The History of Projection Mapping

Sunrise at Stonehenge


I’m going to suggest a definition and a hypothesis for projection mapping.

Projection mappping is the artistic process of causing light to fall upon forms, so as to create pattterns or pictures. It is the intended effect of creating imagery (whether colourful or in simple white light and shadow) which distinguishes this form of ancient art, from mere illumination.

It differs from the representational and figurative use of light in painting or plastic sculpture, by dint of its physical qualities of illumination.

The term embraces all forms of art from the constuction of ritual sites such as Stonehenge, in Wiltshire or the magnificent Newgrange Barrow in Ireland. There are many examples of ancient temples (such as the temple of Ramses at Abu Simnel) where huge effort and ingenuity has been appled to creating a mapped projection of the Sun’s rays upon the sacred area.

Projection Mapping is not simply looking at an illuminated area. We are only permitted to view the image in a place and at a time of the artist’s choosing, and similarly from a limites set of vantage points. The selection or randomisation of that process alone, creates art.

Light falling through a church window
Light falling through a round window
The Pink Mosque at Shiraz

The Rule of Three

There are three conditions which must exist, for projection mapping to occur.


It may seem obvious, but light is necessary for illumination. But what sort of light?

Light may be ambient, natural and not artificially enhanced (such as sunlight) but it will be focussed, limited or by some agency or device, to cause it to be mapped (see below). To do otherwise, is mere illumination.

Light is a broad concept. It clearly empraces all forms of white light and every colour in the visible spectrum. It can be limited to light of a particular frequency or hue, and of any intensity (from dim starlight to the brilliance of a laser).

Projection Mapping is possible with light which is ordinarily invisible to the human eye, such as infra-red or ultra-violet rays, revealed to us by whatever special medium they interact with.

Ultra violet lit street graffiti New York

Ultra violet paintings in gallery (source unknown)

X-Ray images are perhaps the most extreme form of physical projection mapping.

(Other forms of energy (MRI scanning) may be accorded honorary membership; but only on a case by case basis).

Case study

Olafur Eliasson 

In the installation, Room for one colour (1997), the entire space is bathed in light from mono-frequency lamps that emit light of around 589 nanometres in wavelength, in the yellow region of the visible spectrum. At first you see only a saturated yellow light that makes all colours appear to be shades of yellow, grey and black. Once you become comfortable with this situation, with the degree of abstraction it entails, you can start to pay attention to what is actually happening with your vision as such. The experience may vary, but the most obvious impact of the yellow light is the realisation that reality outside is very much conditioned by our perception of it: vision itself is not objective, and this realisation can help us begin to see ourselves and our world in a different light.

Olafur Eliasson National Gallery. Monochrome Exhibition.


I use the term focus broadly, to mean any mechanism for directing, projecting or limiting the fall of light upon a surface.

This could be by means of simple apertures, (such as those in an ancient temple or tomb) which only permit light to fall upon the sacred area, at precise times in the seasonal or astrological calendar. Shadow puppets and silhouettes can all be readily included in this category. Were a lens, mirror or other device is used to direct light, projection mapping becomes more readily recognisable as a distinct phenomenon. Orthodox projectors, cameras, kaleidescopes and every kind of optical toy and device can meet this definition with ease. But what about jewellry? Surely, diamond cut with brilliant reflective internal facets is a a projection mapping ssystem in minature?

Other artworks which might seem less obvious include stained glass windows, which are not merely to be admired and looked at, but the colours and designs that are naturally projected through them onto surfaces are themselves, evidence of their capacity to project.

Case Study

Badu Gili

A projection mapping installation projected onto the Sidney Opera House.

Badu Gili Hero 3×2

Badu Gili — meaning ‘water light’ in the language of the traditional owners of Bennelong Point, the Gadigal people — is a free daily experience that explores ancient First Nations stories in a spectacular seven-minute projection. They illuminate the Opera House’s eastern Bennelong sail year-round at sunset, 8:30pm, 9pm and 9:30pm.

A celebration of the rich history and contemporary vibrancy of Australia’s First Nations culture, Badu Gili continues the traditions of Bennelong Point, formerly known as Tubowgule (‘where the knowledge waters meet’), a gathering place for community, ceremony and storytelling for thousands of years.

An important pillar of the Opera House’s year-round First Nations program, Badu Gili is an essential Sydney cultural experience for both visitors and the local community that aims to foster and celebrate a shared sense of belonging for all Australians.


A key component of projection mapping is that light must be projected onto a surface or form, before being viewed. Simple reflection (as in looking directly at a picture or sculpture) is not sufficient. Projection mapping is the art of casting light upon a surface, so as to change both the nature and effect of the light and the surface, in the eye of the beholder.

Forms can (literally) take the shape of any flat (two dimensional) plane surface(s) of any size; and similarly any three dimensional shapes, equally of any size.

Forms can be present or absent in fourth dimension; that is to say, time. An object can be interjected into a beam of light continuouusly; or placed and removed intermittently. The periods can be very long or short. It is worth reflecting upon the fact that the stars as we see them today, are as they were many millions of years ago.

Case Study


Barrisol is an architectural system, consisting of specialist non-flammable thermoplastic sheeting coupled with patented heating rails.

When sheets of the material are clamped and heated electrically, the plastic shrinks smoothly and evenly, to form tight rigid forms.

The material is extensively used in modern architecture, to construct curved and textured surfaces for ceilings and walls; and also to sculpt architectural installations on a grand scale.

Barrisol structure Paris 2018

Reflective Practice and Learning Outcomes


I have identified inherent dynamic qualities in projection mapping, arising naturally out of the passage of light through, (for example), a stained glass window, acting as a filter; and the subsequent play of light upon the ground. The time of day, and the angle of sun are important natural dynamics for these phenomena.

I have yet to explore dynamics in their full register, but feel I have made progress in establishing the fundamental principles of projection mapping as a distinct phenomenon.

This is very much a rediscovery.

Evidencing mastery of existing techniques

I have employed art history and art research methods in this element of research and linked ancient and modern technical approaches and shown the symbiosis between them.

Innovation of new methods

I have coined a new definition of projection mapping; and evidenced it, from both natural science and artistic practice. I intend to follow up with more examples of ancient projection mapping, revealed in contemporary practice.

Engaging Imagination

I think the process of engaging the imagination with light, colour and movement is self-evident.

The Creation of New Realities

Abbot Suger (c1081-1151) rebuilt the Church of Saint-Denis in the style of the Roman Arch of Constantine (a tripartite structure). His design for the Rose West Window was the first of its type, parting with the Carolingian style of the facade.

The effect was, for the first time, to suffuse the choir and altar at the east of a major church, with coloured light.

I therefore nominate Abbot Suger as the first architectural projection mapper.

I am now re-examining architectural structures, wherein light is cast in this fashion, to appropriate examples to the canon of projection mapped art.

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