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Tripping the lights fantastic

Hieroglyphics from a burial chamber projected onto one of the Giza pyramids (Gerry Hofstetter)

"Mad... totally mad... the White Cliffs of Dover with waterfalls coming down them. Things like that are just not supposed to be there."

Hidden behind piles of paper and books, the face of Swiss light artist Gerry Hofstetter is ablaze as he looks up from his computer, flicking through photos of a recent project in Britain.

Hofstetter, one of the world's best-known light artists, transforms buildings, monuments and natural beauty spots into contemporary works of art. His masterpieces include projections of polar bears on icebergs and Swiss crosses on the Matterhorn and government buildings.

He ruffles his mad professor hair and turns with a big beaming smile: "In December we have 62 illuminations to do in three countries. It's the hardest month of my life, but somehow it'll work – think positive."

The tireless globetrotter is just back from a trip to Egypt where he and his team lit up the Giza pyramids and sphinx for a local hotel chain.

"Six days, 12 hours of sleep, jeeps, helicopters and permits. The fact that it happened; I can't find the words," he declares, his eyes sparkling.

"My ideas help them put across their ideas. They want to stop people going into the pyramids and damaging them. I gave them the idea that by illuminating the graves on the outside of the pyramids people don't need to go inside."

U-turn

The 44-year-old illusionist from Zurich is a master of transformation. After 12 years working his way up through the ranks of an investment bank, he felt in need of a career change and left to become a helicopter pilot.

"I did that for two years, but it's too dangerous with a family and children. I then decided to create a marketing and event agency," he says casually.

The agency has been "realising visions" for various clients over the last twelve years, but it is his light art for which he is best known. And the combination of his diverse skills has helped establish him in this unique field.

"I started six years ago, and within one or two years it went mad, with people asking me to illuminate this and that - the Swiss parliament house, for example."

Illusions

Hofstetter loves the idea of being able to reinvent well-known monuments, buildings and landscapes in people's minds, using his huge 6,000-watt projectors and slides to transform them into temporary art sculptures.

"At the end of the night I switch off my generators and go home. Nothing is left except people's memories," he explains.

His projects can also have a more serious message. In 2003 he travelled to Antarctica as part of the United Nations International Year of Freshwater to throw light on the issue of icebergs and global warming. His images of polar bears on melting ice caps subsequently circled the globe.

"You can't imagine the pain, organisation and luck needed to get two projectors rolling on a Russian icebreaker on quiet, calm waters on a beautiful Antarctic morning, with stars in the background and the iceberg not moving," he adds.

Swiss cross

Hofstetter's busy agenda also includes projects in Switzerland – both big and small – for companies, public authorities, foundations, museums and private individuals.

He has recently lit up the night at festivals in Thun and Geneva, and created light events for the opening of the Swiss parliament session in Flims and the new Swiss embassy residence in Washington.

The authorities, in particular, seem to have cottoned on to the effectiveness of his art for promoting Switzerland at home and abroad.

"Over the past few years the concept of 'Swissness' has been very fashionable around the world," he explains. "Using this simple red-and-white symbol I can create a bright, organised, cool image."

The magician then points to a plastic penguin over his shoulder.

"But my major expedition next year is to Greenland to project some penguins in a place with the highest number of collapsing icebergs in the world."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

Key facts

Gerry Hofstetter employs seven full-time staff, 12 light experts and 20 freelancers.
The 6,000-watt light projectors used for his events are the second largest in the world.
Approximately one-metre high and two-metres long, each projector weighs 160 kg and can cast images up to 700 metres.

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Various Swiss light events in 2006

November 9-19: Geneva Palexpo- Live on Ice
November 24 - Jan 7, 2007: - Montreux - Live on Ice during Christmas Market
November 25-Jan 2, 2007: Zurich - Live on Ice
November 30-December 1: Schaffhausen Light Art Festival
December 1-2: Zurich - Carneval Venedig
December 9-23: Festival Luminis – canton Vaud
December 26: Gstaad
December 28-29: Davos – Klosters Light Art Festival
December 31: Zurich - Silvesterzauber

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