“Southern Lights,” a light installation that spans the Gervais Street and Blossom Street bridges over the Congaree River, launches Saturday, Aug. 19, and will dazzle Columbia every evening for the next 10 years.
The display will debut at a free, public event on the banks of the Congaree River as part of the Total Solar Eclipse Weekend celebrations.
“Southern Lights” is a product of What’s Next Midlands, which, along with EngenuitySC, has handled fundraising for the art installation by artist Chris Robinson.
Made of lasers with mirrors to reflect their light, “Southern Lights” is a signature, contemplative piece that symbolizes the connectedness of our communities. Viewers will experience “Southern Lights” differently at different vantage points.
The cities of Columbia, West Columbia and Cayce and Richland County have all provided financial support, along with BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. The Vista Guild, the South Carolina State Museum, EdVenture Children’s Museum and One Columbia are also partners.
This installation is slated to light up the night for three hours every evening at dusk. The city of Columbia is committed to the ongoing maintenance and management of “Southern Lights,” as is the State Museum.
Robinson, 66, has been a professor in the School of Visual Art and Design at the University of South Carolina for the past 42 years, concentrating on contemporary science and technology and its role in decision-making through installations and digital drawings. He has completed dozens of large-scale installations in his career, most notably installations on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (in conjunction with Rockne Krebs) and a light installation in Columbia to celebrate the opening of the South Carolina State Museum in 1989.
“Southern Lights” is representative of Robinson’s body of work and marks the end of Robinson’s academic career at USC. Robinson will become chair of the Department of Art at USC Beaufort this fall.
Robinson took some time to talk to us about Southern Lights:
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this work?
A: I have always been interested in art and technology, built several of these, and have some basic creative notions about the medium.
Q: Did you expect all the attention you’ve been getting about it?
A: Yes and no; I always prefer to let the work speak for itself.
Q: What should viewers look for in it?
A: Just look and be curious. It doesn’t exist in a single place, must be explored over time to be appreciated. My installations draw attention to interesting aspects of the surrounding environment. The beams form a quiet, contemplative work of art that visitors can experience from a different vantage points and find a really different perspective.
Q: Is there anything in particular you want us to pay attention to?
A: Note the quality of the light, how the beams change as you look around – most intense when coming toward you, how it changes over time and atmospheric conditions, its relationship to the environment, and look for what you may not see at first.
Q: The release says, “The project offers an innovative approach to public art and celebrates and highlights public infrastructure uniquely.” How so?
A: It is not typical public art – ephemeral, bigger, not seen all at once. It draws attention to an interesting, dark, reflective environment in the middle of three bustling urban centers. The river itself will become a mirror reflecting the laser beams above it.
Q: “ ‘Southern Lights’ will be the only installation of its kind in the United States. What makes it different?
A: As far as I know, it will be the only static, structural, long-term laser artwork in the U.S.
Q: How did you get involved in laser installation art?
A: I was working in light in undergraduate school, looking for ways to give it structure, heard of and became interested in lasers, and as it turns out, I’ve spent my 45- year career working with them.
Q: It sounds like you’ve blended art and science. What led to that?
A: They both fascinate me, are very important but often misperceived, incongruous but strongly related, good ground for exploration, research, and creativity.
Q: What makes this project exciting for you?
A: It is tremendously ambitious, technologically complex, and unusual. But it’s a unique opportunity for all three municipalities to come together and support this artwork that connects three cities. It also brings attention to the river, one of our most under-utilized assets. Though I’ve worked on installations with lasers all over the world, I appreciate the opportunity to give back to this region, which has been my home for 40 years. Lasers are used in car manufacturing, to cut fabric and scan groceries. They’re all around us, but we don’t see them. This installation is a unique opportunity to see and experience lasers in a way we never have before.
Lezlie Patterson, Special to Go Columbia