Visual Art

Adelaide’s inaugural Illuminate festival offers a mixed bag of work, from the indifferent to the revelatory. By Ben Brooker.

Illuminate festival

Robin Fox’s Library of Light installation at Illuminate Adelaide 2021.
Credit: Frankie The Creative

Since the pioneering art installations of collaborators Mel and Dorothy Tanner, and James Turrell and Robert Irwin, who worked on opposite sides of America in the 1960s, artists have used light not simply to make objects visible but as a medium in itself. The art of light is the basis for Illuminate, the latest addition to Adelaide’s packed festivals calendar.

Programmed by co-founders and creative directors Lee Cumberlidge and Rachael Azzopardi, and centred on the North Terrace cultural precinct, the inaugural festival – incorporating free and ticketed installations, virtual reality works, music and the formerly standalone Adelaide Festival of Ideas – Illuminate recalls other winter festivals such as Melbourne’s White Night (now Rising) and Hobart’s Dark Mofo, but mostly it echoes Vivid, Sydney’s yearly festival of light. While last year’s Vivid was scratched and this year’s festival looks anything but certain due to the pandemic, the first two nights of Illuminate were also cancelled – this time due to stormy weather rather than Covid-19.

As light rain continued to fall on the festival’s rescheduled opening night, I joined what seemed like half of Adelaide in the Botanic Garden for marquee show Light Cycles by Montreal-based multimedia studio Moment Factory. The work, described as a “unique immersive digital art experience”, takes the form of a series of modular installations that stick close to the garden’s sealed walking paths. In somewhat pseudoscientific language participants are promised a “re-imagining” of the 51-hectare, 164-year-old site which, we are told, will manifest “nature’s secret rhythms” through light and sound. Disappointingly, there’s no attempt to address the garden’s colonial origins.   

We enter through a leafy archway blazing with golden light and aswirl with dry ice. A wash of ambient music aims for the kind of relaxed mood immediately ruled out by the presence of excited children and the proximity of what feels like too many other ticketholders. The first of many long connecting pathways lit by nothing more impressive than strings of fairy lights eventually leads to the night’s first genuine spectacle. Amid rows of dramatically up-lit Moreton Bay figs, a laser array seems to conjure vast swarms of fireflies in the air. The ground, overlaid with spongy matting, dances with hundreds of pinpricks of light. The impressively multidirectional music thickens with light percussion and choral elements. For a moment I feel transported.

Other installations, such as the enchantingly titled “Crystal Grove”, which turns out to consist merely of scattered rows of gently modulating LEDs on waist-high poles, are distinctly underwhelming. It’s not until we reach Kainka Wirra main lake on the garden’s south side that the work’s makers are able to enchant us with a little more magic. Here, the music – pumping now, bass-heavy and glitching and inflected with samples of natural sounds such as running water – supports an absorbing display of light and colour. Sine wave-like patterns flit across the reeds on the far side of the lake, throbbing in time to the music, while the water itself glitters with pulsating columns. I’m not sure if these are underwater LEDs or reflections of lights I can’t see.

Afterwards we move through a forest of brilliantly lit bamboo, with stems inscribed with the names of previous visitors to the garden, towards the Palm House, the restored Victorian glasshouse that stands on the garden’s west side. It’s a sign of Light Cycles’ thin, perhaps nonexistent, dramaturgy that this final section – inspired, apparently, by the idea of the hearth as a place of gathering and sustenance – is coldly impressive rather than warmly inviting: the Palm House radiates blue and white light and is ringed by scudding searchlight beams.     

As with much large-scale immersive art these days, Light Cycles feels depressingly optimised for social media. Sure enough, every hundred metres or so there are bottlenecks formed by participants hanging back for the perfect, Instagram-ready selfie or snapshot. Not for the first time I found myself lamenting the weird paradox at the heart of works such as this that simultaneously bill themselves as experiences and encourage us to mediate every moment through a screen. I left feeling that it hadn’t illuminated “nature’s rhythms” (whatever they are) so much as our peculiar eagerness to act as unpaid marketers for works that ought to be able to recommend themselves.

About a kilometre south-west of the Botanic Garden is the State Library, part of the Festival’s City Lights program that “brings North Terrace’s iconic heritage buildings and hidden laneways to life with fireflies, lasers, desert pop art and stunning projections”. I’ve come to see Library of Light, a light and laser installation by Melbourne-based composer and audio-visual artist Robin Fox that pays homage to Joseph Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski, the Polish–Australian artist whose groundbreaking “chromasonic” works were staples of the Adelaide arts scene until his death in 1994. I’m fortunate, on my way, to catch a glimpse of Pitjantjatjara artist Kaylene Whiskey’s marvellously playful and kinetic series of pop culture-infused animations, Kaylene TV, projected onto the facade of the Institute Building.

From the first level of the State Library’s glass-walled atrium, Fox’s lasers, impeccably synchronised with – or perhaps triggered by – various drones, beats and other bursts of industrial noise, create an ever-shifting array of geometric planes. Sweeping and stabbing, each transforms the air and the courtyard’s sandstone walls for a few minutes at a time, turning the architectural space of the library into a vast canvas for shapes that morph from two to three dimensions and back again, now an effulgent white, now psychedelically multicoloured. The effect, echoing Ostoja-Kotkowski’s interest in enabling audiences to “hear the colours and see the sounds”, is almost synaesthetic, the boundaries between our senses faintly displaced. Dry ice machines struggle against the wind but I notice cloud-like patterns of smoke within some of the planes, the vision – I’m not certain whether it’s live or prerecorded – folded into the laser design to generate captivatingly dreamlike images.

The work doesn’t use projection mapping, in which surfaces are used to display spatially mapped projections, but Fox’s use of light is nevertheless site-specific and sculptural, rendering the familiar anew. The courtyard’s statue of Scottish poet Robert Burns is made more incongruous than ever by the lasers that glance irreverently off its timeworn marble. As I’m leaving, I note that some of the light reaches as far as the unfinished apartment blocks on the other side of North Terrace, conscripting their skeletal facades into the work. Ostoja-Kotkowski would no doubt have been pleased by this luminous intervention in the life of the city.

Illuminate Adelaide events have been cancelled until July 27 under the South Australian lockdown and will reopen according to health directives.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "The art of light".

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Ben Brooker is a writer, editor and theatre-maker.