December 2008 Issue 112
Celebrated rock'n'roll show designer Willie Williams showcased another side of his creativity when he opened his kinetic light sculpture installation in a London church last month.
Anyone familiar with Willie Williams’ past work will have learned to expect the unexpected, and Lumia Domestica is about as far removed from the stadium rock spectacular as one could ever imagine. Not that it’s any less breathtaking.
The British lighting/show designer who — as well as working with U2 for more than a quarter of a century — has delivered sophisticated live productions for George Michael, R.E.M., David Bowie and Darren Hayes, went back to basics for an enchanting ‘kinetic light sculpture’ installation during November and December.
Lumia Domestica saw Williams use discarded glassware, simple light sources and cake stand turntables to create a sublime, meditative environment at Wallspace, the art venue at All Hallows on the Wall, an 18th century church in the City of London.
Williams harnessed the support of set consultant Charlie Kail, XL Video and Dave Smith and Keith Owen at Specialz to realise the installation which he described as “the result of a lifelong fascination with all things kitsch and an ability to find beauty in the most unlikely of places.”
On November 18, TPi attended a private viewing of Lumia Domestica — a three-week exhibition that was due to close on December 12 — and it was there that we asked Williams about the background to his project.
“This show serves two purposes,” he explained. “Firstly, it’s an end in itself because it’s an absolute joy to work on this scale with no brief and no client, just completely for myself. But also it really helps to realign the way I think about lighting.
“We’re so lost in video at the moment that it’s great just to work with light, pure and simple. So much has happened with automated lighting in the last 20 years but we’ve still got a sharp-edged fixture and a soft-edged fixture, so some basics never change.
“Even the most sophisticated moving lights have something that makes the light and the colour, and something made of glass that refracts it. That’s exactly what I’m doing here but in a very lateral way.
“My aim was to make this all appear effortless — pieces of tatty glass with light underneath, ending up with something that looks like the aurora borealis. But actually a lot of work went into getting it just right in terms of the light, colour and glassware.”
Each ‘unit’ uses two plexiglass turntables that counter-revolve and the objects — diverse glassware items harvested from charity shops — sit on top. The bottom turntable accommodates the colour — in the form of either glass paint, strips of coloured gel or digital print-outs.
Underneath are two custom-made lights created by Dave Smith and Keith Owen of Birmingham-based practical design solutions company Specialz.
Said Williams: “The early experiments I did with cake stands, a gel and a Maglite made me realise there was some fun to be had. And though we looked around for the right fixtures, we couldn’t find anything better than a Maglite! So Dave and Keith got these little halogen lights and sat them inside Maglite reflectors.”
Set design consultant Charlie Kail was also roped in to lend some advice. Williams: “Working on my own most of the time, I don’t have a team of sherpas or a call centre in Bangalore, so Charlie’s been a great resource. I can go to him with a project and he has a good sense of the most appropriate manufacturer and fabricator to turn the design into reality. In this case, it was Specialz.”
IN REAL TIME
Staging the installation within the high space at All Hallows encouraged Williams to boost the size of each exhibit. “We tried using bigger lights but everything turns to mush, so we ended up using the smallest video I-Mag in the world. I’ve got and three projectors and three little lipstick cameras [from XL Video] which are looking at images from three of the pieces, and they’re just projected bigger which works really nicely.
“The whole point here is that what you are seeing is not a recording and in the face of so much digital splodge, this is being generated live as you watch it. This video system is simply magnifying it. So I’ve been getting right back to the roots of it all and that’s the joy of it for me.”
Officially launched at All Hallows in December 2006, Wallspace’s aim is to provide a spiritual home for the visual arts in the capital. Its vision has been developed principally by its director, freelance curator Meryl Doney. It was Doney who encouraged Williams to bring Lumia Domestica to the venue.
“Of course, I’ve also been thinking at the back of my mind that there must be a stage application for this somewhere,” smiled Williams. “Laurie Anderson was a great fan of these things so maybe one day I’ll do some live cake stand VJ-ing for her!”
With U2’s next major world tour on track for 2009, and Williams once again sharing the show design responsibility with Mark Fisher (one of the many industry luminaries who dropped in to the private preview), TPi naturally anticipates that Bono and co. will adopt a cake stand theme.
“Exactly,” said Williams. “And the size of that cake stand... never mind the cakes. I don’t know where we’ll get the caterers to fill it, frankly.”
There is apparently not a scrap of truth in the rumour that U2’s sound will be handled by Eclair Brothers Audio.
Interview by Mark Cunningham
Installation photography courtesy of Wallspace
Willie Williams portrait by Diana Scrimgeour
www.wallspace.org.uk • www.willieworld.com