A cloudy darkness settled over the streets and waters of Amsterdam as we boarded the boats that would take us to see the light. The sixth edition of Amsterdam Light Festival, this year with ‘existential’ as theme, would be presented to us by the artists behind the twenty-something artworks, spread around the Amsterdam canals. With some mulled wine in paper cups to warm our frozen fingers, we settled in, praying that the cold Amsterdam rains would leave us alone, just for this one night.
The curator of this year’s festival, Lennart Booij, started the evening by talking about what light has meant to art, through the ages. Natural light has always been a way to emphasize greatness, for example by leaving a hole in the ceiling of the Pantheon, where the light could enter to put a spotlight on the emperor. Churches, with their richly decorated glass windows, rely on light, for their beauty to be exposed. Amsterdam has a personal history with light as well, and can pride itself with the invention of the street lamp.
Using artificial light in art pieces is a technique that is almost a hundred years old. The Eiffel tower in Paris was for example turned into a canvas by André Citroën already in 1925, when the artist projected his last name onto the entire tower. The invention of neon was the next big step for light art, and has been a popular method in the Pop Art movement, as well as in other genres of contemporary art.
This year, a jury made a selection of about thirty-five art pieces (twenty on water and fifteen on land), from the initial eight hundred ideas they received in their open call. There is a huge team working behind every piece; the artists’ ideas are complemented with technical expertise, to ensure the ideas can be accurately presented. This year, Chinese activist and artist Ai-Wei Wei was asked to create a piece for the exhibition, and it is one you could probably experience yourself on your bike.
If you look closely at the canals that are part of the art route, you will see a thin, red, bright line that follows the entire route. This is, according to Ai-Wei Wei, a representation of a border. When watching it, we can ask ourselves, who has the power to create a border? What does it mean to be on the ‘right’ versus the ‘wrong’ side of the border? What does it do to people experiencing the border?
Light and darkness
Many of the art pieces on the water route are inspired by natural phenomena. There are pieces about celebrating, lava, northern light, worm holes in space and electrical storms. There is also an emphasis on light’s natural counterpart; darkness. One impressive piece shows what Amsterdam looks like when you fly over the city at night, with its thin threads of city lights hung over the canal. Another piece is projected on the Nemo building, and shows a light house, only that the image is reversed, meaning that instead of giving light, the light house blasts out darkness.
Even in the darkest of nights, there is always light
Amsterdam Light Festival is an incredible event, that not only helps create beauty in the darkest of seasons, but that also carries an important connotation as to what art is, and can be. Just by walking through the city, everyone can enjoy the pieces at display. Amsterdam Light Festival is inclusive, and even though you can pay to go on boat tours to get the full experience, the message is that art is something that should be for everyone. So, make some mulled wine or hot chocolate, take your friends and family by the hand and walk through the windy streets of Amsterdam. Even in the darkest of nights, there is always light.
And fun fact: next year’s theme is “The medium is the message”. Just let that sink in.
For an impression of the Water Colors boat route, see the gallery below. But for the full experience, visit the experience yourself!
Photos: Tamar Hellinga / Final editing: Tamar Hellinga