Canary Wharf: How Marcus Lyall is set to illuminate a Wood Wharf tower block for 2024’s Winter Lights festival

Festival is set to return to the estate from January 17-27 with 12 temporary installations for all to see

Marcus Lyall’s Idle Time is set to be shown at Wood Wharf’s Union Square in January 2024

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I first met Marcus Lyall beneath a flyover in Royal Docks.

It was December 2020, the wind was biting and various restrictions were in place thanks to the pandemic’s Christmas-cancelling second wave.

As a result, his epic installation Presence was attracting the attention of only a few, shifty passers-by. 

Nevertheless, the piece remained the most impactful work of that year’s Join The Docks festival – with viewers performing short messages into a microphone then seeing them echo between the concrete pillars of the roadway, with visualisation courtesy of an urgent laser and plenty of smoke machines.

Had the times been normal, it would have been a blockbuster – recalling the success the artist had at Canary Wharf’s Winter Lights festival in 2017.

Then, On Your Wavelength – a series of 32 square LED-lit portals drew visitors in droves to Crossrail Place’s once empty shopping level.  

This year, the Homerton resident is set to return to the estate for Winter Lights 2024 – with something much bigger than either of these creations.

Idle Time will be projected onto a 50sq m canvas formed by white-wrapped scaffolding behind Wood Wharf’s Union Square. 

“The idea for it came from our lives today and how we’re encouraged very much to think about optimisation and efficiency – what we can fit into a day,” said Marcus, who works from studios at Fish Island near Hackney Wick.

“There have been various anthropological studies of pre-industrial societies and one of the things the scientists noticed when they went to hunter-gatherer cultures was the amount of time that people spent not doing anything.

“It feels right now, when everything is being optimised, that there is very little time for not doing anything, despite the fact that everything has apparently been made more efficient so we all have more leisure time.

Marcus Lyall’s On Your Wavelength from Winter Lights 2017

“To me, it doesn’t feel like that.

“The question now is: ‘Are you spending your free time productively?’.

“With Idle Time, there are three elements connected to efficiency and productivity.

“Firstly there’s the backdrop – Canary Wharf – a global centre of hyper-capitalism, where companies dedicate every moment to trying to extract capital from labour. 

“Secondly I’m using lasers, which are a hyper-efficient light source.

“You can use them in lots of ways, but here I’m using them like a big pen to draw and animate an image.

“With lasers you have the beam and a couple of mirrors that move at something like 30,000 times a second.

“Projecting 50 or 60 drawings per second lets the eye perceive the image as though it’s moving. 

Artist Marcus Lyall – image by Matt Grayson

“Thirdly, I’m also working with motion capture technology where we have people act out various movements and use the data captured to drive the image.

“Normally this is done with dancers, acrobats, stunt people or physical theatre performers – subjects that are incredibly good at moving, so the data can be used to create animation sequences.

“It tends to be about capturing stuff that’s exceptional – actors performing the most amazing moves they can.

“What I’m doing with Idle Time is deliberately using people who aren’t terribly good at movement as my subjects – they’re mostly artists from the building I share in east London and they are doing things that are not terribly productive.

“One of the real pleasures of being an artist is that it’s not all about the effort you put in.

“A lot of it is about talking and thinking – stuff that’s difficult to quantify or capture.

“What I’m trying to do is celebrate the more mundane bits of life, the fact that most of our experience comes through incredibly subtle movement.

“Our experience of other people isn’t necessarily about them doing cartwheels.

“What’s interesting is that, when we’ve done tests on this work, people find these characters we’ve captured quite intriguing.

“Viewers immediately try to work out what they’re doing and then project characters onto them. It’s leaving a bit of a gap for the audience.”

Idle Time is one of 12 temporary installations that will pop up across the estate for Winter Lights 2024. The festival is set to run daily from 5pm-10pm and is free to visit.

Having seen around 1million visitors come to the estate for 2023, new one-way systems have been implemented to help manage numbers, with larger, more crowd-friendly pieces commissioned.

Alongside the visiting works, six permanent artworks will be illuminated for the show, including an LED twist on Shine Your Colours at Canary Riverside.

Marcus said: “It’s great that Canary Wharf Group is commissioning work and nice that they’re valuing art – it makes a difference.

Idle Time is a bit more of a slow burn rather than a five-minute spectacular.

“Part of it is getting people to look at how they spend their time, getting people to question whether this constant drive for productivity is the best way to live their lives.

“I’m also hoping they feel some sort of empathy with the people they’re seeing, that there’s a connection with them, that they put themselves in those characters’ places.

“It’s very much about reflection and contemplation.

“There’s something nice about the fact that it’s projected onto a building that’s not in use yet – something that’s still going up.

Marcus Lyall’s Presence in Royal Docks

“It also feels a little bit subversive to be doing a bit of graffiti with lasers in a part of the estate where people actually live.

“Sometimes this kind of work can be more for show, but this has been designed as something people can live with for a while.

“It’s ironic – I’m creating something in a hyper-efficient location with hyper-efficient projection technology and hyper-efficient motion capture, where my subjects are actually doing very little.”

The perfect antidote, perhaps, to the hustle and bustle of the Wharf – especially during the festival.

You can find out more about Winter Lights 2024 here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canary Wharf: How the Mandala Lab aims to transform emotions into wisdom

Installation by The Rubin Museum at Union Square on Wood Wharf is based on Buddhist philosophy

Tim McHenry of The Rubin Museum Of Art in New York

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Tim McHenry’s job is essentially to get people interested in things.

