Lumiere Durham 2017 preview

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And here we are again. Another two years, another Lumiere. Only this time, I need to start calling this Lumiere Durham to distinguish it from the other Lumieres. Yes, in 2016, there was the launch of Lumiere London which was a great success. In fact, the only problem was that the festival was, if anything, too popular, with crowds sometimes too big to handle. There were doubts that Lumiere London could return, but it is, January.

However, at the risk of showing bias, Lumiere Durham remains the original and best. A light festival in a big city is all very well, but nothing beats a festival where the whole city is part of the festival. So without further ado, let’s have a look at what to expect.

What isn’t at Lumiere

But before I go over the highlight of what I’m looking forward to seeing, first of all a list of a few things that I thought might feature in the festival but hasn’t. Truth be told, I made quite a lot of predictions for this year;s festival, pretty much none of which turned out to be true. So things you won’t see, all of which surprise me a little, include:

  • The best of Lumiere London: Last year’s Lumiere London was a kind of compilation album: Lumeire Durham’s greatest hits. But there were some installations that were completely new to London. Some of them are tied in with London buildings – we won’t be seeing an illuminated Westminster Abbey outside of Westminster any time soon, for instance – but I thought Circus of Light and Light Graffiti were hots bets for the journey north. But it’s not to be. This time, everything that’s new to Durham is new to Lumiere. Damn, that was my opportunity to get one up on all the journalists and say I’d already seen it from London. Ah well.
  • An encore from the big hitters: The smash hit at last year’s festival was Topla Design with Mysticete, the whale in the River Wear. The festival before, they brought Elphantastic, the elephant over Elvet Bridge. But there’s no follow-up this time. I also rated Novak as a hot bet to return after such a great display on the Castle last time with Fool’s Paradise. But neither of them are in the programme. In one way, it’s a shame not to have them back, but again, both groups made hard acts to follow, and if they don’t have something ready to live up to the huge expectations they set themselves, they certainly shouldn’t be there just for the sake of it. Maybe next time. In the meantime, good luck to their successors who have a lot to live up to.
  • Wharton Park: There’s a park to the north-west of the City Centre that hosted a few installations back in 2011. After all the overcrowding problems on the Peninsula that year, I speculated this might work as a second hub for future festivals. But it played no part in 2013, and then in 2015 it was closed for redevelopment. So now that the redevelopment is done, this may have looked like a hot bet. But in recent years, the pattern has been to spread the festival outside the Peninsula, but not much further – Wharton Park, it seems, is a little too far away. Although another park seems to have got in on the action first. More of this in a moment.

However, all of these are footnotes against one very big omission from the festival:

  • The projection on the Cathedral: Move over whale, move over everyone, the centrepiece at every festival has been the projection on the Cathedral. For three festivals running, it was Crown of Light, then last time it was a new piece, The World Machine. Either way, that was the thing everyone came to see. But this time, the clock tower is covered with scaffolding (and it’s been going on for nearly two years so timing the work outside of Lumiere season isn’t an option). I suppose you could have done something anyway is they were determined to keep the centrepiece, but it just wouldn’t have been the same. As a result, there is still a light display on the outside of the Cathedral, but it’s a much lower-profile affair. For the inside of the Cathedral and the cloisters, however, it’s business as usual.

So the absence of a centrepiece on Palace Green could potentially change the dynamics of the festival, with fewer people in the city centre, and more people in the surrounding areas, especially the Millennium Place which seems to have lots of installations. Will the Millennium Place end up a second hub for Lumiere? We will find out in a few days.

What is at Lumiere

But that’s enough of that. Let’s stop think about what might have been and look at what’s here. This time, there’s only one installation from an artist I recognise from previous Lumieres, but there’s a few others than grab my attention based on where they are:

The Common Good of the biggest names from the last year’s festival might not be returning this time, but one small name is, and I’m so glad they’re back. One of the hidden gems of the festival last time was Shared Space and Light Home Sweet Home. Projected on to a normal house, it was a collection of ordinary people’s stories of finding a home. Even without a light show, the collection of stories would have been a good work in its own right. But the lighting made it exceptional. Which other projections transform the Cathedral into the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Castle into a fairytale land, this transformed a single house into mane different homes, from high-tech broadband hubs to a boarded-up hovel, depending on the story.

