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Light Research @ MMU

Lighting up Melbourne’s suburbs at Christmas

Melbourne’s Christmas lights shine brightly across its suburbs, installed by householders to bring a seasonal splash of colour, animation and illumination. Unlike the Christmas lights that adorn the exteriors of British houses that we studied back in 2009 (see Edensor, T. and Millington, S. (2009a) ‘Illuminations, class identities and the contested landscapes of Christmas’, Sociology 43(1): 103–121), most of these houses are owned by middle class residents and do not seem to suffer the abuse meted out by others, who deride them and their inhabitants as tacky, irresponsible, showy, wasteful and worse. Instead, the displays are widely popular, and while in the UK they seem to be dwindling in number, in Melbourne they are expanding as a key element of the Yuletide experience. Newspapers and websites detail where the most extravagant displays can be found, and car loads of festive celebrants visit them, chatting to their creators and taking photographs and videos. They clearly demand a great deal of time and energy to arrange and establish, as well as technical expertise. These ordinary suburban houses and gardens and the streets to which they belong are transformed into sites of sociable fun and spectacle. At one upmarket street, The Boulevard, in Ivanhoe, thousands of visitors arrive each night, with many small children hoisted up to see the illuminations that garb the houses and gardens of dozens of adjacent properties, carrying on a tradition initiated by these residents of this area in the 1950s. We feature these examples to highlight the diverse forms of lighting that are employed, from the choreographed shows set to music, and others, equally animated, that rely on lighting alone.

December 27th, 2016 - 09:16am

Terror in the dark

This blog has celebrated the positive qualities offered by darkness, focusing on the enhanced conviviality, heightened non-visual sensations, interaction with the landscape and imagination that can be solicited by various encounters with gloom and complete blackness. However, chiming with prehistoric and medieval terrors of the crepuscular in eras of pervasive superstition and fear of malign forces, are the more modern attractions of the ghost train and the horror movie, in which such residual fears are transmuted into the carnivalesque delights of the fairground and the movie theatre. Here, darkness retains its capacity to invoke agreeable terror. A growing number of attractions, based on early modern dark rides and walks, utilize darkness to produce an intense, hilarious and pleasurably managed form of terror: walks through confined dark spaces in which actors and technicians join forces to taunt and terrify visitors with a medley of effects. An excellent example is The Fear Factory, situated on a busy street in the bustling tourist setting of Queenstown in New Zealand’s beautiful South Island.

Our party of three entered a red door and instantly pressed a button to dim the lights and install complete darkness, utter blackness except for the small red light – little more than an illuminated dot – that we were instructed to follow along a complicated sequence of twisting corridors. Advised to hold on to each other as we haltingly made our way through the labyrinthine path, tense hands gripped shoulders or midriffs. Right from the start, as we were plunged into darkness, very loud, sharp explosions frightened us into an attentive wariness. Very soon, complete darkness was interrupted by the hideous masked faces of clowns, horned devils and beasts that unexpectedly appeared inches away and which continued to intermittently materialize for the duration of the journey. So sudden were these apparitions that they were difficult to assimilate, as they loomed into view and immediately disappeared. In any case, there was no time for reflection, or to gather thoughts, for the body braced itself for the next shock: we could never be certain of when they would once more flash out of the darkness to jolt us. The attraction works through continual anticipation. The blackness also works to conceal the origin of grotesque appeals and lamentations from unseen presences, sometimes whispers that entered the ear from very close by, along with creaks, clanks and deeper dismal sounds. These wails and soft entreaties were supplemented by hands touching fingers, grasping at feet and brushing across hair and ears, and an enhanced tactile awareness is intensified by suddenly uneven and unstable flooring, strands of hanging material and mild electric shocks that further disorientated the body, which could never be prepared for what was coming next. The frenzy of shocks that continuously confronted passage through these pitch black channels fostered a giddy delirium, as infectious laughter and shrieks produced an intensely communal experience. We blundered through a door blinking into the light, back at the point of entry, suffused with relief that the shocks were at an end, utterly confounded about the length of time and distance, or number of people who had tormented us in the gloomy corridors. Apparently about one in 7 visitors never make it to the finish – they chicken out before the end.

Darkness is thus a condition that offers diverse possibilities for animators, architects, light designers and actors to offer experiences that imaginatively disorder the usual experiences of the visual world. These brief engagements take us back to older fears that are easily rekindled by a host of associations and familiar figures from popular culture that linger to ensure that darkness remains scary, in this sense, pleasurably so.

