Light Show at the Hayward Gallery is a groundbreaking exhibition, bringing together a dazzling collection of light-based artworks from the past five decades for the UK’s first survey of light art. Exploring light’s inherent but often overlooked properties, these artists elucidate the ephemeral and experiential qualities of this immaterial medium.
The exhibition features the work of over twenty international artists, providing a comprehensive purview of artificial light as a medium since the 1960s. Although artists such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Lucio Fontana experimented with light in the first half of the twentieth century, it was not until the sixties when there was a broadening conception of sculpture that artists began to experiment with the possibilities light afforded as a sculptural material. The perennial works of these early practitioners, by artists such as Dan Flavin, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Bill Culbert, Doug Wheeler, Nancy Holt, and James Turrell, are inter-mixed with some of the most iconic light-based works by contemporary artists, including Jenny Holzer, Olafur Eliasson, and Philippe Parreno.
Despite this seemingly broad typology, only works employing the qualities of artificial light in relation to the viewers’ senses and spatial awareness were selected for the exhibition, meaning neon signage from the likes of Joseph Kosuth and Bruce Nauman were excluded. Ultimately, this selection enables the viewer to engage with the works on a more visceral, and not purely cognitive, level. Sculptural works and immersive installations alter the gallery spaces, heightening awareness in relation to the room, work, and one’s own body.
Because of the highly interactive nature of these works, there are several installation spaces that either require waiting in a queue or ask that visitors put on protective shoe coverings to keep the floors clean. On a crowded day, it’s difficult to feel completely enveloped in spaces that are intended to immerse viewers in their specially constructed artificial light environments. Even so, while the overtly spectacular works seem to garner the most attention, some of the more inconspicuous pieces in the galleries engage viewers in unexpected ways. For instance, Nancy Holt’s Hole of Light comprises a wall perforated with five holes that bisects the gallery space. As light shines through from one side, entirely illuminating one half of the gallery, pencil outlines of circles become clear, and on the dark side of the wall, circles of light are cast indicating the source for these outlines. Walking throughout the space and eventually around the wall, the light switches sides, and the entire experience is altered. Whilst Holt’s minimalist conceptualism seems somewhat overshadowed by the more dazzling works of Antony McCall, James Turrell, and Iván Navarro, she is no less able to alter viewers’ perceptual awareness.
The international range of the exhibition is its strongest point. For where Carlos Cruz-Diez and Dan Flavin are considered contemporaries, Cruz-Diez is too often shirked aside in Western collections while Flavin is lauded as one of the earliest and most influential practitioners. That is not to say that Flavin’s work is not innovative, but rather, points to the general lack of attention given to a non-Western artist who made equally innovative yet very different contributions to the way artists think about light and colour.
Whilst the exhibition is nothing short of dazzling, captivating viewers with its spectacular selection of light-based works, the curatorial concept does not necessarily offer anything new. But perhaps it is because there has always been light.