The annual InLight festival, organized by 1708 Gallery, is a crowd pleaser by design. Local artists create a temporary, florescent fantasia, and stretches of Richmond take on an otherworldly character, with the city a stage for eye-dazzling art.
Organizers are fooling with the formula this year. To begin with, the festival will run for two nights instead of one, Friday, Nov. 13, and Saturday, Nov. 14. But the setting is practically guaranteed to be magical, with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts offering its popular sculpture garden as a backdrop.
InLight has riskier surprises in store. A few installations are sure to push buttons, by highlighting lackluster facets of Richmond and beyond. They feel like bolder moves from organizers, who are determined to elicit gasps as well as laughs.
Exhibit A: The Confederate Memorial Chapel. It’s a magnet for Confederate flag bearers and media attention. The Lee-Jackson Camp No. 1 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans held the chapel’s lease until June, when the museum took it over.
Artists John Dombroski and Ander Mikalson, both Virginia Commonwealth University graduates, are shining a light on the Confederate history that often creates a divisive public-relations problem. They’re transforming the chapel into a trippy funhouse.
For starters, the chapel’s exterior will be blasted with cinema-grade lights. The interior will be rigged with a network of microphones. While visitors move through the space, shadows and sounds will ricochet around them.
“We will create a heightened sensory experience that invites investigation and introspection,” the artists say in an email.
Meanings and messages are to be expected. “This is art, not just spectacle,” says Emily Smith, executive director of 1708 Gallery.
Alex Baker, the festival juror, notes that “all art work has the potential to be political, even if it’s Disney-like.” Baker, who directs the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia, was selected by the museum’s curators.
Artist Eva Rocha, a recent recipient of the Theresa Pollak Prize, goes further afield for unsettling material. A native of Brazil, Rocha witnessed the ravages of human trafficking. She photographed 16 nude women, including herself, inside crates. At InLight, she’ll project these pictures onto a stack of crates once used for shipping art.
“I chose to display these images next to a sculpture on the VMFA grounds, ‘La Riviere,’ by Maillol,” Rocha says. “That sculpture has elements of vulnerability and nobility. Likewise, I want my pictures to create a contradiction, by provoking both pleasure and repulsion in the viewer.”
Speaking of contradiction, Matt Lively says light-based art can emerge spontaneously or from intense planning. He felt inspired by the sculpture garden’s “good feng shui,” and discussed a few highbrow concepts with his collaborator, Tim Harper. But eventually those concepts got “thrown out the window,” he says, and the duo is now working furiously on a contraption that people can manipulate via “crankable machines.”
“Honestly, I still don’t have a clear understanding of what a light sculpture is,” Lively says. “InLight’s early years were marked by visitors feeling fascinated and confused, in a good way. It continues to evolve into such an awesome, strange, beautiful event.”
Smith of 1708 says you can’t really refer to light as an artistic medium. “It’s a tool, a concept, a process for these artists,” she says. “That’s one prong of our mission, despite any year-to-year changes. To use light as a platform.”
The festival’s other prong is community engagement, Smith says. She’s full of praise for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts collaboration, which has drawn out financial supporters. The museum reached out to InLight two years ago because it was inspired by the festival’s “grass-roots spirit,” she says: “This is our first true arts-related partner, and it has been a fruitful partnership.”
Last year, more than 9,000 visitors attended InLight. There’s a palpable hunger for public art, and Smith says more permanent installations are possible. Talks between Smith and Ellyn Parker, the city’s recently hired public art coordinator, have led to a meeting scheduled for Nov. 17 at the Science Museum of Virginia. People will get a chance to weigh in about the kind of art they’d like to see around Richmond.
“I’m intentionally trying to capture some of that InLight excitement,” Parker says. “Richmond has great public art already, and we could go bigger. Emily is helping people see the potential for what’s next.”
The city has $3.2 million at its disposal for public art projects because of a percent for the arts initiative. The art fund is created by skimming off 1 percent of capital projects worth $250,000 or more.
Allocating that chunk of cash will be a challenge. “We have to switch away from top-down mentality,” Parker says. “Art in this city should be for the public, by the public.”
On Nov. 13, Richmond will be ready for InLight to flip that switch. S