If any newcomer to Lumiere deserved moving up to a bigger venture, it’s them, and that’s exactly what they’ve got. This time, they have the Miners’ Hall for their show The Common Good, telling the story of public sector workers, and if they can work the same magic they worked two years ago, this looks to be a highlight of the festival. Too often artists at Lumiere try to come up with something profound to describe what’s basically some pretty lights that are nice to look at (not that there’s anything wrong with that). If you’ve got something to say, I can’t think of a better example than Shared Space and Light for how to do it.

Domes and Arches Market Place isn’t always used as location for installations in Lumiere, but whenever it has been used, it’s always been something great. The flying fish of Les Luminéoles was one of the key attractions last time, but the most inspired one of all was I Love Durham back in 2011, when the iconic Lord Londonderry statue was transformed into a giant snowdome.

This time, we can look forward to Domes and Arches, described as “a fairytale structure with tens of thousands of LED lights”. The structure has already been built in the Market Place, and whilst we won’t know what it’s like until it’s lit up, what we can see in the daylight looks promising, and if this is half as good as it looks like it’ll be, we can expect another smash hit that will be talked about for years.

Method / Entre Les Rangs

So we might not have a headliner on Palace Green this time, but Durham Cathedral will still be playing a big part in the festival. In the Cathedral itself, we have Methods, which is very cryptic about what it involves, but it’s going to be very heavily themed on bell-ringing, with bell ringers playing throughout the festival. Both the inside and outside of the Cathedral will be lit up, so there will be something to view from Palace Green in lieu of the normal centrepiece. out the back, we have Entre Les Rangs. Little cryptic here, we are promised that out the back we will see the Cloisters filled with thousands of illuminated flowers. Whatever lies in store, the installations chosen for Durham Cathedral have always been highlights of the festival, and there’s no sign of stopping this year just because we can’t have something like Crown of Light this time round.


In a festival such as Lumiere, all works are site-specific. Some places have more potential than others, but it’s mostly down to the imagination of the artists. However, one of my favourite locations has been the riverbanks of the Wear, where the right installation in the darkness of the trees can work wonders. Last time I was particularly impressed with Fogscape, a very convincing sinister fog enveloping the banks, the kind of fog you see in every teen slasher flick before the hedonistic students going out to have sex get hacked to death. time, it’s something more colourful, which – apart from the bad news for killers from horror movies – follows the tradition of several previous lumieres of lighting up the trees with all the colours of the rainbow. As Lumiere London looks set to grow in stature, it’s good to keep all the things that gives Lumiere Durham its originality, and the walks along the river have always been a welcome addition to any festival.

For the Birds

And the last one is a throwback from a long way. Wharton Park might not have made a comeback this time, but before then we had the Botanic Gardens with Power Plant back at the first Lumiere in 2009. This was a collection of little works from lots of artists rather than one big one, but there was something for everyone there and it was almost a light festival in its own right. we’ve got something similar to that this time round. This time, it’s a smaller collective of five artists, and everything on offer is bird-themed, but it’s good to see the Botanic Gardens back in Lumiere when its original appearance in the original festival is almost forgotten. Make sure you allow yourself enough time to reach this though. Durham locals know where the Botanic Gardens are and how long it takes to walk there, but for everyone else seeing all the other installations clusters around the city centre, the trek up South Road may catch you out. But it should be worth it.

But don’t forget …

This list is far from an exhaustive list of what’s going to be worth seeing. I can only pick out artists I’ve heard of and places that lend themselves to good installations. But every festival, the majority of installations that people talk about for years are things no-one had seen before from artists no-one had heard of before. So it’s anyone’s game for what becomes the highlight on 2017. Remember that the rose window in the Cathedral,  one of the favourites of 2015, came from Mick Stephenson who started off with a low-key installation back in 2011. The only reliable pattern I’ve observed is that it’s rarely the big-name Turner Prizewinners who go on to be the people’s favourites – it’s far more likely to be the newcomers.

Also, don’t forget about all the unofficial Lumiere participation. Empty Shop HQ has never neeb part of the official festival, but it’s been a good hangout for everyone in the festival, where artists and public mingle freely. There’s also some businesses who get in on the act, with some funny, quirky or clever contributions of their own.

A final tip for anyone who wants to avoid crowds, particularly if you’ve got small children: Wednesday is a good option. Most of the installations are tested that day, so it is possible to get a full day’s viewing in without the usual crowds, with the added bonus that you don’t need a ticket. to enter the city centre before 7.30.

So that’s my preview. It starts for real on Thursday. Enjoy.

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