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Blinded by the Light Show: The Hayward Gallery/Bruce Nauman

By James Roadnight –

It’s hard to think of a better space for ‘Light Show’ than the brutalist structure of the Hayward. Its daylight deprived, cavernous spaces are the perfect theatre for shadow-play and light-trickery.

Running from January to mid-April, the South Bank gallery’s latest offering is something of a retrospective in light art featuring 25 pivotal works from the 1960’s to present. The exhibition is, above all, one to experience and enjoy, requiring little more from its visitors than immersion in, and visceral response to, the work. Ranging from the therapeutic to the relatively triply, the installations  together consider the effects of light on human psychology and perception; packaged together as a pleasure trip for all.

Take Carlos Cruz-Diez’s ‘Chromosaturation’ consisting in three adjoining spaces – each lit in blue, red and green respectively. The receptors in our eyes struggle to compensate for the fluctuation between one flat all-consuming colour to another as, without contrast, the starkness of one room soon becomes commonplace until you move to the next. Immediately you are aware of the shortcomings of human perception; and then, just how much fun a show like this can be!

Likewise, Ólafur Elíasson’s ‘Model for a Timeless Garden’ proves to be a popular attraction: a room of chattering strobe lights illuminating a long, broad shelf of fountains, spouts and arcs of water. The effect is one of pure magic as, caught within the flash of a strobe, the water hangs transfixed and almost solid in an otherwise darkened room.

But journeying from room to installation in experience of each novel use of artificial light to another, I started to sense a haste or impatience about the gallery. As if at a funfair, queues for the most popular exhibits were considerable whilst some of the more sensitive – less ‘fun’ – works are treated with an air of benevolence. Dan Flavin’s seminal 1960s arrangements of neon tubes, for example. Heralded as a shining light in contemporary installation, the late Flavin’s part in the ‘Light Show’ instead seemed to provide a mere distraction en route to more obvious and easily enjoyable instances of trickery and wit. “I don’t like this one as much, what does it do?” I hear people remark.

That said I would definitely recommend The Hayward’s light show. Make sure to pay special attention to the work of Anthony McCall’s ‘You and I’; an artist whose full solo show I was lucky enough to catch at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnof this summer. It is hard to exactly explain the experience involved in this work, or do it justice in a photograph … so just trust me on this one; this is not to be missed!

For a very different experience in the use of artificial light in the art world, you may also want to check out Bruce Nauman’s show ‘Mindfuck’ that runs until 9th March at Hauser & Wirth – Saville Row. Nauman’s work strikes a very stark comparison to the softly meditative tones of the Hayward’s own, trading instead in harsh neon lights; themes of sex, death and aggression; and featuring a flashing image of four upside down men sucking each other off.

In this review I initially intended to draw out this comparison of the two exhibitions yet, amongst the time I spent queuing ( – be prepared for queues, and lots of them! – ) and introspecting at the Hayward, the day was over before I managed to reach Soho. Given the overall strength of ‘the light show’ though, I would likely say I made the right choice as to which I would see first.

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