Before I get stuck into Vault festival reviews, there was the festival in London the month before. What started off a one-off festival on Durham, then become a bi-yearly fixture in Durham, and then branched out to a one-off in London, is now a regular fixture in London too. This is a theatre blog and a light festival blog so I won’t be giving a detailed critique of every single attraction, but as this is a Durham-based blog and this is Durham’s greatest cultural export, this deserved a mention here.
Let’s get started:
The bigger festival
After the inaugural Lumiere London of 2016, there were questions over whether it could return, not because it wasn’t popular enough, but because it was too popular. Crowding became a big problem, even causing the King’s Cross area to be closed on Saturday night. Not as bad as the infamous Lumiere Durham 2011, but every possibility that the next Lumiere London could be a repeat of this as the festival grows in popularity. But the solution implemented in Durham – closing off the Penninsula to all but residents and ticket holders – must have been out of the question for central London.
The solution they went for, in the end, was a drastic one: double the size of the festival. 54 installations was by far the largest Lumiere festival ever, and the two areas of West End plus King’s Cross grew to six. There is some fine print over this figure of 54, which I’ll come back to later, but even factoring that it, it’s a much larger festival. It was a gamble though, because for all we knew, twice the size might mean twice the crowds – and if it failed to keep crowds under control, it would have been an expensive gamble to backfire. Someone with responsibility for crowd control must have had four nervous days.
But the plan worked. The crowding issues of 2016 did not reappear, and the only time it was difficult to get from A to B was when the odd individual attraction proved exceptionally popular. And there was no repeat, thank goodness, of plonking a tiny attraction in a tiny show window where masses of people jostle for photos and selfies. London took some bold risks to make Lumiere 2018 a reality, but in the end, their gambles paid off handsomely. Good call, Lumiere London.
To keep this list down to something manageable, I’m generally leaving out things I’ve seen at previous festivals, only putting something here if I have something new to add to what I said in the preview. One other caveat: in order to get through an expanded festival with only two days available to me, it had to be a rush job. Often I would liked to have hung around and seen an installation for longer, but time pressures prevented me, Apologies if I didn’t get to make the most of anyone’s work.
Here we go:
Quite often, the best installations at Lumiere are the ones you can’t describe; you can’t even do justice with a photo – you have to see it to believe it. The Wave is one of these. Look at any picture and it looks like a series of lit-up triangles you can walk through. not bad, but nothing you’d think would stand out from the crowd. But when you step inside it’s a different matter completely, with a light sequences flashing up and down the tunnel. I’m sorry I can’t give a better description, but honestly, it’s amazing, and the crowds around this one think so too. This video does fairly good job of showing you what it’s like inside, but there’s no substitute for being there.
Artichoke: you are totally taking this one to Durham next time. London’s borrowed plenty of ours, they’re not keeping that one to themselves.
One reservation I had over the last Lumiere was a return of clever installations that only clever people appreciate (and if you don’t like it you’re just not clever enough to understand the meaning). Some people like this and it does have a place in a festival that’s aimed at everyone, but last year, Trafalgar Square was dominated by this kind of work – one would have thought that such a centrepiece location would aim for widespread appeal.
Well, this time, they’ve done both. A load of illuminated white balloons all over Trafalgar square flashing on and off might sounds pretentious, but this was a lot smarter than first meets the eye. It was done to music, and the sequence was synced with the music very well. This is one of the pieces I would liked to have seen again, but time pressure said no. However, this was cleverly done and popular too. Please take note: clever does have to mean inaccessible.
I’d already put this in my recommendations when I wrote my preview, but it deserves another mention here, because I hadn’t realised just how detailed these models were. This isn’t the first time Lumiere has had installations of glowing plants or animals, but before they’ve been simple structures, which were good and memorable but not the same as here. These were very lifelike, and in spite of the pouring rain at the time I saw this, it made Leciester Square one of the high spots of the tours.
I’d forgotten about this – this would have gone straight in my recommendations if I’d remembered. This was the main installation in the Catherdal as part of Lumiere Durham 2013, and it’s things like this that Lumiere is best at: brilliantly simple ideas that producing simply brilliant displays. It worked like this: bendy wires suspended from above (trees here, the nave in Durham) – but you don’t actually see that. Instead, strips of light are shone through the wires to give an illusion of beams of light flying around you.
The photos of this are a bit misleading – they mostly show the light reflecting off the walls of Mount Street Gardens, but that’s really only a tool for the stunning effect of what you see straight above you. One of the unsung masterpieces of Lumiere Durham, so glad that this one has made a reappearance at the other Lumiere.
Was that a dream?
