It might not sparkle quite as much as a Christmas tree, but there are lessons on life here, says Eleanor Young

Colour playing tricks on the eye in Carlos Cruz-Diez's Chromosaturation.
Colour playing tricks on the eye in Carlos Cruz-Diez's Chromosaturation.

The light show. It sounds all singing and dancing: a performance. But, in winter at least, this is what we expect – not just practical light but a bit of a show – glitter, flashing, the works. The cover girl of the Light Show does just that, but with steel rods, in a circle. Leo Villareal’s Cylinder II is pretty. But like early video art which was not as good as a TV this is not as good as great Christmas illuminations. Artists might have creativity and insight but it doesn’t mean they match the technical skill and ingenuity of those working in the lighting industry itself.

But bear with me: critique, experimentation, beauty and the nature of light are all here, even as they are sandwiched with the banal. And if you emerge with a slight headache as well, it shows you have taken it in properly.

First, the most profound experience. Chromosaturation tells you about colour and your eye’s adjustment to it, as much as the nature of light. Three ‘colour chambers’, each intensely lit with just one colour, play gentle tricks on your eyes. Adjusting to the last the green tubes seem white, while your skin looks very unhealthy indeed, thin with blood too near the surface.

Conrad Shawcross’ cage with a rotating light, or rather the shadows it throws out, has a similarly powerful effect. I was not the only one with a queasy stomach watching the advancing and retreating lines moving at pace on the wall, creating unknown geometric landscapes that shifted the ground under your feet. If the shadows of a colonnade can impart a cool, calm rhythm, here was its opposite, uncoupled from the slow pace of sun and moon. It was an experiment in horizons. 

This wasn’t the only experiment. Artist Olafur Eliasson, he of the Weather Project in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall which engendered picnicking and sunbathing on its concrete slope, used the flash of strobe to freeze frame the droplets of fountains in the retina,  capturing a different beauty.

The pretty Cylinder II with Batchelor's piece questioning light and dark behind.
The pretty Cylinder II with Batchelor's piece questioning light and dark behind.

The most ‘natural’ piece was, of course, by James Turrell. Regarded like a god himself, his Roden Crater in the Arizona Desert is a place of pilgrimage. I associate experiences of Turrell’s work with earth and sky and the slowness of time. The queue to see Wedgework V was indicative not just of Turrell’s status but also the 15 minutes needed for the eye to accustom itself to the subtleties of light after the brightness of the gallery. Only by watching and waiting can you perceive the depth and space he creates in a simple enclosure with light.

This respect for time and expectation of slowness is a rare gift. But sometimes it’s fun to throw it out of the window. The brightly coloured letters on a tower of ticker tapes run at giddying speed in Jenny Holzer’s Monument. You barely have time to catch the threateningly grim messages it displays, ‘US Custody’, and ‘time of death’ flash past in this set of declassified documents from the US war on terror. Light here is a language which throws its content into contrast with extreme dissonance.

So Shawcross uses shadow, and Turrell light emerging from darkness, but the only explicit exploration of darkness and implicit critique of electric light was David Batchelor’s Magic Hour. Batchelor turns his installation of many-coloured lightboxes to the wall, deliberately leaving on display coils of black wires in the shadows. So this show takes on an edge, becoming an exhibition not just of light but of its complex corollary and the condition of modern life.

To 28 April
Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London SE1 8XX