Tripping the Light Fantastic

New Corridor Exhibit Joins Gallery’s Wings

Posted September 24, 2008 at 4:23pm

Right now, a tunnel at the ground level of the National Gallery of Art is becoming an artistic light show.

The exhibit, designed by sculptor Leo Villareal, whose art regularly incorporates lights and digital technology, employs 42,000 light-emitting diodes to illuminate the passageway in random combinations. LED lights are ideal for this exhibit because they don’t heat up the space the way other lights do.

Before Villareal’s project, the hallway was a darkened passage leading museum-goers from one part of the National Gallery of Art to the other. Construction began earlier this month, and visitors can monitor the project’s process as they walk through.

Ironically, Villareal’s light sculpture still leaves the passage as a rather dark space. The walls and ceiling of the exhibit are covered in metal with built-in lights, which reflect through the darkened 200-foot-long corridor — called the concourse — connecting the east building of the National Gallery of Art to the west building.

Villareal has planned for the diodes to light up in combinations determined by a computer program he wrote. Although the light combinations may seem similar to each other, there are so many different permutations that seeing the same lights lit up in the same place in the exhibit is highly unlikely.

“I think it kind of brings a sense of life and animation to the space,” Villareal said in a phone interview. “I think it’s something that’s going to be very integrated into the existing site. It’s meant to have this feeling of integration, as a transition space — you use it to get from one place to another.”

The exhibit is still in the works, but a virtual rendering of Villareal’s project shows what the finished exhibit will look like. Viewers walk through the corridor or stand on the moving walkways while the exhibit lights up around them. Only fractions of the 42,000 lights are on at any one time (but the lights come on and off very quickly), and they form abstract rectangular or octagonal shapes that are constantly changing. The effect is not so much disorienting as it is otherworldly; the mind’s attention goes to transient shapes of light in a darkened space.

“It’s a combination of control and random,” exhibit curator Molly Donovan said. “What the perceptual effect of this piece creates is perception of patterns in your mind.”

The exhibit is all about motion, even when it comes to the computer code. In programming the exhibit, Villareal used mathematical formulas and scientific concepts of motion like Newton’s laws of motion and the computer-based artificial life simulation created by John Conway’s Game of Life.

“What I do is create computer programs and then the output from those programs is manifested in light, so instead of using a screen or projection I’m using LEDs,” Villareal said.

Villareal even meant for visitors to continually move as well: The corridor includes moving walkways so at no point does Villareal’s sculpture or the viewer stand still. Literally nothing involved in the exhibit stops moving or changing.