"One might not think of light as a matter of fact," said Dan Flavin at the height of his career in 1987. "But I do. It is as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find."
Flavin, who died in 1996, never got to see how popular his work would become. But his words were prophetic. Light art has had massive success at the public scale. Olafur Eliasson’s blockbuster Weather Project brought 2 million people to the Tate Modern; Flavin pieces routinely sell for millions at auction.
Curators at London’s Hayward Gallery are hoping to capitalize on the public’s love affair with light art with a new exhibit called Light Show. In their Southbank Centre gallery they’ve collected work from 22 notable perceptual artists (including Eliasson and Flavin). By way of introduction to Light Show, visitors are greeted with a disclaimer that reads "please note that some installations in the exhibition contain artificial mist, flashing, or strobe lighting," an ominous-but-titillating warning that every gallery should consider adopting, simply for marketing purposes.
It’s likely that you’ve read about at least a couple of the 25 pieces inside the exhibit—they represent some of the most well-known works from the artists involved. For example, there’s Carlos Cruz Diez’s Chromosaturation (2008), three connecting rooms lit in pure red, green, and blue (which we’ve noted before). Or Eliasson’s Model for a Timeless Garden, which uses stroboscopic light to trick your eyes into seeing waterfalls frozen in motion. Jenny Holzer’s column of LED lights spelling out declassified Guantanamo documents, MONUMENT, drew droves of visitors to the MCA in Chicago when it was exhibited in 2008.
Despite the blockbuster artists involved, Light Show treads an uncertain curatorial line. After all, before the invention of electricity, the concept of "light art" would’ve seemed redundant, and it’s still a very loosely defined genre. Perhaps as a result of the ambiguity, some critics have called Light Show "a funfair of more or less startling effects," and sure, there’s not much conceptual weight to hold the whole thing together (an alternate title could be Now That’s What I Call Light Art!). Putting James Turrell and Jenny Holzer in the same gallery is a bit like putting on a Piero Manzoni and Duchamp exhibit and calling it Toilet Show. But not every show has to be bound to a pervasive curatorial rhetoric—sometimes, the experience of marauding in a gallery lit only by pure RGB light and dotted with waterfalls of LEDs justifies itself.
Check out Light Show until April 28.