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An Open-Air Festival Illuminates Amsterdam’s Canals With Light Installations That Nod to Climate Change

By Sarah Buder

Dec 17, 2019

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“Butterfly Effect” by Japanese light artist Masamichi Shimada is one of 20 thematic installations on display as part of the Amsterdam Light Festival 2019.

Photo by Janus van den Eijnden

“Butterfly Effect” by Japanese light artist Masamichi Shimada is one of 20 thematic installations on display as part of the Amsterdam Light Festival 2019.

The city’s waterways have transformed into a temporary canvas for bright artworks, some of which reference the effects of global warming and rising sea levels.

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Every year during the Amsterdam Light Festival, a series of spectacular light installations illuminate the canals of the Dutch capital during a time when the city is typically cloaked in darkness for about 16 hours each day. 

Over the course of 53 consecutive winter nights, this open-air festival transforms Amsterdam’s waterways into a public canvas for bright installations that light up across the city center from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. (except for New Year’s Eve, when the installations are turned off at 8 p.m.). This year in its eighth edition, the illuminated art festival is centered around the overall theme of “DISRUPT!,” bringing together a collection of 20 light installations by local and international artists that reflect on topics like climate change, technology, and war; each of the artworks is currently on view through January 19, 2020.

“Surface Tension” by British artists Tom Biddulph and Barbara Ryan depicts a floating car in a flooded street, which represents a post–natural disaster scene.


In some of the illuminated artworks, viewers will find references to the effects of global warming and rising sea levels—a nod to humankind’s disruption of the natural world, as well as the natural world’s ability to disrupt humankind. One such installation, titled Surface Tension, transforms part of Amsterdam’s canal into a flooded city street. The installation, by British artists Tom Biddulph and Barbara Ryan, depicts a car floating in water after a natural disaster has occurred. In another artwork, Atlantis, Swedish design studio Utskottet used famous landmarks like New York City’s Empire State Building and the A’DAM Tower in Amsterdam to construct a submerged skyline evoking the mythical sunken city of Atlantis. According to the artists, the creation is a metaphor for the future of our global cities if the planet’s temperatures and sea levels continue to rise.

Swedish design studio Utskottet used famous landmarks like the Empire State Building in New York City and the A’DAM Tower in Amsterdam to depict a sinking skyline that evokes the mythical underwater city of Atlantis.

Another thought-provoking light installation by Japanese light artist Masamichi Shimada, titled Butterfly Effect, features seven butterflies whose wings rise and fall with the movement of the water caused by passing boats on the canal. The festival website explains that the name of this artwork refers to a 1961 lecture by the late American scientist Edward Lorenz titled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?,” which explores how a seemingly insignificant action—such as a butterfly moving its wings—can activate a chain of events resulting in a much larger disruption.

Through January 19, 2020, visitors to Amsterdam can view the entirety of these illuminated artworks on a self-guided walking (or biking) tour by following a roughly four-mile designated route that’s provided by the Amsterdam Light Festival’s mobile app. The temporary light installations can also be viewed on a variety of canal cruise tours that are offered by Amsterdam’s local boat companies and can be booked through the festival’s website. 

>> Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Amsterdam

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