On the Deliberate Lighting of Sculpture in the Landscape


The high demand for contemporary, large-scale sculpture was the subject of a recent article in The New York Times (“Sculpture Gets Its Day in the Sun as Prices Rise,” 10/18/2015). Long considered painting’s poor relative, sculpture now commands top prices—and more space. Museums and cultural institutions are adding space—indoors and out—for new acquisitions and even activating their parking lots with sculpture. Parks of all kinds, including historical sites with fixed collections, are using contemporary outdoor sculpture exhibitions to attract new and return visitors. Across the country, urban centers, corporate and educational campuses as well as luxury residential complexes are featuring more and more large-scale sculpture, while collectors are building private gardens to showcase their collections.

The proliferation of outdoor sculpture has been accompanied by the transformation of many cultural landscapes and urban plazas into late-night and even 24-hour environments. Museums are staying open later and inviting visitors to more nighttime events. Private collectors are questioning whether their sculpture gardens should be viewable day and night—both from key indoor vantage points, such as the dining room, and on deliberate walks with guests through the gardens. While sculpture’s day in the sun has clearly arrived, we would like to pose the question: What of our experience of outdoor sculpture at night?

This is truly a contemporary question. It is only very recent changes in lighting technology that make the notion of lighting sculpture in the landscape an aesthetically interesting yet robust proposition. When paired with the explosion of forms, materials and surface finishes of contemporary sculpture—each with its own unique interaction with light—the possibilities are vast. What is missing, however, is a set of accepted practices for when, if, and how to light sculpture that is informed by a nuanced understanding of the sculpture(s) in question. Typically, the addition of light, if it has been thought about at all, has been an “afterthought.”

The afterthought approach assumes that the goal is to make the sculpture recognizable under nighttime conditions. We would like to suggest that adding light in a thoughtful way can, in some cases, add an aesthetic dimension, a special case of seeing the sculpture only possible at night. Such an approach might contribute to our understanding of a particular sculpture as a site of “plural cases of beauty,” rather than privileging a single, typically shadow-less, daytime view. A considered approach to lighting—or not lighting—sculpture in the landscape opens the door to experiencing the nighttime environment—and our treatment of it—as an aesthetic dimension in its own right.

Then and Now

For centuries, the only means of deliberately lighting outdoor sculpture was fire. It is possible that the fires attending a sacrifice may have been intended to illuminate the sculptural programs on ancient Greek temples -- seemingly animating the marble gods and goddesses on the pediments above. Torches and bonfires may have enlivened Renaissance bronze and marble sculptures in outdoor plazas such as those framed by the arches of Florence’s Loggia dei Lanzi.  What we do know is that in the early 19th century, it became fashionable for youths to visit sculpture at night with torches or candles—giving life to white marble with flickering candlelight. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound speaks of this practice, while Goethe saw in the phenomenon as an indictment of sculpture itself: “Why is nature always beautiful, and beautiful everywhere? …And with marble and plaster, why do they need such a special light? Isn’t it because nature is in continual movement, continually created afresh, and marble…is always dead matter? It can only be saved from its lifelessness by the magic wand of lighting.”  

Goethe’s remark points to a precocious disenchantment with the sculptural materials of the past two thousand years. Marble and bronze resist anything but the flickering flame and the strong overhead light of the sun; artificial lighting, once it arrived, is absorbed or reflected away. Early attempts at lighting sculpture in the landscape often distorted the sculpture beyond recognition with shadow and glare or plunged the surrounding landscape in deep shadow. Early artificial lighting sources also added yellowish or greenish tones to the sculpture, often compromising the work. These drawbacks revealed gaps in in the technology and led many cultural institutions to forego deliberately lighting their outdoor sculptures.

In recent years, however, lighting’s possibilities -technologically, perceptually, and aesthetically -have grown significantly. Smaller, more robust, lightweight units are becoming available, making it possible to set lighting closer to the sculpture with less unacceptable shadowing and glare. Wide palettes of programmable color temperature are now available so that lighting can be fine-tuned to match the material palette of the work—to enhance the coolness of gleaming metal or burnish the warmth of wrought wood. It is now even possible to focus narrow beams of light on large sculptures without projecting light upwards into the night sky.

Yet it was only because sculptors began working with new materials with different reflective and refractive properties that artificial lighting of outdoor sculpture became a truly interesting proposition. Sculptural materials now include a wide palette of perforated, anodized, galvanized and polished metals; cast resins; reinforced fabrics; treated woods and a variety of painted finishes. Most are less resistant to artificial light and may in fact be enhanced or transformed by it. In fact, some artists are beginning to incorporate expectations of nighttime viewing into their creative process and are articulating viewpoints as to how and whether their works should be lit. Roxy Paine, for example, includes written requests that his works not be lit. Jaume Plensa incorporates lighting into many of his works, while others are intentionally lit from the surrounding environment.

Why Light: The Practical and the Poetic 

Practically speaking, every lighting effect—from magical glow to harsh glare—depends on the interplay between several factors: the qualities of the surface and form of the object to be lit; the qualities and angle of the light source; and, finally, the ambient lighting conditions of the site. And these factors are always and everywhere unique. When we say that adding light in a thoughtful way can, in some cases, add an aesthetic dimension, we mean to focus attention first on the alchemy between these new materials and the lighting now available.

Each material’s surface does its own particular dance with light. Some repel it—such as mirrors and polished stainless steel. Some pull light into themselves and don’t let it go—tarmac and Cor-Ten steel, for example. Some fuse with light and become like it, like mother of pearl or certain galvanized metals. Some surfaces amplify the light—they take a single beam and kick it back in a softly glowing spray like white canvas or white Corian.

