Lighten Up

Published on 28 February 2018

Light as a medium of artistic expression is growing in popularity and accessibility. We speak to some Singaporean and international light artists to find out more about the art form’s possibilities.

By  Pamela Ho

From the early days, people have gathered around campfires or in cinemas to watch films. I think it’s a fundamental part of human nature to be drawn to light, especially in groups and at night,” observes Singaporean new media artist Brandon Tay, co-curator of Art Skins on Monuments, a multi-sensorial art experience that saw 30 homegrown artists collaborating to create the biggest façade light show in Singapore at the Light to Night Festival in January.

Their creation was projected on the façades of the National Gallery Singapore, The Arts House, Victoria Theatre, Victoria Concert Hall and Asian Civilisations Museum. As for how he delved into this art form, Tay shares, “I think the initial experience that inspired me was watching a concert where all the visuals were completely synched to the music. Projection mapping was an extension of that process when we started working on three-dimensional surfaces.”

WHAT IS LIGHT ART?

LIGHT CANVAS Art Skins on Monuments transformed the façade of the National Gallery Singapore into a 3D canvas on which 30 homegrown artists unleashed their imagination in a mega light projection show.

In essence, light art is an art form in which light is the main medium of expression. Just like with oil paints, clay or metals, light can be used to create ‘paintings’ and ‘sculptures’. It can also refer to a physical sculpture that produces light.

The growth of light art in recent years is very much tied to the development of LED (Light-Emitting Diode) technology. “LED has enabled us to control and manipulate lighting in a way that we couldn’t before with halogen and conventional light sources,” explains Shigeki Fujii, director of Nipek, a Singapore-based lighting design collective. “With LED, we can change colour, we can dim, and that has a huge impact on how we can use lighting to communicate within a space.”

Takuya Takei, Asia regional director of teamLab — an art collective and interdisciplinary group of ultra-technologists — whose works include Future World (ArtScience Museum), Story of the Forest (National Museum of Singapore), and Digital Light Canvas (Marina Bay Sands), adds, “One reason why we are interested in light as a medium is that light is very flexible. It can be projected anywhere. This means we can transform anything — from nature to cities — into artworks.”

ENLIGHTEN, ENLIVEN

GLOW WITH THE FLOW Using real-time rendering and cutting-edge technology, teamLab’s ‘Flowers and People — Dark’ is an artwork that is continuously changing as viewers interact with the installation. (Credit - National Gallery Singapore)

The flexibility of light as a medium has inspired conversations on how public art, as we know it, can be transformed. “Most people think public art is putting a sculpture in the middle of a park and it has to involve a built object. But I’m also interested to see whether durational and ephemeral art have a place in public art,” says Light to Night’s festival director, Suenne Megan Tan. “We want to explore how we can make use of the built environment, even parks and lamp-posts, understand how people experience them by day, and introduce a completely different element that transforms that.”

One of the highlights of the festival was ‘Trip to the Colourscape’, an installation by Nipek, where the Esplanade Park was ‘dressed up’ with a play of colour. “To light up existing public spaces, we have to understand its history and character, so that the work is relevant to the context of the space,” says Fujii, the artist behind the installation.

“As a company of young lighting designers, we’re always trying to incorporate as much technology as possible in our projects to create something that’s more dynamic, in the sense that the light moves and changes all the time.”

Natural light has been a source of inspiration and learning. “The thing about natural light is that it is never static,” he elaborates. “So using the latest technologies, we created a palette of colours inspired by the sunset. And with water as an inspiration, we designed lighting that represents the movement of water and projected it on the pathway.”

IT’S LIGHT THIS

What light artists have going for them is an ever-advancing technology that enables them to create pretty much anything from their imagination. For teamLab, cutting-edge technology is at the core of their work. Their indoor installations for Light to Night, ‘Walk, Walk, Walk: Search, Deviate, Reunite’ and ‘Flowers and People — Dark’, adopted Deep Learning — a machine learning technique where features/tasks are learnt directly from data — to enable the artworks to respond to and interact with people. “Most of the contact is real-life rendering so we needed a sensor. We used cameras that keep learning the various kinds of situations, and from there, increase the accuracy of their sensing,” reveals Takei, the artist behind the installations.

Another light installation designed to encourage interaction is ‘Octopoda’ by amigo & amigo design (Australia), which will be presented at i Light Marina Bay 2018. “Our intention was to create something fun, that enabled people of all ages to enjoy the technology through a tactile sensory experience,” says Simone Chua, amigo’s director and co-founder.

‘Octopoda’ is a giant octopus with eight tentacle drums. “Similar to a drumming circle, it enables people to explore their inner rhythm and play with one another. Using microphone sensors to capture the beat, the tentacles will animate to the beat of the drum,” explains Chua. “The Octopoda’s form is inspired by steampunk themes and introduces the audience to an otherworldly creature that has come from the sea to play!”

