Walking Into the Light: A Review of Toronto’s Light Festival

Photo by the author.

It’s 8:00 p.m. on a frigid Friday night and the cobbled streets of the Distillery District are deserted. The emptiness makes the art installations and features at this year’s Toronto Light Festival look like relics from a lost time. The first photograph I take is of a luminous rainbow that greets me at the entrance off of Parliament Street. From where I stand, the lights are flickering endlessly, like a gateway into a carnival.  

Toronto’s annual festival of lights has been operating free for the public since 2017. Each year, the festival features both local and international artists with each of the installations designed to express creativity and brighten spirits in the darkest time of the year. The festival aims to provide attendees with an opportunity to explore a visual journey for the average city dweller. Artists this year come from Canada, Germany, Russia, Netherlands, Turkey and the United States. Sofya Batsova from Russia created a bent wooden frame called Error 101 for this year’s festival; Andreas Wannerstedt from Sweden utilizes 3D sculptures and looping animations; Canadian filmmaker Peter Rowe’s neon art is a hallmark installation within the festival.

The Distillery District is a storied Toronto neighbourhood that has been open to the public as a historical district since 2003. With the goal of stepping outside of time and to transform the spatial familiarity most Torontonians have with their environment, the Distillery District is the ideal location. Formally known as Gooderham & Worts whiskey distillery, this national historic district is rife with 19th century architecture. In addition to its association with the distillery, the district itself is popular for its shopping, dining and cultural experiences. It is home to the Soulpepper Theatre Company, Tapestry Opera, and several art galleries that contribute to Toronto’s vibrant arts scene.

The idea of using light to treat the pervading sense of melancholy people seem to feel this time of year isn’t just exclusive to the Toronto Light Festival.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is a disorder that affects about 15 percent of the population, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association of British Columbia and psychiatrists have been prescribing light therapy to treat SAD since the 1980s. Danish physician Dr. Niels Finsen was the first to discover the therapeutic and physiological effects from artificial light sources, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The Toronto Lights Festival and the World of Medicine seem to view light therapy as a way to alleviate the depressive feelings people often face when deprived from sunlight.

The walk into the heart of the Distillery District is marked cryptically by the shadows thrown across my path. With its streets dimly lit, I had to rely on the light emitting from the installations to guide my way. A twisted, shapeless form greets me once I finish taking pictures of the rainbow archway and Toronto Light Festival logo. Even with its magenta lights pulsing like an erratic heartbeat, I can’t make sense of it and I wonder how this particular installation is supposed to lift my spirits. On the contrary, its jumbled mass indicates proportions that are quite alarming to the eye. Further ahead, there’s a monstrous polar bear that towers over the main square. It’s lit from beneath and, while fun to look at, it resembles more of a night at Canada’s Wonderland during Halloween than a festive light show.

The installations themselves are widely spaced out and it is difficult to find any logical flow between them. There is limited signage identifying artists and their installations. However, there are a couple of installations that exemplify the interactivity the festival promised in its promotion materials. One in particular has a long twist of purple lights that hang over the main square, opposite the gargantuan polar bear. Attendees are able to pull at strings attached to the installation, making the lights twist above them in a way that resembled double-helix DNA strands. Some installations utilize light projection: In the alleys closest to the parking lot, luminescent dots of light pulse on the cobbled streets and the walls crawl with purple and blue spider web projections. It was within these small pockets that the installations exhibited the most unity.

It’s difficult to find motivation to venture outdoors during the winter months, especially in the evening. The Toronto Light Festival aims to cultivate an environment that encourages exploration, appreciation of an underrated art form, and a lift in spirits that is so badly needed this time of year. Unfortunately, the installations were lacking in their execution and only partially met expectations of an event meant to engage and dazzle its audience.