LED is the new bronze, as a dazzling array of public art is set to illuminate our dark Olympic nights and plug Vancouver in
It’s a pretty desolate site—for now. Beneath the Second Avenue end of the Cambie Street Bridge, near the recently opened Canada Line station, there’s a pedestrian sector that is all raw concrete, dark asphalt, and grim functionality. In form and mood, it is cold, stark, and impersonal. Within the next few weeks, however, it will be warmed, humanized, and enlivened. The agent of this transformation? A light-based sculpture by international new-media artist Tania Ruiz Gutiérrez.
Titled Garde-Temps, it is one of a dazzling array of light-based works commissioned by the City of Vancouver’s Olympic and Paralympic public-art program for installation this coming winter. From robotic searchlights to video screens and from street lamps to architectural illumination, these projects signal an art-world trend—the use of light as a medium.
Garde-Temps is a three-metre-high glass and metal vase that acts as a screen for moving images. Through an ingenious coupling of thermography and digital technology, the images are gathered from the site itself: the heat that emanates from people walking and bicycling nearby will be picked up by a thermal camera and transformed into threads of light on the curved screen of the vase.
On the phone from her home in Paris, Ruiz Gutiérrez confirms, “The materiality of the object is light itself.” More explicitly, she says, “It’s an electronic object clothed by weaving patterns, and the patterns are woven by the heat traces of passersby.” Then she adds with a laugh, “Whenever the object is unplugged, it’s as if it was naked.”
Unplugged, our city would be naked, too. Vancouver’s ambitious new light works, both permanent and temporary, will warm and brighten our long northern nights. And, as with all good public art, they will also help interpret Vancouver to the world—and to itself.
Public art long ago abandoned the notion that it had to conform to conventional ideas of medium, message, and location. Recently, however, innovations in digital technology have greatly expanded forms of creative expression and have given new-media and multimedia artists huge access to the public realm. Light is the new bronze.
Light, of course, is an inextricable element of urban life, and there’s a persistent coupling in our minds of bright lights and glamorous cosmopolitanism. Think New York’s Times Square, Tokyo’s Ginza district, or London’s Piccadilly Circus. At the same time, environmental attitudes are changing. For conservation reasons, cities are rethinking how they light their streets and buildings. A number of Vancouver’s public-art commissions employ LEDs, coupling urban themes with environmentally friendly functionality.
An example is Ice Light, a permanent LED installation by Berlin-based Gunda Fí¶rster, designed to illuminate and animate the exterior of City Hall while reducing power consumption. In an artist’s statement sent to the Straight, Fí¶rster writes about why she is drawn to light as a medium. “Light is a basic element—without light, there is no life. Besides, light is a very changeable element.”¦It exists in endlessly different versions.”
Other Vancouver light-based artworks—completed or in progress—include Ken Lum’s LED–lit Monument for East Vancouver, which will stand on the rise at Clark Drive and 6th Avenue. David MacWilliam’s Kingsway Luminaires, a series of sculptures in the form of colour-shifting street lamps, is already installed on medians east and west of the intersection of Kingsway and Knight Street.
Under a public-art program called Legacy, five major light-based works also have been commissioned for the city. These include Ruiz Gutiérrez’s and Fí¶rster’s works, along with Boulevard, decorative street lighting by Ottawa’s Adrian Gí¶llner and Toronto’s Pierre Poussin, to be installed downtown along the corridor connecting the two Olympic LiveCity sites. Also part of this program is Walk In, an open-air video theatre by Vancouver artist Christian Kliegel, currently under construction on the Central Library’s north plaza at Georgia and Homer streets. It is designed to show a series of rear-projected moving and still images, organized by local curator Cate Rimmer and titled Here You Are.
Reached by phone at her Charles H. Scott Gallery office, Rimmer describes the works she is curating, and concurs that, suddenly, light-based work has emerged as a dominant presence in public art. Light is both celebratory and decorative, she observes, but it may also be consoling. “There’s the fact that all our neon lighting is going.”¦That aspect of the city has been taken out, and I suppose this work is about bringing it back in.”
Whether or not they’re compensating for the loss of neon signage, local, national, and international artists are contributing to Vancouver’s new light horizon—although, as Ruiz Gutiérrez observes, “Our globalized economy means there are no local artists anymore.” A living embodiment of internationalism, she was born in Chile, raised in Colombia, and educated in Bogotá, London, Barcelona, and Paris. Her stunning installations have been seen from Geneva to Seoul, and she is currently working on the largest permanent video-art installation ever commissioned in Europe in Malmí¶, Sweden.
“It is, of course, too ambitious,” she says wryly. “But I like to work like an architect. There are so many constraints and so many problems to solve, which are those of space.”
While the means of Garde-Temps, Ruiz Gutiérrez’s first North American commission, are breathtakingly contemporary, the work’s references are historic, even prehistoric. It alludes to cinematic traditions but also draws analogies to the earliest examples of visual narrative. Here, the strands of light composing the images refer to basket-weaving, and the vessel shape of the “screen” evokes not only ancient pottery but also the universal mother—the womb from which life emerges.
“I’ve been working in different ways to unfold time and scroll it into space,” Ruiz Gutiérrez says. “One of the things I like about public work is that there are multiple layers of meaning and you can read it in many different ways,” she says. “When you name something, it narrows the scope of meaning the object can have.”
The title, however, is not incidental. The French term garde-temps translates as time-keeper. “It will be an object that keeps in itself the memory of the place,” Ruiz Gutiérrez says. “The trace of what has happened there.”