For Chua, what excites her most about light art is how it can be married with sculptural materials. “At the moment, we’re exploring pushing the boundaries of play. For instance, how can we use technology and traditional fabrication techniques to create the unexpected? We’re also big believers in telling stories. All our works have a message for the audience. I’m personally most passionate about that.”

TELLING TALES

GOING PUBLIC The flexibility of light as a medium means it can turn public spaces, from cities to nature, into works of art. ‘Trip to the Colourscape’, for instance, transformed the Esplanade Park into a public art installation. (Credit - National Gallery Singapore)
HANDS-ON FUN Explore your inner rhythm at this year’s i Light Marina Bay with ‘Octopoda’, a giant octopus created with tentacles that animate and illuminate to your beats! (Credit - amigo and amigo)

With audiences being increasingly exposed to projection mapping, light sculptures and interactive light installations, the novelty of such technologies will wear off and audiences will want something deeper and more meaningful to engage with.

For Gonzalo Bascuñan of Studio ALEX — Architectural Lighting Experience (The Netherlands & Italy) — one of the international artists featured in this year’s i Light Marina Bay — storytelling is becoming increasingly important to engage audiences. “We use storytelling as a vehicle to illustrate a message, inviting the viewer to experience a different perspective of the space,” says the Chilean industrial designer and light artist, adding that their site-specific installation, ‘Flawless’, is birthed from research exploring Amsterdam’s green areas. These ‘bright spaces’ allowed them to observe processes in nature such as wind and seasonal cycles, as well as the Dutch Elm tree.

“The artwork absorbs light and illuminates itself, making it metaphorically similar to the natural phenomenon of photoluminescence in flora, where the sun’s energy is absorbed and converted to fuel,” explains Perrine Vichet, a spatial designer and light artist with Studio ALEX. “We considered these elements relevant to translate into an emotional architecture experience to be shared.”

For Singaporean architect, Loh Boon Peng (aka BP Loh), it was a message of sustainability that inspired his light installation, ‘Milk Bottle Cows’, for i Light Marina Bay 2018. “The idea was actually birthed a decade ago when I was working in Brisbane. Our studio had an open courtyard that was perfect for picnic lunches and corporate functions. Once, the management called for an in-house design competition to create a temporary installation for a Christmas party. Back then, I was the sustainability leader, so I designed an installation that walked the talk.”

Looking at the plot of green lawn and the types of waste the studio generated, Loh saw a peculiar relationship between the grass and empty milk bottles. “It triggered my thoughts about depicting an imaginative loop of production, consumption and recycling, using these bottles to build cows. These figurative objects present a dreamlike quality under both natural sunlight and artificial lighting. They’re not trying to be real. They are there representing an ideology and hope for a better world.”

PAINTING THE TOWN

BRIGHT SPARK Singaporean light painter, Norrisam Bin Abdul Jalil, combined three different lighting techniques to achieve this image, captured in a four-minute long exposure shot. (Credit: Norrisam Bin Abdul Jalil)

While light art is growing in tandem with cutting-edge technologies, it is not an art form reserved for ultra-technologists. Like Loh, a full-time architect who is delving into light art for the first time, Singaporean light painter and freelance photographer, Norrisam Bin Abdul Jalil, is creating light art with accessible tools and long exposure photography.

“Light painting, in simple terms, is drawing with a hand-held light source while taking a long exposure photo,” Norrisam explains, adding that he chanced upon the art form on Instagram. “I was mesmerised by the beauty of it! From there, I did some research and experimented with different light sources, and the hobby became a passion. I’ve been light painting for almost four years now.”

Norrisam uses tools like steel wool, a pixelstick and plexiglass to create surreal images. With steel wool photography, he places fine-grade steel wool in a whisk attached to a string, then burns the steel wool and spins it while taking a long exposure shot. With a pixelstick (a light painting device made up of LEDs arranged in a vertical line), he uses long exposure to capture the vertical lines, which combine to create an image in mid-air, as he moves. He also cuts desired shapes in a plexiglass, lights it with a torchlight, and uses long exposure to capture its light trail. As a freelance photographer, Norrisam now incorporates light painting into his commercial projects, including wedding portraits.

In the field of visual arts, light art may be a relative newcomer, but Takei of teamLab believes the art form resonates with this generation. “In history, we’ve seen the agricultural and industrial revolutions; I believe we’re now in the digital revolution. The industrial revolution was based on physical materials, so things were valued for their efficiency and mass. However, it’s different in the digital era. Everything is light. So now, maybe we can create a new standard value. Instead of heavy sculptures, we can have sculptures of light. Such an art form is relevant to this age; it can be valued.”

i Light Marina Bay is on from 9 March to 1 April. Visit www.ilightmarinabay.sg for details.

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