In Praise of Shadows is a concise meditation on light curated by Jane Withers. 20 works are displayed inside an existing gallery at the V&A; nestled in among the ceramics and inlayed furniture they provided the only illumination; visitors are given torches at the entrance so that they can read the exhibition text.
There’s politics and science here, but also space for poetry; I really enjoyed getting another look at Drift’s Fragile Future: a light sculpture that combines LEDs with real dandelion seed heads that was on show the Carpenters Workshop Gallery stand in Basel this year. Here in the dark it looked even more beautiful, if, as the title suggests, terrifyingly fragile. Paul Cocksedge’s cool flower-powered vase lamp was here too, as was old Word favourite Pieke Bergmans with one of her giant melting light bulbs (above).
Stay away from the light
Shadows really are here to be praised, says Jane Withers; she thinks that we may all be crazily in thrall to illumination; too accustomed to everything being super-bright. The exhibition title is taken from an essay by Junichiro Tanizaki that argues that too much lighting robs culture of its aesthetic richness. Jane explained that she thinks many shops could certainly do with lighting their stock more selectively; having seen the effect that good lighting has on exhibition displays, I definitely agree. Decent display lighting can make things look much more alluring, and uses much less energy. The brochure for the show also cites research work by Claudia Dutson of the Royal College of Art suggesting that over-bright light, particularly of the wrong colour, can have a negative impact on health.
“The office may be the most demanding environment on a person’s physiology. Is a uniform, brightly lit room the best place to be productive and healthy?” Claudia Dutson, RCA
Fight the power
The show is pegged to the EU-wide switch to energy efficient light-bulbs that came into force this month. Rather than a chastisement, the curator sees the directive as a stimulus and considers this to be a time of great creativity and change in lighting design. A reminder of why it’s so important to make the switch comes from Tom Foulsham’s film Light Balance, for which he built a merry-go-round inside the Albert Hall which he powered with the heat of one 400w bulb – 95% of the energy used by incandescent lightbulbs is given out as heat, only 5% as light. While the bulb managed to swing Tom around, it certainly didn’t light up much of the Hall itself.
There’s another video showing some direct action to power-guzzling; French activists Clan du Néon go around at night switching off the lights on shops’ street displays. It felt irresistibly irreverent to stand in the grand old V &A watching grainy footage of jubilant activist shinning up drainpipes to flick off the emergency power switches. Anyone fancy starting a Belgian branch?
And now for the activists’ Belgian branch: