Let there be light (but not quite this much)

10 Mar

I have fond memories of the two recent light exhibitions in London – Anthony McCall and James Turrell. Maybe they were so impressive as concentrated explorations of work by individual artists. Maybe they were just good exhibitions.

Light Show at the Hayward did not leave me feeling so warm. I know I’m in the minority here and I have no doubt that many of you will disagree with me but I found the show bland and, in parts, facile.

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Conrad Shawcross, Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV, 2009. Image via www.endoftheline.co

The exhibition examines light’s potential as a sculptural medium. What I find to be more fascinating is how we couldn’t manage without light and this becomes apparent as we struggle to find our way in and out of some of the installations. Light has always been at the forefront of science, technology and art and the exhibition makes use of the whole spectrum from a standard light bulb to cinema projectors with fabulous uses of technology and special effects. The work varies from small pieces to huge installations where you lose yourself and enter another world. Famous works are seen alongside pieces that have never before been exhibited in the UK.

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David Batchelor, Magic House, 2004/7. Image via www.haywardlightshow.co.uk.

The brutalist architecture of the Hayward is, in theory, the perfect setting for this. The lack of windows means that light can be used to totally transform the space but the density of works means that the Hayward haven’t taken enough advantage of their daylight-deprived space. Dan Flavin, the founder of light art, began this pioneering movement in 1961. His work is found upstairs, combining daylight, yellow and pink fluorescent tubes. But the gallery is too infused with light from other works for this to be effective. The work needs more dark space and this is a problem throughout. What is amazing is to be able to look back to the 1960s and see how our control of this media has developed and how artists have embraced new technologies in inventive ways.

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Dan Flavin, untitled (to the “innovator” of Wheeling Peachblow), 1966-68. Image via www.bbc.co.uk.

The exhibition opens with a work by Leo Villareal that is hypnotic to watch. Random patterns, operated by complex computer programming, cascade in endlessly changing waves evoking fireworks, waterfalls and the like. The speed is constantly in flux; the patterns morph from gentle twinkling to fast scatterings in a unique design where the same sequence will never be seen more than once.

Light Show at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 27/1/2013.

Leo Villareal, Cylinder, 2011. Image via www.onestoparts.com.

Cerith Wyn Evans’ columns in the second room make us think about electricity, light and energy as living things; consisting of floor-to-ceiling columns that ‘breathe’ giving off heat, brightening and dimming and affecting the surrounding space.

The changing colours in Carlo Cruz-Diez’s work are marvellous. This is a specially made optical environment where the three colour chambers (red, green and blue) dazzle and appear to change colour before your very eyes. Since the retina usually perceives a wide range of colours simultaneously, experiencing these monochromatic situations causes visual disturbances. I thought this was great but I’m reliably told it’s not a patch on his installation at MoMA. Many of the works illustrate how light affects mood and the sensory overload here was very moving. This was one of the works that required visitors to scramble around putting on overshoes, causing a hold up and just an altogether unpleasant experience. Stilettos and overshoes are not a good combination.

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Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2008. Image via www.theartsdesk.com.

I decided to queue for the Turrell piece but, for me, this was one of his weaker works. Stumbling down the dark corridor we are guided to sit down in a pitch black room containing a full height proscenium. Beyond is another room but it’s hard to fully understand what we’re looking at. Turrell began this series of work in 1969, using light to diagonally divide the space in a room, creating what seem like tangible shapes. The longer we spend here, the more we see as shadowy apparitions and random twinkles appear. Perhaps I wasn’t prepared to stay long enough for the work’s full effects to reveal themselves but I felt let-down. In fact, from the looks on people’s faces as they left this work I’d say that I wasn’t alone.

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James Turrell, Wedgework V, 1974. Image via http://tobelikeafeatherby.wordpress.com/.

Upstairs was far weaker and it felt as if the curators were trying to cram works in without much thought of harmony and juxtaposition. I didn’t queue to go into the Tardis-like piece where illuminated space expands around you (your reflection never appears) and beneath your feet is a plunging black abyss. The illusion is created by one-way mirrors, like those used in interrogation rooms. Most visitors seemed to be missing the political undertones at play with this work; they were cooing at the pretty lights, when, in fact, the work attempts to recall a torture chamber associated with the artist’s own experience of the control and repression in Pinochet’s Chile.

For me, the best work was Olafur Eliasson’s piece. In a pitch black room we see jets of gushing water illuminated by fast-flashing strobe lights. It takes a while for your eyes to adapt but, when they do, this is magical. When a strobe light is used to illuminate flowing streams of water, the cascade appears as individual droplets of liquid and, by adjusting the frequency of the strobe, the droplets appear to freeze in mid-air.

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Olafur Eliasson, Model for a timeless garden, 2011. Image via www.newscientist.com.

I think the most disappointing was McCall’s work which lost all its power in such a small space. This is a horizontal light film, working on the same principles as the vertical structures we saw at Ambika P3, with a video projector, haze machine and computer scripting creating a large light sculpture that can be explored. Where was the magic, the intrigue and the delight that I had experienced there? Last time, I saw McCall’s works I felt my whole body being affected and I remember describing the sensation of losing myself in the light. That certainly didn’t happen this time round.

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Anthony McCall, You and I, Horizontal, 2005. Image via www.artwednesday.com.

I could see nothing worthwhile in most of the pieces. It’s an exhibition all about experience and entertainment. Although the exhibition guide and catalogue are fascinating and elucidate many of the works, people are missing the point and coming into the Hayward to play. There are no related works and no preparatory studies. But, I can’t criticise the Hayward for what they have set out to do – simply called Light Show it isn’t pretending to do anything complex.

I just don’t think this is worth the hype and I came away disappointed. It’s a bit like walking round a theme park of special effects. Some of these pieces that I have no doubt would be sublime in isolation lose something here. It’s not quite the sensory journey I expected – it’s so hit and miss.

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Light Show is at the Hayward Gallery until 28th April 2013, www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

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