Illuminating York 2012 - Wonderland

Last year was the first time I saw Illuminating York.  We went to Castle Square to see 'Envisions' by GaiaNova and United VJs.  York Castle Museum was lit up using projection mapping (the technique used to such great effect on Buckingham Palace this summer) that transformed into all sorts of weird and wonderful new forms.  It was really rather excellent, and it was free.

Capitalizing on that success, the 2012 festival announced that its main event would take place in Museum Gardens, and that the creative director would be Vic Reeves.

Wonderland was its name, and it would be "a hugely ambitious project" involving half-a-million pounds' worth of lighting.  As a consequence, entry would not be free: adults would be charged £5 a head.

Based on how much we'd enjoyed the 2011 show, and the fact that Vic Reeves was an interesting chap, we bought tickets.  It would surely be an enjoyable spectacle, full of "magic, mayhem and mischief".

Yorkshire Museum, illuminated in 2008 (Image from Geograph, copyright Steve Fareham)

Well we went along last night, and I'm afraid to say it was a disappointment.

We didn't have to queue for very long, despite the sell-out crowds, and we were given a map to guide us round the various components.  First up was Wild Creature Woods, which consisted of some large, coloured globes in the shrubbery.  A bit of dry ice got pumped out now and again.  Not an auspicious start.

"Up, And Away!" was much better: half-a-dozen bicycles had been set up with attached neon tube butterfly wings.  If you hopped on board and pedalled for your life, the wings moved and glowed and it was all rather fun (apart from one sad-looking bike, which was lying on its side and had been cordoned off with some straggly red-and-white tape).

The map then said there was a Light Circle next to the butterflikes, but I didn't spot it.  Instead we moved on towards the Hospitium, which is a lovely old timber-framed building.

The Hospitium, Museum Gardens, York (Image from Charlesdrakew, Wikimedia Commons)

What would one do to illuminate such a fine old structure in a magical way?  How about just projecting a big square screen of swirling multi-coloured lines onto it, a box of garish light that was in no way connected to the shape or structure of the building?  No, I wouldn't think of doing that either*, but that's what was happening.  We stood there for a couple of minutes, then said 'this is rubbish' and wandered on.

The projections onto St Mary's Remains were more like it.  The stone archways of the ruined abbey had been mimicked in coloured light, spelling out NATIONAL DANCERS in the circular apices, whilst in the arches beneath animations showed real people dancing.  Some male, some female, some adults, some kids.  I liked its use of the space, and it reminded me of the intro to The Muppet Show.

The ruins of St Mary's Abbey, Museum Gardens, York (Image from Flickr, copyright Sandra)

It had been said, however, that you could go into a Dance Tent nearby, be filmed, and if you danced entertainingly enough, you'd become one of the projected performers.  The Dance Tent was closed, though.

It was a decidedly mixed bag thus far, and we were feeling decidedly whelmed.  To see if it would tip the scales in positivity's favour, we thought we'd go and see the main attraction next: Heads of State.

This was a projection using the front of museum itself as the screen.  The left-side wall played a video of Vic Reeves as a talking head, and the right-side wall played a series of short animations of pictures he'd drawn, accompanied by music.  The first of these was a cartoon crooner, with 'Strawberry Fair' by Anthony Newley as his soundtrack:

I quite enjoyed this, and I was also enlightened, having never previously realized just how much the early work of David Bowie imitated Newley.  I still love Bromley Dave, but I do see him in a new light now.

After a snippet of the song, the animation ended and Vic Reeves reappeared to talk about the next piece.  Another short music-accompanied simple animation came on, and then Reeves appeared again to introduce the next one.  On and on this went: a burst of animated animal (usually), some music, then Reeves.

"I don't like people explaining their art," his giant projected head declared, apparently oblivious to the irony of repeatedly and tiresomely popping back up to explain what was coming next.  It was like having the continuity announcer popping up throughout a TV show to tell you what you'd see in the next scene of the programme.  It was inane and distracting.

Some of the music was quite good, but that wasn't Reeves' own work, so I'm not giving him credit for that.  Everything else was just, well, you know, erm, well, you know, yeah, ok?  Having watched one whole run of the film, we trudged off across the mud and back to the abbey ruins.

The layout of York Museum Gardens. If you want to know what all the numbers mean, you'll have to go to Wikipedia.

From there, all that was left for us to inspect was the bowling green corner (no. 16 on the map above), which was allegedly home to An Absurd Landscape.  It wasn't.  It was home to some wiggly wavy coloured walls (the back of the King's Manor) and a mock-up version of a platform arcade game.  A mini-Reeves bounced around the wall with a manic grin on his face.

You know how boring it is watching someone else playing a computer game?  Well this was it in giant form.  "CONTINUE? Y/N?" it asked at the end of each run, but it wasn't a question.  N was not an option.  We walked away.

After one final loop of the gardens, confirming our suspicions, double-checking we'd not missed anything, and finding out that The Tea Party was just some tents serving food and drinks, we exited.  Not excited.

In this style, not worth 10 and 6.

Wonderland wasn't terrible; some of it was good.  It didn't live up to its name though.  Most of it was just shoulder-shruggingly uninspired.  It was like being given a picture drawn by a friend's three year-old, all bright colours and squiggles and strange shapes, and then asked what you thought of its artistic merit.

If Wonderland had been entirely put together by toddlers, I'd have been highly impressed.  Instead it was the work of a load of adults who were hoodwinking us.

In 2013, Illuminating York needs something much more imaginative and engaging as its main attraction.  Rewind time: turn off all the streetlights in the old streets of central York and illuminate them with torches and gaslights.  Use the Observatory in Museum Gardens as the focal point for an astronomical supernova light show.  Alternatively, get David Icke in for the week and ask him to put the Illuminati into the illuminations.  At least then it'd be worth paying to see.

*Writing about IY 2009, Tom Smith calls it the 'Don't Just Project Stuff Onto A Wall' rule.  His 2010 follow-up also makes some interesting suggestions.