Tonight marks the launch of London’s first ever festival of light, Lumiere. In a few hours time, when another long shivery evening will fall over the capital, a multitude of installations – some impressive and spectacular, others intimate and mysterious, all of them dazzling with light – will illuminate many of London’s well-known landmarks. Places like Westminster Abbey, Piccadilly, Oxford Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and various sites in Mayfair and King’s Cross will be adorned, transformed, and made strange by the inventions of leading artists, art collectives and design studios from all over the world. The festival originates in the city of Durham, where creative producers Artichoke have staged Lumiere Durham biannually since 2009. Durham locals have grown both accustomed and attached to their beloved festival and might not feel that enthusiastic over its move to the capital. Luckily there’s plenty of art, love and light to go around which is why I’d like to give a taster of some of my favourite Lumiere London pieces, all of which you can expect to encounter every night after dark until Sunday 10:30 pm.
The purpose of Lumiere is to bring joy to the streets of London at a time that is infamously miserable and generally marked by debts, depression and darkness. To this end, Portuguese collective Ocubo has created an amazingly cheerful piece: an imaginary circus, staged with 2D and 3D light projections on the side of Central Saint Martin’s Granary building. Inspired by local school children’s drawings that tell the stories of classic circus characters, Circus of Light will make you jubilate with delight over a burlesque and playful light show filled with jolly tricks and capricious stunts. Accompanied by a hilarious soundtrack, the piece is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. On King’s Boulevard you can get involved in literally painting the town red – as well as every other colour. The ingenious technology of Stockholm based arts production company Floating Pictures allows you to colour the asphalt with either the torch on your smartphone or one of the gigantic glow sticks handed to you by the lovely volunteer on site. I’ve had the chance to preview the Light Graffiti, and trust me, it’s so fun you’ll find yourself embarrassed to have made those children queueing behind you wait so long. Less merry and lively than ghostly and entrancing are French-Korean artist Tae gon Kim’s dazzling Dresses that you’ll find along this street as well as Stable Street. These beautiful shimmering LED gowns look like eerie shells encapsulating invisible phantoms, frozen elegantly as if on their way to a fairytale ball in some wondrous different dimension. You’ll find a final glamorous guest trapped in a Liberty shop window over on Regent Street.
Regent Street undoubtedly features as a focus point in the Lumiere footprint, physically connecting the two hubs of Westminster and Mayfair. Starting at the top, at Oxford Circus, you’ll first encounter one of the festival’s most eye-catching works: a gigantic jellyfish-like net sculpture entitled 1.8 by artist Janet Echelman, suspended from the surrounding architecture drawing an exquisite radiating silhouette of light against the night sky. A little further down, you’ll find French collective Groupe LAPS’ glowing stick-men rebelliously overrunning the façade of Liberty house. These skeletal figures dance with delight as if the city’s architectural environment is their own personal jungle gym, almost like a real-life realisation of Walt Disney’s 1929 Silly Symphony Skeleton Dance. Further down, opposite famous Carnaby Street, you’ll find another cartoon figure in motion. British ‘post-pop’ artist Julian Opie has installed Shaida Walking in busy Soho, a work created especially for Lumiere in his instantly recognizable, signature style. As in much of Opie’s work, the piece explores the tension between the general and the specific, the masses and the individual. The artist asked random people off the street to walk on a treadmill while being filmed and used the resulting hours of footage to come to a generic graphic rendering of someone (anyone, everyone – Shaida) walking. He subsequently placed her in a billboard-like LED display box ‘like a bronze statue of a civic hero’ intended to ‘stride endlessly as a living drawing and as part of the crowd.’
Meanwhile, at the bottom of Regent Street, a character appears that will definitely stand out from the crowd: a majestic 3D elephant, which – projected onto the canvas stretched inside the Air street archway – will emerge from a cloud of dust stomping and trumpeting its way into its strange new surroundings. Created by the studio of French artist Catherine Garret, the Air Street Elephant echoes Artichoke’s very first intervention in London in 2006, when it paraded Royale de Luxe’s 20 feet high The Sultan’s Elephant through its streets. Lumiere allows a myriad of other animals to invade the city environment, from Sarah Blood’s songbirds hidden in twelve illuminated cages in Brown Hart gardens, their presence only betrayed by their song (which, I can reveal, is actually produced by people) through to neon balloon dogs à la Jeff Koons on the Strand. Finally, tropical fish feature as dreamlike silky sculptures swooping through the Piccadilly sky, and, over in Mayfair, they swim around in a London telephone box, leading you – once you grasp the odd redeployment of the familiar red object – to dream of tropical travel and an escape from everyday reality.
Creating a temporary alternative to the urban everyday – the daily bore of making a living, commuting, working and so on – is one of Artichoke’s key aims. So beyond the purpose of lifting people’s spirits – although entirely worthwhile in and of itself – Artichoke’s projects intend to radically reimagine the purpose of a city. They question what a city’s spaces can hold, and who they are for. What can they accommodate other than the perpetual movement of people and products, the smooth flow of funds and vehicles? How many streets and tube stations can be closed in order to momentarily create a pedestrian playground and give the streets buildings and infrastructure over to dreamlike shapes and figures, imaginary performers, liberated animals? Reinventing a city as a large-scale outdoor gallery, a canvas for the imagination of both artists and the public, Lumiere disrupts the productive routines that characterise world capitals across the globe.. and it makes for a very worthwhile spectacle. Make sure to enjoy it while it lasts, from tonight (Thursday) through to Sunday night, 6:30-10:30 pm.