Southern Lights public art rendering

Southern Lights

Art professor’s laser installation to highlight Congaree River starting eclipse weekend

When studio art professor Chris Robinson was an undergraduate, he was known to knock on science lab doors asking if he could borrow lasers. The response? Usually laughter.

The artist and researcher has dedicated his 45-year career to working with lasers and exploring the intersection between art and technology. It’s fitting that Robinson, retiring this summer after 42 years at the University of South Carolina’s School of Visual Art and Design, will leave one more lasting statement on the connection between art and science.

His Southern Lights laser installation, which will span across the Congaree River near the Blossom Street Bridge, is set to debut the weekend before the historic total eclipse on Aug. 21.

The project, coordinated by EngenuitySC, evolved from a suggestion submitted to the What’s Next Midlands online idea sharing hub. Robinson emphasizes that Southern Lights will be a peaceful work of art intended to highlight the natural environment between the Blossom and Gervais Street bridges at night. The goal is for it to be available as public art for the next decade.

“What makes the site so exciting is that it is in the middle of an urban environment but is still relatively dark,” Robinson says. “It’s interesting because the river itself becomes a mirror and reflects what’s going on above it. The viewer’s experience is based on atmospheric conditions.”

Don’t expect a Pink Floyd light show, Robinson cautions.

“My installations create a sculptural structure, draw attention to interesting aspects of the surrounding environment and illuminate the distinctive quality of laser light,” he says. “The coherent beams of light form an overall quiet, contemplative work of art that visitors can experience from a variety of vantage points and perspectives.”

The installation will involve mounting an argon ion laser on either end of the space between the bridges — one on the Columbia pump station near Founders Park and another at EdVenture Children’s Museum. The blue and green lights will come on each evening at dusk and run for about three hours. The beams will be reflected between mirrors located on the bridges and surrounding structures, including Bridgepointe Condominiums and the baseball stadium.

“Lasers are helping manufacture cars in Detroit, cutting fabrics in the Upstate, scanning our groceries at WalMart and have allowed us to cut down on infrastructure underground. They are all around us, but we don’t see it. This installation is a great opportunity for us to see and experience lasers.”

Chris Robinson, art professor and Southern Lights artist

Robinson also emphasizes the installation’s safety. He received federal approval through the Department of Agriculture’s radiological health division, which regulates laser displays and the S.C. Department of Transportation. The lights will be positioned so that beams will not interfere with motorists’ vision. Robinson submitted necessary documents to the Federal Aviation Administration and spoke to nearby neighborhood groups.

Robinson has created similar installations in Columbia—one when the South Carolina State Museum opened in 1989 and another at the State House in 1992. He has put together pieces in Arkansas, Arizona and on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Southern Lights is special because it will be more permanent than some of his previous installations. Laura Ros, project manager for What’s Next Midlands, is coordinating the Southern Lights initiative with One Columbia for Arts and History. One Columbia specializes in facilitation of public art, and the goal is for Southern Lights to be available to run daily for eight to 10 years, which is the lifetime of the laser equipment.

Ros got in touch with Robinson after someone pitched What’s Next Midlands the idea to light up the Blossom Street Bridge. Because of Robinson’s expertise with lasers in art plus the need to overcome logistical hurdles, the initial concept evolved into Southern Lights. Timing of the upcoming total eclipse and its resulting anticipated influx of visitors to the Midlands offered a great opportunity to share Robinson’s art with a larger audience.

“We were sitting around the conference room one day talking about when this would be feasible to unveil,” Ros says. “We knew we wanted to do something with the eclipse, and this seemed so perfect with the theme of light and dark.”

Organizations funding the project include the Vista Guild, the cities of Cayce, Columbia and West Columbia, Richland County, What’s Next Midlands and BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina.

Robinson appreciates the opportunity to give back to the community he has called home for more than 40 years. He also wants the installation to reflect the impact of lasers as a technological advance in the 20th century.

“Lasers are helping manufacture cars in Detroit, cutting fabrics in the Upstate, scanning our groceries at WalMart and have allowed us to cut down on infrastructure underground,” he says. “They are all around us, but we don’t see it. This installation is a great opportunity for us to see and experience lasers.”

Ros views the installation as a potential connecting force for the Midlands community beyond the eclipse weekend.

“I think Southern Lights is important for Columbia, West Columbia and Cayce. It’s really cool for all three municipalities to come together and support this shared artwork that all sides of the river can enjoy,” she says. “We hear all the time from people saying the river is one of our area’s most under-utilized assets. We hope this piece brings new life to the area and what’s connecting all these great communities — the river.”

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