Light Entertainment – REVIEW: ‘Light Show’ at the Hayward Gallery

Art Art & Lit

The Hayward Gallery’s ‘Light Show’ does what it says on the tin. It puts on a show. A bright, glittery, shiny show at that. Exploring the ways in which artists have experimented and employed artificial light in works from the last fifty years, the show is dazzling both in appearance and scope.

Light is an invasive medium which allows the viewer to experience as well as view a piece. And ‘Light Show’ is certainly an experience you won’t forget. I required a couple of Nurofen and a sit down following my visit.

Leo Villareal’s ‘Cylinder’ (2011) dominates the first hall, commanding attention. Comprised of 19,600 white LED lights that hang down from the ceiling it is difficult not to feel immersed in this metamorphosing work. The matrix of lights continuously changes pattern and shape. One moment it feels like being below a firework, the next falling snow, another and it emulates a meteor shower. It is difficult not to become transfixed by the work. This was not, however the highlight of the exhibition.

Anthony McCall’s ‘You and I’ (2005) is a light sculpture like no other. You have to literally enter into the work to appreciate the levels the piece works on.  A video projector, white mist and computer scripting are combined to create what appear, to the naked eye, to be solid beams of light. But they are not. You can enter them, change their direction and form. It is one of many tricks of the mind that ‘Light Show’ attempts to play on the visitors.

The tricks differ in terms of complexity and the pay off. Ceal Floyer’s ‘Throw’ (1997) is charming in its simplicity. The work consists of a theatre lamp fitted with a gobo projecting a splat on the floor. Doug Wheeler’s ‘Untitled’ (1969) is well worth the shoe covers that are deemed necessary to enter it.

Light Show is not something to be viewed; it is an immersive experience. The effects can be confusing, troubling but some of the most memorable works are those that leave you with a smile. Cerith Wyn Evan’s ‘S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E’ (2010) was a magnet for those seeking shelter from this winter that refuses to end. It was the coldest March weekend since 1962 when I visited and Wyn Evan’s illuminated columns breathed light and warmth to those drawn towards it. The heat emanates from the piece and it is possible for a moment, with eyes closed, to be transported a thousand miles away from the South Bank to warmth, the beach and summer.

That is what was brilliant about ‘Light Show’. It transports you into so many different worlds effortlessly. Yet ‘Light Show’ is not an exhibition that builds up to anything; there is no narrative to it all. Jenny Holzer’s ‘MONUMENT’ (2008) consisting of a LED column of text taken from Guantanamo interrogations sits oddly out-of-place because of its political comment. It is a bold and provocative work but jars with the overall tone of the show. The show is apolitical; a genuinely thrilling and rewarding experience that challenges our conception of what light can do. It does not need a final ‘destination’. Clichéd though it sounds, what matters is the journey on this trippiest of trips.

Light does not always illuminate. It can confuse, evoke memories and pain. The final work, Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Model for a Timeless Garden’ (2011) does this whilst your eyes are being dazzled with rapid paced strobe lighting. The strobes immobile miniature water fountains. Life frozen before our eyes.  The effect is both startling and unsettling. It is testimony to the diversity of artificial light as a largely maligned artistic medium.

Squinting back into natural light on the South Bank my head was pounding, my contact lenses had fried and I needed a sit down. But it was worth it. Not just for the mist, laser beams or even the shoe covers. But to experience and appreciate the power and beauty of light in a way I had never done before.

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‘Light Show’ runs until May 6th

PHOTO/ Linda Nylind