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Illuminate SF: Six must-see-now light art installations in San Francisco

November 19, 2013 Destination North America No Comments Email Email

While artists have been utilizing light to illuminate art from the beginning of time, light art has been gaining awareness as its own art form where the main media of expression and focus is light.   As a center of innovation, San Francisco has attracted these installations like, well, moths to a flame.   

While the city is already aglow for the holidays, San Francisco is also celebrating light as art with truly brilliant, eco-friendly light art exhibits.  This convergence is being called Illuminate SF and consists of six temporary and/or permanent installations:

The Bay Lights, by Leo Villareal

Hotel-de-la-Paix-Cha-AmSan Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, north side of western span

The Bay Lights is the world’s largest LED light sculpture, 1.8 miles wide and 500 feet high. Inspired by the Bay Bridge’s 75th Anniversary, its 25,000 white LED lights are individually programmed by artist Leo Villareal to create a never-repeating, dazzling display across the Bay Bridge’s west span.  The Bay Lights is a monumental tour de force eight times the scale of the Eiffel Tower’s 100th Anniversary lighting. Views of this Bay Bridge light sculpture are best witnessed along the Embarcadero/Waterfront, particularly from the Ferry Building to Pier 33. See a Best Views interactive map, learn about the Path to Permanence campaign and view The Bay Lights streamed live nightly at

Currently temporary exhibit on view through March 2015 from dusk until dawn.

Firefly, by Ned Kahn

525 Golden Gate Ave. at Polk St.

Civic Center

*Civic Art Collection

Created by celebrated environmental artist Ned Kahn, Firefly is a nearly 12-story kinetic sculpture that was commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) new state-of-the-art headquarters. Kahn’s Firefly is a lattice of tens of thousands of five-inch-square, clear-polycarbonate panels hinged to allow them to move freely in the wind. During the day, the ever-changing wind pressure profile on the building appears as undulating waves. At night, this movement is converted into light. As the wind presses the hinged panels inward a small embedded magnet connected to an electrical reed switch triggers the flickering of tiny LED lights. The lights are colored to mimic fireflies, which are a threatened species due to their dependence on riparian ecosystems. The entire sculpture requires less energy than a 75-Watt light bulb.

Permanent installation, viewable 24/7 on the exterior of the PUC headquarters, lighting up each evening upon nightfall.

Firefly, by Ned Kahn

Language of the Birds, Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn

Intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenues, North Beach

*Civic Art Collection

Language of the Birds is a permanent site-specific sculpture by San Francisco artists Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn, located at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus avenues. Commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission through the city’s two-percent-for-art program this piece is part of a new pedestrian plaza linking Chinatown and North Beach. Each book mimics a bird in motion with various wing positions created by the forms of the pages and bindings. At night LED lights embedded within the books create visual patterns; at different times one might see the flock subtly pulsing or giving off a spectacular zoetrope effect. It is the first solar power-offset public artwork in California, and artists Goggin and Keehn teamed up with scientist David Shearer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore to provide solar power to the city’s grid, offsetting the energy used by the artwork. Passing under the flock, pedestrians will notice words and phrases embedded in the plaza floor, which appear to have fallen from the pages above. On closer inspection the fallen words are in English, Italian and Chinese and were selected from the neighborhood’s rich literary history.

Permanent installation viewable 24/7, lighting up each evening at nightfall.

Language of the Birds, Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn

*The Civic Art Collection encompasses more than 4,000 objects, including historic monuments, murals, paintings, sculptures, installations and other media. The San Francisco Arts Commission oversees this rich and diverse collection, which helps distinguishes the city as an important cultural destination. To learn more visit,

Future’s Past, Kate Raudenbush                               

Patricia’s Green at Octavia and Hayes Streets, Hayes Valley

In close collaboration with the Hayes Valley Arts Coalition and Hayes Valley community members, the Black Rock Arts Foundation showcases an admired work of art crafted by Kate Raudenbush and temporarily installed in Hayes Valley’s Patricia’s Green. First exhibited at Burning Man 2010, Future’s Past is an intricate metal sculpture standing 24 feet tall.  The quiet, contained space provokes, invites and nurtures introspection and examination of the relationship between nature, technology as well as culture and tells a story of civilization being reclaimed by nature. The 12-foot base of the piece harkens an ancient pyramid and springing from its top is an ornate 12-foot Bodhi tree, which is a symbol of freedom from earthly attachments. At night, eerie green light shines through the finely cut, circuit board-like patterns in the base’s walls.  The mysterious, temple-like structure evokes an archeological account of another time, or even an alien culture.

Temporary installation, viewable 24/7, lighting up each evening at nightfall.

Future’s Past, Kate Raudenbush

Homouroboros, Peter Hudson           

Exploratorium at Pier 15 Embarcadero

The Exploratorium, in collaboration with the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF), brings Homouroboros, a large-scale interactive zoetrope by San Francisco artist Peter Hudson, to the public plaza at Pier 15. At 24-feet-tall, the work’s tree-like steel frame and mushroom, cloud-shaped canopy feature 18 human-sized monkeys that dangle from its branches. By pounding on drums built into the base of the trunk, spectators cause the top of the tree to spin, turning the monkeys on their branches into a vision-bending arboreal escapade. Strobe lights at night and special goggles during the day complete the Homouroborosexperience – a phenomenon of the eye called “persistence of vision” that turns the 18 monkeys into a three-dimensional motion picture. The monkeys appear as a single, animated monkey, snatching an apple from the mouth of a serpent slithering down a branch. Close inspection reveals that the mouth of the serpent is really in the shape of a human hand.

Temporary installation through Dec. 31, 2013, best viewed daily 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., publicly accessible.

Three Gems, James Turrell
de Young Museum, Osher Sculpture Garden, Golden Gate Park

Best known for his visionary work with light, James Turrell’s Three Gems is a subterranean installation commissioned specifically for the de Young sculpture garden.  It features a view of the sky altered by LED lighting effects highlighted by changing light and weather conditions outside.   Although Turrell has created other skyspaces, his project for the de Young was his first skyspace to adopt the stupa form.   Experience Three Gems by walking through a short tunnel cut into the hill, and enter into a cylindrical space carved out of the hill. The retaining walls of this cylindrical space will be white concrete and the floor will be red stone.  Once inside the stupa, sit on a stone bench lining the walls and view the sky through an oculus cut in the roof of the chamber.  Viewers’ perceptions of the sky color will be subtly altered by an LED lighting system inside the chamber, and by changing light and weather conditions outside the chamber.

Permanent installation, during museum hours of operation, admission required.

Three Gems, James Turrell


The short days of the holiday season are a natural for celebrating with light in San Francisco. See our holiday press release – San Francisco: A city glowing with holiday activities and events – for information on dozens of events from building, tree and menorah lightings to boat parades and lantern festivals.

The San Francisco Travel Association is the official tourism marketing organization for the City and County of San Francisco. For information on reservations, activities and more, visit or call 415-391-2000.  The Visitor Information Center is located at 900 Market St. in Hallidie Plaza, lower level, near the Powell Street cable car turnaround.

For an insider’s perspective, join the more than 540,000 people who follow San Francisco Travel on Facebook at and more than 116,000 who follow “OnlyinSF” on Twitter.
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San Francisco International Airport (SFO) offers non-stop flights to more than 31 international points on 30 international carriers. The Bay Area’s largest airport connects non-stop with 76 cities in the U.S. on 15 domestic airlines. For up-to-the-minute departure and arrival information, airport maps and details on shopping, dining, cultural exhibitions, ground transportation and more, visit Follow SFO on and

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