Light event review: Dark Spectrum, Vivid Sydney

Dark Spectrum taps a range of emotions across immersive sound and light, but ends on a high note of exhilaration for Vivid Sydney.
People in immersive red light art installation for Vivid Sydney.

Over its 13-year run, Vivid Sydney has been a leader in the way light festivals can inspire and engage. But today it sits within a competitive calendar of light events – which means it has to deliver. This edition feels especially well-curated, seemingly tighter in its vision, with good navigation on the ground, and offering nuanced pathways for engagement. A clear highlight in the program is Dark Spectrum – an immersive, multimedia experience hidden beneath Sydney’s streets, and activating the unused railway tunnels at Wynyard Station.

It is the first time the tunnels have been open to the public, and the near kilometre-long experience does everything you would expect of a contemporary light festival: it immerses you, entertains you and awes you.

Dark Spectrum takes the visitor on a journey across eight themed spaces, each representing a different human emotion and associated colour. The experience begins with SEPARATION. It is a somewhat formal, geometric web of light, first in white lasers, and then later in colour, largely weaving a frenetic space just over head height. It is an easy starting point to get oriented.

The lighting units for SEPARATION travel along a ceiling-mounted tracking system (which has a slight surveillance feel gone rogue), and the paired electronic dance music is penetrating – pulsing in sync with the lights and reverberating through the body.

This initial room – each room delivers a curated five-minute show – allows visitors to get their bearings without being ostracised within too tight a proximity (hence the title ‘separation’) before diving into the more immersive works that follow.

Early on it becomes clear when walking through these bunker-like, raw concrete hallways, tunnels and gathering zones that music plays a crucial role in the delivery of these themed experiences. It shapes a journey and offers punctuation, but also diverts any feeling of claustrophobia from being bunkered underground.

The next encounter is CONSTRICTION, the first of the spaces that have a more bodily engagement. Viewers literally walk into, around and through 150 hanging tubular LED rods of red light – encouraged to touch them, to weave and dip in a sense of play.

‘UNSEEN’, ‘Dark Spectrum’ (detail), Vivid Sydney 2023. Image: Destination NSW.

This physical play is again encouraged in the rooms UNSEEN – a corridor populated by giant soft globes graffitied with neon light, and INTERACTION – a maze of hanging pink lights that evoke a sense of a stroll through a magical garden. Movement through the eight spaces flows well.

A good example of how the architecture is used to both funnel large crowds, but also in a responsive way forming the light experience, is the installation PRESSURE. It is a spectacular thoroughfare created by 50 archways of lights and mirrors that create the illusion of a never-ending tunnel. After it, there is a real ‘behind the scenes’ tunnel moment, offering a thrill where OH&S is challenging.

Across Dark Spectrum, visitors get to experience the whole gamut of light technologies, from the latest lasers to LEDs to robotics. Funnily enough, it is these robotics that are the least successful viewing experience. In the room UNFAMILIAR, the scale and expectation of a suite of five robots is lacking in delivering a performed outcome. I think this is partly due to the enormous success of the rooms that precede them.

Journeying on, REFLECTION bathes visitors in green lasers, expanded with a series of kiosk-like portals scattered through the space, that allow viewers to find their own reflection in a sea of green light.

It goes without saying, Dark Spectrum is social media candy – and we will all see a lot of this project over the coming week on our devices. It has been three years, and that sense of a curated journey is palpable. It feels polished and thought through.

Vivid Sydney has been criticised in past years for its people-jam congestion, making it less pleasant in the fight to see things. There is none of that feeling underground. It is truly immersive, and visitors leave Dark Spectrum – popping back to street level with a sense of disorientation – filled with a sense of joy and exhilaration.

‘Dark Spectrum’ (detail), Vivid Sydney 2023. Image: Destination NSW.

Dark Spectrum was created by Sydney lighting and visual design firm, Mandylights, in partnership with Sony Music (via its event promotion division – RGL (Raymond Gubbay Limited – which has delivered illuminated trails for over 10 years) and UK production management company, Culture Creative.

After Dark Spectrum’s world premiere for Vivid Sydney, the event will tour globally.

Dark Spectrum, Vivid Sydney
Enter via Wynyard Park Rooftop between York Street and Carrington Street. 
26 May until 16 July, with timed entry from 12 noon to 9.15pm. 
Presented in partnership with Vivid Sydney, Sony Music, Mandylights and Culture Creative.
Ticketed: general admission from $35, children from $24, families from $98. 

Unfortunately, due to the landscape of the tunnels, it is challenging for wheelchair users and people with disability are advised to contact the organisers in advance.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina