Light Show 26.04.13

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There was still ice on the pavements and sleet falling from freezing graphite skies in January, when the Hayward Gallery opened Light Show, the Southbank institution's latest crowd-drawing thematic exhibition. Rather like a SAD lamp for the gloomy season, this show promises a history of artificial light in art, as well as some rather flashy visual stimulation, and the premise neatly allows the show to begin in the 1960s, the period in which industrial materials, minimalism and installation began to transform art forever.

Scattered throughout there are works from other historical trailblazers in this field
of light installation. An early James Turrell light room, Wedgework (1974), which one enters through a pitch black corridor, is a dim room lit by red lights behind gauze. The sensory impression, if you remain in the space for some minutes, is somewhat akin to looking at one of Rothko's Seagram Murals as dark shapes appear before the eyes. Elsewhere there is a welcome inclusion of Nancy Holt's Holes of Light (1973), a wall with circular holes carved into it which bisects a room and is transformed when lights are shone on to the walls, casting bright circles into the space.

At its best, Light Show is a thoughtful collection of phenomenological experiences, mediated by artists experimenting with how we perceive light and colour. However there are several moments in which technological innovations and trickery are exhibited for their own sake, lending Light Show the air of a children's science museum – without a hint of scientific pedagogy.

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The tone is unfortunately set in this direction by the first sculpture in the exhibition, by Leo Villareal. His Cylinder II (2012) is a dominating column of lights that bubble upwards like water in a tank or pinwheel like fireworks across the sky. Yet it seems like only a distracting centrepiece to me, more at home in the lobby of a Vegas casino hotel. Works like this and Jim Campbell's Exploded View (Commuters) (2011), which, also through programming, creates the impression of shadowy figures passing through hanging lights, create a context which weakens the other works around them. This is not to doubt their inventiveness and technological innovation, but rather to question their status as interesting works of art. If it's all just a "light show", then we can wander around without thinking too much about it.

The lack of organisational logic in the show is likely due to the spaces required by most of the works, but an absence of historical or thematic sense in the display of works engenders a lack of accumulated engagement with aesthetic questions.

Still that's not to say there aren't some exciting works, which set off sparks and flashes in the mind. Katie Paterson's Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2009) is a blue bulb hung low in a room, emanating the exact light of the moon. It immediately invokes memories of lunar gazing hiding in your subconscious. Olafur Eliasson, whose tungsten sun down the river at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall (The Weather Project (2003-4) is surely a masterwork of the genre, has contributed another glorious piece of light sculpture. In a darkened space an astroturf "garden" of small fountains is lit by strobes so that the water is captured in a series of ever moving sculptural positions: blobby and jellyfishlike, elegant and statuelike, animals, archways, rivers, people, flowers and movement.

The sleet falling outside, the dark movement of the Thames and the puddles on the Southbank walkways took on something of a different character as I stepped out of the lights back into the grey, dim day.

 

Image

Carlos Cruz-Diez/DACS; courtesy Anthony McCall and Sprüth Magers Berlin London; all photos by Linda Nilind

 

Words

Laura McLean-Ferris

quotes story

An absence of historical or thematic sense in the display of works engenders a lack of accumulated engagement with aesthetic questions

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