Light Plain/Plane of Light

When Vancouver-based artist Germaine Koh was short-listed to create a piece of public art for Central Park in downtown Winnipeg, she didn’t know what she was going to do. She delicately describes the location as “not the most obvious of sites.” The section of the park where the art was to be situated sits at the southwest tip of the park on a raised piece of land that slopes down to the street. “My thought was to ignore the curved framework, but there were quite specific guidelines about the park being redeveloped along lines of play for kids and adults alike. These multi-functional play areas were what really guided my own idea.”

Koh describes her working method as “living with vague ideas, sometimes for years.” Something like the DIY Field was waiting to be formed. “Floating around in the back of my mind for quite a while had been this idea of a field of lights that would be responsible to some exterior force and, in this case, it seemed appropriate for it to be animated by the public. I imagined that the residents around the park and members of the public could configure the space as they passed through it every day.”

The tools of that animation are 38 powder-coated, galvanized steel posts, inside which are blue, red and green LED lights which passersby can combine in a number of colour combinations. Additively the red, green and blue permit eight different colours of light. Red plus green makes yellow; green plus blue makes cyan, and blue plus red makes magenta. Then all of them added together make white and, finally, all the lights can also be turned off. Koh was impressed by the suggestion of Guy Debord, the French writer and theorist, that all streetlights should be outfitted with on-off switches. Anyone who wanted, if they found themselves weaving through her light field, could make the choice to have no light. “That’s an option I wanted,” the artist says, “and some people have chosen it.”

Koh is pleased with the way the public has taken to her playing field. “I like that it is as intuitive as I hoped it would be. Every time I come along it is quite different. One time the entire thing was pink, so someone had figured it out and had been diligent enough to see their vision through.” It also changes depending on the season; in winter the reflection of the lights off the snow creates an especially magical sense of light.

Her only concern was the survivability of the posts and the on-off mechanism. She describes the buttons as “robust” and the posts, which range from four to six feet in height, are firmly anchored in place. Koh says they are like icebergs. She also installed the posts in such a way that they have a uniform height; as a result her floating plain of light doesn’t correspond to the topography. “At first I was a bit uncertain, but I was pleasantly surprised that it ended up looking exactly like I imagined. This is the most crowd-pleasing work I have done for a long time and I’m happy with how it turned out.” From all angles, her Central Park DIY Field looms softly in the space, the light poles stalwart markers of a user-friendly urban presence.


Above images: Germaine Koh, *DIY Field, 2011, 30 galvanized steel light posts placed in a grid pattern with 84” between each post covering a square area of 1029”. Each is 5” in diameter and istopped with an LED light cel in 8”-high frosted acrylic tubes. Created through the Winnipeg Arts Council Public Art Program. Photographs: Leif Norman. Courtesy the Winnipeg Arts Council.*

Volume 31, Number 1: Willem de Kooning

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #121, published February 2012.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.