The 2023 edition of Lumiere, the UK’s light art biennial, opened in Durham last Thursday 16 November, attracting thousands of visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The four-day festival boasts over 40 works, featuring world-renowned artists such as Ai Weiwei and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and favourites from the city’s permanent collection.
The festival received most of its funding from Durham County Council, and additional support from Arts Council England and Durham University. This year’s edition was all about “artists transforming the world … and making it better”, according to Artichoke’s artistic director, Helen Marriage, who co-founded the arts company. Artists critically engaged with contemporary issues such as climate change and the crisis in our current justice system, all whilst educating the public on the transnational nature of the festival.
Marriage’s ambitious claim beautifully reflects the overall ambience of this year’s edition. Feelings of community, joy, and warmth permeate the atmosphere of the holistic experience Lumiere has to offer.
At a time of the year when sunlight is drastically taken away from our late afternoons and evenings, Lumiere brings a little homeliness to the dark early winter months. It is also, I find, a pleasant distraction from the fear-mongering atmosphere of summative season brewing in the Bill Bryson Library at the top of Church Street.
Lumiere’s beating heart can be found in Durham Cathedral’s nave. Created by Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse Topology (2022) invites the visitor to interact with thousands of lightbulbs in an entrancing fashion. Place your hand underneath a receptor that catches your pulse, and you will hear and see your heartbeat’s unique rhythm as it inundates the curvaceous forms of the installation. This display was my personal favourite and stands as a powerful metaphor for human connection and life, reminding its spectators of what truly connects us. Another touching installation was in St Oswald’s Church graveyard, where five signs individually fingerspelled the word “LIGHT”, sensitizing the public to British Sign Language.
The displays are not solely situated in the city centre, but all across the city; from Durham Market Place to the Riverwalk, all the way down to the River Wear. Body of Light (2021) by Shuster + Moseley is a light show that will transform your humid potter back to Framwellgate Bridge into a somewhat more pleasurable experience.
Although irritating for some, I find that this one-way system brought a certain harmony to the festival. Disparity was not on Lumiere’s agenda, and each installation intertwined with one another, curating a truly unforgettable experience.
Lumiere also touched on the political, with On Blank Pages (2023), by anonymous Spanish art collective Luzinterruptus, displaying “an epic illuminated wall of free expression”. This was situated near the Gala Theatre amongst two artworks displayed permanently in Millenium Place, Helvetictoc (2013) by Tobie Langel and The Next Page (2019) by Hannah Jane Walker and residents at HMP Low Newton.
Fixed across the white, iridescent rectangular shape, the blank pages invited viewers to express their thoughts on the flaws within our justice system. The large light installation thus created a canvas of expression, allowing for an open discussion on a topic that is not talked of enough in the public space. A broader variety of subjects were touched upon and written out on the display’s pages: messages of love and support, dubious political statements, and some messages leaning towards the comical and the absurd.
Expanding to Bishop Auckland, this year’s edition was Lumiere’s biggest show yet. Seeing the biennal show’s exponential success hugely amplifies the sense of pride felt by people of County Durham. Visitors and photographers from all around the world flock to the show, eager to dissect the event in its entirety, enjoying the hospitality Durham has to offer throughout their stay.
By inviting us to slow down and re-consider iconic Durham landmarks through an artistic eye, Lumiere pushes us to re-consider the familiar spaces we too often take for granted. Exploring this year’s festival has allowed me to reconsider what made me fall in love with Durham from my first year at university up to this present day.
Image: Illuminated Bottle Rack (Ai Weiwei), photographed by Lizzie Follows