Installation review: Lightscape, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne

Now in its third year, 'Lightscape' returns with old favourites and new installations.
Giant peonies are lit up against a dark sky.

Lightscape returns for its third iteration to Melbourne; those who’ve previously visited the exhibition en plein air will know what to expect: large-scale sculptural installations, an array of lighting effects and accompanying ambient soundscape, all integrated into the lush greenery of the Royal Botanic Gardens. There are light projections not only on foliage and grass, but also on pathways and buildings.

Next to each installation is a sign documenting the name of the exhibit, the artist(s) responsible and also a QR code if you want to know further details.

Even those who’ve been spellbound by the exhibits in previous years will be enchanted once more because Lightscape has been refreshed. This time around all new installations include the immersive Submergence, wherein audiences wander through moving curtains of suspended lights that shift and change colour. It’s a truly dazzling spectacle, though not recommended for those sensitive to the constant thrum of pulsating movement.

New installation, Submergence. Photo: Supplied.

There’s also Lili by French artistic studio TILT, making its Australian debut this year. Lili consists of three-metre tall, illuminated flowers: impossibly giant peonies that do actually make you feel like Lilliputians standing beneath them. Continuing the floral theme, out of season, radiantly electric pink blossoms can also be witnessed blooming on a row of trees. Surfing Birds by Pitaya meanwhile, showcase creatures with outstretched wings attached to branches.

As with last year’s effort, Lightscape also pays respect to Indigenous artists and culture. There are the totem pole-style displays with the gorgeously vibrant Indigenous art wrapped around them as seen in 2023, but this year, an impressive addition is the work of poets stencilled on various rotundas spotted around the garden.

Witnesses by Jeanine Leane, for instance, sees these exhortations in stark white against the dark: ‘Think of the memory of trees shedding bark in layers of memory / Back to the forest floor to the underground story of deep time / Growth and age flourish and decay rot and rejuvenation.’ Such words pull us back to the past, reminding us of the centuries-old forests and of the peoples that lived among them.

Aside from a couple of pop beats including ABBA at a rainbow-lit installation, the aural-scape consists of anodyne, nondescript classical music and movie soundtracks. Such unobtrusive musical accompaniment allows you to appreciate the visual delights without any distracting notes.

Winter Cathedral, the crowd favourite display (and the site of many selfies), returns, as does Laser Forest at Fern Gully. The former takes the shape of, yes, a cathedral with an arched frame bearing thousands of tiny bedazzling lights that visitors can walk through, and the latter is a gaming wonderland with green shooting lasers lighting up the gloom in a sea of ferns.

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As with previous years, food trucks are positioned around the entry point to Lightscape, which you access via Observatory Gate, opposite the Shrine of Remembrance. The offerings tend to be pricey, so bring your own snacks if budgeting. This year sees some igloos scattered about so you can sit inside to eat, a welcome protection against any inclement or unfriendly weather.

Lest you need to warm up further during Melbourne’s punishing winter, there is a variety of food available for purchase along the way, including toasted marshmallows and crème brûlée (recommended!) plus mulled wine, as you weave and wend through the 2.2-kilometre lit trail – which takes roughly an hour and a half to complete.

It’s understandable for Melburnians (and visitors to the city) to want to stay home under a heated blanket when the temperature drops, but Lightscape, with its mesmerising display of coloured concoctions and flashing, syncopated light within the beauty and majesty of the Royal Botanic Gardens is well worth the trip out.

Lightscape will be on display until 4 August 2024.

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy