June 5, 2023

Lumiere Festival, Durham

Durham is not a city you would immediately associate with being contemporary. Its beauty lies in its rich history, grand architecture and cobbled streets, yet last weekend Lumiere festival saw the city transformed with contemporary art works designed both to highlight and contrast with Durham’s impressive array of architecture. Lumiere (as the name suggests) is a festival centered on light, aiming to celebrate the use of light-based art media in response to the city surroundings and succeeded in bringing Durham to life through projection, sculptures and theatrical lighting.

The festival, organized predominantly by creative company Artichoke (the same behind Anthony Gormley’s One and Other) ran for four nights and attracted in excess of 140,000 visitors in its short duration – a huge feat for the festival organizers, artists and Durham itself. However the immense public attendance proved to be somewhat of a viewing hindrance, as the city was so packed that navigating around the narrow cobbled streets became quite an effort, not to mention making it difficult to see and fully appreciate the artworks themselves. Perhaps if Lumiere were to return next year the running time could be extended to accommodate such an overwhelming public interest without it hindering the overall experience.


Despite the overcrowded routes, the artworks were numerous enough that even if you did not have time (or will power) to see them all you didn’t leave feeling short-changed. Dotted throughout the city, many of the works were easily stumbled upon and unexpectedly coming across works such as Claire Morgan’s gigantic suspended light bulb New Moon, added a certain sense of discovery and surprise to the viewing experience.

Amongst other works that particularly stood out was Tracey Emin’s neon scribble Be Faithful to Your Dreams. Obviously a big name attraction for the event, Emin’s relatively small piece was poignantly placed on the site of a hidden away church and graveyard, its message enhanced by its thought-provoking location so different from the stark gallery settings we are accustomed to seeing her work in.

Neon typography was also implemented in previous Turner Prize winner Martin Creed’s work. The words ‘EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT’ emanated from the front of the Old Shire Hall, a message to be taken both on a public and private level either as a message of hope or an ironic lament.


Perhaps the most impressive pieces worked with the many bridges crossing the river Wear. The magic combination of architecture, light and water rarely ceases to please and was used to great effect throughout the city and waterfront areas.

A particular highlight was Peter Lewis’ Splash which turned a footbridge into an illuminated waterfall, cleverly transforming functioning public architecture into constructed landscape phenomena. Newcastle design studio Deadgood meanwhile turned Prebends Bridge into a rainbow tunnel using installed colour lighting, and Martin Warden reflected Lumiere’s eco-conscious efforts by lighting three bridges with the latest low-energy technology.


The greatest sense of spectacle was fittingly displayed at Durham’s most spectacular building – the Cathedral. Crowds gathered on the Palace Green to view Crown of Light, a son et lumiere piece that saw the Cathedral’s façade lit by projections of its interior architecture and the Lindesfarne Gospels, accompanied by a booming choral and classical soundtrack. The piece returned due to public demand after its first showing at the festival in 2009 and although undoubtedly impressive and overwhelming it must be said that much of this was due to the cathedral’s stunning architecture rather than the strength of the projection piece itself. Perhaps in the case of Lumiere Festival, subtler interventions to lesser-known areas proved a more rewarding and interesting view, literally shedding light on more neglected spaces in a city so dominated by its historic monuments.


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