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Editorial

S.F. Is a Mecca for Light Art

by Sura Wood

The seasonal Illuminate SF offers walking tours of the city’s impressive light art installations.

Every day from dusk to dawn, the world’s largest light sculpture is visible to millions of people on both sides of San Francisco Bay. ”The Bay Lights”—a dazzling, 25,000-white-LED light display on the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge—was programmed and designed by artist Leo Villareal in 2013 to celebrate the bridge’s 75th anniversary. Although originally conceived as a two-year installation, it was made a permanent part of the visual landscape last year.

“The Bay Lights” is one of the more dramatic components of Illuminate SF, a festival of light art projects on display throughout San Francisco; some are permanent or temporary public artworks, others are installations in museums, office buildings and hotel lobbies, some are on the street. They can be discovered as you stroll through a dozen city neighborhoods, from the Embarcadero, North Beach, Civic Center, SoMA and Mission Bay to the Bayview, Inner Sunset and Mission District. Illuminate SF’s Fourth Annual Festival of Light showcases 35 light art installations throughout the city, with guided walking and bike tours, artist talks and other events, most of which are free.

“What’s different about San Francisco, in comparison to other cities, is that we’re starting to amass a treasure trove of world-class public permanent light art that people can see year round,” says Lisa Hasenbalg, senior director of Arts & Culture Strategy at SF Travel, which organizes the festival. “Rather than light projections, which are amazing and very ‘wow,’ our festival is not just one piazza or neighborhood that suddenly erupts in a visual spectacle of projections and video. San Francisco is a walking gallery of light; it’s as if the city itself is a museum and these light art installations are the exhibits.”

“Murmur Wall” is among the artworks many locals have likely encountered. An interactive, undulating lattice of bent steel, purple-colored acrylic tubing, digital displays and electronics, it sits outside the entrance to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Its creators, Future Cities Lab, describe it as “an artificially intelligent, anticipatory architecture that reveals what the city is whispering, thinking and feeling.” Inside the three-story lobby of the W Hotel, about a five-minute hike from YBCA, “Lumina,” a luminous, otherworldly 27-foot, pod-shaped sculpture, looms overhead. Conjuring visions of cosmic star clouds or lavender bioluminescent creatures of the deep, this brainchild of the MADLAB design studio is fashioned from translucent fiberglass threaded with more than 7,000 fiber optic strands.

The Murmur Wall

Every day from dusk to dawn, the world’s largest light sculpture is visible to millions of people on both sides of San Francisco Bay. ”The Bay Lights”—a dazzling, 25,000-white-LED light display on the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge—was programmed and designed by artist Leo Villareal in 2013 to celebrate the bridge’s 75th anniversary. Although originally conceived as a two-year installation, it was made a permanent part of the visual landscape last year.

“The Bay Lights” is one of the more dramatic components of Illuminate SF, a festival of light art projects on display throughout San Francisco; some are permanent or temporary public artworks, others are installations in museums, office buildings and hotel lobbies, some are on the street. They can be discovered as you stroll through a dozen city neighborhoods, from the Embarcadero, North Beach, Civic Center, SoMA and Mission Bay to the Bayview, Inner Sunset and Mission District. Illuminate SF’s Fourth Annual Festival of Light showcases 35 light art installations throughout the city, with guided walking and bike tours, artist talks and other events, most of which are free.

“What’s different about San Francisco, in comparison to other cities, is that we’re starting to amass a treasure trove of world-class public permanent light art that people can see year round,” says Lisa Hasenbalg, senior director of Arts & Culture Strategy at SF Travel, which organizes the festival. “Rather than light projections, which are amazing and very ‘wow,’ our festival is not just one piazza or neighborhood that suddenly erupts in a visual spectacle of projections and video. San Francisco is a walking gallery of light; it’s as if the city itself is a museum and these light art installations are the exhibits.”

