‘People leave meetings and do something playful’: The art illuminating an office space

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It’s a grey, wintry Melbourne day and installation artist Simone Chua is watching office workers spill out of the 55-storey Rialto tower into the piazza below.

Suddenly, the CBD workers find themselves in the middle of a giant illuminated accordion with six rainbow archways and a pad at the base that creates waves of colour, light and music.

A woman wanders through Accordion at Rialto Aglow.Credit: Jason South

“This is a corporate area, and you’ll get people walking out of meetings and stopping and then doing something a little bit playful,” Chua says.

“In order to activate Accordion, you have to jump or step on the base. People start tapping and laughing – it’s interesting to watch people’s routines being disrupted.”

This is not a trippy scene from a movie but the latest winter lights festival – Rialto Aglow – which will activate the piazza for 10 days.

Chua is the founding director of design studio Amigo & Amigo, which creates installations for light festivals across the world.

Simone Chua and the Lunar Lamp Posts.Credit: Jason South

Rialto Aglow, a free festival that runs until July 29, features two large works by Amigo & Amigo, Accordion and Lunar Lamp Posts, which was inspired by the cycles of the moon.

Chua loves watching the public interact with her art.

“You see people dance under them and do TikToks,” she says. “It’s a wild space – I wonder if this type of art would be so popular if there wasn’t social media.”

Chua says bringing light artworks into public areas creates safe spaces and changes the fabric of cities.

“One of my favourite works was in Bogota in Colombia in the city centre. This was a space that families and children wouldn’t go to, and then you put a light artwork there, and it changes the perception.”

There are cultural differences in public responses to works of light. When Amigo & Amigo did a show in Hong Kong, art lovers were so reticent to touch the works that the design studio put up stickers urging them to press the buttons.

New Zealanders and Australians are less respectful. Last year, Amigo & Amigo made 12 lit-up inflatable gnomes as part of the Roaming Gnomes initiative to encourage visitors to Chatswood in NSW. Someone drew a skull tattoo on one of the gnomes with a sharpie.

“The gnome now has this mad ‘mum’ tattoo on its arm – I was like, ‘Oh, god.’ That’s all right, I have a belief that when you put something in public spaces for the public to engage with, it’s no longer yours. It’s interesting to see what happens,” Chua says.

Roaming Gnomes attracted an extra 210,000 people to Chatswood in May last year, with local businesses benefiting from an $8.5 million spending boost.

Simone Chua and Amigo & Amigo art director Adela Lines with a giant inflatable tiger and cubs at Chatswood Concourse in 2022.Credit: Nick Moir

“Isn’t that crazy? Because we put some art in that space, it boosted the local economy,” Chua says. “It does work, it brings people out. I think post-pandemic, people are really hungry for experiences and getting out and connecting.”

Ironically for someone who loves the sun, Chua finds herself chasing winter at festivals across the globe. “During winter, cities need to inject art and life to attract people to come outside. It’s about creating community and reinvigorating public spaces.”

The Rialto Aglow Winter Lights Festival will hold free live entertainment from 6pm to 9pm every night from July 19 to 29.

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