A Stunning Column of White Light in London Commemorates the Outbreak of World War I

Slate’s design blog.
Aug. 5 2014 11:45 AM

A Stunning Column of White Light in London Commemorates the Outbreak of World War I 

Japanese sound and light artist Ryoji Ikeda's installation Spectra, as seen from London's Primrose Hill, commemorates the centenary of Britain's involvement in World War I.

Photo by Thierry Bal. Courtesy of Artangel/14-18 NOW/Mayor of London

On Monday night millions of Londoners chose to honor the 100th anniversary of Britain’s involvement in World War I by turning off their home and office lights. Meanwhile, the city flooded the sky with a monumental column of light that could be seen from 12 miles away, according to the Guardian. Designed by Japanese sound and light artist Ryoji Ikeda, the work is called Spectra and has been installed in cities from Buenos Aires to Barcelona to JFK’s Terminal 5 in NYC in one form or another since the artist created the work in 2000.

For the London installation of Spectra, which will shine from nightfall to daybreak for the next week, seven rows of seven spotlights are arranged in a grid by technicians from Paris’ Skylight company (which lights the Eiffel Tower), accompanied by an ambient soundtrack.  

The Guardian described the effect of seeing it from the ground: “For those who happened to be passing Victoria Tower Gardens, a swath of green adjacent to the Houses of Parliament, the sense of wonder and disorientation was immediate and powerful, with the surrounding trees and buildings bathed in a glow emanating from the base of the pillar of light: a square of black matting on which 49 powerful spotlights beamed upwards as if into infinity.”

A view of Spectra from Waterloo Bridge.

Photo by Jonathan Perugia. Courtesy of Artangel/14-18 NOW/Mayor of London


On his website, Ikeda describes the site-specific works as “a series of large scale installations employing intense white light as a sculptural material. ... White light is one of the purest forms of transformation from electricity. We see a pure state of energy. Through these installations we witness how the pure transformation transforms the environment itself and ourselves.” He said that the installation was designed to “provoke a feeling of something indescribable, something sublime and unearthly, something unforgettable.”

Explaining the symbolism of Ikeda’s work as a commemoration of the outbreak of World War I, London Mayor Boris Johnson said: “The light Spectra throws up into the night sky is a unifying point. It echoes how the first world war affected all Londoners, but also how they and the rest of the country came together, standing united during those dark days.”

A view of Spectra commemorating the outbreak of World War I from London's Lambeth Bridge.

Photo by Olivia Rutherford. Courtesy of Artangel/14-18 NOW/Mayor of London


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