ArtSEA: Let there be light in South Lake Union

New illuminated installations offer a playful escape from the shortest, darkest days of the year.

a series of illuminated seesaws near a spherical building

Pedestrians stop to play on “Impulse,” a set of seesaws created by CS Design Inc. and Lateral Office. It’s one of several new light installations in South Lake Union. (Daniel Spils)

I didn’t plan to spend one of the last nights of 2021 laughing hysterically atop an adult-sized seesaw, but upon reflection, it seems altogether appropriate. (Ups and downs, we’ve had a few!) So when my teeter-totter teammate launched me off the seat for a midair moment of elation, I knew what was next: whomping down onto my behind.

Amplifying the unexpectedness of this scene was the fact that it happened right next to the futuristic Amazon Spheres, in a glowing patch of six illuminated, large-scale seesaws called “Impulse.” Resembling giant fluorescent tubes set on pivot points, the seesaws have room for two people to sit at either end. When riders move, the light shifts and industrial tones emerge, adding music to the sound of grown-ups cackling as they fly and whomp.

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It’s one of four new interactive light and music installations (open to the public 8 a.m.-10 p.m. through Dec. 31) recently parked in South Lake Union by Creos, a Québec company dedicated to enlivening public spaces with interactive creations by a variety of design studios. The project is part of SLU After Dark, an effort to encourage people to venture into South Lake Union in the evenings and patronize its restaurants and businesses, which have taken a hit since legions of tech employees started working from home.

The streets and sidewalks were largely empty when I visited at about 7:30 p.m. on a damp Wednesday evening. But the trees were decked out in welcoming holiday lights, and there were small groups of people, including enthusiastic children, clustered around the new artworks like moths — irresistibly drawn to light sources during these short, dark days of winter.

Created by Toronto-based RAW Design, “Prismatica” is one of several new light installations in South Lake Union. (Daniel Spils)

Across the street from the seesaws is a colorful garden of oversized crystal structures called “Oscillation.” Paned in iridescent plastic, these angular lumps create a curious alien landscape that comes alive with sound as you walk around. The shiny shapes emanate musical tones in a theremin fashion — notes slide and patterns shift, depending on your distance from the motion sensors.

One block north, “Prismatica” features a forest of tall, pivoting prisms, lit from within by projectors and designed to reflect every color in the spectrum. When I was there, a group of tweens rejoiced in spinning them as fast as possible, then staring into the changing light and tripping out like the astronaut in the wormhole scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In addition to having some artful interactive elements, these installations reflect the atavistic human attraction to twinkling lights on winter nights. Capitalizing on that truth are the region's big, bright celebrations of light, from the eye-popping optics at Bellevue Botanical Garden’s Garden D’Lights (through Dec. 31) to the animal-themed antics at Woodland Park Zoo’s WildLanterns (through Jan. 30).

South Lake Union’s “Oscillation” installation, by Brooklyn design studio The Urban Conga, works like a theramin — emanating sounds that shift depending on your proximity. (Daniel Spils)

Redmond has its own light festival, too (Redmond Lights, through Jan.5), featuring a wide variety of installations by local artists, some of whom Crosscut reporter Margo Vansynghel spoke with this week, about the city’s controversial decision to remove the word “Palestine” from a piece. (Read more about the artwork, which has since been restored.)

There are quieter, more contemplative options as well, including the Pacific Bonsai Museum’s Bonsai Solstice event (Dec. 18, 4-7 p.m.), in which the artfully crafted tree specimens — all housed outdoors, in a grove of tall cedars — are lit with subtle lights. (While you’re there, maintain your chill vibe by checking out the exhibit of traditional “viewing stones,” aka Chinese scholar’s stones or Japanese suiseki, through Jan. 5).

And just installed in Capitol Hill’s Cal Anderson Park is a new light-based artwork in the AIDS Memorial Pathway. As Margo wrote in June, Portland artist Horatio Hung-Yan Law is constructing a three-part “Ribbon of Light” that will lead walkers through the park and allow for reflection on lives lost to the AIDS pandemic. As Capitol Hill Seattle Blog reports, the first section of his piece is now completed, a gestural, gentle curve of luminous laminated glass.

Montreal artist Serge Maheu’s “Passage” invites passers-by to walk through spiraling fluctuations in light and sound in South Lake Union. (Brangien Davis)

The last of the new installations I visited in South Lake Union is called “Passage,” which sits a bit apart from the others, on the north side of Denny Way. If you walk to it via Westlake Avenue, you can stop by the MadArt space and see a new triptych of mural panels called The Joy of Being (through Feb. 11). This riot of colorful outbursts is by Seattle artist Nikita Ares, who says the pieces address the need for vivid color amid our winter grayscape and are meant to recall the vibrancy of the sun.

You’ll find “Passage” on Terry Avenue North between Harrison and Republican streets (right in front of Northwest artist Ann Gardiner’s sparkling yellow glass mosaic, “Convergence”). Look for a looping tube of light surrounding a runway.

Walk down the catwalk tunnel and you’ll spark a rainbow-hued light show — a treat to experience from within the circling light, as well as while standing at the mouth on either end. Your presence also triggers a moody electronic score that morphs along with the colors.

A sign nearby says it’s “an emotional journey of sound and light,” which might sound a bit overblown, but there is something moving about walking slowly through this lit passage, especially given the year we’ve had. It’s fun, and maybe a little melancholy, too, as it evokes another human trait: our desire to mark the past shifting into present with the turn of a year, our perpetual hope of transitioning from an old self into someone bursting with bright new potential.

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