It may be called a “holiday light show,” but don’t let that scare you. There’s not a single Santa suit or manger in sight at Enchanted: Forest of Light, the weird and rather wonderful after-hours installation at LA’s historic Descanso Botanical Gardens. A progressive series of luminous sculptural installations wends a mile-long path through the wild wooded grounds, offering site-specific and sometimes interactive engagements with the landscape, especially the trees. There’s a field of glowing tulips that flash to the rhythm of tiny bells; there’s a laser show across a lake that you can control from the viewing bridge; there’s a canopy of infinite electronic fireflies that engulf you out of nowhere; a grove of oaks that intone in a secret language calling to you from afar; and a lawn of pressure sensitive pods that only come to life when you dance on them like a cross between a lotus pond and the “Billie Jean” video. If anything, it’s rather pagan in its riff on the season’s twinkling-lights-in-trees motif, ditching the trappings of religion and commercialism without losing any of the storybook magic your inner child craves this time of year—if your inner child is kind of a tripper.
Descanso Gardens comprises 150 acres of what was once the private home of a newspaper magnate and his outdoorsy wife, until the property was donated to the county in 1953. The gardens have a small but dedicated following, and like many such hidden gems, the place is always on the hunt for new (a.k.a., younger, hipper) audiences. That’s where Enchanted comes in. The Gardens decided they wanted to do some sort of nighttime holiday event and fell in love with something called Illumination at The Morton Arboretum in Chicago, now in its fourth year. Turns out, its designers have roots in LA, and since June of 2015, Chris Medvitz of Lightswitch has been cultivating the vision. They agreed right away, but, as Medvitz explains, there were rules. “First,” he says, “no Christmas lights.” It was important to the design team that the focus be secular and site-specific so as to not exclude anyone from the experience—after all, the idea is to introduce people to the gardens, to welcome them and to highlight the beauty of the grounds rather than to hide or change them. “The garden isn’t the venue,” says Medvitz. “It’s the star.”
“There is a part of this that is very much a landscape lighting design project,” Medvitz continues. “But there’s also a great deal of theater and placemaking involved.” Flower Power, for example, occupies an area where in the spring Descanso famously plants thousands of tulips in a riot of beauty. Lightswitch built 2,500 tulip-shaped LED light fixtures that are each individually controlled and color-changeable. They also brought in interactive light artist Jen Lewin to install a unique double version of her well-known piece, The Pool. Lewin's work has been seen at festivals and galleries around the world, and The Pool is probably familiar to audiences of Burning Man and Electric Daisy Carnival, among others, but it’s never been installed in Southern California before. “When we were developing ideas the Luminous Lawn area of the Enchanted route really wanted to have something that people, especially kids, could run around on.” Where other parts of the route are romantic, or mysterious, intimate or spectacular, The Pool is all about playtime and permission to discover. Just make sure your inner and actual children wear sensible shoes.