As you might be aware, I don’t write much about what’s going on in London because I live in Durham. Up to now, my coverage has been limited to the odd play I’ve seen when I’ve been passing through London for whatever reason. Well, this time I’m going to write my first preview piece for a London event because, you lucky lucky London people, Durham’s #1 arts festival is coming your way this week. Lumiere has been coming to Durham every two years since 2009 and its popularity just grows and grows, but recently they’ve been branching out to other cities too. In 2013 it was Derry/Londonderry, and now it’s the turn of London.
In spite of Lumiere’s runaway success up north, London, I think, will be a bit of a gamble. There was a real festival feel in Durham with Lumiere dominating the whole city centre for four days, but central London’s too big for that. Instead, there will be one cluster of installations around Soho, and another cluster around St. Pancras. And Lumiere can expect much fiercer competition in London against all the other festivals in the capital city. Can they recreate the format that works so well in Durham? On the other hand, with 8 million inhabitants of London in reach, if it’s a success, the sky’s the limit. We should know which way it’ll go next week.
One detail for any Lumiere Durham veterans: This festival runs from 6.30 to 10.30 rather than the longer hours of 4.30-11. But hey, it’s London. Plenty of ways to amuse yourself until 6.30.
You can find the full programme of Lumiere London here. This time, I’m going to limit my picks to installations I’ve previously seen in Durham. Even with that limitation, there’s so many good ones on offer I’m going to have to be really choosy. So there’s going to be a lot of great installations that aren’t in this list.
So here’s my pick of the best of Durham for you Londoners. Let’s go …
Garden of Light
Although this won’t mean anything to most Londoners, the most prestigious place you can have your installation is Durham Cathedral. The iconic Crown of Light projected on the front, always something spectular in the space inside, and something else in College Green, the garden around the back. Garden of Light was the 2015 choice for College Green, and like everything else on College Green, it did not disappoint.
Like many of the best Lumiere installations, it’s a brilliantly simple idea executed well: a collection of colourful glowing giant plants. This time, it’s taking over Leicester Square, quite a different setting from Durham Cathedral. But it’s a very versatile installation, producing beuatiful results not only in College Green but along the street leading away from the Cathedral. However they plan to do this in the West End, it’ll be good.
Another installation fresh from Lumiere 2015, this time from the Market Place, the other centrepiece of Lumiere in Durham. It’s described as “dream-like creatures” that ebb and flow against the wind, but the overwhelming consensus from Durham is that they’re fish. Jury’s out whether they’re swimming or flying, but definitely fish. Or maybe a whale. Which aren’t fish. Something aquatic anyway. You know what I mean.
Again, it’s based on a very simple idea, done in an innovative way. The “fish” are little more than helium balloons – a mini-airship if you like – with some fins and tails added so they can be flown around like kites. Add in some lovely atmospheric music, and it’s easy to see why this was one of the hits at Durham.
This, however, is the really clever one. Widely acclaimed as the best thing at Lumiere 2013, it was imposing sight over Elvet Bridge of a 3D elephant projected on to a tower. Except it’s not really 3D – it’s actually just a normal 2D projection. But without any background to compare it to, your brain thinks of it as 3D. Eat your heart out 3D cinema.
The only bad news is that London will have to miss out on Mysticete, their follow-up this year when a whale was projected over the River Wear – which was, if anything, even more popular than the elephant.. The Thames isn’t that far away, but I suppose that spraying a wall of water isn’t quite so easy when it’s a working river. Maybe that’s a challenge for next time.
I said I wasn’t going to include things I haven’t seen in Durham, but I’m making an exception for this one because it’s from Novak, who impressed me in Durham last November with Fool’s Paradise projected on to the side of Durham Castle. The Castle was transformed into a setting akin to the world of the Grimm brother, with the castle transforming into a town, or a lake, or back to a castle being demolished by a giant worm.
Novak to a wide variety of light installations, from things like Fool’s Paradise to conventional lighting at pop concerts. As such, it’s difficult to guess what they’ve got in store for London. We know it’s being projected on to the British Academy of Film, Television and Arts (aka where they decide the Baftas), and it will be themed on the history of film, but beyond that, not sure. But whatever they do, you can expect it to be a good one.
