Two of my favorite installations at the Art Institute of Chicago this past year have both played with the presentation of light, one in an unconventional location and the other in a commonplace setting that has been innovatively reinterpreted.

PUBLIC NOTICE 3 by Jitish Kallat

"Public Notice 3," by Jitish Kallat

"Public Notice 3," by Jitish Kallat

The first sight of “Public Speech 3” is, in all honesty, jarring and confusing—it’s completely unexpected. Dots of color stare at you where a staircase should be. Questions like ‘What spilled down the stairs?’ and ‘When will drag queen Hello Dolly be making her entrance?’ come to mind. When your vision is given a chance to realign, however, you have the opportunity to view a truly spectacular installation. It has the outside-of-the-box creativity that people should expect from an art museum (art on a wall has been done), and the warm glow makes the staircase more inviting than imposing, appropriately transporting you to the galleries of the Impressionists—which I’m sure they would have appreciated very much.

"Public Notice 3," by Jitish Kallat; photo from

Photo from

The unique juxtaposition of the classic marble staircase with the colorful LED lights is what is initially so visually jarring, but ultimately part of what gives the piece its relevance. The color palette, while perhaps not the most sophisticated, creates a visual hierarchy that balances the impact of the lines and lines of words. Since I doubt most people actually read the entirety of the text, the hierarchy helps to highlight key words and phrases that convey a passionate pathos, the isolated words evoking connotations independent of the context. The location on the stairs more appropriately creates the radical political climate of the inspiration text and provides an environment that seems a natural home for political or social advocacy. Perhaps if more political addresses were presented in such a manner, people would actually pay attention to them instead of just complaining that their favorite television show isn’t on.

SHADE by Simon Heljdens

"Shade," by Simon Heljdens

"Shade," by Simon Heljdens

“Shade,” a window installation in the design exhibit entitled Hyperlinks, is a fascinating puzzle of glass tiles laced with an electromagnetic field that blink between transparency and opacity. Its hypnotic, geometric flow is transfixing and occasionally shocks you (thankfully not physically unless you touch it) with peaks into the world of the nearby hallway then plunges into complete opacity. I could have stared at it for hours, but the incessant admonishment of “no photography” (my photos were compliantly taken outside the exhibit) and the video of the garbage sweepers keeping perfect time prompted me to move on. Still, the exhibit showstopper possesses a therapeutic quality and a “wow” factor, the combination of which is worthy of repute.

The window represents one of the most interesting and promising facets of design: the fusion of aesthetics, functionality, and technology. The window utilizes software developed specifically for the installation that tracks the movement of the clouds outside the museum and reflects that movement in the opacity of the triangular glass tiles. While just being—for lack of a better word—cool, who knows what further practical application this innovative technology could have in looking toward environmental sustainability, such as temperature regulation and control in residential buildings or greater accessibility to natural lighting in interiors. I am no eco-technological visionary, so I’m sure actual buffs in this area are scoffing at my simplistic hypotheses, but the point is that the potential is there. The interactivity of design in general and its inherent connection with everyday human life make it a vital area for exploration and experimentation, with perhaps a little pretty mixed in.