Light Machine: Xavier Veilhan installs new work at Galeries Lafayette

Light Machine: Xavier Veilhan installs new work at Galeries Lafayette

At first, it might seem counterintuitive to discover that a 13-metre creation by Xavier Veilhan has been installed on a wall behind crisscrossing escalators in a department store. Never mind the obstructed view – people in closest proximity to the illuminated installation are neither in the mindset to consider it, nor in a position to pause and observe. 

But then Light Machine doesn’t exist solely as an artwork.

Revealed last week to coincide with the newly refreshed menswear department at the Galeries Lafayette flagship in Paris, Light Machine spans four floors – an enormous panel projecting a sequence of shadowy images, some more discernable than others. Riding up or down, you may not notice a figure rowing, or balls bouncing; only when peering across the atrium, particularly from the higher floors, can you make out the animation of a skater twirling or, rather cheekily, people on escalators.

’It’s about the impossibility of seeing, and the difference between seeing and feeling the movement,’ Veilhan tells Wallpaper* of the commission, which expands upon a series he began in 2001. ’It’s super focused and non-focused at the same time and what’s interesting is that dreamy experience, the space in-between.’

The permanent installation consists of 6,144 LED lights housed in 1,536 bulbs, all 25cm in diameter. With four lights per extra-large bulb, the work reveals how Veilhan’s team scaled up the original in order to maintain the same pixelated-yet-blurred effect. 

Guillaume Houzé, who oversees Galeries Lafayette’s image and communication and provides substantial patronage for contemporary art, has known Veilhan for at least a decade and reached out to the Paris-based artist to conceive something that would become part of the store’s architecture. ‘This is more about integrating the artwork – and not in a way that’s just decoration,’ he says.

For his part, Veilhan explains how the piece posed several technical challenges, equally owing to size and space. To enlarge the work, the team decided to switch from incandescent to LED bulbs but then needed to compensate for the shift from warm to cool light. ‘Classic bulbs are heated to provide white light but they glow with a progression that an LED doesn’t have. It might be beyond perception but it was a long process,’ he says, noting that it was completed in eight months.

Located at an entry to the store that is also shared by a public transportation exit, the work catches the eye immediately. To some extent, this directed the selection of moving image programming. Whether a person diving or shapes in space, the motion remains consistently fluid and rhythmic – never so abrupt or skittish as to visually assault customers. ‘The light can’t be too violent; if people are getting headaches, then it’s not a success,’ says Veilhan with a laugh.

Indeed, he admits that earlier in his career, he may have considered a more disruptive impact. ’Fifteen years ago, I would have made it full blast. Now, maybe it’s that I’m getting older, but it’s also a situation of seeing big art everywhere. I wanted to use this opportunity but in a soft way, like a wave,’ he says. ‘Powerful but softer.’ 

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