The Light Show exhibition at the Hayward Gallery here in London is a careful selection of works that use artificial light and according to the show’s curator “refer to the transition from ‘objecthood’ to ‘environment’…”. The use of artificial light in visual art has a long and diverse history and is similar to film in the way its evolution is tied to technical progress. Often, when I look at light works the technology making it all happen is hard to ignore and I am all too often aware of its role in producing the final effect. What’s noteworthy about the Light Show, which unites the work of 22 artists including those seminal to the media, is that it manages to side step this bewilderment of technology and focus on the basic interactions of light, materials, and the alteration of perceived space that the good use of light can achieve. The end result is an incredibly visually engaging and submersive show – the most popular group exhibition in the Hayward’s history with tickets selling out daily.
For those of you who have visited the Hayward, you know the space is a challenge and doubly so when dealing with installations of this kind. The exhibition is laid out so that each work can easily be viewed on its own but since light bleeds from one piece to the next, the space of the gallery becomes an environment unto itself. I had the opportunity to chat with the show’s curator, Cliff Lauson, who emphasized to me that in the design of the exhibition, priority was placed on how each work is situated in relation to the other, and how it relates to the architecture of the gallery. Works by artists renowned for their use of light such as Dan Flavin and James Turrell act to anchor the show thematically. More obscure pieces by artists such as Doug Wheeler, Iván Navarro, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and Anthony McCall draw us further into the material qualities of light and provide a noticeable spectator experience. There are also cameo appearances by well-known artists like Jenny Holzer and Olafur Eliasson who are not known to work with light in exclusively material or sculptural ways (as in Holzer’s information-based ticker signs) but have created works that fit the curatorial mold quite well.
As a spectator I found most of the artworks had either an ‘in the round’ sculptural quality such as Leo Villareal’s twinkling chrome and white dot Cylinder II, or a very ethereal spatial quality such as Anthony McCall’s You, I, Horizontal where a projected circle in a foggy room creates an entirely new volume of space for spectators to step into. Slow Arc inside a Cube IV by Conrad Shawcross captured both qualities in one piece: a static sculptural object, through the incorporation of a single light bulb, creates a dramatic spatial effect. Similar but even more intense is Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation which features three rooms, each flooded with red, green, and blue light respectively. Spectators can move from room to room, through one saturated field of colour after another and really feel the physical and emotional effects of the light as it plays with our sensitivities. Another stand out work was Reality Show (Silver) by Iván Navarro which utilizes light and sculptural form to moral effect, evoking ‘disappearance‘ possibly in reference to the artist’s past – he grew up under Pinochet’s regime in Chile.
Carefully balancing the power of the individual works with their combined effect could be what is behind the runaway success of this exhibition; The Guardian is calling it “another one of the Hayward Gallery’s great succession of entertainment shows”. As one walks through the Light Show, the use of light is varied but overall addresses the common ground of the striking spatial effects that the interaction of light and sculptural form has the power to create. The real strength of the show for me was the way it presents the artworks with such purity: the experience of light is untainted by the presence of technologies.
Konstantinos Mavromichalis is director of design at Urban Visuals, a Toronto-based lighting and media company specializing in responsive environments for architecture and interiors. He is currently in the Adaptive Architecture and Computation program at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London.