News Column

The light that beckons returns to campus

June 15, 2014

By Marci Creps, Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.

June 15--When the Light Totem at the IU Art Museum is lit, it is common to see people sitting, with their backs on the ground and their feet in the air against the outside wall of the museum.

The totem is a work by Robert Shakespeare, a professor of lighting design in IU's Department of Theatre and Drama. And when this way of viewing the sculpture became popular, he was curious.

"I would walk by and ask them 'What are you doing?'" Shakespeare said. "They said, 'This is the way we're supposed to do it.'"

Shakespeare laughs at the response as that was never the way the artwork was "supposed to be" enjoyed, but he took the time to also view the colorful lights that beamed along the wall from that angle.

"When you get down there yourself and you're sort of like sitting on the wall, the flows of color come down in front of you. It's quite an interesting, unexpected experience," he said.

The totem was initially installed in 2007 when the museum celebrated its 25th anniversary. It was to only be there two to three months, but the exhibit was extended to a year. It quickly became a campus favorite, and in 2010, the IU Board of Trustees approved the artwork for permanent installation.

"But what hadn't happened is it wasn't engineered as a permanent structure," Shakespeare said.

So the Light Totem was taken down in the spring of 2013 so it could be properly engineered. One change was the welding, which Shakespeare said wasn't done to a standard that would give the piece the necessary longevity. It also had to be designed to deal with moisture and now stands about three-quarters of an inch taller so that it could be rigidly attached to its foundation.

Recently the totem was reinstalled, but its official re-lighting won't take place until Saturday during the Midsummer Night event at the museum. And for fans of the totem, it is a welcome return.

Shakespeare said he fielded many phone calls and emails when the structure was removed. Although the sculpture has only been on campus for seven years, it quickly became a beloved part of campus that even made it to the freshman bucket list as something students should experience before graduation

"It's absolutely joyous," Shakespeare said of the public's response to the art. "It's become a 20-minute destination on campus. There are many art sculptures or pieces, which are put out in public space, which maybe get a two-minute glance and that's its impact."

But truth be told, Shakespeare knew the sculpture would be a winner. He said that particular part of campus has previously been quite dark.

"It's like a campfire attracting campers. I knew it would be successful there," he said.

Plus, the lights take advantage of the 70-foot wall of the museum where people find lying on the ground is a great vantage point for enjoying the light show.

The sculptures initial goal was to celebrate the architecture of the art museum's building, designed by I.M. Pei. But what people may not know is that the structure also creates a 40-foot line of light inside the atrium. And when it is relit, it will also provide light to the patio entrance.

Saturday's celebration will give visitors a chance to see the totem and its impact on the museum. The event includes music by the Dynamics, self-guided tours, complimentary desserts and art activities. The ceremony celebrating the relighting of the totem will also be quite special, according to Shakespeare. He's written some new "light songs" for the totem and he said there are other "theatrical surprises" planned for the evening.

The totem has been a successful art venture in that it accomplished its goal of highlighting the museum's architecture, but it has done even more than Shakespeare could have imagined. It has increased foot traffic at the museum and has become an important part of the college experience for students.

"When you create something that's fun and inventive, you really never know what its impact is going to be or how people are going to incorporate it into their ritual," he said.

Contact Marci Creps at


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Source: Herald-Times (Bloomington, IN)

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