January. Dark, gloomy, long cold nights. Christmas and New Year seem a long time ago, and the summer holidays stretch far away in the future. The media is full of articles on how to beat the January Blues, or how to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder, and for those doing Dry January there is not even the enjoyment of a nice glass of red wine or a pint in front of the fire in a cosy pub.
And yet for Londoners there was light at the end of the tunnel – quite literally. For four glorious nights the capital city was bathed in light for the inaugural festival of light – Lumiere London. Brought to the city by Artichoke – the company who had previously paraded a giant clockwork elephant through the streets of London – Lumiere brought fantastic light installations to various parts of the city for all to marvel at.
This free event had previously been put on by Artichoke in Durham, and there have been other ‘light’ festivals such as Light Night Leeds, but this was the first time that London had been turned into a giant canvas for art installations.
Unlike a number of other events, Lumiere didn’t receive a lot of pre-event hype or marketing, and the event crept up on us seemingly from nowhere. When I first heard about it I was intrigued, but wasn’t entirely sure it would work in such a large city. For a start there were various logistical problems to overcome, such as stopping the traffic in Oxford and Regent Streets and the chaos this might cause. The city is also too big to walk around and see all the exhibits, so for those wanting to see everything in one night they had to use the tube and other means of public transport, which led to warnings being put out through the media that the tube would be unusually busy and for people to leave more time to complete journeys. And although it crept up on us, once it was here the buzz surrounding it was incredible, with articles in the papers and people’s social media accounts being filled with brilliant photos of intriguing luminous objects. In fact, it became so popular and successful that on the Saturday night, day three of the festival, so many people crowded into the centre of the city it became dangerously overcrowded and the festival organisers had to switch off the lights in order to disperse the crowds.
There were four main areas where the installations were centered: Kings Cross, Oxford Circus, Mayfair and Leicester Square. I could only make it to one of these areas, Kings Cross, so the other photos on his post are by my friend Susan Deer, who made it to the other sites and is also much better with a camera than me!
Each area had a different character. Leicester Square was turned into a magical garden of light, with giant snowdrops, huge rushes and grasses and brilliant flowers looking just like the tissue paper ones I used to make as a child.
Oxford Street, Regent Street and the surrounding roads saw a circus of fantastical creatures: enormous tadpoles floating high in the air above the street, a giant elephant waddling along, balloon-type dogs and stick-men acrobats tumbling down a building.
At Kings Cross people were led up from the station to Granary Square via various installations, including one where people could make their graffiti on the pavement with light wands. At Granary Square there was a giant Circus of Light, complete with sound effects, projected onto the main Granary Square building. Inside there was also a beautiful installation made from solar powered plastic bottles, with an explanation about how this brilliant piece of simple technology was providing light in areas of the world that did not have access to electricity – art with a social conscience.
In various areas there were volunteers handing out maps with enthusiasm and who reminded me of the Gamesmakers at the 2012 Olympic Games. It was all rather haphazard though – one volunteer stamped my map and explained that there were stamps at each installation and a prize if you collected all the stamps, yet at the next few installations I couldn’t find the volunteer with the stamp. One volunteer said that he knew nothing about the stamps and loads of people had been asking him about them. Other volunteers had no idea where some of the exhibits were and were rather at a loss when being asked for directions. It seemed like they could have done with a better pre-event briefing.
The festival was refreshingly uncommercial; it was free to attend and you could just wander around at will. And yet I couldn’t help thinking that a little bit of commercialism would have been welcome, as it was absolutely freezing when I attended, and I would have liked to have stood in Granary Square watching the Circus of Light for a lot longer than I did but had to give up as I was so cold. If there had been some stalls selling hot chocolate, or coffee, or even mulled wine, I might have been able to brave the cold for a little longer!
Overall, despite the various problems – the overcrowding, the cold and the distance between installations, I thought it was a brave and ambitious project – and quite a brilliant one. I loved it, and hoped that it would become an annual event, so was disappointed to read in the paper that it would not be returning next year. I think this is a shame, but quite understand why – it is an enormous feat of organisation to do this on such a large scale. But I felt privileged to have seen it and will always remember the time that London lit up the night skies and banished the January blues.