was reversed. Curated by Cliff Lauson, it focused on artificial, electric light, for which the fortified and introspective Hayward Gallery was well suited, like a brutalist Plato’s cave. The architecture becomes a mere backdrop, but a necessary medium to make the show’s subject visible.

Light uniquely occupies the territories of art, science and religion simultaneously, and very directly. Photoreceptors convert visible electromagnetic radiation − light − into signals that stimulate biological processes. The visible becomes physiological.


Carlos Cruz-Diez’s supersaturated monochrome environments were a big hit with visitors

It must be this sensorial experience that made the show so popular, and led to the almost hysterical, physical ecstasy of visiting children who writhed on the floors of Chromosaturation (2010) in the pure pleasure of the hyperactivity of their neural firing. Carlos Cruz-Diez, an innovator of Kinetic- and Op-Art in Venezuela in the 1950s, saturated three adjoining rooms with pure colour, red, blue and green. As the human retina is unaccustomed to experiencing pure monochrome, the effect is disorientation, which is heightened when moving from one intense space to another.

Anthony McCall’s ‘solid light’ piece, You and I, Horizontal (2005), has an equally spectacular effect. Here, geometry is made solid in
a space filled with mist. In it, a simple, projected ray slowly unfurls to become a hollow cone. Any obstacle to the single-point light source creates gigantic shadows on the heroic scale of a major science-fiction film. If light is the first thing perceived at birth, and apparently the last thing experienced at death, this is what it might look like.


Viewers interrupting Anthony McCall’s cone of light, casts gigantic shadows in a riff on the Platonic cave

Katie Paterson is intrigued by the astronomical sources of light: the stars, the sun and the moon. She makes poignant pieces that reflect on time, scale and the unfathomable darkness of deep space. Her piece in this show was the melancholy Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008). A single bulb, whose cool light was precisely designed to match the spectral range of moonlight, hung near the floor in an otherwise empty space. One yearned for the silly but uplifting artificiality of It’s Only a Paper Moon as an antidote to so much poignancy. Outside the space, a perfunctory rack contained the correct number of these special, chilly blue light bulbs to simulate enough moonlight to last the average lifetime of 66 years. There weren’t very many.

Those queuing to see James Turrell’s piece could contemplate Bill Culbert’s Bulb Box Reflection II (1975), an elegant visual conundrum where an apparently unlit bulb is reflected alight through the use of two-way mirror, or Jim Campbell’s Exploded View (Commuters) (2011), a 3D matrix of LED ‘pixels’ that created a flickering sense of movement through the simple binary switch between light being on or off. Depending on the viewing angle, images are either clear and discernible, or they completely dissolve. A perfect curatorial strategy for visitors shuffling slowly towards James Turrell’s Wedgework V (1974). Feeling one’s way through the black tunnel into the art space allowed a little time for the eyes to adjust, and for the ethereal coloured light to materialise out of the gloom into an apparently solid and tangible form. Turrell articulates what several of the artists in this show achieve, whether intentionally or not: ‘I want you to sense yourself sensing’.


Jim Campbell’s Exploded View (Commuters) (2011)

Turrell’s undergraduate work with experimental psychologist Ed Wortz on the problems of perception for astronauts on the moon led them to produce ‘ganzfelds’: 360-degree, uninterrupted monochromatic visual fields, with no graspable perspectives. The effect of this sensory deprivation is that of a James Turrell sculpture; a space of apparently infinite light that develops a foggy, corporeal presence.

Jenny Holzer uses LEDs to broadcast language in order to ‘have people watch what they otherwise might not’. The technique was powerfully effective in Monument (2008) where stacked, multi-layered texts of declassified US documents from the ‘war on terror’ circle swiftly from right to left, disappearing as if behind a massive column, like thoughts crossing the mind. The content is disturbing, and the speed makes it impossibe to take everything in, which itself causes a restless and relentless anxiety. The health and safety warning that Olafur Eliasson’s piece could cause epileptic fits demonstrates one real potential effect of light on the body. In an otherwise dark room, a row of simple, almost comical, water fountains are momentarily frozen by strobe light to form his Model for a Timeless Garden (2011); the water is ‘de-animated’ into snapshots by the staccato light source.

Cerith Wyn Evan’s 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), is a series of columns of halogen tubes that pulse in a rhythm almost like breathing. They radiate heat while illuminated, and become fragile, cool and transparent when dimmed. This ghostly piece is based on a James Merrill poem of messages dictated during an Ouija séance.

Light Show was a dazzling survey of artificial light works since the 1960s, delicately balanced between the highly conceptual and the sensory or ‘perceptual’. The catalogue contains very thoughtful essays about the work, and light in general, by curator Cliff Lauson, art historian Anne Wagner and science writer Philip Ball. Slits in its thick, cardboard cover allow light through, recalling Nancy Holt’s Holes of Light (1973). They turn the book, like the show itself, into a projector or optical toy.

In other words, I saw the light. It was good. Fiat lux.

Light Show

Where: Hayward Gallery, London

When: Ended 6 May

Click here to visit the exhibition website

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