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Light Research @ MMU

The Light of the Antarctic

One of the key qualities of place is the quality of the light that falls upon it. Consider the ever-changing skies of the West Highlands of Scotland, or the cloudless skies and vibrant, toxic sunsets of Los Angeles. An exhibit at VIVID attempted to capture something of the legendary effects of the light in Antarctica, by drawing on the accounts from the 1911-14 expedition to map hitherto unknown areas of the icy continent, led by pioneer Australian explorer, Douglas Mawson. Mawson and his colleagues wax lyrical about the ever-changing light of this polar region which Mawson described as ‘a world of colour, brilliant and intensely pure’, despite the appalling privations they were forced to bear. The exhibit, Terra Incognita, devised by McDermott Baxter Light Art, a company run by Ruth McDermott and Ben Baxter, featured extracts from Mawson’s diary and other writings recorded in a voice-over, together with dramatic sequences of vibrantly coloured illumination lighting and sound effects to evoke the harsh yet beautiful landscape. Here are some of the wonderfully evocative archival extracts and images from the display:

terra Incognita 3

Powerless, one was in the spell of an all-enfolding wonder. The vast, solitary snow-land, cold-white under the sparkling star-gems; lustrous in the radiance of the southern lights; furrowed beneath the icy sweep of the wind. We had come to probe its mystery, we had hoped to reduce it to terms of science, but there was always the “indefinable” which held aloof, yet riveted our souls.

A calm morning in June, the sky is clear and the north ablaze with the colours of sunrise—or is it sunset? The air is delicious, and a cool waft comes down the glacier. A deep ultramarine, shading up into a soft purple hue, blends in a colour-scheme with the lilac plateau.

Terra Incognita lilac sm

The tranquillity of the water heightened the superb effects of this glacial world. Majestic tubular bergs whose crevices exhaled a vapourous azure; lofty spires, radiant turrets and splendid castles; honeycombed masses illumined by pale green light within whose fairy labyrinths the water washed and gurgled. Seals and penguins on magic gondolas were the silent denizens of this dreamy Venice. In the soft glamour of the midsummer midnight sun we were possessed of a rapturous wonder.

The liquid globe of sun has departed, but his glory still remains. Down from the zenith his colours descend through greenish-blue, yellowish-green, straw yellow, light terra-cotta to a diffuse brick-red; each reflected in the dull sheen of freezing sea. Out on the infinite horizon float icebergs in a mirage of mobile gold.

terra incognita2

At times the light was nimble, flinging itself about in rich waves, warming to dazzling yellow-green and rose. These were the nights when “curtains” hung festooned in the heavens, alive, rippling, dancing to the lilt of lightning music. Up from the horizon they would mount, forming a vortex overhead, soundless within the silence of the ether

While the wind rushed by at a maddening pace and stars flashed like jewels in a black sky, a glow of pale yellow light overspread the north-east horizon—the aurora. A rim of dark, stratus cloud was often visible below the light which brightened and diffused till it curved as a low arc across the sky.


Terra Incognita Aurora


June 18th, 2014 - 05:23am

Op art updated with light: Galaxia II

For me, the most mesmerising installations at VIVID was Galaxia III (for a video of the work, see an ever-changing rectangle full of shifting geometric patterns of light that produced a riot of optical effects in the viewer.  Created by Alan Rose (, Galaxia II resonated with the work of the practitioners of op art of the 1960s and 70s. These artists were less concerned with producing representations of landscapes, still lives or figures than with focusing upon ideas and the relationship of a piece to the viewer. Such works were less concerned with the emotions of the artist and more about the mental state induced in the viewer. Galaxia 2, 1

Moreover, in the words of Simon Rycroft (2005, ‘The nature of op art: Bridget Riley and the art of non-representation’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space), this work was ‘a generator of perceptual responses, possessing a dynamic quality which provoked illusory images and sensations in the spectator’, thereby focusing attention on the perceptual capacities of human vision. These sensations are amplified by Alan’s use of light to further dramatically explore optical effects. He emphasises that one purpose of his work ‘is to induce a mental state – where the viewer goes from there is up to the individual imagination’. As with the op artists who influence his work, Alan contends that with Galaxia II, ‘there has to be some confusion… the opposing colours change so slowly that the viewer can’t quite remember what it looked like 10 seconds ago’. Galaxia2,2

