The Northern Lights—From Scientific Phenomenon to Artists’ Muse

The spectacular aurora borealis is inspiring artists to create light installations, musical compositions, food and fashion

Jesper Kongshaug's Northern Lights display at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Margot Schulman

The aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is a spectacle to behold—so much so, that it is hard to put into words. I think Smithsonian‘s former senior science editor, Laura Helmuth, did it justice a few years back. “Try to imagine the most colorful, textured sunset you’ve ever seen, then send it swirling and pulsing across an otherwise clear and starry sky,” she wrote.

Helmuth also handily described the physics behind the natural phenomenon:

“Your planet is being buffeted by solar wind—particles of protons and electrons that the sun spews into space. Some of the charged particles get sucked into the earth’s magnetic field and flow toward the pole until they collide with our atmosphere. Then, voilà: the aurora borealis (or aurora australis, if you happen to be at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere.)”

Of course, the experience of viewing the Northern Lights, particularly for residents of the contiguous United States, is a rare but privileged one. (Smithsonian actually includes the aurora borealis on its “Life List” of places to go and things to do and see before you die.) Places above 60 degrees latitude—Alaska, Canada’s Yukon, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, for instance—are prime spots for seeing the lights show, usually around the fall and spring equinoxes.  But, occasionally, it can be seen farther south. I witnessed it once in Vermont. The sight was intoxicating.

The Northern Lights—From Scientific Phenomenon to Artists’ Muse
Cathedral of the Northern Lights. Schmidt Hammer Lassen

It is really no wonder, then, that artists find inspiration in the Northern Lights.

Danish lighting designer Jesper Kongshaug saw the aurora borealis several times in 2012, while he was working on stage lighting for a run of “Hamlet” at the Halogaland Theatre in Tromsø, Norway. He also talked with locals there about their encounters with it. So, when the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. commissioned an installation from him mimicking the Northern Lights, Kongshaug had these experiences and conversations to inform him. He planned for about 11 months, collaborating with the Baltimore-based company Image Engineering, and his “Northern Lights” debuted on February 20, 2012, in conjunction with Nordic Cool 2013, a month-long festival celebrating the cultures of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Greenland. Each night from 5:30 to 11 p.m., until the festival’s end on March 17, a total of 10 lasers positioned around the Kennedy Center project the green and blue streamers of the aurora borealis onto all four sides of the building’s white marble facade.

Inspired by Kongshaug’s installation, I did some exploring and found some other fascinating Northern Lights-inspired projects:


Paul Moravec, a composer and Pulitzer Prize winner in music, released a new album this past December, “Northern Lights Electric,” with four songs performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. “My own music often seems to involve some physical, tangible catalyst,” says Moravec on the liner notes. The album’s title song is his attempt to capture, in music, the Northern Lights, which the composer witnessed once in New Hampshire. “The 12-minute piece begins with tinkling percussion, billowing strings and a searching motive in the woodwinds. Then brass suddenly shoots up like a spray of multi-colored lights. Spacious, Coplandesque chords depict the immense night sky,” wrote Tom Huizenga on NPR’s classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence. Listen to part of the composition, here.


Johan Lans prefers to be called “food creator” or “designer for new dishes” as opposed to head chef at Camp Ripan, a hotel, conference center and restaurant, in Kiruna, Sweden. A native of the northernmost city in Sweden, Lans is very familiar with the Northern Lights. In fact, he has designed an entire dinner menu with tastes, smells, sounds, colors and shapes that he believes conjure up the phenomenon. Bright vegetables and local fish ornately plated, an entree of hare and concoctions like “cucumber snow”—skip to 4:25 in this TEDxTalk, to watch Lans describe these and other the dishes.


The Northern Lights—From Scientific Phenomenon to Artists’ Muse
Aurora borealis over Lyngen, Norway. Courtesy of Flickr user Tor Even Mathisen


At this year’s London Fashion Week, from February 15-19, English designer Matthew Williamson unveiled his Autumn/Winter 2013 collection of knit sweaters, pleated skirts and sequin dresses. “It was inspired by the idea of an English Rose, that kind of quintessentially British girl, and I wanted her to take a journey to the Northern Lights, where I saw these toxic colors and amazing neon skies,” Williamson told Reuters. See some of his designs in this video.

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