If you found yourself on the UChicago campus on a dark evening in late February or March, you may have noticed a series of student-made art projects helping light your way.
Light Fantastic, a public art installation of light-centric sculptures around campus designed and built by undergraduate students in the College, aimed to illuminate the long nights of Winter Quarter 2021.
This public art design challenge, a hands-on component of programming that took place during the College's inaugural Winterfest, was organized by Laura Steward, curator of public art at UChicago and UChicago Public Arts. Groups of three to five students designed scale models of sculptures, using both formal and conceptual techniques. In College residential Houses and over Zoom, students came together to find a balance of construction and visual aesthetics while incorporating artistic expression.
In recent years, UChicago Public Arts has organized a show on campus that blends UChicago’s architecture and landscape to create art for the community. In 2019, Steward worked on “The UChicago Sound Show,” in which Chicago-based sound artists were commissioned to make site-specific works in different locations across campus.
In winter, botanical gardens around the city are often transformed into light shows while their buds and flowers hibernate until the spring. With Light Fantastic, UChicago entered the light show game, too, pairing nicely with the campus’s status as an official botanical garden. By bringing lights to campus in the midst of winter, the art installation served as a physical, artistic expression of the joy of being together.
The show’s emphasis on student design, construction, and collaboration is unique, as undergraduate students worked with graduate students from the department of visual arts to design, create and physically build each piece of this project. Before building their structures, teams created scale models out of balsa wood sticks and glue. Students used bamboo poles to construct the full-size structures before affixing them with white string lights. In collaboration with the Sound Fantastic workshop hosted by the department of music, some of the installations also were with paired student-composed music and sounds.
Nine installations were scattered throughout various locations on campus, from outside of Woodlawn Residential Commons to Harper Quad. Structures built by students included wind-blown beach umbrellas, an abandoned playground and other, more abstract pieces.
Team “whatever” was comprised of Otis Gordon, Lydia Dimsu, Kendra Thornburg-Mueller and Christian Bird, a group of art-loving friends from different residence halls. The team took to heart the minimalism of the project and decided to use the simple material of twine to hang illuminated shapes from pillars in their piece “Memory;suspended.”
The team hoped that the structure would resonate with those who stumbled upon it on the quad because of its ethereal nature, and the many angles from which people could appreciate it.
“The different angles and lengths of the pillars represent the diversity of individuals, moments and memories that create the seemingly random path that leads up to a monumental experience,” said Otis Gordon, a first-year. “Thus, the structure creates an environment that forces the viewer to not only marvel at the core phenomenon, but to appreciate the journey that guides [them] to it."
Not only did the team have the opportunity to blend their artistic backgrounds in an embodied multimedia piece, but the project also gave them the chance to take studio and creative practice out of the classroom and into a practical setting, where they could share their art with the broader UChicago community.
“It was exciting to think of the possibility to have people experience and enjoy the art that we created,” Gordon added.
Light Fantastic further functions as one big artistic experiment. Steward said at the beginning of the challenge that with such pliable materials, failure was possible. But that was a part of the show’s nature, she said. The structures did manage to survive the winter, a testament to their careful fabrication, but since they were made out of organic and recyclable materials, they were always meant to be ephemeral structures.
“Art can do a lot of things,” Steward said. “It can do really tough social justice work; it can do demanding, intellectual interrogation, but it can also be a space for formal experimentation, folly and self-expression that is a little more lighthearted.”
Gordon found that the Light Fantastic exhibition gave him a space to foster artistic development and just to have fun making art with friends.
“Putting something beautiful together in a day—albeit tiring work (especially in the freezing weather)—was rewarding on many levels,” said Gordon. “Artistically, it was gratifying to make work that brightened people's lives, maybe in unexpected ways. Personally, it was an opportunity to connect to my friends in a unique context. I was and still am inspired to create more physical works and share them with the community”
Despite its temporary lifetime, Light Fantastic was part of a larger movement of artwork devoted to sustainability and environmental consciousness. Now that the show has ended, structures will live another life when they are upcycled to become poles for tomatoes and serve other practical purposes in one of the Sweet Water Foundation’s urban agriculture spaces in Englewood.