On the weekend of Oct. 24-27, the Dalai Lama will visit Birmingham to explore the Magic City’s relationship with the broader struggle for human rights – its role, to borrow Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous phrase, in humanity’s “single garment of destiny.” The exiled Tibetan leader’s visit will culminate with a public appearance at Regions Field on Oct. 26, and if a local organizer has his way, an awe-inspiring art installation will be in residence across the street at the west green of Railroad Park.
Marcus Turner is the man trying to bring the Inner Light Festival to Birmingham, which is planned to take place from Oct. 24-27. If Turner can secure funding from both individual and corporate donors in time, the arts festival will be centered around the massive inflatable sculptures of an English artists’ collective called the Architects of Air, who have displayed their colorful works in 40 countries and on five continents.
Founded in the mid-‘80s by artist Alan Parkinson, the Architects of Air began during Parkinson’s work with children, and the finished product that travels today invokes a similar sense of wonder. Working from fundamental bases of light, color and design, the Architects of Air structures – which they call luminaria, due to the impact natural light has on the plastic installations – are psychedelic worlds of color that attendees can travel inside of.
Turner initially tried to raise the funds to bring the Architects of Air to Railroad Park in time for the Barons’ opening home stand against the Chicago White Sox, but ran out of time. Undeterred, Turner booked Railroad Park for Oct. 24-27, only to find out later that through a serendipitous accident of scheduling, he’d positioned Birmingham for a potentially historic photo opportunity.
While it’s far from certain that the Dalai Lama would choose to walk into the Inner Light Festival’s kaleidoscopic archipelago of installations – security concerns, for one, are not insignificant – Turner believes that the narrative potential of having such a force for peace and harmony identified with Birmingham is too great to dismiss out of hand. Many of His Holiness’ photos are taken in nondescript temples and mountaintops, Turner says. This would be an opportunity to localize a once-in-a-lifetime appearance from a world leader in an apparently unlikely place: Birmingham, Alabama.
“If you go to other countries and you ask people their thoughts on Birmingham and Alabama, the first things that pop into their heads are dogs and fire hoses and hatred,” Turner said. “And those things were a major part of our history, but it’s time for another story. … [The Dalai Lama’s presence at the Inner Light Festival] would give us an opportunity as a city to craft a story about where we’re at now, where we’re going: the religious tolerance, the human values, stepping into the light of the future, approaching this new age we’re going into as a city.
“This could be an instant change of perception,” Turner concluded.
The Inner Light Festival would be more than an elaborate photo opportunity, of course. The luminaria remove art from the staid context of a museum, bringing marvels of architectural design and color theory into the out-of-doors. As Turner put it, “Art’s not meant to be put in boxes.” The greatest appeal of the installations from the Architects of Air, however, is the democracy of wonder; anyone, whether an art history professor or a toddler, can appreciate the vibrant atmosphere of the installations. Indeed, the origin of the luminaria lays with Architects of Air founder Alan Parkinson’s work with disabled children.
“He first came up with this when he was doing an after-school program for disabled children,” Turner explained. “Someone brought out an inflatable mattress for the kids, and he saw how much fun they had with it. It was such an obsession for him to make this happen – he spent seven years of life trying to come up with the idea for it. … There’s a lot of vision, persistence and creativity that goes into something of that scale. Kids could see that and think, ‘You know, anything’s possible.’”
Parkinson’s love of children is shared by the Dalai Lama, who has expressed interest in visiting with local kids during his visit. Turner also believes that the Dalai Lama’s participation in an Amnesty International campaign against the use of torture – which featured the holy man made up to appear that he’d been beaten black and blue – might indicate his willingness to participate in rehabilitating the Birmingham narrative.
When asked if he had any personal religious admiration for the Dalai Lama, Turner replied, “I believe in love, compassion and kindness. … And I think that’s what the Dalai Lama stands for. It’s not religious at all; it’s just a way of making the world a better place through a simple philosophy.” The Dalai Lama, after all, is one of the world’s most famous voices advocating on behalf of the environment, pacifism, women’s rights and many more causes.
There’s quite a lot of hope at play with the Inner Light Festival – first, that the project will be funded at all, and second, that the Dalai Lama will be curious enough to tour the installation and be photographed in the process. But as critical as logistical and fundraising concerns are to their success, projects like the Inner Light Festival articulate themselves most essentially in the language of dreams: in the dream of childlike wonder, in the dream of a landmark photograph, in the dream of a new and better Birmingham.