Weekly Features


'Light Totem' sculpture to regain permanent home outside IU Art Museum

Lena Morris

June 11, 2014

After nearly a year, Indiana University’s iconic “Light Totem” sculpture will be restored to its home outside the IU Art Museum on Saturday, June 21, as a highlight of IU’s Summer Festival of the Arts.

The light extravaganza will be in action for the first time since April 2013 from 7:30 to 10 p.m. June 21 during Midsummer Night at the art museum, accompanied by the music of funk-rock band the Dynamics along with complementary desserts, local food vendors and a cash bar. All three permanent collection galleries will be open, and a self-guided gallery tour will be available featuring works of art that evoke the power of light.

The “Light Totem” was created by Rob Shakespeare, IU professor of lighting design in the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Shakespeare says the sculpture has to be seen to be understood.

“If I describe ‘Light Totem’ as, ‘It’s an aluminum structure that’s self-standing in front of a famous piece of architecture’ -- that’s pretty dull,” Shakespeare said. “’It lights up’ -- that’s still dull. I think ‘Light Totem,’ like any theatrical performance, is really designed to be experienced. You read a play, but it’s so much different than when you have it pour over you and you get tied into the emotional context of it.”

The work was originally built as a temporary structure to celebrate the museum; after a few months, and then a year, the piece had become a campus institution, and the Board of Trustees voted to make it a permanent public art piece. But frozen, expanding water inside the sculpture caused enough damage that it needed to be taken down in April 2013 for repair. During that time, Linda Baden, associate director of marketing services at the IU Art Museum, was flooded with emails from disappointed students who had “Light Totem” on their campus bucket lists.

“This is unusual, because we’ve done some very spectacular things, but very rarely do people -- when something is not there -- notice the absence and seek it out,” Baden said.

The restored piece will look highly similar to the original, Shakespeare said, but is more robust. And instead of a yearly inspection, it will have an inspection every 10 years, which conveys confidence in the re-engineering of the piece and its new drainage system.

“To me, the Summer Festival of the Arts is a chance for IU to show its great strengths in the arts and humanities across all the disciplines, and we have so much to offer every summer,” said Heidi Gealt, director of the IU Art Museum who announced her retirement May 19. “To have the ‘Light Totem’ -- which is all about the one element that we can all relate to: light; we all live by light, and we enjoy light; and this sculpture, which is all about light -- really celebrates the whole universality of the summer arts festival.”

Shakespeare said he knew when he created “Light Totem” that it would attract people unlike anything else on campus with its huge “screen” -- the 70-foot wall of the IU Art Museum that has a half-mile visual broadcast range.

What he didn’t expect was people lingering at the sculpture and creating their own traditions surrounding the piece -- notably, people line up and lay by the wall with their feet up under the light bath of the rotating rainbow of lights. “It’s had people propose in front of it, we’ve had orchestras present, dance concerts working with it, a marriage took place in front of it – it’s far more than just a light tower.”

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