Even the finish applied to each material, including the brand, sheen, and color of the paint, can alter how the work responds to light. Handled thoughtfully, nighttime lighting may allow novel reconfigurations to emerge with unexpected visual moments. In some cases, lighting sculpture may lend the work moments of indeterminacy, ambiguity, and desire to mean something more-a kind of repose from its stricter, daytime objecthood. Such a strategy may. over time, expand our notions of what sculpture, and objects more generally, can be.

At the same time, sculptural form articulates the spatial conditions of our embodied lives including size, orientation, alignment, uprightness, facing, symmetry, handedness—what art historian David Summers calls “human cardinality.” These qualities affect us in multiple ways—optic, haptic, proprioceptive, emotional and ultimately symbolic ways. Some works evoke the human form while others are more architectural and evoke the instinct for shelter and human habitation. Some offer us moments of respite from the increasing inhuman scale and power of the public realm. Others manipulate the distance between ourselves and the built environment. Under the best circumstances, lighting can support or even translate some of these qualities into a nighttime idiom. Depending on the lighting, monolithic forms can become luminous, guardian like presences or forbidding shapes at night, while more architectural forms can present an inviting sanctuary or a frightening hole.

Site and Context

Unlike lighting a path, a bench, or a park, lighting sculpture presents a special situation. Rather than light the surroundings so we may move through them with ease, lighting sculpture pulls it forward, draws our attention to it in a manner different than its daytime role as a soft focal point in a richly visible and competing landscape. At night, a lit sculpture proposes an encounter. And because sculpture articulates the spatial conditions of our embodied existences, it welcomes this kind of engagement. When sculptures are placed in an academic or corporate campus environment with multiple roads and pathways, they can become a series of encounters, met by a body or bodies moving around or past them. When that encounter is thoughtfully lit, it can foster attachment or stewardship, or a unique sense of place. It could slow a walk across campus, be a catalyst for motion or become a beacon for orientation. It could also make a work a destination in the landscape, a new place of nighttime meeting or repose. Night lighting extends the duration of the sculptural experience.  

It is often assumed that darkness is the same everywhere but it is not. Darkness is concrete and specific and filled with surfaces, each of which responds in a unique way to every glancing light. Lighting sculpture is always impacted by the ambient light of the surrounding area, including functional lighting, such as lampposts, street lighting, and lighting attached to or emerging from nearby architecture—most of which is required for safety and specified by ordinance. This situation is particularly complex in urban environments where sculpture is often placed in front of buildings of enormous scale with a great deal of façade and other ambient lighting. Any sculpture lighting must take the ambient lighting conditions into account and, at the same time, keep in mind that every surface of the site—including every kind of grass, bark, path surface, fencing material, and signage—reflects and refracts light in unique ways as well.

When we consider lighting an entire sculpture garden or park, the situation becomes even more complex. Here the number of material surfaces is multiplied and the ambient light between the works becomes a player as well. New questions arise: Might lighting certain works in a collection but leaving others unlit form new and worthwhile alliances between works? Could such an approach provide a way of seeing a collection as a new constellation of forms and forces without much of the competing visual information of the daytime world? We suspect that expanding the aesthetic appreciation of the nighttime in this way could also foster connection to the landscape across its entire life, encourage viewers to linger and explore, and promote awareness rather than alienation.

What’s Not to Light?

With the growth of lighting’s possibilities, however, has also come the recognition of lighting’s drawbacks. The Dark Sky movement has successfully petitioned a number of municipalities to enact regulations protecting the night sky from artificial lighting. Ecological sensitivity to the needs of nocturnal wildlife such as birds, bats and foxes is also a growing concern. The phenomena of turtle moon, which disrupts sea turtles’ migratory habits, has entirely reshaped outdoor lighting in Florida and growing concerns about the failure of firefly communities to thrive may impact more Northern lighting strategies.

Dark Sky regulations and the more general ethical concerns require that especially sensitive thought be given to ones approach to outdoor lighting. Careful evaluation of the materiality of the sculpture and its scale can create openings for small amounts of light to be added to the side and back of a sculpture in a manner that does not disturb the environment. Placement of white or reflective sculptures in relation to existing light sources (such as the placement of a Roxy Payne or a Rondinone near a building) can gently amplify the surface of the work without adding any lighting at all. With sky glow creating hazes of light in all but the most remote locations, the possibilities of silhouette can be amplified by a ruthless curatorial selection of works that are enhanced by silhouette, both in materiality and form. When situated in an expansive natural landscape, a Moore or a De Suvero can be bathed in moonlight or, on moonless nights, recede into dark silhouette against a dark sky—a light “treatment” that has, and continues to have, its own aesthetic qualities.

A Collaborative Approach

Today, the lighting of sculpture represents a unique opportunity for collaboration. Both the vastness of the possibilities and the seriousness of the constraints are reason enough to open a discussion to the combined expertise of sculptors, curators, lighting designers, landscape architects, urban planners and other thinkers and practitioners in the public realm. Aesthetic, curatorial, landscape architectural as well as ecological considerations are at play whenever sculptures are placed in the landscape, a private sculpture garden or the museum environment, where viewing may be from inside or outside a contained exterior space. As the nighttime environment becomes increasingly lit—and, at times, overlit—developing a thoughtful, aesthetically informed set of practices for lighting sculpture might also influence a more thoughtful approach to lighting other aspects of the nighttime environment. In the end, we feel, there can be no afterthoughts. Every light matters.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Felicella