We tried to beat the winter blues with a trip to “Light Therapy”- a new Scandinavian exhibit

We know lots of people who love the winter months. The crisp, cold air, the crunch of snow, rosy cheeks, and all the winter sports…

Sadly, we are decidedly not those people. Our feelings about winter weather are as negative as the temperatures – plus windchill. To us, there’s nothing quite like heading to work and heading home again in the pitch dark of winter to make us feel depleted, drained, and just depressed.

Of course we do what we can to combat those winter blahs from upping our vitamin D, to committing to plans with friends (which feels so much harder when the days are shorter), getting to the gym (and sauna) more often, even heading to a sunny destination or two.

We’ve even contemplated up some super bright LEDs to ensure we’re getting those important UV rays to our eyeballs for a few extra minutes a day! But sitting around the LED with a glass of wine never really sounded as sexy as the fireplace alternative.

When we heard that Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art had secured an installation by Swedish artist and architect Apolonija Šušteršič called “Light Therapy,” we couldn’t wait to see if it would give us another, maybe better, way to banish those winter blues than all the other winter survival tactics we’ve strung together over the years.

Studies have shown that periods of intense, bright light can be beneficial in alleviating the general winter blues as well as the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. The science of exactly how this works still seems to be a bit of a mystery. Usually though, the recommendations made around using these concentrated light sources are to use them as reading lights or while you’re working. And that probably happens alone, most of the time.

In Scandinavia, whether it’s getting together at a coffee shop complete with fireplace or communing at home surrounded by copious candles and fuzzy blankets – the concept of hygge goes a very long way to beating the winter blues. And, interestingly, it also combines with light therapy in an interesting way. Those now familiar colour palettes that denote Scandinavian coziness – the bright whites and bleached pastels? That candlelight? They all share the ability to reflect tonnes of light – bouncing rays around a room, brightening up both the space and its inhabitants.

Scandinavia became a proponent of medically supported light therapy very early on – even making the therapy social by prescribing regular visits to designated spaces complete with comfortable seats and coffee, or adding light therapy bulbs to public spaces like bus stops and schools.

In these northern countries, light therapy is really different – and much more social!

And that’s kind of the idea behind the installation, which was first produced for the the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1999. The idea is to bring the intense bright light into a contemporary museum environment to see how that kind of environment might become a part of a community’s well-being.

So we thought – why not? Could it be fun to grab a latte, head out with a friend, and see what mood lifting we could experience in a space dedicated to such a thing, in a therapeutic sense?

Well, unfortunately literally no-one was free to join us. In the dead of winter that would normally be enough to call it quits right there. But we were committed! So we headed out on our own all the way across town to the MOCA. And we mean all. the. way across town because the museum is located way over in Toronto’s west end.

We arrived to discover that the cafe at the recently opened MOCA is still under construction. So our idea of grabbing a steaming latte before heading into the exhibit were dashed. Up to the fourth floor we went.

And there it was – at the end of the concrete hall, a bright, stark white room filled with sunlight.

We kind of milled around, reading the notes outside the entrance of the silent room until another couple of people arrived and suddenly the person we thought was just hanging around outside piped up with some instructions on what to do (thanks man, what, were we chopped liver?).

Off came our shoes, on went the white lab coats, and in we went.

The room was stark not only in its single-toned white painted floors and walls, but also in the block seating and table – all of the same white. Windows on both walls, a number of LED lights bouncing from the ceiling onto the walls, and a few spiral bound books entitled “HAPPINESS & LIGHT THERAPY” and “HAPPINESS & ECONOMY” – and nothing else.

The sign said to feel free to chat and make conversation, but each person in the room seemed to keep to themselves – until a couple of friends arrived who without the required lab coats (guess that guide disappeared) punctuated the silence in every way. Their presence helped us understand how important it was not to disrupt that bright whiteness, but it was also nice to hear the sound of conversation.

We stayed a good 20 minutes in that sterile room, reading the spiral bound materials in effort to keep our eye open – since light therapy happens when light is absorbed through the eyes.

We can’t deny that some intense light does help us feel a whole lot brighter in wintertime – and we did leave the exhibit feeling a bit brighter. But, given the clinical, cold nature of the environment, we can’t say that the experiment was a particularly thoughtful way of combining light therapy with a truly social experience. That is, unless you take the museum up on its offer to book the room for a special event of your own. Hmm… A Light Therapy Party might actually be work for us, though the suggested uses of a meeting, meditation (eyes closed would negate the benefit, no?), or book cub don’t really scream “good times!” to us.

While we won’t be rushing back to take in some intense rays, chances are good we’ll be looking up more ways to bring a Scandinavian take on getting more out of winter in our own ways.

Light Therapy runs until April 30, 2019 at Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto.

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