Culture

Tripping the light fantastic: a year-round calendar of Australia’s light-based festivals

When Vivid launched in 2009, the concept of an Australian festival exclusively focused on large-scale light installations was a novel one. A decade and a half later, they’re everywhere.

This year’s Vivid festival attracted well over a million visitors and there is now a year-round calendar of similar festivals, exhibitions and installations in every state. Illuminate festival in Adelaide launched last year, but its co-artistic director, Lee Cumberlidge, says light festivalsare nothing new, citing examples from the ancient celebration of Diwali to the Fête des Lumières in Lyon, France, which has been running for more than 100 years.

“But as lighting technology has become more advanced and artists have been able to incorporate light into their work, it’s become a new art form in its own right,” she says. “That means there’s a lot of room for innovation now.”

Vivid may have turned off the lights for 2022, but here’s a calendar of light festivals to help you get your glow on all year round.

July

Though it launched last year, the reopening of state borders early this year means next month is the first chance for most of the country to see Adelaide’s Illuminate, which centres on the convergence of art and technology. This year’s festival features an “AI-driven multi-sensory experience,” a 2km sound and light trail through the Botanic Garden created by the Moment Factory team that has designed stage shows for Billie Eilish and Madonna.

Bright orange light show in the Adelaide Botanic Garden
Adelaide lights up with ‘2km sound and light trail through the Botanic Garden’ created by a team who have designed for Billie Eilish. Photograph: Moment Factory

South Australia’s winter also hosts two spectacular natural light shows. In the rocky shallows off Whyalla, giant cuttlefish compete for mates by making waves of colour shimmer across their skin, while ghost mushrooms add an eerie glow to the pine plantations around Mount Gambier.

August

Set against the backdrop of the meandering Murray River in NSW, Moama Lights combines storytelling and spectacle in an installation connecting the twin towns of Moama and Echuca. Ancient river red gums overlook a 600m-long trail that explores the rich culture of the Yorta Yorta traditional owners and the impacts of colonisation through a multimedia spectacle that lights up the crisp winter evenings.

On the other side of the country, Perth’s Winter Lights Festival takes over the four heritage buildings of Brookfield Place with a mix of installations and projections (this year’s program is yet to be released), while Boola Bardip’s Illuminate: Timescapes is a nightly projection that explores the rich variety of landscapes and cultures found in WA.

September

The spawning of the Great Barrier Reef after a full moon in November is one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles. But if you can’t make that one-night-only experience, Cairns Festival’s Reef Light installation lasts a little longer. Intended to replicate the experience of swimming around the world’s largest living structure, it will bathe the audience in waves of colour and showcase multi-sensory experiences inspired by aspects of the reef ecosystem, from luminescent algae to smacks of hanging neon jellyfish.

Australia weekend

October

Also known as the Festival of Lights, Diwali (or Deepavali) is a five-day celebration marking the end of the summer harvest on the Indian subcontinent. The third day of the festival is observed with lavish displays of lamps, candles and fireworks that banish the darkness, and the Hindu Council of Australia organises large community celebrations all over the country.

November

November is a bit light on the old light festivals per se, but is a good time to catch Light: Works from Tate’s Collection, an exhibition in which light serves as both a source of inspiration and a medium for artworks(on display at Melbourne’s ACMI until 13 November). Spanning two centuries, from the English romantic painters to immersive works from contemporary artists such as Yayoi Kusama, the exhibition explores how artists have learned to depict and channel light through painting, photography, video, sculpture and mixed media installations.

December

The most community-led, unofficial and organic of Australia’s light festivals is the annual tradition of erecting elaborate Christmas light displays on otherwise normal suburban houses. Every city has its own hotspots, but with a history stretching back 60 years and tens of thousands of visitors each December, Lights of Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills has a claim to be Australia’s biggest such celebration, complete with an accompanying Christmas market, pageant and concert.

