Commissioned by Durham County Council and produced by Artichoke, Lumiere returns to Durham from November 18 to 21 this year and is supported by Arts Council England and a host of other funders and supporters.

Every month, we will follow the preparations and meet the people involved. This month, we explore the origins of light art festivals with Helen Marriage, Artichoke’s artistic director and CEO

IN the 18th Century, London’s Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens attracted thousands of paying visitors every night. As darkness fell, stewards would hurry into their positions, where, at the blow of a whistle, they would light hundreds of oil lamps hung in the trees in carefully choreographed unison. The effect must have been thrilling in a world before electricity.

The story of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens finds its closest modern-day equivalent in today’s popular illumination events at stately homes, which charge visitors for entry. Helen has a different mission for Lumiere.

The Northern Echo: White Line by Adam Frelin, part of Lumiere Durham 2017, produced by Artichoke and commissioned by Durham County Council Picture: MATTHEW ANDREWSWhite Line by Adam Frelin, part of Lumiere Durham 2017, produced by Artichoke and commissioned by Durham County Council Picture: MATTHEW ANDREWS

She says: “I care so much about how people’s lives can be enriched by the imagination of an artist. I want to give that away as much as possible to as many people who want to see it. Not having to risk your own money, especially in these times, is a big incentive for people to come.”

Lumiere traces a line closer to the origins of Fête des Lumières in Lyon, Europe’s biggest and best-known light art festival.

In a story that feels particularly poignant today, in 1643, Lyon’s inhabitants are said to have spontaneously placed rows of candles outside their windows to thank the Virgin Mary for keeping them safe through a terrible plague. This sparked an annual tradition that evolved over the centuries. In 1989, Lyon’s leaders invested in contemporary light art on a huge scale, and the festival continues today. Similarly, Lumiere depends on Durham’s leaders’ support.

“Lumiere is a gift”, says Helen. “Durham County Council and the Arts Council in the North have been absolutely steadfast in their support, helping Lumiere to grow into one of the most significant light festivals in Europe.”

As light art festivals now flourish everywhere, from Sydney to Berlin and Macau to Kobe, artists have enjoyed increasing opportunities to work internationally.

“Light artists are not creating work to sell, which sits in a white box in a gallery and could be anywhere. They’re responding to the existing environment. They are trying to say something to someone who might be passing by,” says Helen.

The Northern Echo: Durham Cathedral lit up for LumiereDurham Cathedral lit up for Lumiere

Eighty-eight-year-old Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya has been working in the
medium of fog since the 1970s. For Lumiere 2015, Nakaya created Fogscape #0328, a site-specific work that returned for the festival’s tenth anniversary edition in 2019. “She spent ten days on the riverbank in the cold and rain making her piece, which I think is one of the most beautiful artworks we’ve ever done,” recalls Helen.

Whilst Nakaya’s fog works can’t be sold, their mesmerising beauty lives on in the memories of those who have seen them. Every artist programmed at Lumiere is closely involved in working with the Artichoke team to choose the place where their artwork will be presented.

For Helen, the city is completely central to the vision for Lumiere. “For people who saw Adam Frelin’s White Line or Javier Riera’s Geometrical Traces, it is impossible to walk past these places now without seeing these artworks in your mind’s eye,” she says.

The way that Artichoke works with artists demands very high production values. Helen says: “Lumiere is expensive to produce because of the extraordinary quality of the work.
“It’s technically challenging as well as artistically provocative.

“This is what sets it apart from the light shows that charge for tickets, that and the fact that it is free.”

This is combined with an equal commitment to a county-wide Community Learning programme, and a ticketing system that ensures local people can book tickets before anyone else.

The Northern Echo: Another light show at LumiereAnother light show at Lumiere

Helen thinks that light art festivals could play an even more valuable role in our lives this year. She says: “The Covid-19 pandemic has made us all uncertain. You don’t know what the world is going to be like, or what it’s like even now.

“I hope Lumiere 2021 can help with that sense of a return to a more normal life by creating something to look forward to. Lumiere will be a statement about our ability to come through dark times.”

The prospect of Lumiere burns hopefully in honour of a brighter future, just as the candles in people’s windows did in Lyon in 1643.