I don’t know about you, but I reckon that a shade over ten pounds is rather good value for an experience so staggeringly mind-blowing that your peepers will literally bulge bug-eyed out of your head. I’m not talking about the fruits of a sordid foray to some low-end red light district: I’m talking about an exhibition called Light Show at the Hayward Gallery on London’s Southbank Centre. The exhibition has turned out to be such a sprintaway success that it has been extended until 6 May 2013.
Imagine the most lusted-after person you’ve ever seen in the flesh – the person you could gaze upon for the rest of time, until your spirit withers away and your internal organs desiccate – and now imagine something interminably more dazzling. The stars of this show make mere human perfection seem laughable. Resplendent in all their humming, vibrating, living, breathing glory (these entities will make you believe Disney-style that inanimate objects can come to life), the Light Show is a series of 25 light installations dating back through the years to 1960, serving up a rich platter of more colours and textures than you can shake a stick at, thoughtfully garnered and curated by the Hayward Gallery with such care and attention as to do each one absolute justice. It’s an interactive process which, according to the programme guide,“explores how we experience and psychologically respond to illumination and colour” and “directly calls into play our individual perceptual responses”. Let’s deconstruct the jargon: here are a few highlights to whet your whistle.
The opening gambit, Cylinder 2 by a chap called Leo Villareal, is a gobsmacker. I challenge your jaw not to flop lamely to the floor. It comprises 19,600 flashing LEDs in horizontal chrome tubes arranged in concentric circles which are controlled at eternal random by algorithms. This thing takes you on a journey; I was staring out of the window of a spaceship, watching the infinite stars race by. Sounds corny? Well trust me, it ain’t. The longer you stare at it, the longer you want to look at it and the longer you want to stay at the place to which it transports you. Stonkingly mesmerising.
Skimming over You and I, Horizontal (Anthony McCall), which uses mist and cinematic techniques to explore a concept of “solid light” that entices you to reach out and grab the un-grabbable, and S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (Cerith Wyn Evans) which bathes in you in the sanguine light and heat of incandescent light strips, you’ll come to James Turrell’s Wedgework V. This is an extended viewing experience that necessitates a period of visual adjustment, so expect to queue for a few minutes. DO IT. It’s worth it. It’s a dreamlike play of dimly lit wormhole-esque space, foggy angles and visceral colours. It’s an unsettling and disorientating experience that leaves you feeling unsure about what just happened but very sure about the limitations of human sensory perception. I left the room wondering what was real. Not just in that particular installation, but life in general. What’s with this repeated dumping of corniness, you say?! Sorry, but I’m afraid that’s just the way it is.
Slow Arc Inside A Cube IV is a neat, nifty little creation by a canny bloke named Conrad Shawcross. It makes you feel like you’re descending down the hallucinogenic Rabbit Hole or Willy Wonka’s psychoactive magic tunnel. Its inception apparently hearkens back to a scientist’s description of x-ray diffraction on protein atoms – a“metaphor for the discipline of science”. Whatever that might mean, it’s bloody brilliant, and I’ll say no more on the topic for fear of spoiling the surprise. A fair warning, however: those with motion sickness should give this one a wide berth. Then there’s Carlos Cruz-Diez’s trippy monstrosity entitled Chromosaturation, which plays on the way that colour receptors within the eye’s retina adapt overstimulation caused by one particular wavelength of light by gradually filtering it out. Moving from a red room to a blue room to a green room, your optic faculties fumble with the resultant visual noise are left bleating helplessly.
There’s a-whole-nother floor to go, stuffed to the gills with optical delights. Saving the best till last, languishing in the furthest corner of the gallery, one stumbles blindly into Olafur Eliasson’s Model For A Timeless Garden. I would like very much to meet this visionary Dane and pump his hand until it damn near falls off. I almost had a heart-attack from total experiential overload. This absolutely must be discovered first-hand, but I will disclose that you might not want to breathe in too deeply through flared nostrils when you’re in the room and there’s an ominous sign prior to the pitch-black entry corridor warning guests that the installation uses strobe lights and water. That is all.
It would only be fair to mention the one duff bit (hanging in a bluey-grey room, a solitary bulb that is supposed to represent the moon) but overall, the experience is one of utter disbelief that each new installation seems to trump the previous one in its brilliance. It throws down the gauntlet to our preconceptions about the very space we inhabit, and it will leave you not only humbly questioning the way you see the world, but also the way you see yourself.
If you’re a weekend culture vulture, it’s advisable to book tickets in advance to avoid queueing. Your time in the exhibition is not limited, and I guarantee that however long you spend there won’t be long enough – so dedicate as much time to your visit as your schedule can possibly afford. Be prepared for the usual barrage of bellowing toddlers, but I promise you that the cacophony will pale into insignificance in the wake of the gallery contents, and before long you won’t notice it at all. Another point worth mentioning is that this is the first (and I suspect last) time I’ve ever bothered reading the programme blurb for every single piece at an exhibition. I didn’t just read it; I devoured it like one might a Mars Bar after a Marathon. I re-read and re-re-read. Hats off to the curators for a job spankingly well done.
Tickets will set you back a mere 11 quid… Book yours here. For three hours of utter rapture and pure moist-eyed wonder, that’s the steal of the century.