January

Red and blue lights illuminate the Field of Light at sunset near Uluru
50,000 glass spheres come to life in the glowing expanse of Field of Light, which takes places annually near Uluru. Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images for Huawei

Originally installed for a year-long run in 2016, Bruce Monroe’s mesmerising Field of Light installation has proved so popular that it has been extended indefinitely, and is still booked out most nights. Every evening, as Uluru glows bright red then fades into a silhouette, 50,000 fragile glass spheres gradually come to life and gently pulsate with colour in the gentle dusk. It’s a profoundly peaceful experience that reduces even the rowdiest crowds to a reverential silence.

The installation is busiest in the winter peak season, but is arguably even more beautiful on a warm summer evening.

February

The Beacon casting laser beams into to the night sky
Robin Fox’s Beacon casting laser beams to the night sky at Mona Foma 2022. Photograph: TS Publicity

Because it’s split between Tasmania’s two main cities, Mona Foma avoids the claustrophobic crush of bodies that dominate its headline-grabbing winter cousin, but the summer program of music and visual arts is every bit as engaging. Light installations don’t grab centre stage, but in recent years, Robin Fox’s epic laser shows have taken over Cataract Gorge and lit up the sky above Hobart. The festival is also a rare opportunity to witness Ryoji Ikeda’s Spectra, which beams columns of pure white light 15km into the night sky above Mona.

If you make it to Tasmania’s most famous museum, book ahead for James Turrell’s hallucinogenic Unseen Seen to see light art taken to an entirely new and unexpectedly visceral level.

March

The National Library lit up brightly in the evening with projections and portraits
Canberra’s Enlighten Festival casts its famous buildings – like the National Library – in projections and artwork. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

If you haven’t paid a visit to the nation’s capital in a while, the Enlighten Festival is the perfect chance to see Canberra in a new light. While the facades of institutions like Parliament House, the National Library, National Gallery and Questacon are transformed by colourful projections, a program of after-dark events allows attenders to go back of house and explore areas that are not usually open to the public.

Swap late nights for early mornings and you can watch a flotilla of hot air balloons taking to the sky as part of the nine-day Canberra Balloon Spectacular before the two-and-a-half-week festival concludes with all guns blazing at the Skyfire fireworks show.

April

Albert Namatjira’s paintings of the West MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs are some of Australia’s most recognisable artworks, but Parrtjima turns the very landscape into a canvas with 2km of installations that light up the ancient slopes. Connection to country is central to this epic light show, which dwarfs many of its city counterparts and highlights the region’s rich natural beauty and cultural significance.

The festival is free, but it’s worth registering ahead of time to ensure you can access the full program of musical performances, film screenings, artist talks and cooking demonstrations.

May

Not every light show is human-made, as anyone who has seen the aurora australis can attest. Though the southern lights can be visible year round, they occur most commonly when the nights are longer, from May through to September. Even during these months, they can be elusive – the Aurora Australis Facebook group is an excellent resource for information on upcoming activity.

To give yourself the best chance of seeing a natural light show, head out on a clear night with a new moon, and pick a spot well away from the light pollution caused by cities; Cockle Creek at the southern tip of Tasmania is a popular spot, while mainlanders can head to Wilsons Promontory in Victoria.

June

As the winter chill begins to bite, the biggest light festivals spring into action. Vivid Sydney turns the sails of the Sydney Opera House into a giant screen; this year’s version also included a sprawling laser installation and an 8km trail from Circular Quay to Central Station, with more than 60 light installations. Altogether it was enough to attract more than 435,000 people on the opening weekend alone.

The Opera House lit up in bright red and green lights for Vivid 2022
The lighting of the Opera House’s sails: a key event in Sydney’s sprawling festival of lights, art, and music, Vivid. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

In Melbourne, the ambitious Rising festival finally launched this year on its third attempt with a “supernatural forest” of inflatable sculptures, an ice rink lit by ambient projections and a kaleidoscopic mirror maze alongside a packed program of theatre, music and dance. An echo of the festival will be felt each night in July when Ancestral Memory depicts a spirit eel swimming across Hamer Hall, while regional Victorians can enjoy White Night events scheduled in Shepparton, Bendigo and Geelong this year.

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