EXXOPOLIS-Sculpting with air and light in Nottingham

By William Dowell, June 2012

Alan Parkinson, who lives in Gex, creates exquisitely beautiful structures that transport us briefly to a different space.  Parkinson’s latest creation, Exxopolis is the current center of attraction at “Wheeee!” the Lakeside arts festival, in Nottingham, England.  A show in Switzerland is planned for next September.

Some works of art fascinate us by their beauty or striking appearance. Conceptual art changes the way we see the world around us.  Alan Parkinson’s luminarium manages to do both.

Essentially a walk-through sculpture created from diaphanous plastic material less than half a millimeter thick, these structures at a quick glance resemble the “air castles” that children love to bounce on at amusement parks.  But once you step through the curtains of the structure’s airlock, the effect is both startlingly beautiful and completely absorbing. The luminarium is a labyrinth of magically lit passageways, geometric domes and luminous alcoves. The modular structure can cover 1200 square meters (nearly three acres) and rise to the height of a 3-story building.  Gentle music in the background provides an otherworldly atmosphere.  [click here for a video/ click here for a slideshow]

The Nottingham version is entitled  Exxopolis, and is the latest evolution of 20 similar structures that  have traveled to at least 38 countries (the XX in Exxopolis represents the Roman numeral ’20’).  An early venue was Scotland’s celebrated arts festival, The Fringe.  The luminarium’s appeal is universal and early last year a luminarium at a festival in Sydney, Australia, attracted a half million Australian dollars in entry receipts.  At one point a financier from Goldman Sachs reserved one for his personal use. Half a dozen luminaria are currently touring the world.  Exxopolis will be in Omaha, Nebraska for the last week in June, and at the Minnesota State Fair in Saint Paul in the last week of August. Other luminaria will be on exhibit over the summer in France, Germany, Ireland, Hungary and Switzerland.  Appearances are also slated for Arkansas and Texas in September.

Mado Ehrenborg, Architects of Air’s managing director, who is based in Chamonix, describes the structure as giving the impression that it is almost alive since it seems to sigh slightly when the entrance curtain is lifted as you go in.   Parkinson had to experiment for a long time to arrive at precisely the right design to keep the ultra-thin plastic from expanding too much and to create the luminous effects that create the structures’ stunning internal beauty. 

The design process is an evolutionary one.  Parkinson’s father was a mechanical engineer who specialized in pressure vessels. His grandfather had manufactured boilers for steam generation.  Parkinson himself worked at various odd jobs in the construction industry before discovering photography, which he says reconnected him to the physical world around him.  After earning a master’s degree, he decided that he liked teaching more than actually taking photographs.  In various workshops he helped students to experiment with the basic components that make a camera, essentially he was exploring the nature of light.  His life shifted in a new direction when he obtained a driver’s license but didn’t have a car.  He decided to take a job that would enable him to practice driving, and the opportunity that presented itself was with the Corrections Department, ferrying offenders on probation. At the time, the British courts were sentencing petty offenders to public service jobs in place of jail time. A public service destinations that eventually caught his interest was a charity producing large blow-up mattresses dubbed ‘windbags’.  These served as inflatable trampolines for small children to play on in recreation centers.  By the time the charity folded, Parkinson had already become deeply involved in the possibilities of pneumatic architecture and decided to pursue its development on his own.   “The program had run its course, and Alan was ready to move on,” says Mary Stephens, Parkinson’s boss at the time. 

A major step forward was Eggopolis, a series of soaring egg-shaped domes and connecting passageways that first appeared in 1990.   Parkinson was concerned that children became overly excited when they entered the structures, and he thought a directed experience led by adults would calm them down.  A friend, Bill Gee, suggested using a theatre troupe to perform inside the sculpture and to give it more of a focus.  Gee was developing as an arts festival organizer, and eventually the structure and the group began touring.  Architects of Air, was formally created as a company in 1992, but it also evolved into a vehicle for exploring Parkinson’s own feelings and perceptions about creating an environment for other people.  By immersing the spectator in a calming environment, completely devoid of stress and external stimuli, the luminarium provides a brief, carefully crafted opportunity to find an inner peace in a world that often seems on the brink of madness.

Parkinson says that his father had at times expressed serious doubts about his career prospects, but Mary Stephens, who headed the section of the Corrections Department, where Parkinson worked, said that both his father and mother were overcome with emotion and pride when they saw what their son had produced and the impact that it  had on the public.

“At times I feel that I do not really own the structure,” Parkinson admits, looking at the spectators exploring the main dome at Exxopolis.  “I feel that it is taken over by the people who come into it.  I guess that is the way it should be.”  That said, there is little doubt that it is Parkinson who controls of every aspect of the luminarium.   Parkinson says that a number of musicians offered to compose music for it, but that he found it difficult to choose the right sound.  “I didn’t want the music to create an image,” he says. “I wanted it to be neutral, so that it would be there but that you wouldn’t notice it. It wouldn’t intrude.” 

The complexity of the luminarium has grown with each new design. Experience and Parkinson’s exploration of his own sensitivities have provided subtle nuances.  Exxopolis is the most ambitious of the structures so far.  A large dome at the back is expansive enough for a choir to perform and the Nottingham festival commissioned three pieces of music especially for the event.  Parkinson fretted that the open space directly under the dome might be off-putting to spectators and less welcoming than the alcoves.   He needn’t have worried. The overall impression seemed to be one of amazement, delight and wonder.  A Chinese exchange student surveying the visitors exiting the luminarium for her PhD thesis noted that nearly everyone had described the structure as having affected them the most at the arts festival.  At a particularly gray moment, when the world seems obsessed with financial crises, joblessness and the falling euro, the luminarium  offers a few moments of luminous beauty and calm reflection. That is not a small achievement.

For more information, go to: http://www.architects-of-air.com/
To see a slideshow go to: http://wtdowell.com/Exxopolis/index.html
To Watch a video: go to: https://vimeo.com/43883735