Leo Villareal's light art sculpture,
Leo Villareal's light art sculpture, "Bay Lights," on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge West Span

By Lee Foster

A relatively new art form now proliferates in San Francisco. It is called “light art,” meaning the use of light to create art sculptures, at night. The City itself is a dark canvas. Consequently, light art emerges as a major form of artistic expression in San Francisco in recent years.

The most dramatic of these installations is Leo Villareal’s “The Bay Lights,” permanently lighting up the west section of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge. This highly popular “temporary” illumination in the past emerged later as a perennial visual joy. To sum up, the City fathers and mothers wisely responded to popular demand that this art work become permanent.

Artists created many other major light-as-art installations in the City. They are compelling to view all year, but particularly in the December Holidays period. However, December is the darkest time of the year, the Winter Solstice. As a result, humans seek some message of illumination regarding their condition.

Here are several installations to consider year round, but especially in the Holiday period.

Pier 14, East of the Ferry Building

Pier 14 is the first large public pier east of the Ferry Building, only a short walk. This pier is  a pedestrian walkway. It amounts to your finest and first place at which to enjoy light art in San Francisco. From the end of this pier, you can see up close the wonderful illumination of the Bay Bridge.

However, during the holiday period, stand at the end of this pier and also look back at the San Francisco skyline. In the Holiday period, the Embarcadero Center Buildings are lit up like boxy Christmas gifts.

The Bay Lights, on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

Leo Villareal's light art sculpture, "Bay Lights," on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge West Span
Leo Villareal’s light art sculpture, “Bay Lights,” on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge West Span

Leo Villareal set a high bar for competing light artists. He had both the ingenuity and the political clout to arrange a Bay Bridge light display. Subsequently, his work became both a locals and visitor favorite. This original and acious lighting masterpiece is a tour de force.

This undertaking will be seen historically as a parallel to lighting the Eiffel Tower in Paris at night. Villareal presents the world’s largest LED light sculpture, about 1.8 miles wide and 500 feet high. He has programmed individually about 25,000 LED lights. Initially, the light sculpture celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Bay Bridge birth (1936) with this never-repeating and dazzling display of light. The lights hang on the vertical strands of steel cable holding up the bridge. In short, the temporary installation became iconic, with calls for a perennial performance. The current expression is permanent.

Firefly, Golden Gate at Polk

Light art sculpture "Firefly" in San Francisco
Light art sculpture “Firefly” in San Francisco

Ned Kahn’s “Firefly” is at 525 Golden Gate Avenue, where Golden Gate Avenue meets Polk Street, in the Civic Center area. Kahn is an environmental artist who won the commission to create this 12-story kinetic sculpture from the San Francisco Arts Commission.

His canvas is the front of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) headquarters. Kahn’s “Firefly” consists of thousands of five-inch-square, clear polycarbonate panels. He hinged the panels to move freely in the wind. Consequently, during the day, the effect appears to be as a wave. However, at night, the movement becomes a vibrant undulation of light. The panels connect to electric switches that trigger tiny LED lights.

The lights mimic fireflies, a threatened species that needs riparian environments for its survival. “Firefly” is a permanent installation. Stand immediately below the sculpture on the sidewalk and look up to get the full effect of twinkling fireflies at night.

Language of the Birds

"Language of the Birds" light art sculpture in San Francisco
“Language of the Birds” light art sculpture in San Francisco

Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn’s light sculpture, called “Language of the Birds,” is at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenues in North Beach. This is a permanent installation, part of the Civic Art Collection, viewable 24 hours a day and featuring a night lighting aspect.

The San Francisco Arts Commission authorized the artwork. Funds came from a two-percent-for-art program charged to developers. This piece is part of a pedestrian walkway between Chinatown and North Beach. The installation presents books, as if in flight. As a result, the books resemble birds in motion. In other words, the could be pigeons in flight. Wings futters in different positions. At night LED lights embedded in the books create changing visual patterns.

This sculpture is one of the first solar power-offset public artworks in California. To clarify, the sculpture pumps power into the City grid on sunny days.

Pedestrians walking here will notice words in the sidewalk below the books. The words seem to fall from pages of the books. Most importantly, the words are in English, Italian, and Chinese, reflecting nearby communities.

