Reclaiming the Night

Yann Kersalé’s nocturnal illuminations have helped revitalize cities, parks, public spaces, and buildings all over Europe.

Most artists would love to have their work described as “spectacular.” Not Yann Kersalé. Even though his nighttime illuminations of public spaces are showstoppers, he sees them as invitations to stroll, not gawk. Darkness, he believes, is an opportunity to explore a world obscured by sunlight. His installations are meant to be walking tours of an otherwise invisible limbo. With a few strategically placed light sources (mostly, computer-programmed LED spots), he can transform the most ordinary-looking streets, bridges, buildings, industrial sites, gardens, and stores into dreamscapes; turn rigid facades into liquid surfaces; and reveal the delicate internal workings of massive infrastructure.

But unlike Olafur Eliasson or James Turrell, Kersalé is not part of the contemporary-art scene. His work is more akin to urban renewal: he wants to reclaim the night for the public, creating venues for residents to get together after working hours and opening up new neighborhoods where nocturnal sightseers can safely wander. Municipalities and local associations make up about one-third of his clients. “I am not an electrician or a stage designer or a landscape consultant,” he says. “I am a creative entity. My craft is to brighten up things after sunset.”

His first large-scale urban project was a harbor installation in 1991 for the French port city of Saint-Nazaire. The son of a fisherman, Kersalé is familiar with the beauty of a star-studded sky over the pitch-black sea, and he’s at home on the waterfront among cranes and containers. So he proposed lighting up the loading facilities of the busy commercial port, where the heavy equipment was considered by most to be blight. “Once I light it up, it will be your Eiffel Tower,” he told the mayor. Originally conceived as a temporary installation, the dockside illuminations, as eerie as a moonlit landscape, are now the centerpiece of the cultural and economic revival of the city. Since then, a number of European municipalities, including Paris, Le Havre, Nantes, Cherbourg, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Lisbon, and Brussels, have asked Kersalé to illuminate their hulking infrastructure.

Kersalé’s most notable projects are done in collaboration with archi­tects, particularly Jean Nouvel. “To tease Jean, I tell him that he is an architect by day, and I am an architect by night,” says Kersalé, who happens to look like Nouvel’s twin brother. The partnership has turned into a friendship, and now Kersalé can be credited with the evening metamorphosis of Nouvel’s Agbar Tower, in Barcelona, Spain (completed in 2005), and the night landscaping of his Musée du Quai Branly, in Paris (2006). The two have also collaborated on the lighting scheme for the future Abu Dhabi satellite of the Louvre and the Phil­harmonie de Paris concert hall. Helmut Jahn is another architect who relies on Kersalé in the planning stages of his monumental projects. “Sometimes I experiment with lighting on full-scale models of the facades of buildings,” Kersalé says. “Architects and their clients have come to realize that tall structures are potential beacons in the night sky.”

Kersalé has a following among private and corporate art patrons (Hermès, Thierry Mugler, Robert Clergerie) who want to show their collections in situ. But whether at the scale of a garden or a city, whether permanent or ephemeral, his installations are always lit pathways guiding visitors along a winding course. Movement is often suggested in the form of a shimmer, a flutter, an imperceptible shift in colors, the interference of a mist, the rustling of a breeze, or a rippling of shadows. As one gets used to the darkness, the discreet lights seem to gain in intensity. With less wattage than is necessary to run a refrigerator, Kersalé owns the night.

Agbar Tower, Barcelona, Spain, 2005
click here for image
By day, the surface of this bullet-shaped tower, designed by Jean Nouvel, looks like a subtle mosaic of blue and red tiles with a whimsical pattern that is more or less visible depending on the angle of the sun and the weather conditions. By night, the Barcelona landmark becomes a garish beacon, the colors of its glazed facade amplified by 4,500 LED devices that act as paint brushes, adding bright-orange, yellow, turquoise, and purple touches to the original canvas. Kersalé installed his specially designed lighting fixtures on the narrow gangway between the skyscraper’s colored exterior wall and its glass skin. “Because the entire system is programmed, I can play at will with the intensity of the illumination,” Kersalé says. “I can set the tower ablaze, or I can keep it just a pale glow.” Another layer of serendipity is added by bright squares of white light coming from the building’s windows: workers staying late in their offices unwittingly put a finishing touch on this giant abstract composition.

