Leo Villareal, "Cylinder II" (2012) (click to enlarge) (© the artist; courtesy the artist and Gering & López Gallery, NY; photo by Linda Nylind)

Leo Villareal, “Cylinder II” (2012) (click to enlarge) (© the artist; courtesy the artist and Gering & López Gallery, NY; photo by Linda Nylind)

LONDON — When God said “let there be light,” he probably didn’t anticipate how much that statement would cost in the 21st century. Regarding the Hayward Gallery’s current exhibition, Light Show, security on hand are quick to note that this is one of the most expensive exhibitions the institution has ever staged, with staff receiving strict instructions to keep viewers’ hands off the artwork, especially Leo Villareal’s “Cylinder II” (2012), an ethereal column of LEDs that reach up into the first gallery’s cavernous space.

The security guard tells me the work is so delicate (and expensive), he almost whacked a child who got too close (he was joking). Of course, you couldn’t blame the child for wanting to touch the work — the only reason I was told about the expense of the show was because I was about to touch it, too. Light does that; somehow, you get drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

Light, especially when presented as art, is bright, shiny, a bit like a diamond, which might then remind us of the sun, stars, or even our own luminosity as living beings who created light — at least the electric kind. This truth is underscored by the works that lead on from Villareal’s cylinder: Ceal Floyer’s “Throw” (1997), in which a theater light is trained to the ground, projecting a luminous splatter; Francis Morellet’s expressionist neon squiggle that reaches from the floor to the ceiling and back again, “Lamentable” (2006); and three impressive columns of light by Cerith Wyn Evans with an equally impressive title: “S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…’) (2010).

Cerith Wyn Evans, “S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…’)” (2010) (© the artist; image courtesy White Cube, by Todd-White Art Photography)

The experiences come one after the other, and they are all immersive: there is a light room by Doug Wheeler, “RM669” (1969); James Turrell’s room bended by light, “Wedgework V” (1974); an Ivan Navarro infinity light box to step into, “Reality Show (Silver)” (2010); and a large, bright white space divided into three rooms colored with light tinted in fluorescent blue, red, and green, Carlos Cruz Diez’s “Chromo Saturation” (2008). The big names keep coming, too: Dan Flavin, Jenny Holzer, Fischli and Weiss — all masters in the practice of crafting light into meaning.

Conrad Shawcross, “Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV” (2009) (© the artist; image courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London)

Young British sculptor Conrad Shawcross took another route, choosing not to play with light and color but, rather, shadow. In his “Slow Arc Inside a Cube V” (2011), the artist presents an intricate frame in which a swirling light projects a moving grid across the four white walls of the cube space. The effect is dizzying and mesmerizing, creating the illusion that space is moveable. The approach is similar to an installation by Nancy Holt, “Holes of Light” (1973), in which light projects through circles cut out of a dividing wall onto a darker wall on the other side. Light and shadow are the essential things with which we define, outline, and even bend space.

In the end, it is the fantastical show of Olafur Eliasson’s “Model for a Timeless Garden” (2011) that sums up the hold light has on human beings as something magical, whimsical, and powerful. In a pitch-black room, Eliasson has placed a long row of 27 small fountains on a solid base, each trained at varying heights, as a strobe light flashes on and off. The result is a moment of pure aesthetic experience: light bounces off each splatter and splash spitting out of this kinetic body of water, every burst looking like crystals. Yet, as is the case with light, when you try to touch it, you can never truly grasp it. Maybe that’s why we desire it so.

Olafur Eliasson, “Model for a Timeless Garden” (2011) (from Southbank Centre on Vimeo)

Light Show continues at the Hayward Gallery (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London) through May 6.

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Stephanie Bailey

Stephanie Bailey covers contemporary art and culture from around the world for publications including ART PAPERS, ARTnews, Artforum, LEAP, Modern Painters and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art....