Light in the spotlight – Transparency 2009

Jaume Plensa - 'WE', photo: Kristýna Maková

These are fine times for the arts in Prague. The Czech capital is receiving a great deal of attention thanks to the EU presidency, and one of the ways the Prague municipal government is availing itself of the opportunity is by taking various art projects under its wing. Indeed, there are so many things vying for notice, from comic book exhibits to Andy Warhol’s motion pictures, that one tends to lose track of them all. The project we're looking at today however is bringing something slightly different to Prague’s gothic squares and murky alleys: light.

Jaume Plensa - 'WE', photo: Kristýna Maková
The outdoor Transparency 2009 exhibit is underway for the course of the six-month EU presidency and consists of six artworks using light to illuminate various corners of the city in thoughtful and aesthetic ways. I spoke to Quirin Wimmer, one of the owners of, the project’s organiser.

“All in all we have 6 artists: Julian Opie from London, Jaume Plensa from Spain, Ulla Rauter from Austria, Stephan Reusse from Germany, Arthur Duff from Italy – he’s an American but he’s living in Italy – and finally Jenny Holzer from the US. All these artists are concentrated on light art. Light art is a part of contemporary art and it’s a very special thing. And there are not a lot of light artists in the world, so we’ve brought some of them here to Prague.”

The six pieces on display are eclectic in subject matter but all make use of light - white light, LED screens or laser beams. Among the more noticeable is a purple, window-sized figure in a skirt swaying on the side of the National Theatre. In “Ann, dancing”, as the work is called, Ann doesn’t do much else. But she is, interestingly, a kind of compromise between the winged bronze chariot drivers on the theatre’s roof and the stoplights and headlights of the busy intersection below. Another of the more prominent works is called, simply, “WE”, a large human figure of white meshed metal by Spaniard Jaume Plensa, that sits squat in front of Prague’s music centre Rudolfinum. The statue shines white at night and its hollow frame is comprised entirely of characters from writing systems ranging from Latin to Indic to Chinese. Abstract though it may be, I found passers-by had given the work a good deal of thought. Here’s what some of them had to say:

“I think it’s very nice that at first it was not obvious what it was supposed to represent, but then I realised that it’s made of letters of different alphabets, and I think it looks very nice, particularly at night”

“I think it looks like a man who has some dreams. About life maybe. And he is facing Prague Castle, that’s also symbolic. I think it’s saying something about our lives.”

Julian Opie - 'Ann, dancing', photo: Kristýna Maková
German artist Stephan Reusse, a professor at the Art School of Cologne, has installed laser screenings on facades across the world from Toronto to Shanghai. His Prague exhibit called “Mice” uses a green laser to send rodents scampering across the front of a school building in the city centre. Here’s some of what the artist himself had to say about his work:

“It is the abstraction and simple movement that brings this show to life. I didn’t want to do some kind of ‘technophile show’, but something that immediately brings pictorial memories to mind. It’s like this: the brain assembles images on its own, you see a few lines and they’re gone again in a second, but in the background a picture of a mouse remains. That’s the concept behind the laser show as well: it’s based on an analysis of video recordings that were animated on a background using a small number of lines. The lines made are only momentary, flashing by just briefly, but the image is quickly stored in the brain.”

There can be deep dimensions to art when we are lucky enough to read and hear about the thoughts behind them. Without a helping hand however much of the Transparency 2009 exhibits defy easy explanation. American Arthur Duff for example also used lasers for the first month of the exhibition to fire excerpts of love letters around the walls of Old Town square. Those who did not know that the excerpts were generated by a “love letter program” were baffled by the phrases like “love-making fully blesses your kiss” creeping along the cobblestones. Another exhibit, launched Friday, is called “Tacet” and consists of the word “tacet” tacitly glowing from out of the river. The word is a musical term meaning “to be silent”, and a sensor built in to the piece monitors the sound of the city and automatically illuminates the letters accordingly. This however required more imagination than the passers-by I met were willing to offer it.

“I’m seeing it for the first time so I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know what it means.”

“I don’t know what it means. I don’t know. Do you know what it means? No.”

“I saw it on TV but I have no opinion about it. I know about it but it doesn’t leave any special impression.”

With so many art exhibits in Prague, especially at present, I asked the organiser who the project was intended for and if Transparency 2009 is sometimes too opaque for some.

“Contemporary art is not so common in the Czech Republic or here in Prague, and that’s the reason why we are focusing on this kind of art. All these people who are not informed about the project are also our target group, of course, because we are organisers of contemporary art in Europe and we are lucky if people are looking at these pieces of art and feeling something. Normally they feel something positive, because it’s not so hard to understand what we are showing here, and contemporary art is sometimes a bit harder to understand.”

While the idea of there being a shortage of contemporary art in Prague is debatable at the very least, it is true that “light-art” has been an uncommon feature of the art scene in recent years. The last large-scale light exhibit that most people would probably remember was Jiří David's 2002 pink neon heart over Prague castle. Public misunderstanding played no small role in that case either: though hearts had been a long-term motif in David’s work, much of the general public took the theme and location to be either a going-away present to the then-outgoing president Havel or a statement on the brothelesque nature of Czech politics. The light-art project is still being gradually unveiled, and one more work will be submitted for public explication on April 30th, when a projection by Jenny Holzer will be cast across the façade of the National Museum.