No cameras, light, kids, action!
Light Show , Hayward Gallery, London
In the first few days of its opening Light Show was sold out. People were turned away at the door every time I went there on cold days to try to get in. Correction. Families were being turned away. It appears Light Show , a sophisticated exhibition at the Hayward Gallery charting the ‘experiential and phenomenal aspects of light’ sculpture since the 1960s, has kid appeal.
When I told my three year old son we were going to a ‘light show’, his eyes just, well, lit up! I couldn’t sell an exhibition of surrealist female art to him, but something with ‘light’ and ‘show’ in the title was a winner. The smile fell from his face, however, when at the entrance the exhibition warden warned us, ‘Children’s hands have to be held at all times. No running about. Some of the lights are very hot. They can’t be touched. The artists wanted it that way.’ So I spent the whole exhibition trying to stop him being burnt or even, perhaps electrocuted?
The light bulb has been with us since 1878 (if you go with the view that Joseph Swan invented it, not Thomas Edison). Light sculptors and artists since the 1960s have played with the light bulb’s transient emissions to form beautiful and arresting pieces. The first work on show, ‘Cylinder II ’(2012) is made up of long strips of metal hanging from the ceiling and harbouring tiny lights that turn on and off to make mesmerising shapes within the overall loose shape of strips. Sometimes it looked like rain was falling. At other times it looked like white, static stars in the sky. ‘Christmas tree lights,’ I explained to my son, as the installation morphed in to bright, twinkling stars, flashing. My son wanted to touch it of course.
Moving swiftly on, with a jerk of his small arm, I wanted to take a photo of my son enjoying a comedy splash of light on the floor and another hanging sculpture that gave off a warm glow and was quite hot I’m sure judging by the heat it gave off. ‘No photos,’ said a warden. It was all about the experience here and now.
There was something quite refreshing to disappear in to dark rooms with beautiful light shapes where nobody could whip out their bloody mobile phone and take a quick i-photo. People were catching each other’s eye for a change. My son charged in to a dark room to follow some people who he thought were clearly up to something. I thought, ‘Great! This exhibition might conquer his fear of the dark’.
In the room everybody felt compelled to walk towards an extremely bright projector light that produced rays of white light that got larger towards the back of the room. While some people were taking sneaky photos of their faces half lit, my son started trying to use his arms to cut through the light shafts of ‘You and I, Horizontal’ (2005). Then he pulled me out of the light’s grip, underneath it, squatting in the dark, pretending we were in a tent, as if the light was our blanket. Not once did he say his usual refrain of, ‘Take a photo!’ He was completely absorbed in his new, light-inspired fantasy world.
Plenty of circular, philosophical musings described the works and the artists’ reasonings. Very postmodern. Artists and sculptors grapple with their use of light as if struggling with an elusive concept of truth as just a light with a bad connection that was never on or off, just buzzing confusingly. ‘Light is what we see.’ ‘Light has the power to affect our state of mind.’ One installation ‘plays with the indeterminacy of light and variable viewing positions’.
Still, to be fair, it’s not all like that. One 2011 installation ‘Model for a Timeless Garden’ is just into light as special effects to change our perceptions. The artist uses strobe lighting on small fountains of water that makes the water looking like frozen, droplets of liquid. Actually I thought the strobe lighting had made solid shapes appear like water. I had no idea it was water! ‘It’s too dark in here,’ was all my son would say, as he tried in vain to find his way out of a blackened room by pulling a big, black curtain back on the wrong side and bumping in to somebody trying to get in on the other side.
Jenny Holzer’s 2008 work ‘MONUMENT’ was light sculpture with a political message. She’d wrapped a large, upright cylinder with LED florescent coloured tickertape. The 35,000 words whirring round were of declassified government documents from the war on terror and included the testimonies of soldiers, officials and detainees with some words left out to indicate government censorship.
In between rooms of seemingly hot and cold light that were neither (they were just projecting warm reds and oranges or cold-looking blue white light) was a dark room with just a singular hanging light bulb. Nobody seemed to stay long in the room. A friend who had seen the show told me he found that room ‘boring’. Only two people stood to look at it on our visit. The work was a largish light bulb, hanging from a long cable until it almost reached the ground, with a low light glow that made the floor look like it was made of water and entitled ‘Light bulb to Simulate Moonlight’ (2008). It was calming. Nobody spoke. The exhibition went on all around us as me, my son, and an elderly couple that looked like they were in love, just looked at the rippling effect a singular, dimmed bulb could make to our surroundings and senses.
Then my son started doing funny ‘monster’ shadow puppetry on the wall behind us and broke the silence.