Warren Langley has almost 30 years experience in public artworks, using light as a principle material.
He has work for a broad range of government, corporate and private clients.
Architecture and Design spoke to Langley about public art in Australia, his favourite piece of public art and how he handles criticism about his work.
How do you think the architectural industry views public art in developments?
Often tentatively – and understandably so. It is my belief that the most successful public art is a response to both site and sight. In many ways, this is a very architectural intent and implicit within this intent is that the artwork must respond to and interact with its architectural setting. This ‘ideal’ that blurs the boundary between art, architecture and engineering is best achieved when the architect and the artist work in close collaboration.
I suspect architects may often be fearful of what American novelist and art critic Tom Wolfe refers to as ‘the turd in the plaza’ style of public art – artworks that are plopped upon an architectural vision seemingly with no reference to site or sight. They don’t work.
What has been your favourite piece that you've created during your career?
Difficult question, however I do have a soft spot for the Aspire work in Ultimo. This was the site of Sydney’s first community uprising to save a residential area from resumption for the construction of the Western distributor. This action forced the freeway to instead pass overhead.
The 16 glowing trees, which appear to hold aloft the huge mass of the freeway, are a literal reference to the community rising up and influencing this change (site). The location is also a major pedestrian access route to the Sydney CBD and the drama of the illuminated forms has revitalised this low, dark and intimidating space (sight).
More interestingly, this work has evoked a strong sense of ownership within the local residential community. In a recent light outage from a substation fault, it was concerned residents who contacted me personally about ‘their trees’.
What has been the most difficult?
A façade work for the Musée de la Opera in Amiens, France – six days up a cherry picker in temperatures around 4 degrees with very numb fingers. Fortunately, it was through the Christmas lead-up period and numerous purveyors of steaming hot glühwein at ground level helped restore dexterity.
How do you handle criticism of your art?
I’m a bloke, so presumably sensitivity is not one of my strong points. However, it would be untrue to admit that criticism ran off my shoulders. Informed criticism, however, requires that the viewer understands exactly what was going through my head during the design process. This layering of intent, which by necessity underpins good public art, is an area that many viewers may never travel to. That is, beyond their immediate visual response. As an artist you want the viewer to peel away these layers and thereby more fully understand ‘what’s going on’.
Can you tell A&D about your latest artwork and the inspiration behind it?
Connect(us) is a bold, blade-like 100 m suspended form at the new King’s Square redevelopment in Perth CBD. It features an inner concealed, sustainable light source that allows the work to undergo a soft, subtle colour shift – from yellow by day, to ochres, then to the rusty reds of the Western Australian landscape by night.
The artwork undergoes these colour transitions in response to changes in the ambient light, such as season, shadow, angle of sunlight, sky condition or even the passing of a cloud, causing the artwork to ‘blush’.
In this sense the artwork is forever interacting with its surroundings, rendering it truly site-specific and experiential.
Its form makes reference to the sense of pedestrian movement through the laneway (sight), while it is metaphorically the thread of connection between the Perth CBD and the newly evolving inner city precincts (site).
I collaborated closely with my regular team of Trent Baker (Armature – design support) and Partridge Event engineering.
You have an interest in ‘light is volume’. What does that mean to you?
I believe if you constrain light within a translucent skin such as fabric, plastic or glass you can effectively define volume with light. You take the most ephemeral of all media and you give it shape.
What piece of public artwork do you admire the most?
A great favourite is the Olaffur Eliasson work atop the ARoS building in Aarhus, Denmark. It is a great example of how iconic public artworks can propagate the awareness of their architectural setting. I may never visit this building or the city of Aarhus, yet I know the building and its location intimately since the artwork’s image has travelled widely.