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Light Research @ MMU

Illuminasia in Blackpool

Installed across several large halls of the Blackpool’s vast,  venerable Winter Gardens, an exciting exhibition, Illuminasia,  has recently opened, showcasing a particularly evocative lighting tradition with which most Britons will be unfamiliar Drawing on the ancient Chinese art of lantern making, using silk fabric, steel rods and various luminaires, this is a display on a heroic scale. Advertised as the world’s largest indoor illuminations experience, the project invited 56 Chinese craft workers to the resort, and they worked on the designs in situ for nearly three months. The display uses 35,000 lamps, 27 tons of steel and an astonishing 20,000 acres of silken fabric. Illuminasia1

The exhibition is divided into discrete chambers including a portrayal of China’s renowned terracotta warrior, an emperor on his throne accompanied by Chinese birth signs, a ‘Blackpool Experience’ featuring the tower and other adornments laid out on top of a map of the town,  and an undersea world. Illuminasia3

The ‘Land of the Giants’ comprising a garden replete with insects and plants that dwarf visitors is a particularly magical realm, with beetles, ants and a huge goldfinch situated amongst the densely layered foliage, glowing with colours of deep rich luminosity.


Visitors conclude their visit by entering a time-honoured display of the wonders of the world, including the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Tower Bridge, the Sphinx, the Statue of Liberty and – most deserving of such an accolade – Blackpool Tower. The attraction supplements the town’s annual illuminations, adding to the richly creative tradition of producing local and vernacular forms of lighting and is highly recommended by LightResearch@MMU.



May 21st, 2014 - 11:42am

Gavin Turk’s Neon Art at the Bowes Museum

gavin  Turk LobsterOn the night of the 24th January, with other fellows of the Institute for Advanced Study, I visited the Bowes Museum, the fantastic 19th century building rendered in the likeness of a French château, in the North Yorkshire town of Barnard Castle, to enjoy the opening of a fabulous exhibition devised by Gavin Turk. Turk NailGavin Turk Candle

Bringing together all of his neon works made between 1995 and 2014, these pieces resonate with iconic works by old and modern masters, with popular culture and with themes explored in Turk’s earlier work. Installations include an animated lit match, a large egg, a banana, the radiating vision from a single eye, the Greek letter Phi, a star, an iron cross, a lobster, a candle and three doors in the middle of each wall, matching the one viewers enter. These are accompanied by a work on the outside of the building, Seven Billion Two Hundred and One Million Nine Hundred and Sixty-Four Thousand and Two Hundred and Thirty-Eight (also the title of the show), a number intended to capture the median human population of the earth at the time of the exhibition’s opening. This is matched by another work inside that assesses the amount by which this number has increased during the time it takes to make your way into the interior gallery from the outside – specifically, to 7.201,966,413. The various pieces conjure up various associations of this most evocative of lighting technologies: neon’s early allure as futuristic design, its use in propaganda, the seedy but romantic demi-monde conjured in film noir, the gaudy enticements of Las Vegas, the proliferating mid-20th century urban nightscape of advertising promotion, and the work of other artists. (see Christoph Ribbat’s Flickering Light, for a detailed account of these changing  cultural uses and meanings of neon.) Yet these works also stand apart from these resonances, the glow of neon picking out their economical, singular lines, enchanting their symbolic and affective charge.Gavin Turk Door

The show will subsequently visit the New Art Centre at  East Winterslow, Salisbury and most appropriately, the Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool.

Thanks to Julie Westerman and Ulisses Barres de Almeida for photos.

