It's lights out for a a mesmerizing art installation that has illuminated the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for the past decade. Since 2013, the western span of the bridge has been home to Leo Villareal's dusk-to-dawn LED light sculpture called The Bay Lights. On Sunday night at 8 p.m., 10 years to the day of the initial unveiling, it went dark.
According to the official website, this is why:
…The Bay Lights' current system of LEDs is failing at a rate faster than can be repaired and must be replaced with a new system that is custom engineered to perform in the harsh environmental conditions of San Francisco Bay.
My friend Jennifer Holmes spent two years helping to bring the nearly two-mile long installation to fruition as its production manager. So I phoned her to get her thoughts on the story and she confirmed the piece is in bad shape, "I'm glad it's being taken down because there are so many lights out on the bridge. Honestly, I only want to see it up if it looks perfect."
Jennifer also had praise for Leo Villareal, calling him "one of the greatest living American artists," alongside luminaries like Jenny Holzer and Bill Viola. She reminded me that his career as a light artist began at an early Burning Man, specifically at Black Rock City in 1997. That's when he created a blinking light installation as a way to find his way back to his camp at night.
She insisted I check out Illuminated River, his recent work in central London that spans several Thames bridges, "I think [Leo] is amazing. He stands amongst giants."
All might not be lost though, an $11M fundraiser has been started by Illuminate, the nonprofit behind the project, to bring The Bay Lights back in bigger and better ways:
The number of programmable LEDs will double to nearly 50,000, making the artwork visible to communities around the Bay. And for the first time, we seek to have the lights be safely visible to drivers on the Bay Bridge, creating a world-class nighttime public art portal into San Francisco.
"If they don't raise the money, so be it," Jennifer told me, "It was nice. It was very pretty. And we were only planning on having it for two years initially. It's a work of art, so if they can't get the money, 'Oh well.'"