A lithe and slender man with a strong shirt game, the chief programmatic officer of The Rubin Museum Of Art in New York is an erudite guide as he takes me round the institution’s Mandala Lab in Canary Wharf.

The cylindrical installation popped up in Wood Wharf’s Union Square in September, is free to visit and opens daily from noon until 6pm (8pm on Thursdays).

It’s set to remain in place until November 25, 2023 – but what on Earth is it?

“As the name might indicate, it’s an experiment,” said Tim.

“All we do at The Rubin is inspired by the significant body of Himalayan art we have in our collection – it’s an exploration of mind and a negation of life and death, the deep stuff.

“In order to welcome people into that, we thought we might want to bring them into the shallower end of the pool until they learn to swim.

“It needs to be accessible, not only because the wheelchair ramps work, but also because if you look at a painting in the collection, you might not understand it.

“Walk inside this version of a painting that we’ve created here in Canary Wharf, however, and its meaning becomes clear because it’s a visceral journey, and it will help you see what it is about you that you have the capacity to change.

The Mandala Lab is located in Union Square, Canary Wharf

“The experience is based on a Tibetan Buddhist painting in The Rubin’s collection – a mandala, which in Sanskrit means circle.

“It has no beginning and no end, it’s all encompassing. This is a microcosm of your mind.

“Your embarkation point is on the outer rim and you’ve got to find your way to become the middle.

“At the centre is all-encompassing wisdom, but this only comes about by fully understanding what ignorance is.

“The Lab has four segments, each of which has a portal, the green room for envy, blue for anger, yellow for pride and red for attachment.

“You can enter through any of them.

“We’ve represented the mandala in the painting physically so people can step inside – it’s a metaphorical embodiment of the principles in the painting.

“All we’re doing is asking that people step inside – like Mary Poppins and Bert jumping into chalk on the pavement.”

For Envy, visitors synchronise their breathing with a pulsating light

The experience comes in four parts.

  • Envy sees visitors synchronise their breathing with a light, together with others in the same space.
  • Pride is a chance to look at oneself in a distorted mirror before deciding which of four categories one fits into.
  • Attachment is an opportunity to explore scent and memory.
  • Anger is a chance to hit a gong before lowering it into a tank of water and seeing the furious vibrations quickly dissipate in the calming liquid.

Incidentally, the gongs have been designed by various prominent individuals including celebrated percussionist Evelyn Glennie and Peter Gabriel, formerly of Genesis.

Tim and The Rubin are more than happy to call in celebrities to further the museum’s reach and expose more people to the ideas in its collection.

“Since joining The Rubin when it opened just over 20 years ago, it’s been my job to make Himalayan art accessible and popular, using many techniques including high profile people, contemporary artists and culture,” said Tim who ran events for the New Yorker magazine prior to his role at the museum.

“What was really transformative was recognising that Buddhist art is largely about an exploration of the mind and with that came the interesting idea of looking at this philosophy in comparison to what we understand about how our brains work – the latest neuroscience. 

For Attachement, visitors explore smell and memory

“We ran a series called Brainwave where we would have a scientist on stage with someone from a different walk of life and we’d try to unpack our behaviour and the choices we make by virtue of the context. 

“We had Jake Gyllenhall on dreams, for example, and Whoopi Goldberg on time, which brought The Rubin attention – particularly secular – that it might not otherwise have had given that the art is largely Tibetan Buddhist and to some degree ritualistic in that it’s an exercise of the mind.”

That’s exactly the point of the Mandala Lab and you don’t need to be famous to experience it – although, incidentally, actor Brian Cox (Logan Roy in the excellent Succession) did pop up at the launch party to bash a gong in anger.

It’s intended as a journey of self discovery – a series of activities designed to provoke thoughts about the self, our place in the world and our relationship to others. 

“Envy, for example, is devoted to this exploration of this rather sharp-elbowed, competitive thing that sometimes inhabits our minds and hearts,” said Tim.

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie performs at the Mandala Lab launch

“Why did someone else get a pay rise and I didn’t? Whatever it is, it’s something that we feel we lack in ourselves – it’s always self-centric.

“Here the exercise is super simple – if the first thing you did in your life was take a breath, then it will probably be the last, and that’s all we’re asking people to do.

“They breathe in time with a light source. 

“One of the most interesting advances in psychology and neuroscience is the idea of entrainment, where individuals sit in the same space and do something at the same pace. 

“Their heartbeats start to align and that starts to develop that subliminal bond and, over time and repeated exposure, will start to foster pro-social behaviour, because we think of ourselves as one.

“When that happens, there’s nobody left to be envious of. It’s a metaphor, but it’s an experience metaphor, and this is what Mandala Lab is all about.”

Over the course of the four segments, visitors are gently exposed to the idea that we are all connected, that we are all the same and that we are also all different and individual – that these things are all true at the same time. 

Actor Brian Cox watches his anger dissipate at the Mandala Lab

“It’s about establishing these teachings which are all about how we navigate our emotions – how we can harness the energy that we expend on maintaining them into a greater understanding of how we can deal with life,” said Tim.

“The aim is that we’re not buffeted by these reactive feelings of anger, attachment, envy and pride, which we find hard to control. Indeed, when we can’t control them, we tend to lash out and damage others and ourselves, which can lead to grief. 

“Those behaviours can become habitual patterns that are ultimately harmful.

“What we’ve experienced in New York with the Lab is a move to a more selfless nature – from the individual to the community – that’s something we could certainly do with a little more of.

“I hope this installation is a spur to understanding for people on the Wharf – it’s free to everyone so come on down.”

Find out more about the Mandala Lab here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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