Some of the world’s greatest artists were inspired by light — the way it hit a basket of fruit, or shone off a pearl earring. It’s the combination of dark and light that inherently fascinates us, and in today’s modern era, the only thing that’s changed is the medium.
Light art explores this juxtaposition quite literally, through light, but in the form of sculpture, manipulation, colors, and shadows. You have probably seen a lot more light art than you think, too. Think of creative neon signage, that time an image was projected up on a building, or the way colored lights were used to light up a space. Light art lives in museums, but also the public space — making it one of the most prominent and accessible forms of art that we interact with.
The history of light art
The light bulb was invented in 1879, but it wouldn’t be for another 60 years before an artist would incorporate electric light into their artwork. It’s thought that El Lissitsky was the first to do this, but the first object-based light sculpture itself came from Laszio Moholy-Nagay in the 1920’s.
That’s not to say the first idea of art around light was in the 20th century, though. It was just the invention of artificial light that spurred an entirely new movement. “The interplay of dark and light has been a theme running from Greek and Roman sculpture to Renaissance painting to experimental film,” explained acclaimed art critic Hilarie M. Sheets. “But as technology advanced from the glow of the electric light bulb to the computer monitor, artists have been experimenting with actual light as material and subject.”
Today, light art can be considered a lot of things — from the way light sets the mood or tells a story on film to photography and a multi-room LED light art installation.
From bulbs to projections
The first big movement out of light art as we know it today was kinetic art, or lumino kinetic art, when we started to see light play with sculpture, movement and spaces — in some later forms, creating psychedelic scenes. Then there was minimalism, made famous by now well-known artists like Dan Flavin, who worked with fluorescent light tubes and used light and color to transform their surrounding spaces.
Then neon hit the light art scene. Have you ever wondered what came first in the 1980’s: the neon art light movement, or neon clothing? We’ll leave that up to the historians. But during this decade, electric neon lights saw a resurgence in art rather that the typical signage people were used to. We began seeing artists play with neon in sculpture and design in an effort to push the boundaries.
Today, the newest light art trend is in projection mapping — which projects video onto an object, building or wall. This kind of art many of us have seen in both public places and galleries. When shown against three-dimensional objects, the projected video turns a static object into something almost lifelike by using light, color and movement.
LED innovations in light art
Another recent movement in the light art scene was the implementation of light festivals with LED lights. Not only do the LED lights allow artists to create low energy, highly visible art in smart, modern cities — but it helped shed light on the need for ecological change. The LED low energy movement dates back to around 2009 and today has been displayed all over the globe. Major cities often put on entire outdoor light exhibitions featuring the bright yet low powered lights.
Besides that, LED light has greatly influenced light art by being incorporated into the works of artists from all over the globe. For artists who were looking for brighter light while utilizing much less energy, LED’s became the obvious choice.
Spotlight: the artists
While light art is a relatively new form of art, many artists have made their mark with the medium. From public installations to show-stopping museum showcases, light art artists have challenged us to look at this everyday element differently and let it transform our mood or feelings.
1. Lucio Fontana
This aerial sculpture now hangs in the Museo Novecento in Milan, 100 feet of neon tubing looming overhead. Giant windows entice you to look out onto the famous Duomo, yet, you can’t take your eyes off of Lucio Fontana’s famous Arabesco titled, Structure in Neon for the 9th Milan Triennial at the Palazzo dell’Arte, Milan 1951 — where it was originally installed. The light art combined what he called ‘spacial concept” and “spacial environment” and as the Tate explained, “launched a visual language that was later to become an integral part of contemporary art.”
2. James Turrell
Then there are artists like James Turrell who have achieved superstardom through their work. Among his many famous pieces is this installation at the Guggenheim in New York, where he used light and shapes to immerse you into a purple world. Turrell’s work has been hailed for its ability to allow us to think outside the box of what art is. By using lighting, he made millions understand that art doesn’t have to be static or on a wall. It can simply be an experience, and an environment.
3. Jenny Holzer
By using light to illuminate words from declassified U.S. government documents, Jenny Holzer made a powerful statement about the power of words. These ‘floating words’ from the government were displayed to give them new meaning, on the ground, at the level of the people. This piece was displayed in the Whitney, but Holzer’s work which focuses on delivering words in public spaces has exhibited in many places, including Time Square. Doesn’t get much more public than that, does it?
4. Gunda Foerster
Gunda Foerster strays away from the post-minimalistic light tone, evoking a sense of awe, wonder and alienness with her work. This piece, displayed in Berlin, is titled TUNNEL. The florescent yellow bulbs guiding you down the hallway totally surround you and emphasize the neon, unnatural light and color.
5. Ben Rubin
By literally spelling out words with light, Ben Rubin made a major mark in the light art scene. Combining his multimedia background, Rubin used vacuum-fluorescent bulbs to display text from a chat room in real time. By using dark and light from within a specialized light bulb, he created something totally unique.
6. Jim Campbell
Bringing light art into the public, Jim Campbell created this piece called Scattered Light back in 2010 that showcased passerby’s. With a hanging set of 2,000 LED lights, Campbell orchestrated it so that the lights that individually turned off as people walked by. From afar the scene was almost spooky as you watched silhouettes glide past the lights.
7. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
Using lights, robotics, LED screens, and film projections, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer works to alter how people interact within a space. Featured here you see the Pulse Room, where hanging incandescent light bulbs flashed at the same rate as a visitors heartbeat when they held onto an interface placed inside the room. Light is something that already alters our mood, and when tied to our very own heartbeat, leaves the participants with a greater sense of awareness.
8. Angela Bulloch
With a totally different approach than many of her peers, Angela Bulloch works to combine light art with the spiritual. Situated in the Munster Cathedral Bulloch displayed Night Sky: Mercury & Venus above the alter. The juxtaposition is striking for many reasons including the modernity of the LED lights against stained glass and the notion that it’s just unorthodox. But we have to say, those LED lights are striking, aren’t they?
9. Olafur Eliasson
Installed in Pinchukartcentre, Kiev, in 2011, Olafur’s inspiration for Lamp for Urban Movement was light, shadow and how that creates space. “let’s say that the spheres are machines that create space, they space. some of them contain a light source inside that projects fragmented light out into the space where they are hanging, like a map projection. so it is not only, or primarily, the physical object in the space that interests me, but the way the light and the shadows and the colors claim and create space together. they perform architecture, you might say.”
10. Grimanesa Amorós
Inspired by nature, culture, technology and architecture — Grimanesa Amorós creates light art that sheds light on our different ideas of identity and community. Her works are just as often displayed in public as they are in a gallery, as they’re meant to speak to people. Incorporating the brightness of LED lights alongside often dark backdrops, Amorós plays on the classic elements of the art form while asking the viewer to look deeper.
11. Keith Sonnier
Lastly, we have a piece that decidedly combines light with 3D objects to set a scene. Sphinx Position I, created by artist Keith Sonnier, used tubes, aluminum and florescent lights to create this juxtaposition of light and dark with literal objects. Interesting concept, right?
Want to Explore Light Art at Home?
You don’t have to have millions of dollars lying around to have light art of your very own at home. In fact, you can create it yourself. Though, if you want to create something like Campbell’s 2,000 LED lights display, you’re going to need a full arsenal of Alcon lights and probably a production crew.
But despite the colors, size, and other mediums used within each of the art pieces above, one fundamental thing shone through every piece, and that was that lights can influence you. Whether the lights illuminated words that made you think, mimicked your heartbeat or submerged you into a purple wonderland, each light installation changed the way you perceived the world around you, and maybe even yourself — even if just for a split second.
So why wouldn’t you want something just as powerful in your home?
The influence of light on our lives then can’t be something we take for granted, and that’s why we believe great lighting is so important. So besides lighting your home with proper LED lighting, there are also ways you can incorporate light into art and playful design elements of your home that will have a positive effect on you. Even if that effect is just a smile because you like it so much.
Play with color
Light and color have a huge effect on our mood, and can even be a reflection of our personalities. Consider using a colored bulb in a room where you want to influence change. Like, a blue light in the bathroom for when you need to relax and wash the day’s worry’s down the drain.
One of the easiest ways to create light art at home is with shadow play. Position a light and an object or cut out just right and you’ll be able to project its shape onto the wall. You can also create light art with shadows by positioning the lighting dramatically, highlighting your favorite painting or shining onto a beautiful beam in your home that leaves a dark shadow going across the floor.
Incorporate neon lights
Are you someone who loves color, design and shape? A neon sign might be the perfect addition to your home. Opt for a personalized neon light with your favorite saying. Or, search for a vintage piece that will brighten up a dark corner.
String fairy lights
No, not Christmas lights. These lights are strung together with a white or nude covering that easily camouflages the chords so the lights get the full attention. Fairy lights, or string lights, are a great addition to your outdoor space, a headboard, or even along a bookshelf. If you’re looking to add a bit of brightness and whimsy to your home, we’d give this a try.
Hang a big Edison bulb
These funky bulbs won’t provide so much brightness, but they’ll add a cool-factor to your space and are sure to be a conversation starter. Plus, the inherent simplicity of the bulb might just remind you to relish the little things in life.
Hoist up lighting with the kids
There are so many projects out there that will suit your little ones. Make a lantern or a paper mache jelly-fish lamp that you can do together. It’s fun and will work great as a night light. Plus, every time you look at it the memories will come flooding back.
Light art tells a story
In fact, it tells quite a few. Modern artists have leveraged this relatively new technology to play on an age-old fascination humans have with light. By experimenting with color and shape and intertwining its existence with outside materials, our public spaces and our museums, light art challenges the way we perceive the things around us.
Illuminating. That’s what light is meant to be, right?
David Hakimi is a lighting specialist and one of the co-founders of Alcon Lighting. A graduate of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), David works on the front lines of the energy-efficient lighting revolution, enabling architects, designers, and lighting engineers to transition from outmoded halogen and fluorescent lighting to what David calls “the ideal replacement for all lighting applications,” —LEDs. David takes particular pride in Alcon’s design, energy, and green building knowledge, tracing his and Alcon’s commitment to quality, innovation, accountability and value back to the lessons learned from his father, a Southern California lighting salesman and consultant for more than two decades. Passionate about reducing climate change and protecting the environment, David has been particularly valuable in ensuring that his clients and customers comply with rapidly-evolving green building codes. You can connect with David on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-p-hakimi/.
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