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Light Research @ MMU

Shadows in the Magdalen Laundry

At Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, a disused Catholic convent, now an art and community centre, an elegiac, powerful light projection, Impermanence, devised by Yandell Walton, honours the former inhabitants of the place ( In a part of the site not yet restored and blocked off from public access by a thick wire mesh screen, are the former laundries. The history of these convents has recently become somewhat notorious, especially in Ireland, and as captured in the film Philomena, because of the strict, often cruel, treatment of the young troubled, ‘fallen women’, unmarried mothers and miscreants, who ended up under the sway of the nuns who ran such places. Pre and post war, these young women worked in the laundries, carrying out their duties alongside the holy sisters.  abbotsford shadows 1


The plaster on the walls of these rooms is crumbling and much of the site lies open to the sky. Yandell’s display tracks the rapid movement of daylight across the room, and simultaneously shows the slower movements of two shadowy figures, a nun as she slowly glides along, and a more animated young woman who is running in slow motion. Discussants at the review of the piece were struck by the juxtaposition of these temporalities, one perhaps signifying the sheer routine nature of the day-to-day work of the laundry and the way in which one day was much like any other, the other rhythm showing the contrasting bodily movements of those who worked here, the sedate progress of the nun and the running girl, joyous in movement or maybe trying to escape. Impressions also focused upon the way that the unseemly wire barrier actually provided a border within which the historical resonances and atmosphere conjured up were contained, and upon the way in which the white light picked out the patina of decay on the walls, drawing attention to another temporal effect.Abbotsford shadows 2


June 18th, 2014 - 06:15am

The illuminated magic of the fairground: Sydney’s Luna Park

Despite the many charms of VIVID, for me, the most affecting light display in Sydney has been attracting residents of the city to play on the North shore of the Harbour Bridge since the 1930s. Luna Park contains reproductions of the designs from this era as well as some original features. Luna Park Face

Unlike so many traditional pleasure gardens and amusement parks that have been made over and extinguished the original features, Luna Park conveys a powerful sense of the atmosphere, allure and aesthetics that held sway in the golden age of funfairs, and captures some of the magic of illumination that earlier twentieth century urbanites must have experienced, as the city was transformed by light from a dark realm into an enchanted, uncanny phantasmagoria. Luna Park - roundabout

In his magisterial book, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialisation of Light in the Nineteenth Century. (1988), Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues that the late years of the 19thcentury to the early years of the 20th century saw a broad shift from a lighting of order to a lighting of festivity.  Such festive lighting was exemplified at theme parks such as at Coney Island where, as Gary Cross describes (in his paper ‘Crowds and leisure: thinking comparatively across the 20th century’, Journal of Social History 9(3): 631-650, 2006), ‘(the original) Luna Park and Dreamland created a dazzling architectural fantasy of towers domes and minarets, outlined by electric lights, giving these strange oriental shapes an even more mysterious and magical air at night’. Luna Park - Coney Island Funny Land

The art deco entrance to Sydney’s Luna Park, comprising two towers that border a huge face with a giant mouth through which people entered, was constructed in 1935, and has been remodelled several times due to the damaging effects of sea spray and rain. The present design derives from 1995 and is a replica of the original. Other fantasy fairground design features spread throughout the park, notably the fabulous Funny Land, a survivor from 1935 and a fabulous and rare example of a funhouse from that era.Luna Park - Funny land detail - Popeye

June 7th, 2014 - 06:19am

Subluminal at John Rylands Library, Manchester

On Deansgate, a main artery of Manchester, lies John Rylands Library, an extraordinary, charismatic Victorian neo-Gothic building that testifies to the power and confidence of the city’s entrepreneurs during its industrial zenith. On the nights of 30th and 31st of January and 1st February, the library was the site for Subluminal, a event devised by a group of design professionals from North West England. Their aim: to transform the usual sensory apprehension of the building. blue ceiling

Visitors were invited to enter the usually unused main door, and make their way through the library’s interior, where a plethora of light effects highlighted sensational architectural features, design details, sculptures, artefacts, stairways, niches, chambers and passageways.  Initially, we lingered in the cavernous reading room, where coloured and white lights highlighted key features, punctuating the general gloom. Then, thrillingly, we descended a very narrow spiral staircase into the bowels of the building. Walking through a dark corridor lined with leather bound books, usually inaccessible to the public,  a strobe light  briefly illuminated the surroundings.

door with bars

Further along, chambers bordered by doors with iron bars were illuminated by a soulful red light, compounding the thick atmosphere. The tour was accompanied by evocative sounds, including a welcoming introduction from the statue of industrialist John Rylands himself, ambient drones and whispers, and throbbing bass notes that spread through the subterranean passageways. At points, the gloom inside contrasted with the light from outside that shone through the ornamental windows. In wholly defamiliarising and enchanting the library through the deployment of sounds, illumination and especially darkness, Subluminal made a powerful statement about the potency of light and sonic design to enrich the sensory experience of place. For more details and selection of images, see

figures sculpture trio



February 4th, 2014 - 15:39pm

The Power of Candlelight

free to be 2On the evening of 19th January, Durham Cathedral  held an event labelled Free To Be, in which much of the lower areas of the building were illuminated by candlelight. Upon entering the cathedral, visitors could experience an atmosphere and setting staged to solicit prayer and meditation, and become absorbed in the large expanses or in smaller spaces, ‘walking, pausing, watching and listening for God as you like’, as the hand-out advised. Dimmed lights illuminated the upper reaches and roof of the building in a pale grey wash, contrasting with the yellowish, warm glow of the candles that lined the nave and aisles, and clustered in other places. Cathedrals are designed to manipulate light and dark in sophisticated ways. During this event, the capacious interior could be experienced in an entirely different way to how it is apprehended in daylight, by which numerous shafts of sunlight flit across the gloom of the space, cutting shards of light into floors and walls, and stained glass casts glows with saturated colour. Instead, soft candlelight chimed with  the mellow qualities of the stone, revealing the smoothness of carefully chiselled newer sections as well as  ancient surfaces, pocked and hollowed through the ages.

Free to be1

Deep shadows also focused attention on tracery, niches and sculptures, and foregrounded the theatrical layers that extended through the linear expanse of the cathedral, with rood screens, pillars and choir stalls forming darker sections that divided lighter spaces. A harp player added to the contemplative mood, tumbling notes resonating through this glowing realm, and along with incense, she contributed to a rich multi-sensual experience, conjured through the simple deployment of a form of lighting that would have illuminated the cathedral in earlier times.

free to be 3

January 20th, 2014 - 16:10pm

Back to the future: light restores colour to Amiens Cathedral

It is a common misconception that old churches and ancient monuments have always appeared as we now see them; that is, composed of sandblasted, cleaned up stone bereft of colour. When we visit such sites, we seek the plain, pristine and sober as a sign of authenticity. However, symbolic ancient Greek and Roman  buildings and the interiors of medieval churches were usually riots of colour, with brightly painted sculptures and other architectural features lining their walls and facades. A recent application of lighting technology has been recently deployed to restore the gloriously cheerful appearance of the western front of Amiens Cathedral in France by projecting colour onto the facade. There are also plans to extend this technique to the 14th century statue of St Christopher at Norton Priory near Runcorn in Cheshire, UK, to resemble the colours displayed in the image belowSt Christopher statue, Norton Priory.jpg. Amazing that light can give us a sense of how these buildings might have appeared in their heyday. Thanks to Paul O’Hare










St Christopher Statue, Norton Priory


Amiens Cathedral Illuminated 2










Amiens Cathedral


November 26th, 2013 - 17:33pm