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The Buck stopped here

The Buck stopped here is a weekly blog by our contemporary art correspondent Louisa Buck covering the hottest events and must-see exhibitions in London and beyond

Southbank Centre's outdoor lights show offers glittering festive cheer—but scant comfort to its redundant workers

David Batchelor's 60 Minute Spectrum (detail), 2018 © The artist. Photo credit: Morley Von Sternberg

As lockdown London lurches into a not-so festive season, a new open air exhibition at the Southbank Centre offers uplifting illumination for the dark days and nights to come. Winter Light brings together 17 works and new commissions which use light, colour and images still and moving to range across the entire South Bank site, illuminating every element of its buildings, spaces and facades. The works will be installed in stages with nine pieces—including works by David Batchelor, Tala Madani, Katie Paterson, Tatsuo Miyajima, Toby Ziegler and Emma Talbot—visible onsite this weekend and the rest in situ by mid December.

“It’s a way that people can experience culture outside in a safe environment, but still see something that provokes thought about the different issues that the artists are raising, as well as highlighting the Brutalist architecture of Southbank,” says Cedar Lewisohn, the Southbank’s curator of site design who has organised the show with the Hayward Gallery’s senior curator Cliff Lauson. “The idea is to activate the site and give a complete outdoor experience,” adds Lauson, who feels that the strictures imposed by Covid-19 underline the “importance and relevance of outdoor public art that is also free for everyone.”

Emma Talbot, Birds, Freedom (2020) © The artist. Courtesy the Artist, Galerie Onrust and Petra Rinck Galerie

The Royal Festival Hall now becomes a giant screen for video projections such as Talbot’s Birds, Freedom (2020), in which an animated female figure navigates a vibrant landscape and Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum’s animation of a fantastical lunar voyage To The Moon (2014). David Batchelor’s Sixty Minute Spectrum (2018) turns the Hayward Gallery’s roof into a giant chromatic clock, flooding its pyramid skylights with changing colour that moves through the entire visual spectrum over sixty minutes, while on the River level of the Royal Festival Hall Tatsuo Miyajima’s monumental LCD lightbox Counter Void S-I (2003) presents another form of timepiece as it cycles through a numerical countdown. Kate Paterson’s Totality (2019) resembles a giant mirrored disco ball, hanging in the Hayward’s currently deserted foyer, where it throws out sparks of light. However the images on its 10,000 facets also document every solar eclipse recorded by humankind, offering a reminder of our principal source of illumination and instrument for measuring time.

Katie Paterson's Totality (2016) © The artist

A newly commissioned large scale light installation by Martin Richman on the fifth floor balcony of the Royal Festival Hall has been designed to mirror the shimmering of the River Thames which it overlooks; and there is more integration with nature in David Ogle’s use of neon flex to trace the branches and natural shapes of the London plane trees along Riverside Walk to create a multicoloured overhead canopy.

Other works celebrating the ability of light to transform our physical surroundings. include Shezad Dawood’s illuminated image of Mahakala, a wrathful but also protective deity worshipped in Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism and Louiza Ntourou’s video of a single falling leaf, set to a nostalgic soundtrack. Chiming with what Lewisohn describes as the exhibition’s “simple underlying idea of spirituality and light, particularly in the times we are living in”, the author Jini Reddy has also been commissioned to write five new pieces of text on the theme of seasonal “light, darkness, nature and spirituality”, which will be displayed across the South Bank site.

But however much the luminous spectacle of Winter Light activates the shuttered site and opens up spaces hitherto inaccessible for art, its largely upbeat tone offers scant comfort to the 322 Southbank Centre employees made redundant in September in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. Earlier this month, they unsuccessfully petitioned the Southbank to be rehired and put back on furlough until the end of March. For these workers, the hope implicit in Tavares Strachan’s giant neon WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER (2019) assumes an especially hollow ring. Unfortunately for many, James Clar’s Freefall from 2011 in which an illuminated outline of a figure tumbles down the east side of the Royal Festival Hall offers a more pertinent comment on the current situation.

Winter Light, Southbank Centre, until 28 February 2021