If you’ve had your eyes anywhere above your shoelaces while cruising the centre of Cape Town over the course of the last six months, you’ll probably have noticed crystals susepended from strings on the city street lights.
It turns out that the crystals aren’t a random act of glamification by particularly decorative city officials – they constitute a work of art by an accomplished local artist, Michael Elion.
Similarly, you might have noticed a heart strung up between two palm trees on Camps Bay Beach, right outside Cafe Caprice. That too, was Michael’s work. But the Cape Town native has his fair share of international accomplishments under his belt.
We caught up with Michael to discuss the crystals, his obsession with rainbows, his work in Paris, and how Cape Town can become a great city of art.
Why are you so interested in rainbows?
I’m interested in the perception of beauty and why we have the ability to perceive it at all. It’s a remarkable capacity but we could probably be able to live without it, life would just be a lot less interesting. Rainbows epitomise this concept as phenomena in nature. They are incredibly beautiful facets of nature, byproducts of forces interacting with our perceptual apparatus, but seem to have no obvious function and yet they bring us great pleasure when we see them. They’re like nature’s artworks. So the idea of working with nature in making them appear is what’s so rewarding and fascinating. It feels like alchemy, you assemble the correct elements and forces into a mix at the right time of day and something amazing happens! But actually its all happening in our minds because as you move the rainbow moves with you. Its that intersection of perception and beauty that interests me.
Are they real glass crystals?
Yes. For a crystal to refract light brightly and colourfully it needs a high lead content. Without it they wouldn’t create those very bright flashes of colour the you can see from so far away.
Did you purchase them out of your own pocket?
No, the project was commissioned and paid for by the Africa Centre which is part funded by the City of Cape Town. It’s really fantastic that The City is endorsing projects like this – its a great sign for anyone involved in the creative world in Cape Town.
Has anyone stolen any one of them?
They are very high up so anyone willing to risk their life trying to get them is welcome to one! Although I did have to ask the electricity department to stop nicking them – they can get to them with their trucks when they fix the lights.
How did you get them up there?
I used a cherry picker. It was a ridiculously huge machine to be using for installing such a tiny crystals but there was no other way to get up there safely. And the whole performance of driving this tank-like machine through the traffic from morning til night for ten days, hanging little gems in the sky, gave the project another layer.
How many are there?
So far 1000, but I’d like to put up few thousand more. People seem to love them so why not extend it to other parts of Cape Town?
Are birds scared of them?
I’ve heard that a many times but no they have no effect on the birds. The birds still sit on top of the lamp posts with the crystals sparkling underneath them. The birds can’t see the flashes because the sun is above them.
How long did the heart in Camps Bay stay up?
The heart was up for 4 months. I took it down as we came into the winter months but I’ll put it up again this summer.
I Love You, by Michael Elion
You first performed the Crystal Light (Spotting Rainbows) pole installation in Paris. What are you trying to achieve with the piece?
Simply to remind people of the beauty in the world. There is so much beauty in almost everything around us from the tiniest insect to the profound sublimity of the universe, but we can forget how fortunate we are to have it surrounding us. The crystals aren’t really even my artwork, it’s nature that creates the beauty the work. So hopefully when people are buzzing around the city consumed with the pressures of urban life, there’s a little reminder about the incredible world we live in. When one of those little flashes of colour appear in unexpectedly in the sky you think, “wow, that’s beautiful!”, like nature just winked at you. That little moment of joy is what the work is about.
How does Cape Town compare to Paris as a backdrop to your art?
I lived in Paris for 6 years, it has an incredibly beautiful built environment and doing urban projects there feels as if you’re interacting with a different time in history. I did a project there called HALO where I floated an illuminated 22m diameter ring above the National Archives, it was like spaceship hovering above an ancient building and that contrast was potent. In Cape Town the natural beauty that we’re so fortunate to have surrounding our city becomes integral to any artwork outdoors. It also offers a completely different template to work with. I’m developing an artwork at the moment that will be in the sea, I could never do that if I lived in Paris.
What would it take for Cape Town to be recognized as a great international city of art?
Cape Town being awarded World Design Capital 2014 is a great start . And if the City continues bringing art into the built environment it will be inevitable. We’re seeing more and more of it which is fantastic. Imagine you lived in London and heard that in Cape Town the city hangs crystals from all their lampposts to bring colour into the cityscape and for no other reason than to bring joy to its inhabitants. You’d know it would be the sort of city where art was flourishing and so I think we’re on our way.
Will you be preparing any particular pieces for the World Design Capital 2014 in Cape Town?
This project called “Spotting Rainbows in Cape Town” is part of it but I’ll also be putting real rainbows in different parts of the city. I have some new public sculptures that I’m working on as well.
I was invited by NBC news in New York to create a rainbow on Rockefeller Plaza for the Today Show – that will hopefully happen this July. I’ve also made some giant silver ants (the size of dogs) that I’m going to have crawling all over the buildings in Cape Town. And I’m creating an art street where the entire street and all the urban furniture the buildings will become giant artworks.
Check out Michael’s website, here.
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