Now that we can turn day into night with a blasé flick of a light switch , we have mostly forgotten the actual, and metaphorical implications which light – and its absence – once held. But on Saturday night the procession of human beings towards the lights in Queen’s Garden suggested a rekindling of the primeval association of light with warmth, protection and wonder.
Actually, the whole neighbourhood seems to have perked up: the small herd of supermarket trolleys grazing the curb outside my place suggests that local homesteading activities resumed as soon as the rain stopped falling.
This weekend's rainy threatened to cause another kind of upset by plunging the Light Nelson festival into darkness.
Though the street lamps still wore halos of damp air, the streets around Queen’s Garden were thronged with dark shapes: people bundled up against the cold moving towards the lit interior of the park. One hundred and twenty-five years ago Wellington turned on the first street lights in New Zealand. Now we turn day into night with a blasé flick of a light switch and have mostly forgotten the actual, and metaphorical implications which light – and its absence – once held. But on Saturday night that procession of human beings towards the lights in Queen’s Garden suggested a rekindling of the primeval association of light with warmth, protection and wonder.
On the Friday night, when the opening of Light Nelson had been officially cancelled, and it was unclear if the festival would go ahead, I took the dog for walk along the banks of the Maitai to the gardens. If I wasn’t going to be able to see the lit-up festival, I wanted at least, to see the festival-in-waiting.
The park was, of course, in darkness. Security guards, bulky in fluorescent orange and yellow rain-jackets, stood by the wrought iron gates. When I explained my mission, Nigel, one of the guards, offered to escort me through the park. I’m familiar with the park in the daytime - manicured flowerbeds, neat pathways, ducks-on-a-pond gentility - but at night, in the dark, it’s a much more mysterious place. The paths seem much more labyrinthine, the trees more strangely alive and the hump-back bridges more fairy-tale. Nigel walked beside me in the blackness with his torch, pointing out with a touchingly proprietorial pride, the unlit artworks beside the pond, hidden in the bushes or hanging invisibly from tree branches.
His torch beam stroked the walls of the Chinese Garden, a huddle of sheep sculptures, an empty red telephone booth and two letterboxes in which milk bottles waited patiently for the milkman who would never come.
Back at the park’s entrance I fare-welled Nigel and his colleagues and wandered homeward with the dog. That’s when I discovered that the torch-lit tour through the park had transformed my sensibilities and my sensitivity to light.
Nelson, on a wet, ordinary Friday night revealed itself to be an urban festival of light – one that is free and available every night of the year. Light gleamed in pavement puddles and in droplets on car windows. Cars pushed white light ahead of them through the streets, and towed red light behind them. Taxis carried boxes of blue light aloft on their roofs. Shop fronts all along Trafalgar Street held artfully lit and curated collections of books and shoes and glittering jewellery.
Further down the street, the motel signs held up words written in light: Sails; Cedar Grove; King’s Gate; Vacancy; No Vacancy; Vacancy. Beyond them, at the seaward end of the street, under-lighting transformed Terry Stringer’s sculpture into a tall blue-green blade slicing into the night sky.
Houses in every street were in on the act too. Lights glowed from porches and from fairy lights braided into trees. Blue light from TV and computer screens flickered. Light shone in horizontal bars through Venetian blinds and leaked through the slits of half-drawn curtains. Pot plants pressed their fronds against the light of fogged-up kitchen windows. Staff were still bent over the fryers in the white-lit interior of the Milton Street Takeaway. Next door, at the Sprig and Fern intimate groupings of drinkers in conversation sat bathed in warm yellow light.
Closer to home, the skateboard rink in Neale Park, floodlit but silent and utterly deserted, looked like a theatre stage waiting for the play to begin. And then, back on my own street, I discovered yet another supermarket trolley had magically appeared. With its nose pressed into a hedge, its steel flanks gleaming under the street lamp it was another piece of urban sculpture.