Lightscape festival to mesmerise at Botanic Gardens

Out of the darkness, the spaghetti ribbons of light appear through the undergrowth.

Once in full view, the neon lights reveal the grand expanse of the towering fig tree in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Royal Botanic Gardens creative producer Kara Ward in front of the neon tree installation.Credit:Eddie Jim

As the sun goes down, the Royal Botanic Gardens are lighting up for a new festival called Lightscape.

The gardens’ strict 5.30pm closing time has been waived to allow the festival to shine a light on plant diversity, critical conservation work and aspects of the gardens not usually seen by visitors.

The festival, first held in the UK and then the US, is finally coming to Melbourne after a two-year delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It will feature almost 2 kilometres of immersive installations, including the fig tree draped with neon-lit vines, luminous walkways and a “winter cathedral”, made with more than 100,000 tiny lights.

“[The gardens are] usually closed at night, so it’s a treat to see all of the beautiful trees lit up. It’s really, really magical,” said Kara Ward, the Royal Botanic Gardens’ creative producer.

“We want to remind Melburnians how lucky they are that we have this green space … and of the work of the organisation, while at the same time having a really beautiful, wonderful experience.

“The journey takes you past the National Herbarium of Victoria, which is a building in the gardens that isn’t open to the public, and is where all of our amazing science team [work].”

Experts were employed to ensure the gardens’ wildlife and plants will not be disturbed during the event.

Kathy Holowko, one of three local artists who have created installations especially for the Melbourne festival, constructed a giant plant press to build four pyramid-shaped lanterns.

Melbourne artist Kathy Holowko in front of her one of her lanterns showcasing the work of the herbarium. Credit:Eddie Jim

She used the herbarium’s botanical plant library, which holds dried and pressed botanical specimens – some from the 19th century – to select plants for her installation.

“At night, when the lights go in it, they are illuminated from the inside, and you can see some of the details of the veins and the leaves,” Holowko said.

“[I hope it inspires viewers] to dive a bit deeper, and become more curious about this mysterious building that sits within the Royal Botanic Gardens.”

Detailed illustrations by First Nations artist Mandy Nicholson, which tell the story of country, family, and Aboriginal spirituality, will be projected in different locations around the gardens.

“One of her works that I’m really personally excited about is a projection on the separation tree which is one of the remnant trees that was here pre-colonisation,” Ward said.

“She has illustrated these really beautiful gum flowers that will be projected onto that tree, so it’s somewhat of a reclaiming [it].”

Another installation features images of Victoria’s little-known emblem, epacris impressa, or the common heath.

The event was first held in Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens in the UK a decade ago, before travelling to 17 different locations across the country and then on to the US.

Zoe Bottrell, Lightscapes’ UK creative director, said the Melbourne exhibition “is very much about giving these landscapes a new lease of life and bringing visitors into those areas”.

“It’s a really fantastic medium to be able to work in when I get to work in all of these beautiful botanical gardens all over the world,” she said.

Food trucks, including a crème brulee cart, a bar with mulled wine and hot negronis, and pizza, nacho and burger options, will be on-site.

Lightscape is on from June 24 to August 7.

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