Sarah Urwin Jones

And so we creep out of the long winter towards the dawn light of spring and the prospect of seeing the people and places from which we have been so long separated. As if to cement it, on 13 April, another of Scotland's art galleries – An Lanntair in Stornoway - opens its real world doors to the public, the farther isles showing those of us on the mainland the cultural light on the horizon.

Appropriate then that this exhibition, part of An Lanntair's Dark Skies festival, which has largely been confined to the internet and our back gardens this last month, should be about the “philosophical and ecological importance of a clear view of our galaxy.” The upwards view of the night sky, however occluded or clear, however city-bound or big skied, was one of the shared human experiences in the lockdowns of the last year for those who chose to look up, and it is key to the ethos of Lumen, the London-based artist collective focused on astronomy and light, who here present their first exhibition in Scotland.

Times being what they are, the opening and closing events of the Dark Skies Festival have been delayed now 'til November, when singer Kathryn Joseph and Lumen will collaborate on a gig, and Renzo Spiteri will perform “Stillness”, a textural, percussive journey through dark and light. But the exhibition opens now – alongside the annual exhibition of astrophotography taken in the Western Isles - screening for the first time, “Our Night Skies”, a short and fascinating film resulting from a call that Lumen put out to artists worldwide to make a time lapse of the night sky from their location.

“We tried to get someone from every continent,” says Lumen co-founder Louise Beer, speaking via Zoom from her base in Kent. The contributions, chosen by the collective from a large number submitted, have been created everywhere from Hong Kong to Birmingham via Poland and beyond, and will be screened in the main auditorium at An Lanntair, but also available on their website.

Lumen has at its heart three artists, Rebecca Huxley, Melanie King and Beer, who came together through a shared interest in the night sky. Their works, here, are thought-provoking, meditative, not least for anyone who has spent a good deal of time gazing up these last few months. For King, the idea of being free to simply look at the moon, and what that might mean, sent her on a series of socially-distanced walks into the woods when lockdown easing allowed, to photograph volunteers solely by the light of the moon they were gazing at.

Part of Rebecca Huxley's contribution is a fish-eye photographic shot of the night sky over Epping Forest, near London. “I've been in London in the city for most of lockdown, with a brief month away in Essex... The initial changes were in the air quality as well as the sky quality. It was really mesmerising at first.” After she moved house and found herself with a garden for the first time, she spent much time outside sitting looking at the sky. “ I'm a researcher as well as an artist and I've been looking at artificial sky glow and how to monitor that, how we can represent ways we can evidence pollution. Sitting there is a way to get away from everything as well. You start to notice the differences, the flashes of ambulances, the movements of foxes that are trapped by the security lights of people's houses. It's quite a poetic experience.”

Louise Beer's own film, “Under the fading light”, was made with John Hooper, incorporates her two long term views of the night sky, in Dunedin, New Zealand and in London. “I grew up in Dunedin, but spent a lot of time in Central Otago, a really dark, mountainous, low density place...the night sky was just another aspect of the landscape in a 24 hour cycle of being outside.” She tells me that she always thought, growing up, that other people over the world would have this amazing view of the Milky Way, too. “I really didn't understand that that isn't the case. So much of the world lives in huge amounts of light pollution.” As the film progresses, Beer's London view, far more polluted, begins to take over from the Otago view. “The soundtrack is made of birdsong recorded in the forest near Canterbury. It's about my changing relationship with the night sky and the massive philosophical impact it has, the notion of whether you can see in to the galaxy or whether you can't. I think it's would be a terrible thing for humanity to not look out and see the galaxy, and the place of life on earth in contrast to the cold and dark night sky.”

Lumen, Dark Skies Festival, An Lanntair, Kenneth Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 01851 708480, 13 Apr - 8 May, Tues - Sat, 10am - 5pm