January 25th, 2014 - 16:57pm

Blackpool Illuminations archive

I have spent a wonderful day at the Blackpool Illuminations archive, located at the depot in the town. A Heritage Lottery Funding was secured to archive the extraordinary range of posters, designs and plans that stretch back to the 1920s, and the work going on to catalogue this resource underlines the shifts in design practice, themes and tastes that have been deployed, but also the continuities that resonate through displays of different eras. See their fabulous and evolving blog :

Celebrity designer Laurence Llewellyn Bowen emphasises in his preface to a recent book on the Illuminations that, ‘restraint, straight-laced good taste aesthetics and minimalism are your sworn design enemies. To work, Blackpool Illuminations have to be high kicking, showbiz, jazz hands and more than a little “nudge nudge, wink wink” Terms no-one ever teaches you at art school’*. Yet tensions between good taste, and popular jollity and brashness, have surfaced in the town  at various times. The many exquisite designs of the art deco influenced 1930s were intended to create a cutting edge tastefulness, an approach that resonated with other architectural innovations during that period (see the ship design). A more inclusive, irreverent approach to designs drawn from popular culture emerged in the 1960s and has continued (as in the image ‘Fright Night’), yet there are periodic attempts to introduce more artful (and ‘tasteful’) installations as part of this annual two month extravaganza of light. This variety is what contributes to the continuing glory  of the display.

* Vanessa Toulmin (2012) Blackpool Illuminations: The Greatest Free Show on Earth

1930s ship   Fright night 1990s

October 30th, 2013 - 18:12pm

Blackpool Amusement Arcade Interiors

Posted on behalf of Martha Lineham: MA Visual Culture student at MMU

‘Where the commodities are suspended and shoved together in such boundless confusion… like images out of the most incoherent dreams.’ (Walter Benjamin on arcades, 1892 – 1940)

An anarchic collage of conflicting sounds, crass imagery, seductive text and rhythmic light sequences; the amusement arcade is a disorientating experience of real and imaginary conditions. These labyrinthic spaces have an absence of external reference points and are reminiscent of the fairground’s hedonistic lure.

Mechanical and video games outstretch in a noisy juxtaposition of physical demand and surface effects. Consumer and object merge in these virtual, drug-like, timeless places. Everything in the arcade appears immediate and accessible.

My thesis project is an exploration of Blackpool’s amusement arcades in the late 1970s / early 1980s, when video game popularity peaked in British arcades. I am interested in the make-up of the interiors, the arcade’s contribution to Blackpool’s cultural significance, and how amusement arcades functioned as social spaces during this time.

To contribute your thoughts on this project please email:

Source: Wikicommons

March 20th, 2013 - 21:44pm

Massage parlours: an alternative Blackpool Illuminations (posted on behalf of Emily Bowes)

During my current research into the impacts of living in close proximity to the massage parlours of Blackpool, I have become very interested in perceptions (both of residents and my own) of the various ways in which the parlours are illuminated.   While they are used for obvious purposes of advertising and to provide safety, this lighting also has other effects. Often described as located in the more ‘lonely’ streets of Blackpool, ‘where even the pigeons don’t frequent’ (interviews with residents), these massage parlours are constantly – and sometimes vibrantly – illuminated.  The ‘red’ of ‘red-light district’ is seemingly absent here. Contrary to the specific stereotyping of ‘red’ associated with areas of sex work, these establishments use a variety of different colours and style of lighting that vary widely in luminosity.  From white to neon blue or pink, from Victorian-style table lamps to illuminated barbed wire lights, the lightscape is extremely diverse and temporally fluid, with some establishments changing these features monthly, weekly and sometimes daily.  This might reflect crackdowns on the parlours’ visibility by local authority gatekeepers but for me, this constant, fluctuating illumination allows individual expression as well as the longevity of some of these businesses.

tabooThe lights also effectively consolidate Blackpool’s reputation as a leisure and pleasure resort with which the illumination is inextricably linked.  Furthermore, the lighting also represents somewhat of a sanctuary.   At night, while spending time here (where I also grew up), these streets are often rather isolated and people usually use them as thoroughfares.  Despite the nationwide economic recession, such establishments have been relatively successful. Thus the lights indicate that people are present in these otherwise quiet areas, and that some businesses are at least open and functioning. Moreover, they paradoxically reinforce the insider-outsider dichotomy often associated with conflicts around the usage of public space. The lighting draws ‘outsiders’ in visually and physically (there is a desire to walk towards them, to look beyond the exterior illumination into the interior) and yet there is a simultaneous desire to not look, and not be seen as a voyeur by the businesses or anybody else.

March 7th, 2013 - 16:24pm