Bill Culbert returns to Venice

02:45, Mar 10 2013
Bill Culbert
Out of the darkness: Light has fascinated Bill Culbert for many years

On a busy pedestrian thoroughfare - a boardwalk alongside the Venetian Grand Canal between Piazza San Marco and the Giardini - is a message threatening malediction and excommunication to all those who abandon children for whom they can provide.

The plaque is a stone engraving attached to the Santa Maria Della Pieta - a 14th-century four-column white-washed church.

A few metres down is a door where, 300 years ago, composer Antonio Vivaldi would enter most days to teach music to those children of neglect who had been dropped by adults intent on testing the plaque's warning. From the outside it seems secret, like many dotted through the Venetian archipelago - a closed doorway, a courtyard wall and a labyrinth-like network of corridors and internal spaces that sprawl out over slow shimmering canals.

It is a space, says curator Justin Paton, drenched in Renaissance essence. Move through it and turn to see the play of light on the lagoon. It is the same light interpreted by William Turner and Canaletto and canonised by 99 out of a 100 travel writers through the centuries.

In late 2011 Bill Culbert was led through that door and into the Instituto Santa Maria Della Pieta.

The last time he had been in Venice was as a 22-year-old aspiring artist, fresh from Port Chalmers, New Zealand, and then studying at the Royal College in London. He was developing an affinity for ordinary perception - an appreciation of the eye as an organism and the way the mind could comprehend the everyday sights it encountered.


There, in the 1950s, surrounded by the art of the world, in the heart of Italy, Culbert experienced his first Venice Biennale.

It would take a phone call many decades later to bring him back.

By that stage, when Jenny Harper reached him at his home in Southern France, Culbert had broken away from his beginnings of painting onto canvas. It was not the stuff of lofty metaphor or grand subject matter. The thing itself was the art - how the eye caught it, how the mind interpreted it. In the early days he would spend hours trying to shine lights on those pieces in galleries and became frustrated with the limitations of a singular wall. Soon, the light itself became the thing- fluorescent, iridescent creations built around domestic objects recycled from the garbage dumps and big-box stores of France. He speaks of plastic and how it really "talks" when the light hits it. There are conversations that take place when light was involved, he says.

By the time Harper, the commissioner for New Zealand's showing at the 55th Biennale, spoke to Culbert he had risen to become one of New Zealand's most renowned modern artists.

Harper had an offer for him - to represent his country of birth at the foremost art exhibition in the world, which begins on June 1.

"It was pretty stunning," Culbert says from France. "There was no doubt for me, being a New Zealander."

Harper describes the five-month long Biennale as an honour for artists who have "already won the race". They need to have proven themselves in the international scene to justify the $650,000 expense from Creative New Zealand. The bulk of the remaining $350,000 is raised by patrons. Harper says if you are important on the international scene it is not uncommon to be based in the place where the action happens.

Culbert's village, Croagnes, lies in the Luberon region where ancient Roman walls have long since been replaced by boulevards and narrow, irregular streets. His home is his studio and is now littered with the remnants of his creative process. His assistant and son have been enlisted to help manage it all.

"Inspiration comes from all different directions," Culbert says. "I always try to push it further and sometimes I don't know I'm doing it. You have to break free."

There is still work to be done - the logistics of lighting his creations means he has to keep up with technological trends.

"We are building all the time," he says. "It's a big job and I'm not as young as I was."

His work is dotted all over the globe. In New Zealand, Wellingtonians can see his work on the facade of the City Gallery. It is a collaboration with the late Ralph Hotere - a permanent installation featuring two bands of searing white light on blacked out windows. Aucklanders can see Black Stump, a 20-metre-high tower, punctured by a gathering of tiny holes representing the stars of the southern night sky. Blue featured 100 metres of argon gas neon tubing that coiled around the Christchurch Convention Centre. It vanished in the February 22 earthquake.

But his latest work will be Front Door Out Back, and will suspend tables, chairs, wardrobes and plastic containers in the air - speared with 20 metres of light sending those objects of domesticity tumbling through space - fluorescence amid middle age stone.

"It will be interesting to see how compatible we are," Culbert says. "There is a universal visual language that does operate."

That language is what Paton says is the link between Venice and Culbert. Those artists that succeed there are not those that try to change their surroundings but instead collaborate with the texture of the place.

"Light is at the absolute heart of all he does," Paton, who is curating Culbert's showing, says.

Only a few blocks away one might wander into the Scuola di San Rocco and see light imagined by Tintoretto as existing in heaven. Christ parting clouds, sacred beams channelling down to earth. In Culbert's work it is the light that can be bought at a "hardware store for three cents".

There are some artists that want to create other worlds, Paton says. They attempt to lift us away into imagination where you forget about everything else.

"But Bill sees art as a way of pointing to the things that he loves that surround his life. For him it's a way of getting more out of the world."

His is a normal life, Culbert says. He takes pleasure in the patter of a woodpecker, in the view of vineyards and olive groves, in the simple beauty of things - of domesticity and everyday life, of normality and light. "And normality is in fact a pretty nice thing."

Sunday Star Times