York - City of light

Illuminating York
Illuminating York
  • This year Illuminating York celebrates its 10th anniversary with a new approach as visitors are taken on a tour of a series of spectacular light installations. Yvette Huddleston reports.
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Illuminating York, one of the longest-established light festivals in the UK, takes place next week and to celebrate its 10th anniversary this year the organisers have decided on a different approach.

Two artistic directors, Hazel Colquhoun and Andrew Knight, were appointed in March and they have programmed, commissioned and selected a series of artworks which will be presented as a Festival Promenade with installations created by five sets of artists along a walking route around the city, all leading to a spectacular grand finale at the Museum Gardens.

“We approached it with two things in mind,” says Colquhoun. “We were thinking about the audience experience – what it is like to go around York and discover different artworks – and also we were looking at artists who work with light in a site-specific way. We wanted artists whose work we knew was beautiful and would fit, and we have also chosen artists whose work hasn’t been seen in York before.”

Inspired by the UNESCO International Year of Light, the curators’ programme will be celebrating light in all its forms – from the flickering flames of candlelight to mirrorballs and cutting edge fibre optics. “There are five big installations as well as two pieces made by fine art graduates from the University of York St John, so it is a big project,” says Colquhoun. “We wanted people to experience parts of the city looking different at night-time but also we wanted to take them to different places. As far as we know nothing has been done in the Shambles for a long time – and it is completely magical at night.”

The historic street – with its overhanging timber-framed buildings – is probably one of the most well known areas of the medieval city and the installation Join the Revolution, created by artist/design duo Freshwest, will transform the Shambles using reflected showers of light streaming from mirror balls along the length of the street. The idea is to offer glimpses of its ancient past – as a street of butchers – while also reflecting its present.

Artist Nayan Kulkarni’s piece Three Graces takes as its inspiration the candle as a symbol as well as a beacon and uses three of the city’s churches – St Helen’s, All Saints Pavement and St Michael le Belfrey – as canvases for different digital artworks – with the image of the candle as a starting point. “The churches all have beautiful open towers which will be lit up,” says Colquhoun. “And as you look up at them, it gets people thinking about how the three churches are connected.”

Audiences will discover a single burning candle positioned high up in a niche or a tower as well as the illusion of hundreds of candles flickering on the pavement. “We wanted the whole festival to be quite experiential,” says Colquhoun. “Quite a few of the artworks are walk-through experiences.”

Shadowing, by Jonathan Chomko and Matthew Rosier, is an award-winning artwork that invites people to play with shadows. There will be seven modified streetlights around the city which are able to “record” the shadows of people walking beneath them and then replay them, creating a dream-like – and one can imagine slightly eerie – procession of earlier visitors.

Meanwhile, suspended in the Mansion House passageway will be Esther Rollinson’s work Flown, a cloud-like installation that hovers above the audience. It uses a complex programme of LED lights and hand-folded acrylic forms that create delicate patterns of movement. “The whole effect of the work is like oil running over a page,” says Colquhoun. “And the light work within it is going to be really intricate.” The show-stopping centrepiece of the festival – and the only ticketed event – is Trophic Cascade’s Illuminati Botanica which takes place in the 10-acre Museum Gardens. “The gardens have been used as a canvas in previous festivals,” says Colquhoun. “But the artists have approached it in a different way with lots of small-scale installations, taking people on a journey all the way around the gardens and enabling them to experience different types of light.” It promises to be a nocturnal garden full of magical surprises. In addition to the major installations there will be a Bunny Light Trail. “We are putting contemporary ceramic rabbit lamps in shop windows and businesses around York,” explains Colquhoun. “We are sending out thirty lamps to artists who are going to customize them and some of them will be available for auction.” Supporting the festival, as always, there will be many different celebrations of light throughout York from torch-lit and candle-lit tours of some of the city’s visitor attractions and special events including a Guy Fawkes Trail, a children’s Halloween tour at York Dungeon and Dancing in Light, a performance piece involving three dancers in the intimate and confined space of a small shop at night.

Both curators have worked in public art for many years and Colquhoun is clearly very passionate about making visual art accessible to everyone. “I strongly believe in commissioning work to allow people to engage with artwork on their own terms,” she says. “We think about how people encounter art and hopefully make it a really good experience for them.”

Illuminating York, October 28-31, 6pm-10pm. For more information visit www.illuminatingyork.org.uk