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By Patrick Letellier
They stand, these shimmering pillars of pink light, in six tidy rows, tall and straight and unbending, like a group of soldiers at attention. Thirty-two of them are on display here in the grass, at dusk, in Dolores Park, each a thin pole wrapped with a strand of a hundred small lights.
It's Valentine's Day, but this display is not about love or romance; it's about loss and remembrance. The exhibit, "3,000+ Lights," is a vigil created by Noe Valley artist Dianne Platner to honor the Americans who have died in the Iraq War.
As Platner describes it, her work is participatory art. That is, the people who participate in the vigil become part of the art itself. And this vigil is drawing a crowd.
As dusk passes to evening, the sky darkens from a pale blue to a deep cobalt, and the pink lights shine even brighter, drawing people from all over the park. A J-Church streetcar, packed with commuters, unloads its cargo, many of whom make their way to the glowing exhibit. Soon there are runners, families with children, a gay male couple, and dog walkers with beagles and boxers in tow.
"Do you want to name some lights?" Platner asks amicably as people wander in and among the poles. She chats with everyone she can, passing out small white envelopes and offering brief instructions. "The envelopes contain small squares of fabric," she explains. "Each square has the name of an American soldier who died in Iraq. You pinch the fabric together to open it up, then slip it over a light. We're putting a name over each light until all the lights are covered and it's totally dark."
Soon dozens of people are busy, some talking and laughing, others quiet and sober, each slipping black fabric names over lights. More than 3,100 American soldiers have died in Iraq, a grim tally that climbs each day.
"I'm looking at the names as I put them on," says Catherine Lengronne, of Berkeley, who came to Dolores Park to see the vigil. "I cannot say I enjoy doing it, but it feels like I'm with each person. It brings them back into the moment."
She holds out a square in her palm. It reads:
Andrew R. Houghton, 25
Aug. 9, 2004
Michael Bass, 62, stands back from the exhibit and watches. He has already covered 15 lights. "I said a prayer as I put the names on," he said. "It brings tears to my eyes. It's not just a covered light that went dark. It's a life that went out."
Is Bass against the war? "I'm definitely opposed to it now. I was hoodwinked. But I've learned in my old age to be totally against war now."
Gradually, the exhibit darkens, transforming each pillar into a leafless tree limb, wiry and black and bare.
"There are three thousand names now, and it just keeps going," Platner says. "I want it to stop, but I'll be here again if there are four thousand. I just hope it ends before that."
For more information on the exhibit 3,000+ Lights, go to http://3000lights.blogspot.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.