Sydney’s abandoned tram tunnels transformed into light spectacle for Vivid

There’s no Hogwarts Express, and instead of running towards a brick wall you slip through an unremarkable door next to a Coles supermarket, but for decades Sydney’s Wynyard station has had its own secret platforms hidden from the public – until now.

The hundreds of thousands of commuters who pass through each week may have wondered why the station boasts only platforms three through to six.

Now, platforms one and two, as well as their connecting tunnels, are having their lights turned back on as part of Sydney’s Vivid festival.

Dark Spectrum is an immersive art experience that takes visitors through eight separate light installations, as well as a rough history lesson on what became of the tunnels, in the six decades since they were last in use.

Initially built in the 1930s – envisioned for a train line to the city’s northern beaches but never eventuated– the tunnels funnelled trams on to the Sydney Harbour Bridge until the late 1950s.

Since then, the tunnels have largely been abandoned. A concrete mezzanine was installed to convert the space into a car park for some years, which ceased operating seven years ago.

While the tunnel’s archways, and eerie signs – warning customers to pay for their parking – remain, lighting crews have spent more than a month preparing the abandoned spaces for an entirely new experience.

The exhibition is staged in disused tunnels that once stored trams deep under ground. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

Visitors can expect robots, mirrors, lasers, dance music and strobing, and to go from feeling like they’re in a disco, to a playground – quite literally, one installation features graffiti visible through UV lighting projected on to large balls, made out of jumping castle material.

Richard Neville, who has spearheaded Dark Spectrum with his lighting entertainment design firm Mandylights, expects children to bounce off the jumping castle spheres, but also for people of all ages to have a fun experience in the tunnels.

“The chance to open this space up, and then be allowed to just play with lights in train tunnels, it’s bringing out the inner kid in me, I’m very happy, and I think this should be something that is genuinely fun for everyone,” Neville says.

He designed the installations to embrace their surroundings – which include 60 LED arches pulsating light through a tunnel. After all, it’s difficult to escape the fact you’re in a train station, Neville says.

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“You can’t avoid it. You can hear and feel the trains rumbling, you can occasionally hear platform announcements. So why dress it up to be something that it’s not?” he says.

Vivid Sydney festival Director Gill Minervini, and Managing Director of Mandylights Richard Neville.Vivid Sydney festival Director Gill Minervini and Managing Director of Mandylights Richard Neville. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

“This idea that thousands of people are walking past every day and nobody knows what’s on the other side, it is a bit like Harry Potter,” Neville adds.

Vivid festival director, Gill Minervini, says one benefit of Dark Spectrum is that it can’t be rained off, and that it continues the event’s tradition of unlocking hidden spaces in Sydney.

“Interestingly, more and more spaces like this get discovered every year. I think that’s part of our job, to surprise people with fantastic things like this,” she says.

Neville hopes the tunnels aren’t abandoned again once Vivid wraps up.

He believes the tunnels could work as a catwalk for fashion shows, and even hopes to work on lighting up a special train for Vivid in future years. “It’d be a shame if this goes back to being empty again.”

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