Seeing the Light as art

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A CENTENARY of Illuminations is something to celebrate but not everyone has seen the light, reckons Grundy Art Gallery curator Stuart Tulloch.

He caught a cab to take artist Brian Griffiths to Lightsworks’ depot on Blackpool Business Park at Squires Gate – ahead of Brian’s re-imagining of the Lights for an art show with a difference at the town’s municipal gallery.

But much dark muttering from the cabby about Blackpool, the state of the Lights, the traffic, the seafront and more, left the pair in despair.

“It really was too much,” says Stuart. “This driver had no idea who we are and he just went off on one. And when you look at all the investment that’s gone into town, and how good it’s all looking, you wonder when people are going to get the message. There’s a real negativity about Blackpool at times and it’s soul destroying.”

He’s out to lift spirits with the latest show at the Grundy – by looking at the Lights from a different perspective within the gallery itself.

Some of the Illuminations’ best loved features have come in from the cold for use within a display, as much for locals as visitors, running from May 26 until July 28.

Inspired by 100 years of Blackpool Illuminations artist Brian – who usually works with found materials to create sculptures – selected Illuminations direct from the depot where they store, make and restore features.

He has created an exhibition which sets out to showcase the diversity of lights and the breadth of imagination in the collection that takes the viewer from Doric columns through to over-sized teddy bears and gigantic Tiffany lamps – and the occasional errant pirate.

In today’s world it can be easy to forget that until about 250 years ago, people lived half their lives in nearly unrelieved darkness. Then new transforming technologies arrived: oil lamps much brighter than any known before, gaslights and then electric lights.

Created in its near current form in 1912, Blackpool Illuminations, with its annual promenade of extravagant decoration, makes lights the spectacle, the centrepiece.

The Re-Imagining of Blackpool Illuminations goes one further – it allows viewers to explore the whole idea of light and the material and scale of the features selected.

The idea is to immerse viewers in the luminosity, colour, saturation, and shadows of the Lights, way out of their (and our) usual comfort zone.

It’s been a surreal experience for Brian, who is a senior lecturer in fine art at the Royal Academy schools, London, but he admits: “You can’t fail but appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship when you see these pieces close up.”

His challenge has been to place them within a different context – rather than along the Promenade. One blue moon takes on an eerie appearance in a darkly lit room, one of four set aside at the Grundy for the exhibition.

A random pirate, hands on his hips, looks like he’s waiting for a cup of tea from part of the Alice in Wonderland tableau.

Pieces are used in isolation, fragments of the main event, to boost the sense of fantasy.

A large bear on a park bench, exiled from his chums on Bispham Cliffs until the Lights proper start, invites others to sit alongside, including, a little self consciously, the artist and the curator, if only for our photograph.

Brian already works in three dimensional collages, sculptures and installations on a near theatrical stage.

His work has been exhibited extensively across the UK and abroad: at the Tate Britain, on a UK tour in the British Art Show; and had solo shows in the Netherlands, Pittsburgh, Bordeaux, Milan and Brazil. But Blackpool, he admits, takes him back to his own roots, with regular trips to see the Lights from his home in Stratford as a child. He adds: “I’m coming in from a very different art history and perspective, but I still think the Lights are fantastic and amazing.

“Some people criticise them – as indeed the cabby did – but here you have a six-mile free display of light and it’s incredible. Show the Lights to people outside the UK and they find them astonishing and incredibly, and charmingly, idiosyncratic.

“Blackpool’s become blase. I suppose we’re so culturally used to them. That’s why I’d love local people to see the show. By removing the Lights from their usual context you can really start to see them again.

“There’s a real sincerity in these objects, whether it’s pathos and melancholy, or a self knowing deprecation which makes them witty and intelligent, a very British combination.”

Curator Stuart agrees: “We wanted to show how great the Lights are and how important the centenary is to us all. In effect it’s an incredible sculpture exhibition, a mix of different things from different cultures, and times, put together. It all adds up to a very intense experience of the Illuminations on an huge, theatrical, scale within the gallery. It makes you see the Illuminations with different eyes.”