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Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Staring into the light amid the winter darkness

It’s freezing, dark, and winter has definitely arrived - but on the terrace of a London gallery, I am basking under the bright white light of 10,000 lux. The dramatic shelter overhead not only protects me from the rain, but the sunlight-mimicking intensity of the light should also give me a little boost this winter.

The installation I’m sitting under is the brainchild of James Yamada, an American artist who created the sculpture, entitled The summer shelter retreats darkly among the trees, to enable visitors to enjoy the health benefits of bright light during the darkest months of the year.

The idea behind the piece is really very simple: curators at the Parasol Unit contemporary art foundation wanted an outdoor sculpture for the winter, and Yamada, having heard how dark it gets during a British winter, wanted to supply a hint of summer to his guests. “I’d heard about how people with seasonal affective disorder use light to help them avoid the depression they can experience during winter,” he says. Incorporating this therapy into his sculpture appealed to his love of art and science.

“I travelled around a few tropical countries and saw these really simple structures that protect you from the sun,” Yamada says. He was drawn to the primitive architecture of the Hopi hut of the American south west. It’s one step from a lean-to, he says, one of the most basic forms of architecture. “I thought I’d marry the two ideas by bringing light inside the shelter. So as well as shielding you it provides you with something too”.

The four white posts holding the sculpture’s corrugated iron roof look like they are made of Styrofoam: a gust of wind and the whole thing should topple over. In fact, Yamada did originally use Styrofoam to carve the four supports but then used it to cast aluminium, which he painted to look like Styrofoam again. “I liked the idea of making a structure that seems very light and fragile, and at the same time is strong,” he says.

Sitting on the cold, thin, metallic bench that is placed in the centre of the shelter, I look up. I’m almost blinded by the intensity of the blue and white strip lights integrated into the iron roof. Yamada spoke to several researchers before creating the project to identify the correct amount of light thought to provide beneficial therapy for SAD. The condition, often referred to as “winter depression” is thought to involve a brain chemical called serotonin. Recent research suggests that people with SAD have overactive serotonin transporters which break down the neurotransmitter in the brain before it has had a chance to act. Light therapy is thought to slow the removal of serotonin so that it can exert its beneficial effect on mood.

Yamada tells me that just ten minutes is all I need to reap the beneficial effects of the light, “but it’s OK if people just want to sit and contemplate or have a physical relationship with the piece rather than a therapeutic one,” he says. The bench I sit on faces an olive tree. Surrounded by darkness, it is indeed quite a calming influence and I imagine could be a nice place to sit and think.

Unfortunately, it’s still freezing outside and my hands are starting to go numb. In fact, the cold metal bench is also starting to make other parts of my body lose feeling. Yamada explains, “The roof gives a little heat but the bench is thin and fragile so it’s really cold.” You’re telling me, I think, as I try to get circulation back into my bottom. “But I like that circular process - you’re giving the shelter your heat as its giving you its heat.”

Although I quite like this concept, I’ve been sitting still for ten minutes and I decide enough is enough. “Yeah, it really sucks the heat out of your ass,” Yamada laughs.

The sculpture does provide welcome light in the dark hours of winter, but if you visit it I would suggest bringing a pair of gloves. And a thick pair of trousers.

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