Everything Is Illuminated

As Lights On Tampa prepares to shine, we preview the artwork that will be making it glow.

click to enlarge LIGHTS, CUBED: The changing colors of Fade III at the Pavilion at Rivergate Tower (aka The Cube). - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
LIGHTS, CUBED: The changing colors of Fade III at the Pavilion at Rivergate Tower (aka The Cube).

Maybe you glimpsed it from the expressway a few weeks ago: a blazing red rectangle of light in the vicinity of the Rivergate Tower in downtown Tampa. If it held your attention (and if it did, let's hope you were the passenger, not the driver), you saw the light morph from stoplight red to an icy, electrifying shade of blue.

And you wondered: What was that?

Call it a beacon of things to come. That night, N.Y.-based, Austrian-born light artist Erwin Redl was doing a test run of Fade III, one of six light-art installations making their premieres Saturday as part of the innovative public art project Lights On Tampa.

Redl's bailiwick is The Pavilion at Rivergate Tower, better known as The Cube Next To The Beer Can Building; he uses LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes) to create a curtain of light on the Cube's glass-and-gridwork façade. Across Ashley Drive, videos by local multi-media artist Wendy Babcox will transform the display windows of the National Wall Art Gallery into a virtual aquarium. And a few blocks away, the precisely placed glass sculptures of Stephen Knapp will turn the nondescript northern expanse of the Tampa Municipal Office Building into a kaleidoscopic canvas.

These are just a few of the works that will be unveiled — or rather, switched on — during Saturday's opening night festivities. Jorge Orta's Luminographic Concert at the University of Tampa's Plant Hall will be on view Saturday night only; this is the first U.S. project for Orta, who has created installations around the world. Others, like the Babcox and Redl works, are up for longer periods of time, while Tobey Archer's Marquee at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and Knapp's Luminous Affirmations are permanent. (Additional installations are scheduled to debut in the spring.) The city is celebrating the inaugural displays on Saturday by offering entertainment, food and HARTLine trolley service from 5:30 p.m. to midnight. (See schedule.)

Why is Tampa making such an effort to shine it on? Well, there's the now-familiar mantra, "to re-energize downtown," says Public Art Manager Robin Nigh. She's also high on the public/ private partnership that raised close to $1 million to sponsor the event, which included major corporate players like Verizon and Pepin Distributing Co.

A trio of art-world heavies (including New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl) chose most of the works on display, and it is indeed a bit of a coup for Tampa to have scored artists on the level of Orta and Redl.

But Nigh finally doesn't care if viewers know that they're looking at "important" public art or not. Unlike a certain controversial exploding chick... excuse me, George Sugarman sculpture, light art doesn't seem to demand interpretation (or opprobrium): You can just let the color and light wash over you like a piece of music.

"It's an awesome opportunity," says Nigh, "to make Tampa sing."

At dusk one recent evening, a small group of observers — among them Nigh, City Hall spokesperson Liana Lopez and Pepin's Peter Hobson — got set to face the music. They were about to see what the Municipal Office Building looked like with the lights on.

The building itself (aka City Hall) is less than prepossessing. Or, as Hobson put it much less diplomatically: "Look at it — it's a mausoleum!"

And truth be told, Stephen Knapp's installation doesn't look like much, either, at first: just some odd bits of detritus slammed up against the side of the building.

But then the spotlights are turned on. And the magic begins.

Knapp creates angular glass sculptures, then positions them to take full advantage of refracted light. The shapes and colors that result suggest any number of things — dragonflies, feathers, palm fronds, origami — and the colors deepen as the skies darken: magenta, melon, turquoise, lime, chartreuse.

Mayor Iorio will symbolically flip the switch on Lights On Tampa at this site, so her aides are figuring out the optimum way to show it off. (Can we turn off the stoplights? asks one. The answer is, not likely.) But everyone's pleased — even the guys from building maintenance.

"The darker it gets," sums up crew member Chuck Anderson, "the better it looks."

A few blocks away that same evening, Erwin Redl is testing his light show at the Cube. To say that the colors turn from red to blue is an over-simplification; depending on where you're standing and at what stage of the transition, you'll see patches of purple and pink and other hues, too. The cumulative effect varies, suggesting first a beaded curtain, then a sheet of aluminum foil. And unlike Knapp's piece, which turns nothing into something, Redl's work pays homage to a building that's already a work of art, albeit an austere one — a building Redl thinks is "fantastic," and woefully underappreciated.

Trained in design, music and computer art — all of them fields that deal with "structure," he points out — Redl was drawn in particular to the gridwork in the Pavilion design. His lighting highlights the architecture in a way that should be quite a revelation for anyone unfamiliar with its fine "bones."

An elfin figure with shaved head and intense blue eyes, Redl says his installations fall loosely into one of two categories: the "immersive" kind, in which participants feel like they're inside a computer game designed and controlled exclusively by himself; and works in the public art realm, which must adapt to an existing environment. Fade III is one of the latter, though if you get the chance to step inside the building during the installation, you should — you may not feel like PacMan, but there's something profoundly affecting about being bathed in all that intense color.

Redl has produced curtains of light before, most notably for the Whitney Biennial in 2002. But that was an outdoor work. For the 84-foot-high Pavilion façade, with its six nine-paned windows, he and a team of 12 prepared an intricate system of computers, cables, rods and diodes in his studio on Long Island, then shipped it to Tampa, where he installed it over 12 days last month. He experienced a few bumps along the way — for one thing, working in a privately owned building he had to assume much of the insurance and liability costs himself — but he's unabashedly thrilled with the result.

"It animates the whole building," he says, quite accurately. "It starts to breathe."

At the National Wall Art Gallery, artist Wendy Babcox is also thinking about breathing; her installation, in fact, is called Taking Breath. But where the huge scale of Fade III might just take your breath away, Babcox's video windows are about taking a moment to catch it.

Raised in a seaside town in England, Babcox has long been fascinated by tourist attractions, whether the "shabby" variety she grew up with or the more "spectacular" form they take in the U.S. She's been a member of the USF faculty since 2003, and the local attraction that has held her attention the most is the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs.

Mermaids, she explains, are "paradoxical — built for pleasure, but inaccessible from the waist down." And legend suggests an element of danger as well: mermaids as sirens. In thinking about what to do for Lights On Tampa, she knew she wanted to emphasize the importance of water to the region (and the proximity of the Hillsborough River to her installation), so mermaids became an obvious element — and so did manatees, which she filmed through the glass windows of tanks at Lowry Park Zoo's manatee hospital.

Manatees were often mistaken for mermaids by sailors (including Columbus), says Babcox. And that's not the only parallel she noticed.

"One of the things that came to the surface, no pun intended, is that though they're submerged they both need air to breathe."

Beginning Saturday, her engrossing video footage of these complementary swimmers will float into place at the corner of Ashley and Kennedy. Her hope is that motorists stopped at the red light will take a moment themselves, as the videos play in the window "tanks," to look up and breathe.

"It's about slowing down."

Which, in a way, is what all good public art is about — giving residents an excuse to stop, look, listen and maybe see their surroundings in a whole new light. Babcox, talking about the tourist attractions she's fascinated by, says, "I love that these things are just there for us to devour with our eyes."

Tampa, get ready to feast.

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