He continues, ’the slowly changing colours and varying block shapes produce kinetic effects which are designed to induce transformative mindstates. The works give the initial illusion of random forms, but with the passing of time the completely ordered geometry is perceived. In this way they are situated between order and chaos, and hopefully compel the viewer to contemplate them for an extended period, maybe conjuring up personal narratives’. In confronting this work, we question whether what we are seeing is accurate or whether our eyes are playing tricks on us. This makes us wonder further about how we see with light. Do others perceive this work as we do? (thanks to Alan Rose).Galaxia 2, 3

June 10th, 2014 - 03:18am

Fireworks, fountains, lasers and mist screens

In the 17th and 18th centuries, European monarchs adopted new technologies that transformed the overwhelming darkness of night of that era. They bedazzled subjects with lavish, baroque displays of fireworks and theatrical illuminations, displaying majesty and challenging religious power. Since then, the firework display has never lost its allure, and we continue to celebrate New Year’s Eve, independence days and bonfire night at increasingly organised, highly managed displays. Aquatique - lasers, fireworks, fountains

The practices of my youth, purchasing fireworks from local shops and letting them off in the back garden from the proceeds gathered from wheeling a stuffed dummy around the streets in search of a ‘penny for the guy’, and the pleasures of throwing jumping jacks and bangers around with gay abandon have vanished under the sway of health and safety regimes. Replacing these humble but nevertheless quite intimate, magical re-enchantments of everyday, homely space are ever more spectacular displays.Aquatique - red fountains

At Sydney’s VIVID, this advancement was underlined by the extraordinary display witnessed by throngs of spectators on all sides of Cockle Bay, by Vivid Aquatique Water Theatre which combines a visual feast of numerous illuminated dancing water fountains, four giant water screens composed of mist upon which fantasy figures were projected, tumultuous fireworks and blazing lasers. Aquatique - monsters and lasers

This multi-dimensional show certainly drew the requisite quantity of ‘ooohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the crowds and was certainly an enthralling though somewhat depthless display, perhaps in keeping with the massive programme of redevelopment that is turning the Darling Harbour area into a massive site of spectacle and consumption, replete with sumptuous bars and restaurants, retail spaces, aquaria, waxworks, cruises, theatres, nightclubs, museums, gardens and a casino, itself contributing to VIVID’s nightscape.Aquatique -trumpets, fountains and foreworks

June 8th, 2014 - 06:37am

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

Mary’s Lamp: lighting the way for women and sexually diverse individuals

Lamp for Mary Source Mikala Dwyer

Lamp for Mary is a pink street light installed in 2010 to illuminate an inner city laneway, Mary’s Place, in Sydney. The light stands at a site ia which a woman named Mary was attacked and raped by two men in 1996 as a consequence of her sexuality.  One year after the brutal attack, the laneway, previously Flood Lane, was renamed Mary’s Place and a community artwork was installed. The original artwork, however, was removed during building works. In response to a community-driven campaign, City of Sydney commissioned artist Mikala Dwyer, who worked with GLBTQI community groups to reinstate a structure that protects, heals, warns and celebrates the power of survival. Acting as metaphor, the light keeps vigil for those using this place after dark, and enables this previously historically notorious, shadowy laneway to be reclaimed by women and sexually diverse individuals. While pragmatic, Mary’s Lamp also acts as a symbolic public tribute and testimony to the resilience of assault victims. The unusual large size, bright pink colour and ringed body of the structure serve to disrupt the conventional sequence of lighting along the urban laneway, motivating recognition and reflection for those using and moving through Mary’s Place. Moreover, the lamp emits a warm inviting light, with its pink shade designed to spread the emitted light across the width of the laneway. This contrasts with other streetlights in the area chosen for energy efficiency and cost, that providing a cooler, whiter hue with lower luminosity. Posted by Anna de Jong (


June 4th, 2014 - 01:35am