The efficiency of modern light creation sources greatly reduces the energy cost of light-as-art sculpture. In short, Ned Kahn “Firefly” sculpture is so efficient that it uses less energy than one old-fashioned 75-watt light bulb.


27 Current Permanent Light Art Installations in San Francisco

The tourism folks at SFTRAVEL.com keep track of the permanent light art installations in San Francisco. Here is the current list:

A first dozen:

  1. The Bay Lights, Leo Villareal (2013), San Francisco Bay Bridge West Span, Waterfront
  2. Language of the Birds*, Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn (2008), Broadway and Columbus Ave., North Beach
  3. Lamp of the Covenant, Dave Lane (2015), Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., SOMA
  4. Yud, Daniel Libeskind (2008), 736 Mission St., Contemporary Jewish Museum, SOMA
  5. PaRDes, Daniel Libeskind (2008), 736 Mission St., Contemporary Jewish Museum, SOMA
  6. “monument” for V Tatlin, Dan Flavin (1969), SFMOMA 5th Floor, 151 Third St., Yerba Buena
  7. Untitled (in Honor of Leo at the 30th Anniversary of His Gallery), Dan Flavin (1987), SFMOMA, 151 Third St., Yerba Buena
  8.  Lumina, MADLAB (2013), 181 Third St., W San Francisco Hotel, SOMA
  9. San Francisco at Night: Model Art Map, Lisa Gemmiti (2011), W SF Hotel, 181 Third Street, SOMA
  10. Constellation*, Nayland W. Blake (1996), San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin St., Civic Center
  11. Buckyball, Leo Villareal (2016), The Exploratorium, Pier 15 on the Embarcadero at Green St.
  12. Skygarden, James Turrell (2007), 90 Seventh Street facing Mission St., Central Market

And More:

  1. “…and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea” (Caruso’s Dream), Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn (2014), 55 Ninth St., south of Market St., Central Market
  2. Three Gems, James Turrell (2005), de Young Museum, Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden, Golden Gate Park
  3. Handsignals*, Matthew Passmore/MoreLab (2014) McCoppin at Valencia St., SOMA
  4. Spiral of Gratitude*, Shimon Attie and Vale Bruck (2015), 1245 Third St., Mission Bay
  5. Ocean Mirror with Fragments, Jim Campbell (2007), Saunders Court, UCSF, Inner Sunset
  6. Monarch, Cliff Garten (2015), Kaiser Permanente Medical Offices, 1600 Owens St., Mission Bay
  7. Anima, Jim Sanborn (2006), Alexandria Real Estate Equities, 1700 Owens Street, Mission Bay
  8. Archipelago*, Anna Valentina Murch (2014), 1001 Potrero Ave., San Francisco General Hospital, Potrero
  9. Ethereal Bodies*, Cliff Garten (2014), 1001 Potrero Ave., San Francisco General Hospital, Potrero
  10. Bayview Rise, Haddad – Drugan (2014), Pier 92 at 3rd Street & Cargo Way, Bayview
  11. “Hope Will Never Be Silent,” Illuminate (2017), Harvey Milk Plaza, Castro St.
  12. The Seed, Aphidoidea (2017), Jane Warner Plaza, Castro
  13. IIuminavia, HYBYCOZO (2017), Hotel VIA, ground level space at Bar VIA, 136 King Street, South Beach
  14.  LOVE OVER RULES (2017), Hank Willis Thomas, Annie Alley at Mission St., Yerba Buena
  15. Day for Night (2018), Jim Campbell, Top of Salesforce Tower, 415 Mission St., Embarcadero

The Role of Light Arts

The medium of the past for art tended to be physical objects, such as sculpted stone and poured bronze. Moreover, another popular form was paint applied to a surface, such as canvas. However, in these modern light-as-art sculptures in San Francisco, new materials and strategies show their ingenuity. A computer or the wind might control the art. The light visible at night might itself be saved sunlight, gathered by the art object during the sunny part of the day.

If you’re a local or a visitor to San Francisco, put “light art” of your short list of the fun and rewarding things that make exploration of the City a joy.



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