Belinda Quirke Discusses the Meaning and Implications of the Recent Spate of Light-Related Public Art Events and Artworks.
The Berlin Festival of Lights has a theme tune … cue eurotrashtic beat, tempo moderate, non descript background musings with sensitive soulful singing by the artist Ayman “…I see it…I feel it, It’s like something I’ve never seen…I’m feeling free and I cherish every moment…turn the lights on… let it shine on..I can see things I’ve never seen”. I listened to this while surveying an image of an illuminated multicoloured Brandenburg gate, with text “be free, be sexy, be Berlin” , nestled proportionately under its quadriga of galloping steeds (1)
Across Europe, a myriad of festivals obsessed with light have appeared diverging widely in concern and depth of intention. Cities are embracing the artificial and natural in immense outpourings of street projection, installation, conferences and events. Artificial light, for better for worse, remains one of the greatest symbols of modernity, marrying, with urban architecture, a sense of progressiveness and intent. Janus-like, the most established light festivals frequently derive from imported or pre-existing communal rituals and ideals of celebration, hope and benevolence, the victory of light over darkness. Light festival origins can also be seen in cities at high latitude during ‘White Night’ celebrations, when long summer nights are broken by the briefest nightfall.
In order to attract large scale foreign and domestic tourism, cities are realising the cultural, economic and regenerative properties of light in urban planning and design. Fête des Lumières in Lyon, France, has attracted four million visitors to date and enjoys a tripling of business in the city during the four day event. Frankfurt’s enormous Luminale: The Biennale of Lighting Culture, runs in association with Light+Building, a leading international lighting trade fair alone drawing 180,000 visitors.
The global organisation LUCI Lighting Urban Community International, was initiated in tandem with this growing significance, defining itself as a network “using light as a major tool for urban, social and economic development, with a concern for sustainability and environmental issues” (2). Four main strategic committees are chaired by member cities; Urban Strategies and Lighting (Liege), Culture and Lighting (Glasgow) Technological Prospects and Trends (Shanghai), Sustainable Development (Eindhoven). On behalf of LUCI, the city of Glasgow has commissioned a tender to research “the Economic and Cultural Benefits of Lighting Festivals and other Night-time Events”. No city in Ireland is currently a member.
Identities of festival of lights can be ambiguous in definition as coherency between light art, light design and illumination can be roughly amalgamated. At their lowest, they appear as garish technical fêtes of architectural encroachments, whilst at their high point, a fluid dialogue between residents, the city and contemporary culture. While considering contemporary artists working in light, Elizabeth Baker’s article for Art News, “The Light Brigade” (1967) posits the idea that light – “a common industrial material…that has until recently stood for the most common aspects of a flashy advertising culture-may now realise a different potential in its symbolic capacity to arouse emotional response, and in the hands of artists, transcend its materiality (3).”
Dan Flavin detested this notion of transcendence concerning his fluorescent icons. In the context of light art, the event is often a misdirected prominence rather than a site specific material singularity. However, a number of cities and art projects are readdressing a light inquiry in an urban context.
In 2005, Light Art from Artificial Light curated by Peter Weibl and Gregor Jansen at ZKM, Centre for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany created an almost encyclopaedic survey of light art featuring works of Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, James Turrell to Olafur Eliasson, Jenny Holzer and Zaha Hadid, illustrating a diverse breadth of artistic concern. (4)
The Centre for International Light Art in Unna, Ruhr, is the only light art museum in the world. It features both permanent installation from and temporary exhibition. In tandem with this preoccupation, Ruhr created the worlds “first” Light Art Biennale entitled “open light in private spaces” in 2010 as part of its European Capital of Culture programme. Curated by Matthias Wagner K, 60 different light art pieces were sited in home, work and recreational spaces reimagining. the event nature of light festivals, and consequently distinguishing light art, from illumination and light design (5).5 To confuse a landscape issue, Linz, also introduced a Light Art Biennale this year, edifying an existing engagement at Arts Electronica and public commissions by native Waltraut Cooper throughout the city. The theme of the 2010 biennale “private light in public spaces”(sic.) is “a gentle teasing of the German Light Art Biennial” and influenced by Beuys’ iconic performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.(6)
Turin’s Luci d’Artista arose from a Christmas lighting commission involving 14 Italian artists. What began as a customary desire of city councils to design Christmas illuminations, has impressively and imaginatively grown to an annual light event which commissions an impressive array of international work. Luci d’Artista is curated by Ida Gianelli, Director of the Castello di Rivoli Museum and Pier Giovanni Castagnoli, Director of GAM. Featured artists permanently on display include Jenny Holzer, Rebecca Horn, Joseph Kosuth, Daniel Buren and Mario Merz. Turin regards the permanent installation of light art as part of the city’s strategy to position itself as a leading city of contemporary art, amalgamating with other art events to combine into Torino Contemporanea-Luce e arte (Contemporary Turin-light & Art) (7).
Is there merit in considering a light art event for Dublin? In 2008, The Science Gallery initiated, Lightwave: a festival, bringing together scientists, engineers, technicians, lighting designers, and artists to contribute to its opening event. A number of interventions and related discussions throughout the city demonstrated the potential growth of an even larger city wide investigation that could stimulate collaboration with contemporary art and architecture. Whilst Lightwave was deferred in 2010 due to budgetary cutbacks, the Director of the Science Gallery, Michael John Gorman believes a Festival of Light for Dublin; “could offer a specific focus on innovation with light across the arts and sciences that is not present in other festivals of light”.
No doubt technological advances are a major impetus in contemporary light art development and a stimulant for public interaction. Rafael Lozanos- Hemmer’s Vectoral Elevation, O’Connell St., Dublin encouraged the public to create unique light designs online that were projected skywards by 22 robotic searchlights. The highly popular Playhouse (Dreambox) featured in last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, used over 100,000 LED lights to light window frames of 330 windows of Liberty Hall in the creation of a giant interactive display. Participants were invited to download the Playhouse Animation Creator to generate animations that were screened on Liberty Hall, whilst accompanying music and sound pieces was broadcast locally on FM radio (8).
Certainly there are a number of Irish artists whose practices are not framed by, but incorporate artificial light in sculptural installation; Corban Walker’s ZIP commissioned by Breaking Ground at Ballymun Civic Centre ‘stitches’ two walls together with blue and green LED lights. Martina Coyle’s Efflorescence in Balbriggan created a steel bridge adorned by hand sewn silk between two buildings illuminated by UV light. Brian Duggan’s recent Step inside now step inside at the Hugh Lane features the use of neon and a bisected carnival motordrome in correlation to the gallery’s elliptical setting. Niamh McCann’s work regularly features discarded neon and electrical signage within installation, to name but a few. Interdisciplinary art collaboration as well as science is a substantial prospective. In a city that hosts international theatre, dance, writers and film festivals, in addition to Darklight and Dublin Electronic Arts Festival, a positive exchange of ideas and expertise could be built on pre-existing synergies. There is always something ultimately enticing, that for a duration, the city becomes a playground and gives you, free of charge, a different perception of itself.
3. Michael Govan and Tiffany Bell, Dan Flavin: A retrospective, Dia Arts Foundation in association with Yale University Press, 2005