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Spectacular Lumiere. Durham switches on a brilliant light festival.

06/12/2023 by .
Spectacular Lumiere

Anthea Gerrie Basks In World-Class Light Art at the spectacular Lumiere. From Ai Wei Wei’s Cascading Chandeliers In The Cathedral To A Neon Door To Nowhere.

If you had told the people of Durham the ambitious light festival launched in 2009 to put their beautiful but far-flung medieval city on the map would one day attract world-famous artists like Ai Wei Wei, they would surely have scoffed.   Yet since that magical premiere, the Lumiere biennale has grown, under the stewardship of leading public arts producers Artichoke, to attract more than one million visitors, and the star exhibit in 2023 was Ai’s astonishing assembly of 61 antique chandeliers suspended from the ceiling of the Chapter Room in the beautiful 11th century cathedral of north-east England’s foremost cultural jewel.

Illuminated Bottle Rack, as the glittering four-metre-high installation was titled, may have been the showiest work in town, but even the simplest delighted, inside the cathedral and out. Visitors treading the ancient corridor leading to the chandeliers peered out at neon arches sequentially lighting the gloaming, echoing the footsteps of monks of old in Adam Frelan’s electric Inner Cloister.  And art and science collided to spectacular effect in the nave, where Pulse Topology – 4000 lightbulbs activated by visitors’ own heartbeats – formed a sparkling canopy designed by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer.

Spectacular Lumiere

Simpler by far but a show-stopper none the less, was Un-Reel Access, a pretend door with a peel-back corner leading to nowhere on a plaza above the Millennium Place entertainment complex created by an actual scientist turned artist and their anthropologist spouse.  This installation by Patrick and Kaori Jones was one of many playful neon works – others included weather symbols and a pair of giant wellies suspended in mid-air – designed to engage children and non-traditional art-lovers who took to the streets more enthusiastically than they might have poked their noses into an art gallery.

It would be hard to find a more interactive artwork than On Blank Pages, a huge light installation dominating Millennium Place with hundreds of notebooks attached to its walls.  Here were the scribblings of Durham’s prisoners, invited weeks earlier to comment on the justice system, with blank pages for visitors to add their own responses to create a giant library on the topic,  Not so festive, perhaps, but certainly thought-provoking, and as serious a bid to include all sections of the community as Ron Hasleden’s Watchtower, transforming portraits drawn by pupils  from a local primary school into giant suspended illuminations.

Spectacular Lumiere

Inner Cloister Adam Frelin. Lumiere 2023 produced by Artichoke. Photo by Matthew Andrews 2

This year, for the first time, the nearby town of Bishop Auckland, rapidly emerging as an important cultural hub for County Durham, took part with an installation which came close to upstaging even the cathedral facade, dramatically transformed into a shifting geometric black and white landscape by Javier Rivera.

Here another Spanish artist, Daniel Canogar, inputted every work on display in the town’s magnificent Spanish Gallery, the UK’s first dedicated exclusively to the country’s art, into software which randomly projected works from the collection onto the museum’s facade.  Thrillingly, we watched the pictures melt down into the paint with which they were created before reforming and reconfiguring with different images – a brilliant and utterly mesmerising display of colour lighting up the market square.

The theme of this eighth Biennale – the promise of better things to come – builds anticipation for the next Lumiere in 2025, with permanent works added every time like Lampounette, the giant desk lamp sitting by Durham’s Pennyferry Bridge, which has become a favourite city landmark since making its debut in 2021.

Watchtower Ron Haselden. Lumiere 2023 produced by Artichoke. Photo by Matthew Andrews 2

Durham itself is packed during the four nights of Lumiere, requiring dozens of wardens to operate a one-way system through the city centre, but just 12 miles down the road Bishops Auckland, which has classy hotels of its own, offers a compelling reason to come and enjoy the cultural highlights of County Durham without waiting two years.  AGLOW, in the grounds of Auckland Castle, fields one of the most extensive winter light trails in Britain, offering projections on the castle walls, a 100-metre light tunnel leading into its deer park and the tallest Christmas tree in the north of England.

Given the daytime attractions of the aforementioned Spanish Gallery, a mining museum documenting the area’s industrial heritage and the intriguing Faith Museum newly opened within the castle, whose period interiors have been beautifully brought to light with anecdotes about the key bishops of every period, what’s not to like?

Images (C) Matthew Andrews and Emily Carey.

Tell Me More About Visiting Lumiere in Durham And Bishop Auckland:

More information about the spectacular Lumiere, Durham Cathedral and city and the surrounding North Pennines National Landscape at Visit County Durham

Artichoke curated and produced Lumiere the UK’s light art biannual and works with artists to create extraordinary and ambitious public art in cities, the countryside and on coastlines around the UK.

AGLOW runs until December 31, 2023 – tickets at


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