Sound & Light: Food for the Eyes and Ears

Whether illuminating rock concerts or lighting up Scottish highlands, they are showing us new ways to see and hear

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Willie Williams never intended to change the way people watch rock concerts. Growing up in the late '70s, all he really wanted was to get out of Sheffield, England. "So I ran away to London to join the circus," says Williams, "and the circus at that time was punk rock." Punk rock had a visual aesthetic, but it started and ended with the pierceable parts of its players' bodies. At 19, Williams, whose love of music trumped his aptitude for it, cozied up to his favorite band, Stiff Little Fingers, and talked the group into letting him design its stage show. When the Fingers broke up in 1982, he called his new favorite band. "They happened to be named U2."

Ever since, Williams, 46, has moved with U2 from clubs to arenas to stadiums, revolutionizing concert visuals at every step. From the seven Trabants (compact cars built in East Germany) he hung from the rafters of U2's early '90s Zoo TV tour to the giant beaded LED curtains of the recent Vertigo shows, he has turned concrete caverns into spaces that drip with mood. And when the music starts, Williams, who pioneered the integration of video and light into a single element, turns the sets into an extravaganza that enhances but never competes with the sound.

In addition to his rock work, Williams has taken on the Kronos Quartet ("The equipment can't be merely quiet, it has to be silent") and is brainstorming ways to light the revitalized South Bank Centre on the Thames. But he still gets his greatest thrill watching people watch his work. When Williams went to a Vertigo concert with artist Julian Opie, whose minimalist figures were incorporated into the show's visuals, Opie couldn't disguise his envy. "No one," he said, "ever applauds at an art gallery." --By Josh Tyrangiel


If the contemporary art world has had anything like a blockbuster in recent years, it would have to have been The Weather Event, Olafur Eliasson's wildly popular installation in the Great Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London. In a nimble rethinking of the atmospheric sublime, Eliasson mirrored the hall's 115-ft. ceiling, then hung from it a patently artificial but weirdly persuasive "sun" made from 144 yellow lightbulbs behind a giant semicircular screen. Then he pumped the room full of mist. During a six-month run that ended in March 2004, Eliasson's make-believe sky drew some 2 million visitors. A lot of them spent long stretches lying on their backs, gazing blissfully upward.

Eliasson, 39, who lives in Berlin, was raised in Denmark by Icelandic parents, so perhaps his yearning for light was carried in his Nordic bloodlines. But while he has been inspired by James Turrell and Dan Flavin, artists who use pure light as their medium, his purpose isn't merely to explore light's mystery and power. And though he has a decided sense of humor--one early work was a simple rainbow created in a spray of mist--minimalist performance-art jokes are the least of what he has in mind. What Eliasson cares about are the ways we create and sustain our own realities and the part played by shared experience in the tantalizing fabrication we call life. He likes to call his works "devices for experiencing reality."

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