Swiss light artist Gerry Hofstetter: Let there be light

Swiss light artist Gerry Hofstetter transforms buildings, monuments, and natural landscapes around the world into spectacular, if temporary, works of art. He did his first light installation in India, ‘In the Light’, at the Embassy of Switzerland in Delhi in October

gerry hofstetter chillon Chillon Castle, Montreux, 2010: The world-famous Chillon Castle is located on the shores of Lake Geneva near Montreux. This projection was done to commemorate the Swiss National Day on August 1, 2010

How did you go from investment banker to light artist?

At 16, I was already doing portraits of horses. We had a farm where wealthy people kept their horses and I was asked to paint them. Even in 1976, as a 16-year-old, I was earning $5,000 per picture. I knew from that point that I wanted to become a person who does nice things for people and the world. However, like everyone else, I embarked on a banking career. From banker, I moved to organising events. These events were transformed with light projections that I created. So that's how I became a light artist. 

Why are you so committed to environmental causes? 

It's my guess that in two generations availability of clean drinking water will be a big issue. 2003 was the United Nations International Year of Freshwater and the ozone hole was very big. That’s when I started my projections with one of a polar bear at the South Pole where only penguins live. Light is hope and I wanted to give a message to people with my projections — a glimmer of hope or to start them thinking about life and the future, but in an artful way. I just do the projections — people can interpret them their way.

But why would you project a polar bear in Antarctica? 

The polar bear lives up north in the Arctic. The penguins live down south in the Antarctic. And the UN asked me what I could do to raise awareness about the ozone hole. In the Year of Freshwater, I saw a connection, because when the ozone hole gets too big it will be so hot on Earth there will be no more water. So, like the Fata Morgana (mirage) of the desert, I created an Antarctica Morgana. I took a picture of a polar bear and projected it at the South Pole. Meaning, if ever a polar bear were to meet a penguin, they are lost, gone. 

gerry hofstetter the queen on the way to heaven
gerry hofstetter the queen on the way to heaven light art Queen Elizabeth II, Lauterbrunnen, 2022: When the British Embassy in Switzerland asked Gerry to do something to mark the Queen’s passing, he had 27 hours to execute it. Gerry’s idea was to do an image of the Queen with Prince Philip, who had been waiting in the sky for her for the last 17 months, now taking her hand to travel forever together. Gerry took the picture at the same spot where he created his famous tiger on Eiger image earlier in 2002—but this time in the clouds

Are you a self-taught light artist? 

The talent to paint and be creative, an understanding of finance, flying a helicopter, finely honed survival skills, being a sportsman — when you take all this together, it provides you with the unique skill sets to create light art, something nobody was doing and still isn’t doing in the world. I’m willing to risk my life to do a projection, to bring this beautiful picture home to people and start them thinking. I never learnt formally, but I combined all my skills and the result is Gerry, the light artist. 

gerry hofstetter venice carnival italy Venice Carnival, 2007: In 2007, Gerry was commissioned by the city of Venice to be the official artist of the Venice Carnival for a period of seven years. This is a projection of the famous masks of Venice

In February you projected a tiger on Eiger, the largest artwork in the world. What was the experience like?

It marked the start of the Chinese Year of the Tiger. The largest artwork in the world for the moment, it was seven by five kilometres wide. The tiger itself was 5.3 by 2.2 kilometres. I travelled to that spot 22 times over a year to get the right weather conditions. The 22nd time the weather was perfect. The moon was setting. On the left, the sun was coming up a little. The Milky Way was over the mountain just the way I wanted. It was -30°C and we had had fresh snowfall the day before. So it was the best 20-minute window we had in 10,000 years to get the picture.

gerry hofstetter titanic Titanic on Iceberg, Greenland, 2012: This image was clicked at 11.40 pm on 14 April, 2012, exactly 100 years to the minute after the RMS Titanic fatally hit an iceberg in the Atlantic. In 2006, when he first visited the location, the Inuit told Gerry that the iceberg that had hit the Titanic had been born in that very place. “Using light, I brought the Titanic back from the grave from where it sank,” he says, “to the place where the iceberg which hit it originated — to make peace.” A dozen teary-eyed people were able to witness the life-size projection in real time
gerry hofstetter
gerry hofstetter ready for mission

What was the ‘Matterhorn for Hope’ project all about? 

I was asked by the village of Zermatt to do a sign of solidarity globally for COVID-19, projecting images on the Matterhorn signifying hope. I had two days to prepare and they asked me to do it for four weeks (it eventually became five). I had to live alone high up in the mountains, just below the Matterhorn. Every night I put up a flag on the Matterhorn of a country which was the most affected by COVID-19 at that moment. I had the time of my life doing it. 

gerry hofstetter scotland eilean donan Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland, 2006: Gerry lit up the famous Eilean Donan Castle in the highlands of Scotland for a ceremony in 2006. The castle had been burned down in 1719 by the English while being occupied by Jacobites and a garrison of Spanish soldiers. The painstaking restoration of the castle began in 1911 and was completed in 1932. Gerry recreated the burning of the castle

What took you so long to get to India?

I’ve been planning to come here since 2003 but was always a bit intimidated by the idea of India. Now I am mature and know I can handle this country of light and colours and spirit. 

gerry hofstetter iceberg peace The Buddha, Arctic, 2009: Another nice picture that Gerry created on an Arctic iceberg is this calming one of the Buddha. Sometimes when people are stressed, Gerry likes to send them this photo, as if to say, “Keep cool, man”

You will be projecting at the Embassy of Switzerland in October. What are you planning for it? 

This year marks 75 years of democracy for India. Next year is 75 years of diplomatic friendship between India and Switzerland. We have a shared vision of everybody living free. You have beautiful mountains. We have beautiful mountains. Bollywood is a famous film industry which came to Switzerland. And Switzerland and India have much in common even in technology. I spent five incredible days in India in February this year on a scouting trip. I said, let's work with colours, light and music. 

gerry hofstetter egyptian pyramic giza Great Pyramid of Giza, 2006: In 2006, the UN International Year of Deserts and Desertification, the Egypt Culture Ministry asked Gerry to raise awareness about the graves in the pyramids deteriorating because of people smoking inside them and scratching away the colours. Gerry came up with a concept where, over a couple of nights, he did light shows at sunset and sunrise to project what was inside the pyramids on to the outside

My artwork, ‘In the Light’, will create customised motifs on the façade of the Embassy building and garden. There will be projections of animals in the garden. The more high-tech things which connect India and Switzerland will be on the façade. And there will be music from Switzerland and India. The event will mark the finalé of the Swiss network’s ‘Swiss it!’ Initiative which aims to highlight Switzerland not only as a leading country in business, research, and cross-cutting technologies but also as an innovator in art and social inclusion. The event is scheduled to take place at the Swiss Embassy on October 28.

gerry hofstetter arctic iceberg with kingfisher Common Kingfisher, Arctic, 2009: On icebergs in the Arctic, Gerry projected a series of photos of birds and animals which live in the region. Giving out a subtle conservation message, the images will serve as a memory capsule for when the Arctic doesn't exist anymore

Any other India plans? 

While in India for the projection, I plan to visit some nice buildings and check out the possibilities for a projection in the future. India is so full of energy, I’ve lost my heart to it. I will certainly return next year. 

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