Hayward Gallery, London, 2006

Beau Lotto, Dr Mark Lythgoe (UCL) and Dr Mark Miodownick (King’s College London) were the first scientists asked to create an installation for the Hayward Gallery, London. Their work provided a unique perspective on the work of Dan Flavin included in the retrospective exhibition hosted by the Hayward Gallery in 2006, celebrating the work of the late American installation artist.

White Light, White Shadows, the installation created by Beau Lotto, investigated what Dan Flavin called ‘the incidentals’ – colours we see in his work but that don’t actually exist in the lights he used. As a neuroscientist of colour perception, Beau’s installation explored how and why we see colour as we do, emphasising the fundamental importance of context in determining what we see.

Beau Lotto also created a second installation of living bees, which showed that the role of context is not restricted to the human brain, but underpins the colour perception of all animals, including the simple bumblebee. In this installation Beau trained bees to forage from differently coloured artificial, Plexiglas flowers while the public looked on. Beau discussed his installation on Leading Edge, BBC Radio 4’s science magazine programme, broadcast in February 2006.

The exhibition

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White light, white shadows: a description

The installation consists of a large flat sheet of clear Plexiglas set in front of a large white canvas. Set in relief within the Plexi sheet are 20 white squares. On the other side of the room is one white stage light and four coloured stage lights, which results in multiple shadows cast onto the white canvas behind. While the shadows lit by the coloured lights appear – not surprisingly – coloured, the shadows lit by only the white light also appear – more amazingly – coloured.