Going With The Glow

Swiss artist Gerry Hofstetter illuminates Washington's National Cathedral.
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

A Swiss "illumination artist" lit up the sides of Washington National Cathedral last night with giant multicolored images. There were projections of stars, human faces and an abstract thing that looked like an exploded tomato. At one point a 50-foot-tall woman in a kimono materialized.

Reactions ranged from awed to puzzled.

The lights were a test run for an art project called "Lighting to Unite," which the cathedral describes as "a call for national and global unity."

The lighting is the work of Gerry Hofstetter, a 45-year-old artist from Zurich who has been projecting images on large surfaces since 1999. Hofstetter doesn't do small: He's shone British-flag emblems on the white cliffs of Dover, hieroglyphics on the Great Pyramid, and a polar bear on an Antarctic iceberg. His next project will involve Mount Kilimanjaro. He is to lighting what Christo is to fabric.

Last night, Hofstetter ran a series of glass plates through a 6,000-volt projector and said artisty things like "Light is hope, fire is energy. These colors mean hope and energy."

The images projected on the cathedral "speak of unity and reconciliation . . . and human oneness," said the Rev. Sam Lloyd, the cathedral's dean.

In truth, the sight of the neo-Gothic cathedral swaddled in a phantasm of psychedelic lights was a little jarring, the way the Mona Lisa would look with a rainbow 'fro wig. The whole concept seemed vaguely overwhelming, like those midnight planetarium laser shows of yore, only without the Pink Floyd soundtrack and all the reefer.

Viewers and passersby generally applauded, though some were a little unclear on the underlying artistic theme.

Muriel Farley Dominguez of Arlington declared: "I love it. It's just lovely. It gives a different perspective on the cathedral." But Diane Pirkey of Rehoboth Beach, Del., was stumped by the unity message. "I don't get that out of this."

Jon Utley of Georgetown stopped his car on Wisconsin Avenue NW to view the show. A former marketing man, he wondered if the projection technology could be adapted for sales purposes. "It's really astounding," he said. On the other hand, he added, "it's not quite dignified to project colorful abstractions on the cathedral."

Hofstetter's work will be on display tonight through Sunday from sunset to midnight. The south-side projections are visible from various vantage points around town.

In the morning, the cathedral goes back to being lighted the old-fashioned way.

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