Enlighten: an outdoor exhibition of lights and the arts

In Canberra, Australia, we have just finished experiencing one of the most wonderful festivals celebrating lights and the arts. Held outside and predominantly in the Parliamentary Triangle (the area between Parliament House and the lake, housing many of the national cultural institutions), the Enlighten festival runs over two weekends and is an initiative of the ACT Government.

The circle of lights on the Federation Mall
The circle of lights on the Federation Mall

The festival has been running for four years and has steadily increased in popularity. A couple of years ago, you could walk around and see the lights during the week and not see anyone else. Now, however, it was packed out every night. The main feature of the festival, held exclusively at night, is the projections onto cultural institutions.

Parliament House
Parliament House

At the top of the triangle, Parliament House features projections featuring former Prime Ministers, the beautiful tapestry which hangs inside the Great Hall, shapes and colours, and this year, a special celebration of Magna Carta. It is 800 years since the writing of Magna Carta and Enlighten featured a number of references to it. Film screenings inside Parliament House played Robin Hood films, from the 1973 Disney version to Errol Flynn and Prince of Thieves. The words of Magna Carta were displayed on the outside of the building. As an exhibition, Enlighten cleverly managed to deliver a message to an audience who may not always attend museum exhibitions. At the very least, it got people wondering what Magna Carta is and why it might be connected to the Robin Hood myth.

Old Parliament House (the Museum of Australian Democracy)
Old Parliament House (the Museum of Australian Democracy)

Old Parliament House, now known as the Museum of Australian Democracy, also featured medieval imagery and references to Magna Carta. It also featured a projection of political cartoons, political hashtags from the past year (#jesuischarlie, #illridewithyou, #umbrellarevolution etc) and faces of former Prime Ministers of Australia. A wonderful feature of this festival was that MOAD was open to the public free of charge late into the night, and, happily, it was absolutely packed out with children and families. What a happy sight – a museum filled with happy children at 8pm!

Questacon, the science centre
Questacon, the science centre

Questacon, the science centre, really excelled and included cartoons of the Science Circus bus, digital cities and spinning rainbow swirls.

Outside Questacon, on the lawn, was a stage for acrobatics, fire twirlers, dances and various other performances. The immensely popular Night Noodle Market was nearby as well, and is said to have doubled visitor numbers this year. Concerts, DJs, roving performers and more made this so much more than a light festival.

The National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery really out-did itself by showcasing animations that turned the building into a Venetian palace, a bookshelf, an ocean, space, and moving, dazzling shapes.

As an exhibition, it could be said that the event lacked cohesion and a theme, with some institutions playing it safe (National Library of Australia), and some going subversive (MOAD) while others went for novelty (Portrait Gallery). In this case, however, I think the pluralism made it fascinating. You really never knew what was around the corner or what you might hear or experience.

Location is used in a very special way, and the very buildings themselves are played with in a way that you don’t often get to see from such formal institutions. It was fabulous, overwhelming, random and free. Everyone could access it, money didn’t get you anything extra, there was no pressure to buy anything and all the institutions opened their doors wide. It was very Instagram-friendly and has not only done a lot for Canberra tourism, but it gave Canberrans a chance to be proud and curious about their own city.

It’s on around the end of February and into early March, so keep it in mind for next year.

Fairy floss on a glow stick
Fairy floss on a glow stick
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