What is art without light?

I was really excited to have the opportunity to see Martin Creed’s latest lighting installation on a trip to New York last month.

It is a 14.6m long neon sign spelling out the word ‘Understanding’. In a world full of turmoil, this word is particularly pertinent right now. It is located on Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park and swings round slowly against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.

The sun was setting as we started walking towards it from the Brooklyn Bridge and the views across to Manhattan were amazing. The sign was clearly visible in the distance and served as a beacon to guide us on our path. Just as we reached the corner Pier 6, in the blink of an eye it disappeared. We were startled, where had it gone? As our eyes adjusted we realised that it was still there but had just been switched off!

It is still an impressive work close up, but not being illuminated dramatically lessened its impact. Being a piece of light art, the neon light is integral to the work. The red capital letters stand out against the backdrop of skyscrapers and convey a sense of urgency. UNDERSTANDING they shout. In an increasingly divisive world this is a much needed message. Light is key to the success of the work.

And it got me thinking how light has always been the key to art. It has captivated artists for centuries, from the dramatic lighting of the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Vermeer, to Monet capturing the different effects of light throughout the seasons in his Haystack series. The light in Cornwall has always attracted artists, most notably the colony of British Modernists in the 1950’s.

Light has since become an art medium in its own right and no-one demonstrates this better than James Turrell. He has been exploring light and space since the 1960's and his skyspaces around the world are like temples to light. The apertures in the ceiling frame how we view the sky and experience the changing light conditions particularly at sunrise and sunset.

Light has always fascinated us. We respond to it instinctively it - seeing the golden glow of firelight or a beautiful sunset connects with that primitive part of ourselves. And artificial light has the ability to evoke memories of those experiences in ways that we don’t yet fully understand.

As a light artist and a lighting designer my job is part art and part science. As experienced as I am, there is always that moment of anticipation and joy when the lights are switched on for the first time. It never ceases to thrill me. To me, light is art.