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  • Rosie McCann

Low Sodium, Night Frequencies: Julie Laing Exhibition Review

Rosie McCann highlights Julie Laing's recent art exhibition which is an ode to LPS (low sodium pressure) streetlights. Be sure to check out this exhibition, it's on at Agitate until January 26th.

Illustration by Catriona Clark (IG: @abstract_artstudent)

‘Low sodium, night frequencies’ presents Julie Laing’s ode to low sodium pressure (LPS) streetlights. If you don’t know what these are, they’re the low-intensity lamps which light up our night-time streets in a distinctive orange-yellow glow—often thought of, as acknowledged by the artist, as eerie or even depressing. They became more commonplace with the economic restrictions of the post-war environment because of their efficiency and reduced effects on light pollution.  However, in more recent years they are rivalled by brighter, whiter, more artificial lighting and they’re dying out. Julie Laing, the photographer behind this exhibition, has been taking photos which capture their warm yellow-orange colour spectrum since 2015. This eight-year exploration, and perhaps it’s fair to say ‘obsession’, is translated into the selected photographs to highlight their understated beauty, which is often unnoticed. 

Some of the photos directly feature the streetlights. Their light floods the surroundings in orange monochrome. Yet Laing has also included some more abstract images which delve deeper into the effects of LPS light. In one of the largest images presented, orange and yellow balls of light glisten on wet and muddy ground. Some of the larger orbs of light seem to float, perhaps having been reflected, and they radiate more intensely, climbing up the colour scale towards white-hot. It creates an otherworldly effect reminiscent of multiple suns. Through this series, Laing accents the transformative power of LPS to mutate the quotidian street into a dreamscape, the all-consuming orange light altering reality. 

When I visited this exhibition, I was lucky enough to witness an LPS streetlamp in action! Accompanied by a musical performance by Edinburgh-based sound artist Bryant Bayhan, the lamp progressively transformed the room with its light, turning the room into something adjacent to the photographs hung on the walls. The spectrum of colour from LPS is demonstrated across the selection of images. When these lights first flicker on, they beam a dim pinkish red which then melts into their renowned orange glow before settling on a warm diffused yellow. In the photographs, the monochrome ranges from a deeper, dimmer orange to a more luminous yellow, seeping the urban landscapes in unnatural, saturated colour. 

DecemberJanuary is the perfect period to exhibit this work, with daylight hours falling as we draw nearer towards the winter solstice. One of the images shows an LPS streetlamp radiating a glow similar to decorated Christmas trees in the tenement windows behind it. Laing has acknowledged the more negative responses towards this lighting, with some finding it nauseating or depressing. However, despite the association of sodium-vapour lighting with the unsettling and the eerie, these photographed night frequencies emanate the nostalgia and charm experienced when walking past softly illuminated living rooms when it’s dark outside. They instil a wonder in something which is regarded as mundane or banal and is so frequently overlooked. I am grateful for having spent a dark winter’s evening looking at these photos. 

Julie Laing’s Low sodium, night frequencies is on at Agitate until Jan 26th, 2024.

(Photos by Rosie McCann)



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