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Light-hearted Art

Is a solitary dangling light bulb ‘art’? This was a question that plagued me as I wandered around the Hayward Gallery’s current sellout exhibition – Light Show.

Although some of the works in this exhibition are distinctly unimpressive, what the Hayward Gallery does well is provide a somewhat erratic collection of ‘firsts’. In the last room of the exhibition, strobe lighting is turned on a series of mini water-fountains. Olafur Eliasson uses flashing light to create freeze-frame images of water as it splashes, falls, and bounces off itself. This may not be ‘art’, per se, but it is great fun to watch.

Part of the problem with the exhibition is that many of the rooms contain multiple installations that invariably detract attention from each other. The  most exciting pieces are those allowed rooms of their own. For the two works that submerge you in colour, visitors are required to wear white plastic  overshoes or go barefoot. Removing your shoes in an art gallery is almost as exciting as the three rooms of Chromosaturation, by the Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. They pleasingly demonstrate everything you learned in  school about mixing colours – the walls are veritable rainbows.

Best of all is Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal (2005). A blackened, hazy room features what at first seems to be only a projection. When you stand inside the light and face into the projector, you discover yourself in a smoky light tunnel that seems to have solid walls. Playing with shadows becomes more fun than you could have imagined.

Does the amusement of these “immersive environments” detract from their artistry? Or is the Hayward Gallery right – and light’s ability to ‘sculpt and shape space in different ways’ is what makes it artful? Their blurb tells us: “Light has the power to affect our state of mind as well as alter how we perceive the world around us.”

This exhibition has a bit of everything. It varies hugely in quality from cheap optical gimmicks to beautiful and inspiring installations. It features all kinds of light sources – LED, neon, projections, bulbs, stage lights, strobes. Highly complex computer-programmed light displays share rooms with light boxes stolen from scrap heaps. The Hayward Gallery has hit the mark again. They provide exactly what they offer – a show. It is a fairground of light in all of its spatial and sensory forms. As an exhibition, there is no development, merely party trick after party trick. But Light Show challenges what it is to be art. In combination the sculptures and installations create an appreciation of what light is and how it can be artistic. Light Show is refreshing and thought-provoking, but even if you don’t take light bulbs seriously, this exhibition is great fun, and a treat for the eyes.

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