Light Art

A Brief History of Light Art

While the crown jewel of BOREALIS is the video projection mapping showcase, it represents only one aspect of a diverse arts practice collectively referred to as “light art” that has it’s roots in cinema, photography, theater, sculpture, and lighting design.

Paris, France
Stained glass windows at Saint-Chapelle, in Paris.

Light is the most fundamental of components in a work of art. From cave paintings to classical sculpture, from Renaissance painting to the stained glass of Gothic cathedrals, light has always made art possible. Gradually through time artists became more and more fascinated with the effects of light itself, and began to experiment with light as the subject of their work.

Claude Monet
Photo by Cea+(CC BY 2.0)

In the late 19th century, society and art were changing to a more modern age: Monet’s studies of the Rouen Cathedral at different times of day, the infancy of filmmaking, and the first commercial viability of electric lights. This is the basis of what we call “light art” today.

Lumia Suite Opus 158 by Thomas Wilfred
Thomas Wilfred with Lumia Suite, Opus 158. Photo: Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives.

Thomas Wilfred was a pioneer in working with light in the early 20th century, and possibly the first to recognize using light as a fine art form in what he called Lumia, characterized as “form, color, and motion in a dark space.” His Clavilux devices were motorized light sculpture performances that displayed changing abstract light patterns to the viewer.

Another notable work in the development of light art was László Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator (1922-1930), a kinetic sculpture that activated a space with colored lights and shadows. Moholy-Nagy experimented throughout his career with photography, sculpture, and scientific equipment in attempts to find new ways of seeing.

Dorothy Tanner looks at Logo, by Mel and Dorothy Tanner. Photo by Candace Ann Hill. (CC BY 2.0)

In the 1960’s, the husband-and-wife team of Mel and Dorothy Tanner picked up where Thomas Wilfred and Moholy-Nagy left off, building light art sculptures and theatrical environments. Developing these immersive experiences into what they called Lumonics, the Tanners utilized video,  projected light, sculptural elements, and sound.

Light Reign at UW Henry Art Gallery
James Turrells’s Light Reign at UW’s Henry Gallery at various seasons. Photo by Alex. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Around the same time, in California, artists such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and others were independently developing what came to be known as the “light and space” movement, which used both natural and electric lighting to emphasize aspects of human perception.

Many other late 20th-century artists have worked with light as different technologies developed. Dan Flavin became known for working with fluorescent tube lighting of many different colors and combinations, developing many major immersive installations and permanent exhibits.

A corridor piece by Dan Flavin
Installation by Dan Flavin. Photo by Dean Hochman. (C(CC BY 2.0)

The centerpiece of BOREALIS is the projection mapping on the historic architecture of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI). Projection mapping, also known as video mapping, uses the specific features of building, structure or other irregular surfaces as a canvas for animated imagery of computer-generated graphics, video, or combination thereof. Projection mapping has a direct lineage to the history of the moving image from the time of multimedia lantern shows of the early 19th century, to the development of motion pictures and experimental cinema, to the cutting-edge technology of today’s computer-generated graphics.

There are many projection mapping festivals and events around the world, one of the largest being the Fête des Lumières in Lyon France, which began as a religious observation and is now a civic celebration which draws 3 to 4 million people every year.

Light art encompasses a wide range of practices from the spectacle of mapping projections onto architecture to interactive immersive environments; from experimental cinema to virtual and augmented reality; from light art installations to sheer beauty of light as a decorative art. BOREALIS includes a wide range of these light art styles, concepts, and methods on exhibit in both the projection-mapping showcase and the light-art installation walking tour throughout the South Lake Union neighborhood. We invite you to feast your eyes on the light!

– David W. Halsell