GLEAM at Olbrich Gardens

Emily Cai and Morgan Blackmore

You may know Olbrich Gardens for its lush 16-acre gardens and stunning indoor conservatory, but from August to October, Olbrich’s most impressive experience happens after twilight. GLEAM, an annual exhibit of dazzling and interactive light installations, weaves through the outskirts of Olbrich from art piece to art piece before arriving at the Bolz Conservatory, highlighting the beauty of bioluminescence. This grand spectacle features installations from local, regional, and international designers while highlighting sustainably sourced materials. 

The Mushroom Grove, created by James Ream and Benjamin Smith, is the first, and most certainly one of the most memorable, installations throughout the entire GLEAM experience. Inspired by enchanted forests, immortality, and environmental harmony, the grove consists of mushrooms made from multi-colored (and locally sourced) beeswax, underlit trees, and twinkling grasses. With its movie-like magical charm and flawless execution, this exhibit topped our favorites for the non-interactive pieces—though a seemingly simple idea, it lacked any imperfections and continued to keep the audience captivated throughout their walk. Its goal, which stated the artists’ hope to encourage their viewers to re-examine their relationship with fungi, was most certainly achieved; this installation brought about peace with its low light levels and deep music, and left us feeling comforted and satisfied. 

After an illuminated stroll through the firefly forest, guests are led to an open grassy area featuring Mark-David Hosale’s piece, Tidal Disruption. The piece was meant to represent the spirit of a black hole’s inescapable tidal pull utilizing clear pvc pipe and custom-controlled LED lights, running on 1000 watts of electricity. While the energy demand is magnificent, Tidal Disruption’s performance was lackluster. This installation being reminiscent of a black hole feels like an oxymoron. Given the elusive yet supremely captivating nature of black holes, it was expected that Tidal Disruption would be an experience of the senses and inspire curiosity; however, the execution was disappointing and viewers were left with a suspiciously sperm-esque sight paralleling the geometric confusion of Memorial’s lower 800s bathroom mural. 

Nearing the end of the outdoor segment, there comes the next big disappointment in the form of the installment “Out Of The MeowVerse” from Katerine Cannistra. As our least favorite interactive experience, we found that at its core, this piece simply didn’t seem to belong in an event about plants and fungi. As a giant, LED version of the famous Nyan Cat from 2011, the artist noted their hopes that this piece would act as a commentary surrounding NFTs, which seemed very bizarre in a biology-based immersive walkthrough. Even the term “interactive” seems a bit of a stretch compared to the other, truly interactive experiences throughout—whereas this was simply comprised of a few button presses. Overall, though this installment was certainly colorful and bright, its attempt to be profound severely limited its relatably and our overall enjoyment. 

Though a few pieces missed the mark, the night ended with our favorite interactive piece, MICRO by Aaron Sherwood & Kiori Kawai, which featured a multitude of semi-translucent orbs hung by strings, which stretched across a row of arbors. Each orb, when tapped, lit up and produced a unique noise, ranging from a dramatic organ to the clash of cymbals. As this portion of the event was not the main attraction of GLEAM, it was continuously less crowded, yet held the same (or more, as we argue) charm. This installation, in which the artist hopes to “recreate this world where…energy are all interchangeable states”, instead truly captures a sort of childlike wonder for the guest, as you attempt to hear every sound, see every light, and experience everything all at once.  

In our humble opinions, if you’re looking for a captivating art experience that is sure to entrance all the senses, look no further than the dazzling lights of GLEAM. Located off Atwood Avenue, this exhibit is open until October 29th on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.