REVIEWED: Light Show

By Martin Macdonald
Ivan Navarro, The Hayward Fence, 2013
In John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) the hero, who happens to go by the name of Christian goes on a journey of spiritual enlightenment and finds  salvation upon entering the gates of heaven atop Mt. Zion. Functioning as a secular temple of enlightenment, the Hayward Gallery showcases 25 illuminated works from the early 60s to present - Light Show features over 20 important international artists including Olafur Eliasson, Jenny Holzer, Ceal Foyer
and Dan Flavin. In juxtaposition with the clear glass walls that allow natural light to flood into the gallery’s ground floor foyer, Ivan Navarro’s The Hayward Fence (2013) emanates a white neon glow that helps set the exhibition’s tone. Like Christian’s challenging journey to Mt. Zion’s summit, the expansive show proves that ‘seeing the light’ through art is also fraught with challenges.

Once inside the gallery proper, Leo Villareal’s Cylinder II (2012) and David Batchelor’s Magic Hour (2004-2007) come across as empty aesthetic gestures but things rapidly improve upon moving up the ramp. On this level, standout pieces include Francois Morellet’s Lamentable (2006), a thin white neon sculpture comprised of 8 dislocated segments of a circle that stands elegantly tall. Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal (2005), an immersive installation comprised of a projector, haze machine, computer scripting and blacked out walls entices the visitor to walk into the projected light beams and wave their arms as though cutting through the blinding mist. Serving as a reminder of life and death, a sensation of fear and excitement takes over as one explores this tunnel of darkness and light.
Further afield, Jim Campbell’s Exploded View (Commuters) (2011) is cunningly deceptive as it appears to be nothing more than a high-tech chandelier. However, it gains depth as one realises that the flickering lights are anything but random. Instead, they resemble commuters determinedly walking by on their way to work or even spectators moving around the gallery space itself. Appropriately, visitors to the Hayward must then queue a few minutes to view James Turrell’s, Wedgework V (1974). The spectator enters the installation via a dark passageway and sits or stands in the ‘viewing space’ to experience the ‘sensing space’ - a wedge-shaped illusion formed of angled planes of red and white light that give a sense of three-dimensionality to the piece.
Moving along, Slow Arc inside a Cube IV (2009), by Conrad Shawcross comprises a mechanised ‘arm’ that shines a light through a metal box so that its geometric patterns are projected and move around the entirety of the installation’s room, including the ceiling. The effect is somewhat trippy. Fischli and Weiss’s Son et Lumiere (Le rayon vert) (1990) is a quirky little piece of machinery - a rather loud rotating bowl with a latticed plastic cup whose patterns are projected to a nearby wall.
Upon entering the top level, socio-politically conscious works stand side-by-side some rather banal pieces. Jenny Holzer’s, semicircular electronic LED signs of US government documents in the form of Monument (2008) focuses on ‘the war on terror’. One of the signs reads ‘hard to make him more comfortable…examined his wrists…sent Friday, November 12, 2004’. The bright multi-coloured lights are too harsh on the eye and quickly become painful to watch so one must move on.  Flavin’s minimalist fluorescent light-works provide a moment of respite only to have that peace disturbed by Olafur Eliasson’s exquisite yet torturous Model for a timeless garden (2001). On a raised platform in a darkened room, the spectator’s viewing pleasure of delicate fountain-like gushes of water is hijacked by the blinding stroboscopic lamps that intermittently go on and off and appear to freeze the droplets of water. This disruption of an otherwise enjoyable activity proves to be both magical and sinister.
In another vast area on the top floor, Ivan Navarro’s splendid Reality Show (2010) reflects on the repression of Pinochet’s regime whereby state-sponsored torture was used to crush political dissent. Inside the tardis-like, highly illuminated cubicle, the spectator encounters a mise en abĂ®me of endless reflections yet one’s own reflection evades us. Echoing Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, those inside this ‘interrogation room’ are under constant scrutiny whilst also being observers themselves. Just as Foucault’s belief was that the individual is at least partly to blame for his/her own subjection to the surveillance society, so too Navarro has us being both spies and spy masters. The machinations of the surveillance state has thus turned life into a Debordian spectacle.
Brigitte Kowanz’s enormous Light Steps (1990-2013) features fluorescent tubes spanning like a flight of stairs ascending towards the ceiling. But the gallery’s brutalist cement ceiling makes it clear that unlike Bunyan’s allegory, these stairways do not lead to heaven - thus the work becomes a portrait of our flawed selves. The allurement of heavenly rewards also comes into play in Philippe Parreno’s kitsch clear acrylic and white neon lights - Marquee (2011) - which is placed above a white door; a clear allusion to the gates of heaven. However, upon opening the doors, the spectator is faced with the red light of temptation that is Ann Veronica Janssen’s immersive sensory installation, Rose (2007). The piece uses light, artificial fog, reflective materials and sound to heighten one’s state of consciousness. The moving lights then form a star with sculptural qualities, perhaps a sign of hope that spectators will find a guiding light and like Christian, not be cast to hell.
Light Show is by all means an exciting show well worth visiting as it includes several important pieces. However, in what seems to be an attempt to pull in the crowds, curator Cliff Lauson has perhaps selected a few too many immersive works that comprise haze and blinding lights. The show’s lack of subtlety together with the fact that some pieces seemed to appeal more to infants rather than adults demonstrates that the curatorial remit may have been slightly over-stretched. The near omission of neon text pieces also comes as a bit of a surprise. Nevertheless, Light Show allows visitors to experience light in all of its spatial and sensory forms. Spectators leave the Hayward Gallery a little more illuminated yet not spiritually enlightened.
·       LIGHT SHOW, HAYWARD GALLERY. London. 30 January - 28 April 2013