"Light and junk" sculptures litter Te Papa
Daylight Flotsam Venice is, in fact, a load of rubbish, as its creator Bill Culbert, 79, internationally renowned artist in light, says himself - though it can be explained "rather seriously".
That's up to the viewer, he says, who takes "what interests them, and you show me. There is no explanation. I don't have an opinion on what other people should know". Culbert was in Wellington for the installation at Te Papa of Daylight Flotsam Venice and a second of his works, Drop, after their showing at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Both pieces were acquired for an undisclosed amount, but the Auckland gallery that brokered the deal says it was "less than $500,000".
The flotsam work comprises a field of dozens of ordinary fluorescent light tubes connected by their snaking cords and interspersed with multi-coloured old plastic bottles salvaged by Culbert and his children in France. New Zealand-born Culbert and his family live in Croagnes in the south.
"I have always scavenged," he says, "what I do is always about what's left over, that people didn't much enjoy. I'm cleaning things up again, putting things back in order."
This is the first time the sculptures have been shown since the biennale where they were estimated to have been seen by more than 200,000 visitors. This new outing is in an infinitely different venue. In Venice they were canal-side in the most mellow, open and organic of spaces. In Wellington, Drop, involving fluorescent lights and old furniture, is suspended from the ceiling and Daylight Flotsam Venice glows on the floor in a conventional white gallery. Of course, Culbert says, the floor installation will look different.
"It will change wherever it is put, without a doubt. This is an art space and this is clearly an artwork but anywhere you put it, it will do that, take on the space." Like flotsam, "we're not making it look pretty, it just happens".
Culbert, who has called himself "a throwaway conservationist" says light superseded painting for him in the 1960s "because light is colour, colour is light. I decided to go straight to light. It is a material in the same way as paint in terms of colour". Plastic bottles reflecting, absorbing or pierced with light are also material for him to paint with.
"The explosion of light within those bottles is quite something."
In Venice, eight of Culbert's installations, collectively titled Front Door Out Back brought their special light to the Istituto Santa Maria della Pieta on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare beside the Grand Canal between Piazza San Marco and the Giardini.
It was well received. The UK Sunday Times commentator said: "My favourite pavilion was New Zealand's, where Bill Culbert's lovely neon interventions, scattered about a crumbling Venetian church, avoid the spiritual angst that characterises much of the Biennale, and replace it with delicacy and light."
Sarah Farrar, acting senior art curator and curator of contemporary art at Te Papa, which was a key partner with Creative New Zealand in the 2013 New Zealand project in Venice, sees Culbert's work as the highlight of a new season of works on Te Papa's art-dedicated Level 5. She saw the works in Italy and eventually proposed their purchase. Daylight Flotsam Venice gave Farrar "a very strong sense of the ocean and water, the idea of flotsam and jetsam being washed up. It has movement and rhythm to it, sometimes chaotic but also organic".
Drop, for which miscellaneous bits of pre-loved furniture are suspended upside down from the ceiling and speared with fluorescent tubes, appealed as "playful and joyful. "In Venice you see chandeliers and suspended light fixtures, some of them from extravagant Murano glass. His installation of chairs and tables is tumbling though still. It made people smile. There's something playful about seeing household objects suspended in space, things you might otherwise take for granted."
Culbert was born in Port Chalmers. He went to Hutt Valley High where James Coe was an "electric" art teacher. He then studied art at the Canterbury University School of Art and gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London in 1957. He has lived overseas since then, though he returns most years to New Zealand. "I don't come to New Zealand consciously annually," he says. "I go to places to work."
In Wellington there are permanent Culbert outdoor light sculptures in Post Office Square - Sky Blue - and, on the facade of City Gallery, Fault, a collaboration with Hotere.
Farrar describes Culbert as "one of our most senior contemporary artists", and "incredibly significant", not least because of his collaboration with the late Ralph Hotere. Te Papa holds two 1990s works from that collaboration - Blackwater and Pathway to the Sea, Aramoana.
Culbert's significance, too, says Farrar, comes from his interest in found materials, the way he works in a site-responsive way and that his installations remain relevant. They have elements picked up in the work of subsequent generations of artists. His work, she says, uses the latest fluorescent tubes, but not the latest technology. She sees colour as more important to him than technology. "Like any other artist he forms a colour composition. I think increasingly contemporary artists work in the medium that expresses what they want to communicate. Sometimes it's light. And it's much more common to work across different mediums. He's been working consistently with the possibilities of light since the 1960s, not just in terms of installations, but his interest in daylight, often in his photographic works."
Te Papa, she says, was keen to get the biennale work on public display as soon as possible after it was bought. "We knew there was interest in the art community and the wider public. It had been a success in Venice in terms of critical response and reviews by international and local media, and the very fact that it was so popular with visitors, over 200,000. The choice of venue was key, the route convenient for biennale visitors and also an area tourists and Venetians use and were drawn into and captured by the art works." Farrar says the works, already subject of school educational resources, may later be shown in other New Zealand galleries. "We're looking forward to them being key parts of our collection. Part of the reason for him being here is a thorough conversation about installation and future presentation. The works will be in the collection for longer than Bill and I will be around."
Daylight Flotsam Venice and Drop are part of the spring season of Nga Toi Arts Te Papa on show now.
The Dominion Post