Hayward Gallery curator Cliff Lauson says that in his travels looking at art the most memorable were often light works. That led him to put together Light Show, which opens at the Auckland Art Gallery today.
The London gallery expected the show to be popular - it had recently hosted a successful retrospective by American light art pioneer Dan Flavin, put together by the National Museum in Washington - but not that it would become a runaway hit.
For the first few weeks the gallery sold prebookings for weekends, then for weeks in advance, then the whole show sold out. By the time Light Show closed it was the best-attended group exhibition in the Hayward ever, with almost 200,000 visitors. "There are some great experiences and people like that when they come to galleries," Lauson says.
It helped that some of the artists were well known, but the work, because of its ephemeral nature, was more known about than known. Artists include David Batchelor, JimCampbell, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Olafur Eliasson, Dan Flavin, Ceal Floyer, Jenny Holzer, Ann Veronica Janssens, Brigitte Kowanz, Anthony McCall, Francois Morellet, Ivan Navarro, Katie Paterson, Conrad Shawcross, James Turrell, Cerith Wyn Evans, Leo Villareal and New Zealand's Bill Culbert.
Some of the work dates back to the 1960s and has not been seen for decades or has been re-created specially for the exhibition. At the Hayward, entry was restricted to ensure there were only a few hundred people in the gallery at a time so the experience wasn't compromised by having too many people in the space. People also spent longer in the show than a typical exhibition.
There have been shows in the past looking at light, including its representation in painting down the ages, but Light Show looks at work that uses light as a sculptural medium. It's a show to be immersed in.
"I think that is to do not only with the way light naturally fills space and brings the viewer into the artwork but also to do with the way a lot of artists use light in relation to space, and more formally in relation to architecture," Lauson says.
The work falls into two broad categories. The first can be described as objects in space, traditional sculptures where one of the objects is a light source such as bulbs or tubes, such as the work of Villareal or Culbert.
The second category is installations or an environment where the structure or apparatus used to hold the light source plays a secondary role to the experience of light itself.
For artists like Turrell or Cruz-Diez, the light within the space is the artwork.
Lauson says he was trying to explore the field rather than come up with a textbook definition of light art.
"What is interesting about light art is we have a sense of what is a light-based artwork but there is not a movement like Impressionism or Dada that uses light in art," he says.
"The closest thing to artists working together was the Light and Space movement in Southern California in the 1960s and 70s, but that often reflected light. There has not been a light movement where artists signed up to a manifesto."
Many of the artists in the show would not have been aware of each other when they were working even if they were pursuing similar questions.
"Each artist comes to it from a unique position. Sometimes it was not from a study of light but thinking about science, communications or politics, and light becomes the vehicle or means by which the artist explores those topics.
"While many artists work with neon signs, they didn't make the cut because it is often about text and in choosing works, I wanted to emphasise the sculptural quality of light."
The closest would be Holzer, whose LED-based work he sees as more sculptural in the way the projected light of the sign controls the gallery space. The show has required a major engineering effort at the Auckland gallery to show the works to their full potential, with the show taking up two floors. It has meant modifying walls and ceilings, and working with the artists' studios to ensure what is shown complies with each artist's intention.
"One interesting thing about selecting the work and installing it is how to find balance between the works," Lauson says. "It can become a cacophonous experience because you end up with light clashes, something like a rock and roll experience, or like a film and video exhibition where you have an arcade with each piece separated one room after another. This exhibition is designed to balance the two.
"In about half the works, the work controls its space and it's the only work in its space and you can only experience that work one at a time. The other works are more amenable to being in conversation with other works. They can be hung in more open ways without clash or cross talk between them."
He says it's always a challenge to install light works. "It's near impossible to predict how light behaves in space and reacts with architecture. If you are hanging a show of paintings, you can plan a lot of it in the computer. With this, you just have to turn off all the lights to see the way the piece works and talks across space."
What: Light Show
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, opens today, to February 8