This was a pretty obvious one to do, but why not? Berkeley Square fell slap bang in the middle of the festival, and we all know what sings in Berkeley Square don’t we. So we had a beautifully constructed glowing Nightingale up in the trees to the music of – yes, you’ve guessed it – A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. That’s all you need to know really, but it it was a lovely touch to include this.
Come one! It’s Pong! On a building! Who doesn’t want to play Pong on a building?
(Well, I didn’t because there was a queue and I was running out of time and still hadn’t done King’s Cross. But I would have otherwise.)
Once again, King’s Cross was the area that most went to town with Lumiere. The regenerated area between King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations is a nicely self-contained area for a festival within a festival, and the people in charge went out of their way to produce their own publicity and own attractions. But they were very lucky to get Waterlicht.
Waterlicht had to be most ingenious attraction of the whole festival, in terms of idea, technical achievement and general wow factor. Once again, photos can’t really do justice to what you saw, but by projecting wavy sheets of light over Granary Square with a little but of spray, it created a marvellous illusion of blue glowing waves above people’s heads. It’s a technique not too different from the age-old light beam through smoke effect, but again, do something a little different and the result is amazing. Once again, one of the simplest ideas gives the most stunning results.
Next to Waterlicht, it was difficult for anything else in King’s Cross to stand out, but I did like the look of Aether, for effect, for innovation, and also a sign of what might be to come. The physical installation itself is nothing more than a series of vertical poles in a grid, but again, this is just a tool for the light show. By projecting light from the side, it created some impressive 3D effects, something that so far few other installations offer. I only have a brief amount of time to see this (honestly, I saw the last installation with 8 minutes to spare and boarding the last train to Durham with 4 minutes to spare), but i liked what I saw the pictures showed a lot of good stuff I missed. This is a technique worth keeping an eye on, as there aren’t many ways of doing 3D (at least, not more than using the shape of the building you project something on), and this shows a lot of versatility. Keep an eye out for this and things like it in the future.
So, all in all, a pleasing run, with most of the lessons of two years ago learnt and problems solved. There’s just a few things I wasn’t to keen on.
Piccadilly circus eurgh: There used to be a time when the lights of Piccadilly Circus was one of the highlights for any London visitor. Now that any business can buy flat screen TVs, Piccadilly Circus has turned into a shrine of international capitalism. That was inevitable, and we can hardly expect them to turn this off for four days.
However, I think it was a mistake to use the building next door for an installation. As I wrote in my preview, I had a lot of high hopes for Voyage and the display in real life was as good as I hoped for, but it was difficult to enjoy it when the plasma screens of Piccadilly Circus were blaring away right beside it with one garish advert after another for commercial bullshit. That’s a pity, because the building was otherwise an ideal choice for the display, but central London is chock-a-block full of buildings like that. I would have forgotten about Hotel Cafe Royal and found another building. That would have been fairer on Novak.
Number-inflating: I said earlier that there was fine print over the figure of 54 installations, and here it is. This includes a lot of installations that are there permanently, not just for the four days of the festival. Some of these were installations that first appeared at Lumiere London two years ago, and have stayed there ever since – Durham’s done that too, that I’d be prepared to accept as legit. Then there’s things which are around anyway which could easily be mistaken for Lumiere, such as the coloured lights on Carnaby Street, where I’m prepered to accept you may as well put in the programme.
But including the London Eye and Mondrian Hotel was pushing it a bit. They are both well-know landmarks illuminate all year, and giving a slightly difference light sequences is a weak claim to call yourself a Lumiere intsallation, especially as plenty of other buildings in London choose to light themselves in interesting ways without getting credit. Not saying they should do this, just counting so many pre-existing things towards a figure of 54 is cheating, in my books. If Artichoke want to include this in the future, I’d just wish they’d be more honest about what’s new and what’s already there.
Bad maps: Those two things above might be just my personal preferences. However, this last shortcoming was a far more practical problem. Quite simply, the maps in the Lumiere brochure frequently only bore vague resemblance to where the installations actually were. To be clear, this wasn’t a case of locations of installations changing at the last moment after the printed maps had gone to press – the name of the buildings were always correct, but the spots on the map frequently pointed to a completely different building. I frequently had trouble finding these installations.
To be fair, I gather most people found their way around using the map on the Lumiere London app, which was more accurate. Either more care went into that, or mistakes were identified and corrected. But when the official brochure costs £5, there is really no excuse for that kind of sloppiness – In the five Lumiere Durhams, the brochures have been between £0 and £2, and it’s never been that bad. Come on Artichoke, sort that out. There’s no need to let basic errors like that through.
But these are only small problems, none of which detracted from the festival. There were doubts over whether the festival that worked so well in Durham could work sustainbly in London, but a bold gamble has worked and the bigger festival now looks here for the long term. The people who pushed for Lumiere back in 2009 can be very proud over what it has become.