Tripping the light fantastic: On Saturday, a shaft of light will pierce the night sky over London, illuminating the Meridian Line from its starting-point at the Old Royal Observatory. Dalya Alberge reports on the latest addition to the skyline

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The Independent Culture
Peter Fink would rather his name wasn't mentioned. Happy enough to talk about his art, he is uneasy at the hyping of artists - 'who are becoming actors rather than creators'. He believes artists should be more like architects, whose buildings are often better known than the individuals who built them. 'Artists have become 'culture-icons',' he adds, 'propelled by the art market into producing 'significant' works with a recognisable style, that can be repeated and bought, before they develop fully.'

Anonymity has given Fink the freedom to move with ease between artistic styles. He switches between abstract constructions in steel (reminiscent of Sir Anthony Caro and Alexander Calder) and massive-scale, outdoor laser-sculptures, inspired by Christo, the Bulgarian-American who drapes cloth over cliffs, and James Turrell, the American who is hollowing out the insides of a volcano to play with light (see review, left).

He is pleased that, while his name is known by only a handful of people outside the art world, an estimated 3.5 million people will recall the night in 1992 that they lined the banks of the Thames to watch his lasers in action at Canary Wharf. On Saturday, Fink switches on his latest laser sculpture, O'degrees, which will be a permanent addition to the London skyline.

Fink's work will throw a beam of pale turquoise light across the night sky further than the eye can see (across 10 miles, to be precise). Its starting-point will be the Greenwich Old Royal Observatory, from where it will trace the Meridian Line. In effect, he says, he is 'making the invisible visible'.

'It will be absolutely spot on the Meridian Line, accurate to the second,' he explains. 'I don't want people phoning the Observatory saying it's a bit out.'

The beam will shoot out of what looks like a propulsion engine surrounded by a mass of transformers, air-coolers, cables and tubes. It was some three years ago that the National Maritime Museum first thought of constructing a beam to trace the Line: the unveiling this week is timed to coincide with the reopening of the Observatory, after a 15- month, pounds 2m refurbishment.

Lining up the beam is not that difficult, according to Patrick Roper of the National Maritime Museum. 'You line it up above the cross-fire on the telescope.' But sculpting with lasers requires more than an artist's skills: Fink has had to be engineer, architect, scientist, administrator and fund-raiser. Although he studied engineering at Prague University ('not art, as I didn't want to do political art,' he says), he needed the co-operation of laser-scientists. Scientific data has to be absolutely exact because lasers are optically dangerous: they need to be positioned 200 yards above ground-level to avoid the risk of damaging the sight of passers-by. That made planning permission somewhat awkward to obtain.

It took years of patient and persistent negotiations. Like an architect's work, he says, 20 per cent of the time went on the creative side; 80 per cent on the rest. 'That is one of the reasons that there are not many permanent lasers. People over-estimate the difficulties. They are not insurmountable, though you never know until the last moment if you'll be able to satisfy all the conditions.'

He needed, for example, to get clearance from civil aviation authorities and the City Airport, to ensure that the beam would not interfere with flights, and from English Heritage, who needed reassuring that the Observatory, a national monument, would not be spoilt. He had to study Ordnance Survey maps to check that there were no buildings into which the beam would shine, although it will be automatically switched off at 10.30pm each night. 'I couldn't have it shining into someone's bedroom.' Then there were the Coast Guards, the marine division of the Department of Transport, the Health and Safety people, the local boroughs, the River Police, the Metropolitan Police. And so the list goes on.

When he was not seeking permission, he was out fund-raising: he eventually persuaded Horizon Laser Graphics, an American company whose interests lie both in science (lasers for lighthouses, for example) and entertainment (discos, primarily), to provide pounds 35,000 of equipment, and the commitment to maintain the sculpture.

Once the ball was rolling, Fink could return to the task of being an artist. With Horizon, he produced brief technical sketches and photomontages, calculating the intensity and width of the beam, and the density of light. With their computers, he created a photorealistic presentation, to simulate an animated, walk- through experience.

Ultimately, he was seeking to express 'the poetic impact of a beam of light'. 'People have a general empathy to light, which they wouldn't otherwise feel in modern art . . . They see the poetic nature of something as intangible as light.' Being able to span miles of space allows him to reach out to a vast audience.

As on the Canary Wharf project, Fink is liaising closely with Anne Bean, the performance artist. For the grand unveiling, they are choreographing a 'water ballet' that includes a flotilla of ships, synchronised pyrotechnics, helium balloons and a musical composition for 100 trombonists. 'I cannot say more,' says Fink, 'I don't want to give the game away.'

He is now setting his laser sights on 1994, on a project that will illuminate major architectural vistas in London. He is talking to architects, trying to persuade them to use lasers for architectural lighting. The cost, he says, is comparable to floodlighting a building, 'with a higher visibility than you can ever achieve with floodlights . . . Lasers make buildings reach out into the landscape around them, making them an integral part of the city. That was one of the successful aspects of Canary Wharf. The building was reduced to a more personal scale, four times smaller than it actually was, through the web of light.'

He reassures anyone worried about the dangers of lasers that the computer-operated system has a built-in safety device. Artistic accidents can be fatal: a piece of Christo's sculptures (a giant umbrella) recently killed someone when it was blown away. 'Once any part falls out, the whole thing shuts off,' Fink assures us. Security staff in the Observatory are also being trained on how to shut it off within two minutes. There was, for example, an emergency shut-down at Canary Wharf when cloud-formations accidentally redirected the laser- beams to illuminate the runway of Heathrow airport. 'We got a phone- call from their air tower and immediately altered the direction of the lights,' he recalls. 'That was the only incident,' he adds.

The Greenwich Meridian Laser Event: the 'water ballet' takes place on 1 May, 9.20-10pm, in Greenwich and the London Docklands. Designated viewing areas are Grosvenor Wharf and the opposite side of the river bank; free. Details from Camerawork: 081-980 6256

(Photograph omitted)

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