Galerie Hermés, Singapore, 2006
click here for image
This indoor mirror-covered cube is a kaleidoscopic box designed to capture the visual hubbub of the outside world, amplify it, and turn it into a tapestry of jagged details. The crazy patchwork of angled mirrors reflects the busy street scene on one side and the warm and cozy environment of the gallery on the other. A study in contrasts, the installation is in fact a minitheater. Step inside, and you find yourself in a pitch-black, soundproof room. Above your head, from what looks like a crack in the ceiling, a ray of light beams down on a bed of small stones and pebbles scattered on the black carpet. The moving images show water gently lapping at the bottom of a pool. “The impression is one of total ‘Zenitude,’ ” Kersalé says. Inside the tiny, claustrophobic box, your sense of space miraculously expands. Originally conceived for a special event, the installation is now a permanent feature of the gallery.

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium, 2008
click here for image
At the center of Brussels, the capital of the Euro­­pean Union, Kersalé wanted to create an environment to capture the fragile yet enduring meeting of national narratives that characterizes the history of Europe. The dotted lines crisscrossing the 17th-century decor of the cele­­brated Grand Place come from the four cardinal directions—a reference to the international role the EU claims for itself. But it is also an allusion to the four languages spoken in Brus­sels and to the recent political crisis here that threatened partition but ultimately led to a new government coalition. “They are only dotted lines, with the hope that some day they will become solid lines of convergence,” Kersalé says. His clients for this installation were the EU and the City of Brus­sels, two entities with different agendas. But Kersalé believes that the convoluted process of negotiations that precedes any public project is as much a part of the piece as the installation itself. Here permanent hooks and wiring were attached to the building facades to facilitate the displays. The lit pathways are meant to encourage tourists who flock to this famous crossroad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998) to explore the huge town square and admire its classic architecture.

Sparkasse Tower, Pforzheim, Germany, 2005
click here for image
Here Kersalé indulged his cinematic sensibility by turning the facade of a tower into a giant silver screen. The Sparkasse building is in the middle of Pforzheim, a town known in the jewelry and silverware trades as the place where gems and precious stones are cut and processed. Inspired by the glittering reflections of a nearby river, Kersalé programmed LED tubes and vertically mounted them onto the outside of the 14-story structure to mimic the moving shimmer of the restless water. The animation has turned the nondescript headquarters of the Spar­kasse bank into a poetic nighttime landmark. Inside, the lobby and hallways are illuminated to evoke the many-faceted brilliance of rubies, amethysts, and sapphires. Reflective surfaces transform opaque walls into infinite corridors of light. Four times a year—starting at the stroke of midnight on solstices and equinoxes—a new pattern is showcased on the tower facade. The switch is now part of the town’s living tradition. The residents of Pforzheim, whose ancestors in the 18th century were renowned watchmakers, are now relying on Kersalé’s installation to monitor the passing of time and the arrival of each new season.

Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, 2006
click here for image
Kersalé staged the nighttime lighting for the garden of the new Branly museum, an institution showcasing art from Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, in collaboration with Nou­vel and the landscape architect Gilles Clément. Adopting a watery theme (L’ô is pronounced like l’eau, or “water”) to celebrate the shared primordial under­currents of all ancient cultures, he created a “lake” of translucent rods programmed to react to the ambient temperature by changing color. The 1,600 fixtures are connected to the computers of a nearby weather center, and they turn white when the temperature drops; as it gets warmer, they acquire a pale-blue hue, with deep turquoise for balmy nights and sultry evenings. Planted among Clément’s meadows of tall grasses and thin reeds, the rods, now sticking out like small totems, will eventually be buried in greenery, their presence only a faint glow that will surely bring out the graphic qualities and mysterious dimensions of the shrubbery.

Recent Programs