“Murmur Wall” is among the artworks many locals have likely encountered. An interactive, undulating lattice of bent steel, purple-colored acrylic tubing, digital displays and electronics, it sits outside the entrance to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Its creators, Future Cities Lab, describe it as “an artificially intelligent, anticipatory architecture that reveals what the city is whispering, thinking and feeling.” Inside the three-story lobby of the W Hotel, about a five-minute hike from YBCA, “Lumina,” a luminous, otherworldly 27-foot, pod-shaped sculpture, looms overhead. Conjuring visions of cosmic star clouds or lavender bioluminescent creatures of the deep, this brainchild of the MADLAB design studio is fashioned from translucent fiberglass threaded with more than 7,000 fiber optic strands.

It’s worth a special trip to the Osher Sculpture Garden at the de Young Museum to explore James Turrell’s “Three Gems.” Turrell, a prominent figure in the California light and space art movement, has designed a subterranean, dome-like cylindrical structure cut into a grassy hill flanked by curved walls. After a short walk through a concrete tunnel, visitors enter a chamber to sit on a stone bench that lines the circumference of the space and watch the clouds drift by through an oculus in the roof. In this meditative, mini-space observatory, perceptions of the sky’s myriad colors are altered by changing atmospheric conditions and a LED lighting program that activates 40 minutes prior to sunset and begins to change colors 20 minutes later, cycling among subtle shades of magenta, teal, gray, violet and golden peach. The work reflects the artist’s belief that “we are all dwellers at the bottom of the ocean of air.” For the optimum experience, arrive at twilight; shorter days this month allow for viewing during museum hours.

To create “Coalescence,” a 3-D installation commissioned for the San Francisco Art Commission’s new Main Gallery in the War Memorial Veterans building, artists Annette Jannotta and Olivia Ting repurposed the cardboard packaging of the gallery’s lighting tubes, painted them white and hung them from the cable suspension system in a staggered formation suggesting stalactites. Video footage documenting the renovation of the building, intermingled with imagery of a dancer moving gracefully through space, is projected on the installation. “Olivia and I are both very interested in exploring time and spatial memory,” says Jannotta. “We really wanted to create an immersive transitional passage to draw visitors into the gallery [and] to bring something from the building’s past to live into the present. The dancer woven into the montage expresses our human experience of space, emotion and time…slow or fast; expanding and contracting; gravity and levity.”

Coalescence Photo Credit: Olivia Ting

Illuminate SF’s newest addition is “Trillian & Dodi” at Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley; it is by HYBYCOZO, a collaborative arts collective comprising Yelena Filipchuk, who has worked at Google and YouTube, and Serge Beaulieu, a veteran industrial designer. They have created several pieces for Burning Man and specialize in larger-than-life laser-cut steel sculptures inspired by mathematics, science and nature. Their two large geometric steel sculptures here, positioned 120 feet apart, are “Dodi, a Dodecahedron,” a 6 x 6 x 6-foot, 12-sided shape made of pentagons, and “Trillian,” a 10 x 10 x 10-foot rhombicosidodecahedron, with 20 regular triangular faces, 30 square faces, 12 regular pentagonal faces, 60 vertices and 120 edges. Both sculptures are lit from within by colored LED lights and shadow-casting illumination that produce intricate patterns on the ground surrounding them. Resembling giant glowing lanterns, they’re mystical and Old World in effect, yet sophisticated and modern in their fabrication, materials and concept. The pattern on “Trillian”’s 62 panels, for instance, represents a mathematical theory once thought impossible to achieve. In an email, Filipchuk explains: “In the early 1970s, a mathematician named Sir Roger Penrose discovered that a surface can be completely tiled in an asymmetrical, non-repeating manner in five-fold symmetry with just two five-sided shapes based on the golden ratio or phi. Known as the Penrose Tiling, the pattern carries a deep significance for our artwork. It represents the eternal and relentless search for a connecting thread in the universe. It is this quest that ties all of humanity together.” 

San Francisco’s relatively compact 49-square-mile layout, its mild climate and tech-savvy population make it conducive to the medium of light art, practiced by skilled artists well versed in engineering and cutting-edge techniques. Each year, Illuminate SF and its catalogue of installations grow, making it a mecca for this medium, its creators and those who simply love to look.

Illuminate SF Festival of Light

Through Jan.1; IlluminateSF.com

sanfrancisco.travel/media.com