Disco Party Takes Over Hayward With Dazzling Light Show

If you think that avant-garde art is ponderous and austere, think again.

“Light Show,” a highly enjoyable exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery, will change your mind. It’s hard to think of an art display that offers more straightforward fun. It’s quite like going to a party, except that there are no drinks or music.

The day I visited, several people had brought along young children, and -- unusually in an art gallery -- these toddlers seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The exhibition is made up of works created by, and sometimes comprised only of, light. In the case of a piece by Anthony McCall, you can not only look at it and walk around it, you can walk right through it.

While some exhibits look a bit like the setting for an unusually tasteful discotheque, there are many serious works.

Light is quite a traditional artistic medium. It was there in the Middle Ages -- think of stained glass -- and the Baroque period. In more recent times, light art came straight out of abstract painting.

Among the founders of the form were James Turrell. Some of his works resemble Rothko abstractions. “Wedgework IV” (1974) is made of light, not canvas and pigment.

The minimalist Dan Flavin (1933-96) went one further in making sculpture out of light. In fact, it was the advent of artificial electric illumination that made contemporary light art possible, and no one showed this more directly than Flavin. His signature medium was the humble fluorescent tube.

Beautiful Presence

In the 1960s and 1970s, Flavin was using the mundane fitting that lit every cheap bar in New York City. He somehow managed to produce something mysterious as well as beautiful: a presence.

Paradoxically, though, nothing ages faster than everyday appliances. Consequently Flavin’s cutting-edge minimalist pieces of only a few decades ago already have an old-fashioned look. Soon they’ll seem as antiquated as Byzantine mosaics.

Other pieces on display at the Hayward move even further into three dimensions. “Chromosaturation” by Carlos Cruz-Diez is an entire environment dominated by color in the form of light: one red room, one green, one blue. The idea is that you are completely taken over, chromatically. That is a mild, almost bland experience compared with some of the others on offer.

More spectacular -- not to say disconcerting -- results come from adding movement to light. “Slow Arc inside a Cube IV” (2009) by Conrad Shawcross consists of a moving light source inside a wire cage in the middle of a room.

Slipping Perspective

The effect is to put the viewer inside a constantly turning and slipping perspective diagram. There are moments when the world seems to fall away beneath your feet, leaving your stomach behind.

If anything the strobe lighting in Olafur Elisson’s “Model for a timeless garden” (2011) is even more stomach-churning (a well-known art historian came out complaining it had made him feel faint).

It is made up of 27 miniature table-top fountains. Instead of being soothing -- as fountains usually are -- these are spectral and disconcerting. The water droplets hang in the air in a series of flickering freeze-frames, while the fountains morph in a constant shape-shifting pulse.

In art, light creates two qualities: beauty and drama. Most of the exhibits produce one or the other, and a few (like Eliasson’s) manage both. It’s a long while since I saw the Hayward so packed. It’s easy to understand why.

“Light Show” is at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, SE1 8XX through April 28. Information: http://www.haywardlightshow.co.uk or +44-20-7960-4200.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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