Reviewed: Light Show at the Hayward Gallery

Electric avenues.

Rose (2007) by Ann Veronica Janssen. Photograph: Oli Scarf/Getty Images

Light Show
Hayward Gallery, London SE1

I remember childhood trips to the Geological Museum in South Kensington, now subsumed into the Natural History Museum: there were darkened rooms holding cabinets of semi-precious stones and minerals lit only by ultraviolet light. They shone eerily in dayglo shades, inspiring a sense of wonder but also faint unease. Thirty years on, the sensation of those stones came back to me in the Hayward’s “Light Show”.

This is, above all, an “experience” exhibition and requires little more from us than immersion in the work and a visceral, aesthetic response. (Some might argue that that’s all an exhibition needs to do; they might end up in a bit of a spat with the theorists. Nevertheless, it can be refreshing to lose the “art-speak”, which is often no more helpful than meaningless corporate jargon. It just thinks it is.) Artists’ methodologies and biographies are kept to a minimum, there are no cases of sketches or related works – the show is pared down to just 25 works of art, their only similarity that they were made post-1960 and that they use artificial (ie, electric) light to transform the space and alter our perceptions.

The Hayward has mounted several such immersive shows in the recent past, with varying degrees of success – 2009’s “Walking in My Mind” and 2010’s Ernesto Neto installations, for example – so they clearly pull in the crowds, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that something at first glance populist is bland or superficial. Light doesn’t have to be lightweight; as this show illuminates, it can be positively dark.

That said, it is hard to evaluate these pieces without resort to a fairly primal measuring scale, from therapeutic and vaguely trippy at one end to alienating and panic-inducing at the other. The artists’ ages vary hugely, from François Morellet at 86 and the 89-year-old Carlos Cruz-Díez, to the 35-year-old Conrad Shawcross and the Scottish artist Katie Paterson, who is 31; the late fluoro heavyweight Dan Flavin is present and correct. They are not all part of any one movement; some have been pioneers of light sculpture or installation in the past, some have progressed to it from other disciplines.

Many have backgrounds in film – Cerith Wyn Evans was Derek Jarman’s assistant in the 1980s, then produced his own experimental films, and his sculptural and installation works remain influenced by cinema; Anthony McCall was part of an avant-garde London film co-op in the 1970s; Jim Campbell began as a film-maker but turned to electronic sculpture in the 1990s; Nancy Holt has made several films in parallel to her mainly natural-light work (like fellow outdoor monumentalist James Turrell’s room, her indoor piece seems rather tokenistic here). This sense of the cinematic, of surprise and illusion is a linking thread through the show.

Which pieces shine brightest? On the ground floor Magic Hour (2004/07), by the Scot David Batchelor, uses his signature industrial materials to create a lightbox installation in which the boxes are reversed to project on to the wall, suffusing the area with warm colour. But the title is a reference to the neon light thrown up by the Vegas skyline after dark and the effect of the piece is to create the silhouette of a hulking, menacing scrap metal edifice, as if laying bare that fairy-tale city.

Wyn Evans is represented by a recent work, Superstructure (2010): three floor-to-ceiling columns made of hundreds of incandescent tubes slowly light up and down, radiating great heat as they do so. It’s like a slow, in-out breathing process with the sense of phosphorescent or organic energy contrasting with its hostile glass and wire filaments.

Off this room are works by McCall and the American artist Doug Wheeler, who pioneered light sculpture in the 1960s. The former is one of the artist’s monochrome “walls of light” in You and I, Horizontal (2005): slowly rotating beams are projected in a pitch-black room, picked out by dry ice, giving the sensation of solid slabs of light that completely envelope you. Wheeler doesn’t use smoke in Untitled (1969) but the light emanating from a large perspex square gives a feel of floating, cloudy impermanence, yet the figures of other spectators remain ultrasharp, almost 2D. Ann Veronica Janssens’s Rose (2007) is an enclosed space filled with vapour and beams of orange-red light that combine to form the illusion of a solid, pulsating star. It’s hypnotic and intoxicating.

Meanwhile, Cruz-Díez’s Chromosaturation (1965-2013) walks the tightrope between beauty and oppression. A master of projected colour, his rooms immerse you in red, green and blue, short-circuiting the retina but creating a sense of ultraviolence within the dreamy ultraviolet; it suggests light as weapon or means of control. The political artist Jenny Holzer takes this a step further with her Monument (2008), a semi-circular tower with rotating bands of dot matrices that at first look like those of a stock exchange. In reality, they scream excerpts from declassified documents on the war on terror, testimonies from soldiers and detainees – the flashing lights hinting at torturous interrogation methods.

At the furthest edges of panic is Olafur Eliasson’s Model for a Timeless Garden (2011): a black room contains gushing jets of water that are “frozen in time” by fast-flashing strobe lights. They look solid and icy yet mutating and sinister. You endure it for a while but soon have to scrabble for the exit – there’s no comfort from this light in the darkness.