I Haven’t Changed My Mind in a Thousand Years
Now to the other end of the scale. The artists I’ve mentioned so far were headline-grabbers in Durham and may well be headline-grabbers in London too. This installation, however, is from Beth J Ross, one of the artists commissioned under Lumiere Durham’s Brilliant scheme for local artists. I saw first saw this in 2013 and it always stuck in my mind.
In the early days of Lumiere, a big thing was made of installations from Turner Prize winners, but for some reason, they all seemed to themed on neon letterings such as “CAPITALISM KILLS LOVE” (and the last word flashes on and off so it must be really meaningful). So I ought to have dismissed this as even more neon lettering, but I liked it as something quirky and memorable. This took some centuries-old proverbs, most of which are still poignant today, such as “Patience if halfway to happiness”, and “For the beloved one longs most”.
Mind you, I’m not too sure about the last one, “Little boasts he who travels widely”. Maybe that was true when it was written, but that was before they invented gap years and travel blogs. Still, it’s good that I’m not the only person who remembered this installation, because it’s still doing the rounds three years on.
Back to the high-profile installations now, and Les Voyageurs was one of the most fondly remembered pieces from back in 2011. The predecessor to Garden of Light on the South Bailey, these light figures sat on walls and rooftops on the way out of the medieval city centre.
They’ve had a busy time since Durham, travelling to Toulouse, Geneva and Seoul, but now they’re swapping the ancient Durham peninsula to the classical grandeur of St. James’s. Expect these figure of light to fit well in their new home.
Another one from the small and quirky list, this is a fish tank in a telephone booth. All things telephone booth and all things aquarium are accounted for: the iconic British design, water, phone receiver, glowing blue light, big metal box to put your money in, and tropical fish. Obviously. Where else do you think tropical fish live.
One word of warning: this was an extremely popular installation in Durham, but unlike the big mega-projections, it’s only phone booth sized. Expect it to be swamped with a crowd of people taking photos like at Durham. So if this is one your must see list, try to come at a time when there’s less crowds.
One of the earliest pieces from the earliest Lumieres in Durham, Dresses is another one where hundreds of artists must be kicking themselves for not thinking of this first. Just like normal dresses, but woven from optical fibres. Shine light through them and the result is stunning.
This installation is scattered over the whole festival, but the most fitting location surely has to be a shop window. So try to catch the dress in Liberty Department Store, in the same setting it had from the original Lumiere back in 2009.
Litre of Light
Finally, let’s turn to Mick Stephenson, pride of the north east when it comes to Lumiere. Like Beth J. Ross, Mick Stephenson was one of the local artists who was enrolled on the Brilliant scheme, but out of all the Brilliant alumni, he was the smash hit, going from a minor installation in 2011 to a headlining installation of the Rose Window in Durham Cathedral. And believe it or not, everything he does is made from old plastic bottles.
His 2013 piece, however, is the most different and most interesting of the installations. Whilst the rest of Lumiere is all about bright lights looking pretty, Litre of Light is all about those homes in the world that don’t have access to light. With so many homes in shanty towns that haven’t got windows, they’re a dark place to live – even in the middle of the day. This installation simulates a windowless room where something as simple as a water-filled plastic bottle in the roof makes a whole world of difference.
But if you can’t make it to Lumiere London, I’m sure there’s something that Mick
Stephenson would like you to do even more: visit literoflight.org and learn more about to project for real. And donations will be welcome from everyone.
UPDATE 14/01: Okay, it’s just come to my attention that it’s a much grander project than a repeat of the 2013 installation. There’s lots of new colourful bottle-themed installations in London for tonight as well. Here’s a picture of one of the brand new things – all looking exciting for 6.30 this evening.
So, that’s effectively turned into a list of Lumiere Durham’s greatest hits -and as you can see, it’s a long list. And it would have been even longer if I hadn’t forced myself to be so picky. And with one exception, I haven’t even started on the groups new to London.
Will this have the impact in London it had in Durham? We will know later this week. But whatever happens, it’s a terrific opportunity for Durham to show the capital what’s it’s been doing on cultural map for the last seven years.