December 16th, 2016 - 16:21pm

Fabulous Melbourne Lightworks

An array of diverse and stimulating works that use light are scattered across central Melbourne. First of all, I revisited the wonderful work of Yandell Walton, who has reconfigured hedancer-2r melancholic work featured on this site two years ago at the city’s  Abbotsford Convent. At a site called Testing Grounds, a space at which artists of all kinds can experiment and display prototypes, Yandell’s work was situated in a container. The skeletal iron structure of the ceiling of the convent’s laundry is redeployed to serve as the backdrop of two different projections: on one wall, a dancer is projected against a surface of white bricks found at the site; on another wall of transparent fibreglass, external lights and the vague outlines of  people from outside meld with the projected shadows of figures moving across the surface.shadows1

At the city’s famous National Gallery of Victoria, a different kind of work makes use of the light from outside. Leonard French’s 40 year old stained glass ceiling, one of the largest in the world, is a vibrant kaleidoscope of intense colour. Visitors are solicited to lie on one of the soft bean bags to gaze upwards at the glowing, multicoloured array above them. Extending the art first initiated by the craftsmen working in medieval cathedrals, French’s masterpiece underlines the extraordinary potency of sunlight reflected through coloured glass. stained-glass-roof

Finally, two very different neon works offer very different effects. Situated in another room of the NGV, Tracey Emin’s ‘The Passion of your Smile’ is a synthesis of the answers provided in a questionnaire that the artist sent to Hollywood actor, George Clooney Rendered so as to mimic Emin’s own handwriting, the neon text vibrantly captures a variety of impressions: glamour, romance, urgency.passion

Danae Velenza’s work is sited in a very different location: a side street just off Melbourne’s busy Bourke Street. Like Lost Children we Live our Unfinished Adventures is literally rendered on a wall by eight neon sculptures in shorthand. The neglected but ubiquitous form of writing deployed to rapidly pin down meaning is honoured by being situated here in the CBD, echoing the endeavours of the city’s admin workers over decades.shorthand

 

 

 

 

 

November 29th, 2016 - 05:00am

Progress Illuminated in Blackpool

In current times, Blackpool is a seaside resort more typically associated with the past, perhaps through a nostalgic lens. However, two outstanding place-specific art works installed as part of the town’s Lightpool Festival (http://www.blackpool-illuminations.net/LightPoolWalk.htm) suggest how the town was once particularly future-oriented. In making works especially designed for the occasion, Mark Titchner reminds onlookers of how Blackpool was once a hotspot of modernism and forward thinking. plenty-and-progress

His Plenty and Progress and What Use is Life Without Progress recall that the motto of the town is PROGRESS. This was never an empty boast, and was underpinned by a range of historical developments: the construction of the remarkable Tower, the early use of electric light, the early adoption of a tram system, and the mechanical marvels and rides that still enthral visitors to the Pleasure Beach. Plenty and Progress is projected onto the façade of the Town Hall and these words are surrounded by a shifting myriad of animated light designs, foregrounding how the resort’s illuminations are also part of this modern thrust, and refuting contemporary prejudices that modernism was invariably austere and functional.  The inference is that Progress is productive of plenty, not just of food, commodities and work, but also plenty of pleasures too. The colourful embellishments also recall the beautiful neon illuminations that adorned the seafront in the 1920s and 30s, with their clear lines and curves, notably conjuring up the designs of Claudegan, whose designs on paper can presently be viewed in the Grundy Art Gallery. progress

Facing the seafront, the larger work, What Use is Life Without Progress, offers a bleaker, more insistent message, in which progress is conversely associated with compulsion and instrumentality. The very form of the display evokes an authoritarian form of propaganda issued by the state, urging citizens to strive for improvement. Two very satisfying and provocative works.

 

October 31st, 2016 - 11:55am

Neon Extravaganza in Blackpool

The current exhibition at Blackpool’s ever-interesting Grundy Gallery is The Charged Line, a riot of neon that comprises a survey of the multiple creative applications of this most prolific form of illuminated art. We have suggested before that neon evokes many symbolic associations, including the futuristic, nostalgic, seedy and commercial, and the works in the exhibition do trigger many resonances. It is difficult to do justice to the richness of the show so three examples must suffice.

green-pimpDavid Batchelor’s outlining of a encrusted, time-worn concrete mixer with garish green neon transforms a utilitarian object into a magical thing, highlighting its shapely form and drawing attention to its battered material form. Green Pimp, from 2006, also captures something of Blackpool itself in its combination of the earthy and the glamorous. It also reminds us of the labouring bodies and industrial machinery that typified the working worlds  of the places from which millions of tourists flocked to the resort in search of thrills and glitter .f-morellet

François Morellet’s three dimensional work, Triple X Neonly, occupies a corner of the gallery with six lines configured to form three cross-cutting X’s that conjure up the abject  areas of the city in which the sex industry prospers. Yet this work of geometric abstraction easily transcends these all-too apparent cultural references, providing an immersive work that bathes room and visitor alike in a warm red glow that dazzles and charms visual perception. More broadly, the work amply demonstrates how light art invariably radiates effects beyond the symbolic.kosooth

Joseph Kosooth, an early pioneer of the approach, joins other artists that feature in a room devoted to neon works that foreground language and text. His iconic work from 1965, Neon, blurs the distinction between an object and the word that represents it – since the word seems to be rendered in the very material that it describes.  However, what masquerades as a cool white illuminated form produced by neon is in fact filled with another gas, namely argon. Thus the sign does not in reality represent the word that it features.

The exhibition continues until January 7th  2017, and visitors are advised to include this masterful show in any outing to Blackpool Illuminations or a trip to sample the resort’s  many vernacular charms.

October 24th, 2016 - 20:37pm

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