Ghosts in the Machines

Performance art or happening? Light-and-space art or installation? The mixed-media art at Lumonics, also known as the Tanner Studio, resolutely resists categorizing. It's all of the above and then some. The gallery is full of sculptures, some of which double as fountains. But then there's also a small auditorium that hosts a live light-and-sound show. And on the other side of the adjacent workshop, there's another room used for interactive music-and-dance activities.

I've been visiting this offbeat complex, located near Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport in northern Broward County, for years, and I have yet to settle on an entirely satisfactory designation for the aesthetic experience the place provides. The operative word, I suppose, is "experience." Think of Lumonics as a multisensory environment, a set of linked spaces where people are invited to experience art in a variety of ways.

You know the instant you enter that Lumonics isn't an art gallery in the usual sense. The foyer lights are low, and the faint ambient music is as subtle as the hint of incense hanging in the air. The first major piece of art is a large, abstract sculpture-fountain fashioned from translucent acrylic. As I watched the water and listened to it gently trickle through, I suddenly realized that the piece was illuminated from within.

And therein lies the key to so much of the art of Lumonics: light. The studio's founders, Dorothy Tanner and her late husband, Mel, use light and acrylic the way painters use oil and canvas -- as a primary medium for artistic expression.

Dozens of the Tanners' light sculptures are on display throughout the gallery's several rooms. Mel's ambitious constructions predominate. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and each is lit internally. Many of the pieces are organized around basic geometric shapes, complemented by odd little blobs and squiggles of plastic; symmetry mingles freely with asymmetry. (One large piece in the main room makes me think of one of Joan Miro's playful oil compositions translated into light sculpture.)

By contrast Dorothy's pieces, at least the early ones, are austere assemblages of pale, jagged shards of acrylic that seem precariously held together by some internal force. As they sit bathed in the dramatic glow of spotlights, they appear poised to take flight. Her more recent pieces include some small, graceful fountains that resemble Mel's work.

The cold, hard, gleaming surfaces may strike one as technology incarnate, as sleek and impersonal as something out of high-tech science fiction. But the pulsing lights embedded in Mel's pieces, in particular, generate a strangely soothing warmth. There are ghosts in these machines.

After wandering among the light sculptures for a while, visitors are encouraged to relax in the auditorium. Surrounded by more art, including some of Mel's dauntingly large, intricate works, visitors sit (or, more likely, sprawl) on low-slung cushioned seats. At one point Dorothy and her chief artistic collaborator, Marc Billard, retreat to an upstairs control room, and the performance that's at the heart of Lumonics begins.

One by one the blinking sculptures in the room fade, then go dark completely. For a few moments, the only light is a single beam bouncing off an acrylic mobile suspended from the ceiling; the only sound is the soft gurgling of a trio of towering fountain sculptures in a corner of the room. A high-pitched bell rings, and then the room all but explodes with sound and light. One large wall, blank except for a spiky sculpture jutting from the center, serves as the main "canvas" for Tanner and Billard, and they provide some extraordinary effects with it.

Colored laser beams dance across the surface of the wall, spilling onto the ceiling, floor, and adjacent walls as their paths expand, then contract into spinning coils of energy. Patterned grids rotate around the wall's center, shifting shapes and colors almost imperceptibly. Feathery forms bloom and swirl. All the while, the sculptures throughout the auditorium blink and flicker.

I have no idea exactly how all this is done, but it's mesmerizing. It's as if Tanner and Billard are literally painting with light. At one point lights that look like gigantic brush strokes of glowing paint sweep across the wall.

Should anyone get the impression that this show is simply a tonier version of the laser shows set to the music of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, let me emphasize that each Lumonics presentation is a live performance, no two ever quite the same. The accompanying music, which ranges from New Age to jazz to classical, is prerecorded, but it's programmed manually to go with the images. (I have fond, vivid memories of a segment set to the third movement of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2.) And amazingly, given the logistics involved, the Lumonics crew has not resorted to computers to coordinate its shows.

The average Lumonics presentation lasts about 45 minutes to an hour, although it's not unusual for viewers to lose track of time altogether. And afterward you feel both relaxed and energized. There are neurological reasons for this -- rhythmically pulsing lights have been demonstrated to alter brain waves -- but that's another story.

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