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How do artists use light as a medium? // Light Show: MCA

It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? To make art, or sculpture, out of something intangible? And yet it is widely done. Light Show, opening this Thursday at MCA, explains how. Words by Tess Ritchie.

How do artists use light as a medium? // Light Show: MCA


April 27th, 2015

Above: David Batchelor, Magic Hour, 2004/2007, Installation view Light Show, Hayward Gallery, 2013, Photo: Marcus J Leith


The 19 works (both installation and sculpture) by international artists that make up the exhibition show us what artists can do with this strange and ever-intriguing medium. The exhibition in its entirety shows us that its configurations are rich and many – both visually and conceptually – and that light has the power to challenge logic and perception in extreme ways; it can certainly become art.
Anthony McCall, You and I Horizontal, 2005, Installation view, Institut d’Art Contemporain Villeurbanne, Photo: Blaise Adilon


Light is all around us, curator of the exhibition Dr Cliff Lauson, from Hawyard Gallery, London, reminds us. He even goes as far as to suggest a “fetishisation of light almost permeates our culture” – and when you think about it, in our technology-saturated world, he’s quite right. Can you remember a time you were in complete darkness? Screens, lamps, signage – both inside and out – bathe us in artificial light every day. We obviously love it, and yet in many ways take it for granted.

Light Show taps into this – often subconscious – fascination. Each of the pieces, created from the 60s to today and arranged not chronologically but by space (some installations demand an entire room, others sit happily with others), speaks to a different aspect of light. Chromosaturation by Carlos Cruz-Diez, which comprises three rooms – one red, one blue, one green, is largely about colour and time. Each space glows in its colour, at an almost sickening brightness, which over time your eyes adjust to. At that point, the two remaining coloured rooms on your periphery grow brighter. Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV by Conrad Shawcross is more about shadow, “the indirect aspect of light”.
Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2013. Installation view Dynamo. Un siècle de lumière et de mouvement dans l’art. 1913-2013, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 2013


Key to this exhibition and the works in it is perception – more precisely, how light alters our perception of both self and of space.

Whereas traditional sculptures are objects we look upon, these installations make us think about “sculpture as space” – a phenomenon that reaches back to the 60s when artists began to make art that was more immersive and works were “hinged upon human perception”. While some of the pieces in Light Show are more traditional in the sense they stand alone, there is a very affective and inclusive element to all of them, and the viewers’ experience is crucial. You can literally walk inside Anthony McCall’s You and I Horizontal.


Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2013. Installation view Dynamo. Un siècle de lumière et de mouvement dans l’art. 1913-2013, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, 2013


Even the MCA itself is transformed by Light Show. “It sounds cliche,” says Director, Curatorial & Digital for the MCA Blair French, “but it really does. The works draw attention to the building and make you think about how you’re moving through the space.” From an unbiased perspective, this is true.

Throughout the entire exhibition the familiarity of MCA’s gallery rooms dissolve; spaces are new and strange, sometimes unsettling, and your sense of depth and perception is thrown – in exciting ways. Because there is such a huge range of works – from the playful to the contemplative, technologically demanding (Leo Villareal’s cylinder of light made of 19,600 computer-controlled LEDs) to the more simply made (the single theatrical spotlight of Anthony McCall’s You and I Horizontal) – it’s an exhibition for everyone, as long they’re curious.


Light Show is curated by Dr Cliff Lauson and organised by Hayward Gallery, London.

The show coincides with Vivid Sydney and runs in association with Luminous, an exhibition of light works by Australian Artists from the MCA collection – running March 9 – June 8 (free to enter).

For those visiting from out of town, MCA’s official hotel partner, QT Sydney, is offering the Light it Up package, which includes Overnight accommodation in a QT King Deluxe, Breakfast in Gowings Bar & Grill and 2 tickets to the MCA ‘Light Show’.

Light Show is open to the public from April 16 – July 5.
Adults – $20
Concessions – $15
Youths (13 and above) – $10
Family – $50
Kids – Free



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