The hardest part of walking through the Hayward’s latest exhibition is reading the labels. After-images dance across your eyes, filling your vision with light and colour even as you turn from the luminescent works on display. This is one of the most spectacular visual experiences I’ve sampled in years. Prepare to be bombarded by strobes, blinded by filaments and dizzied by LEDs – this is Light Show, newly opened at London’s Hayward Gallery
Exhibiting everything from Flavin’s first florescent bulbs to Katie Paterson’s fresh artificial moonlight, this vast neon-octopus of an exhibition draws together everything from immersive environments to visual puns in a phantasmagoria of optical magic. ‘Spectacle’ is the word – its fault and its strength. Like much of the contemporary circuit, this exhibition sells itself on the magnitude of its display and the scope of its pretensions. Uniting half a century of art under one criterion – works that emit light – creates slippages and erasures left, right and centre, confusing diverse contexts and theoretical subtexts in a saturated and bedazzling environment. For all that the experience is effective, at some cherishable points sublime, but at others it feels closer to a fairground.
Like an arcade, time, value and meaning collapse into a dynamic, shifting space. Cruz-Diez and Wheeler craft environments of pure atmospheric colour where the corners melt away in a disorientating haze; Shawcross casts the shadows of an Escher-like landscape around you at dizzying speed; and Evans’ pillars hurt the eyes of those who stare too long or too close. That the viewer finds it hard to then read the supplementary texts amid all those black spots and ghostly after-images is nothing if not consistent with the affective atmosphere of the show. This all hinders a critical spectatorship, as well as the history, in favour of shock and awe, but it does foreground some (literally) phenomenal experiences. Want to feel what it’s like to float inside the luminous substance of a movie? Check out McCall’s You and I, Horizontal. Want to slow down time to see the splash of a water droplet? Enter Eliasson’s Model for a Timeless Garden.
The works here are grouped without any discernable order, no thematic or chronological progression shows up under the light – instead necessities of space and light diffusion seem to govern the curatorship, which in its mixture has the effect of overriding the political and philosophical with the frame of formal and entertainment value. The works themselves, however, each provide endless food for thought, and from the Duchampian wit of Floyer and Culbert to the melancholic late work of Morellet’s and Flavin’s, they present broken illusions and inaccessible forms and histories to push the spectacle to breaking point.
Inside Navarro’s one-way mirrored box, we find ourselves lost in an infinite regress of our own (no doubt slightly bemused) self image, but also sobered by the knowledge that we are surrounded by dozens of gallery onlookers who can watch our every move, while ourselves being denied a view of the fairground outside.
Light Show is showing at the Hayward Gallery at Southbank Centre, London until 28th April.