Located on an alluvial plain, much of the Netherlands lies below sea level. The first century Roman writer Pliny the Elder described the region in Natural History, a compendium of everything known in the world at the time, as follows:
“There, twice in every twenty-four hours, the ocean’s vast tide sweeps in a flood over a large stretch of land and hides Nature’s everlasting controversy about whether this region belongs to the land or to the sea.”
For twelve centuries, the Dutch have developed and sustained an innovative system of dikes, under the management of local water boards, to protect the country from catastrophic floods. Ironically, so successful has the dike technology been in preventing flooding that much of the Dutch citizenry has become complacent to the on-going threat, or as the Dutch Water Board Rhine and IJssel admitted, they have a “weak spot” when it comes to water awareness. So, in 2015, they commissioned artist/designer Daan Roosegaarde to create an installation that would simulate what it would look like if the Netherlands’s dikes did not exist and the country was completely flooded in order to “raise awareness about the power and poetry of water.”
Using blue LED lights projected through lenses, Roosegaarde and his team of designers and engineers at Studio Roosgaarde in Rotterdam, the social design lab he created to merge technology and art in urban environments, developed “Waterlicht” (Water Light). Installed originally across 4 acres of flood channel of the River Ijssel near Westervoort, Netherlands, “Waterlicht” allowed visitors to experience an eerie, virtual flood. As Roosegaarde explained: “walking on the dike, the light lines are perceived as high water; once in the flood channel you find yourself in an underwater world.” In addition to its clear reference to the specific, inherent water challenges of the Netherlands, “Waterlicht” also called attention to the manmade impact on the environment that is causing tides to rise due to climate change.
The first visitors to “Waterlicht” in Westervoort nicknamed the installation “the Northern Lights of the Netherlands” for the way the beams flashed through the sky like the aurora borealis. In order to create “Waterlicht’s” dramatic wavy lines and dreamy underwater effect, Roosegaarde installed the LED lights, powered by motors, around the periphery of the site so that the light beams intersected in the sky as they moved up and down like ocean waves. As an extra effect, the prevailing wind affected the beams to create unexpected light alterations. Because the light beams were never exactly the same, those who came to the installation on consecutive nights reported a very different sequence of lights and a different sensual experience.
Following the enormous success of the 2015 “Waterlicht” in Westervoort, Roosegaarde developed additional site-specific installations in a number of European locations including: Amsterdam (2015); Paris (2015); UNESCO Schokland, Netherlands (2016); Madrid (2017); Middleburg, Netherlands (2017); and most recently in London (January, 2018) and Leeuwarden, Netherlands (February, 2018). The number of visitors to “Waterlicht” sites has been enormous – 60,000 individuals in one night alone at Museumplein in Amsterdam and 1.5 million in London over 4 days.
The London installation was enhanced by a sound track of music and Roosegaarde’s narration of the installation. Although it is impossible to duplicate the physical, visual and emotional experience without actually being there, Studio Roosegaarde has produced a short video of “Waterlicht” that provides a sense of what visitors have described as “magnificent,” “epic,” and “powerful.”
“Waterlicht” is by no means the only socially innovative project that has been produced by Studio Roosegaarde. They are dedicated to what Roosegaarde calls “Schoonheid, a Dutch word meaning both ‘beauty’ and ‘clean’ as in clean air, clean energy and clean water.” They created the world’s largest smog vacuum cleaner, a 23-foot-tall tower that produces smog free air in public spaces, which was tested and applied in China; smog free jewelry; a smog free bicycle; smart highways or roads that charge throughout the day and glow at night and numerous other inventive prototypes for “the landscape of tomorrow.” In 2017, Roosegaarde was awarded the LIT Lighting Designer of the Year, USA and the Best Lighting Environment Design, Canada, for his work on “Waterlicht.”
(Top image: Waterlicht, Museumplein, Amsterdam, 2015, Courtesy of Studio Roosegaarde.)
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.