Running until January 21st, the 6th edition of the Amsterdam Light Festival is a highlight of the Amsterdam cultural calendar. Our Senior Copywriter Ryan Millar took a Christmas Day cruise to experience the bright lights of this big city’s temporary open-air gallery.
With this year’s theme of Existential, the Amsterdam Light Festival asks visitors to think about the role light plays in creating and defining shared (and private) space.
I’ll tell you one visitor who missed the lofty ambitions of this year’s artistic endeavors: my 15-month-old daughter. Nevertheless, she sure did enjoy the boat ride and, when she wasn’t attempting to eat the earbuds attached to the audio guide, was occasionally transfixed by the pretty lights.
“Ooooh,” she said, on more than one occasion.
A bright-lights boat ride through the canals
We aimed for the first Lovers Canal Cruise on Christmas Day, and as the dark descended, we easily found the Lovers kiosk by Amsterdam Centraal. It took only about 15 minutes from arrival for us to board the boat. After a brief introduction from the captain, off we sailed.
The captain gave most of his running commentary in Dutch, with brief English summaries at the end. This was supplemented by pre-recorded English-language facts and history about some of the permanent features on the route.
Like I said, my daughter was focused on eating the earbuds, so I only picked up on a smattering of the canned audio, but we were more focused on the light installations anyway.
Experiencing Amsterdam Light Festival 2018
With more than 35 large scale installations dotted across Amsterdam city center, there are certainly plenty of well-lit delights to discover. The most anticipated is probably Thinline, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s red LED rope that encircles the whole of the exhibition zone.
It’s an ambitious work – the longest sculpture ever shown at the festival – but it’s certainly not the most eye-catching. It does take on added meaning when you think of his run-ins with the Chinese government (including being jailed for 81 days in 2011), and notice how it how it brightly demarcates boundaries.
For an artist who has never shied away from pushing limits and challenging the status quo, it’s an understated achievement to add a political charge to this family-friendly affair. But most of the art here on display goes for a flashier approach (well, they are made out of lights), and there are quite a few highlights (look, at this point, it’s hard not to pun).
Besides Thinline, other standouts were Whole Hole – a flickering tunnel of light that feels like you’re jumping to warp speed as you glide through – and Lifeline by Claes Meijer. This relatively simple artwork is influenced by the sounds of passing canal traffic and concerns about noise pollution on the water. Stomp on the floor of the boat and watch the line jump!
Coming down from the well-lit highs
Amsterdam Light Festival is one of the highlights of the city’s cultural calendar, and for good reason. It’s unusual, it’s artistic, and if nothing else, it gives you a great reason to take a nighttime cruise of Amsterdam’s canals (something worth doing any time of the year, but especially while the light fest is on).
Refreshments aren’t served on board, so I brought popcorn and a ginger beer for my wife and I to share. But as my daughter pulled the earbuds out of my ear to put them in her mouth for the 11th time in the last 45 minutes (while climbing on the table), I realized that casual snacking just wasn’t going to happen.
Despite the parenting challenges, this cruise was thought-provoking, visually arresting, and… a boat ride on Amsterdam’s canals! That’s a lot of wins!
With fewer than two weeks remaining, jump on the chance to cruise the canals — just leave the popcorn (or the toddler) at home. (Just kidding: bring the kids, obviously).