The third time, it turns out, really is the charm. Had been along to The Factory to check out First Breath twice before—the first time was too light to get the full effect and the second the exhibit wasn’t open.
Luke Jerram's public artwork First Breath is a light sculpture projected into the sky. Being a light display, it is only effective in darkness and so runs nightly from 4PM to 10PM. Even so, light pollution from a nearby building site intrudes at certain parts of the location and limits the impact.
Entering the site of The Factory is a bit like slipping into the lair of a James Bond villain (albeit one which is only partly complete)—a bright laser-like beam dramatically shoots up into the sky. The light sculpture is timed to gradually evolve over 30 minutes or so. An amorphous cloud progressively takes more definite shape as spotlights pick out concentric circles. Gradually the image begins to pulse rhythmically.
The pulsing signifies breathing, as the title suggests, the artwork represents the moment that a baby takes its first gasp of air. Away from the light sculpture, a pair of display units update welcoming children born in the Greater Manchester area thus far in 2023 by displaying their names along with their birth time / date and location. A map of the area pinpointing the locations pops up as well.
A certain amount of artistic licence may have taken place with images of the exhibit giving the impression it is visible some distance from the site. I work close to the venue and even walking towards the location there is little evidence of the light sculpture until you actually step into The Factory.
First Breath can be viewed from different angles—stepping away to see the beam like a spotlight or walking close to the individual lights which make up the display. The latter creates the powerful impression of being within a massive tepee made up of light or perhaps inside the eye of a hurricane. Close to, the beams of light sparkle, catching specs of dust or rain. The display is an excellent way to make new friends—wandering around looking towards the heavens or with eyes dazzled by bright lights, it is dead easy to bump into people.
The staging of First Breath is not impressive. There is no getting around the fact The Factory is still being built so audiences are stepping into a construction site with few amenities to encourage lingering. There are a couple of deckchairs for hardy souls able to stay seated in the chill January air, but even the maze-like structure housing the light beams feels a bit makeshift. The beams are captured in head-height walls wrapped in dark, weatherproof material running in circles allowing patrons to wander around until reaching the centre. It is, however, not large so walking the maze can be over within minutes.
Yet the display is well-attended and chatting with fellow visitors makes clear some are on a return visit. The reason for this popularity may be easy to determine—First Breath is that unheard-of event: a major art display held outside of London. The fact Manchester is now of a status to be able to host such a prestigious exhibit is flattering to residents who, inevitably, will give the display the attention it deserves.
First Breath is at The Factory on Water Street (at the bottom of Liverpool Road), Manchester M3 4JN from 1–29 January 2023.