Have you seen the light?

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Last week I got the great opportunity to spend 2 hours of my working day wandering around Light Show at the Hayward Gallery .

The exhibition plays with the medium of light, really bringing to your attention the fact that this energy informing our sight is something to look at as well as to look with.

But, as I point out in my New Scientist review, Light Show also asks fundamental questions about how we conceive of light. The exhibition includes a piece by Cerith Wyn Evans, called S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E, (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill underlying motive’s overspill…”). The three pillars covered in clear bulbs flare in time, evoking the rhythm of breathing. As the filaments pulse on, the whole room is infused with their heat – drawing attention to the glaring light even from those who don’t have the sculpture in their line of sight.

It’s an interesting effect, in an exhibition otherwise filled with cold forms of electric light. Urban environments are assaulted with light. Light pollution is up by as much as 20 per cent every year in some areas, which has detrimental ecological consequences and can degrade human health by disrupting the circadian rhythms – it’s a point another piece of work in the exhibition calls to mind. David Batchelor’s Magic Hour makes use of old neon signs from Las Vegas (a city struggling with extreme light pollution), turning their bright advertising to face the wall, so that the observer just views their reflected glow, free to imagine the brightly-lit fantasy beyond the gallery’s confines.

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Evans’s piece recalls our species’s earlier days, before we had all the power (excuse the pun) that we have now. When light and heat were intertwined. In a world where our insatiable need for power – in so many senses of the word – is causing drastic changes in the planet’s climate, emphasising the link between light and heat in our collective consciousness might prompt us to change our ways.

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