Cunningham sees the light

01:35, Sep 05 2012
Dan Cunningham
PLAY OF LIGHT: Dan Cunningham with Sphere of Illusion a spinning glass sphere that picks up light as it spins.

Nelson-based artist Dan Cunningham plays with a specific medium in his exhibition at the G-Space Gallery - light.

The American-born artist has lived in New Zealand for 20 years, but recently returned from four years in Las Vegas. He says he's relatively unknown here, and wants to do something about it.

Light Divided - A Spectral Journey, at the G-Space Gallery at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, gives Nelsonians a glimpse into his world.

The exhibition features abstract photographs, kinetic sculptures and a video showing one of his works in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

His other claims to fame are what he says is the world's largest wooden vase - at three metres - made out of an ancient monkey puzzle tree that came down in a storm in Wakefield in the mid-1990s, and the world's largest wooden bowl.

That was made out of a tree that was cut down on a politician's property in Hawaii, where he lived before migrating "sight unseen" to New Zealand.


Cunningham says he's a self-taught artist, a journey that began when he moved to Hawaii in his mid-20s with $25 and a guitar to his name, after giving up on a university psychology course.

He started making things out of bamboo and selling them.

Learning his art, however, started earlier than that - in his father's workshop in Ohio.

Cunningham's father was an engineer and machinist involved in the design and manufacturing of missiles and other weapons.

"There wasn't anything he couldn't fix or build. I learnt the skills, but it [the military industry] wasn't my style. I wanted to do something a little more pacifist," he says.

Cunningham says he started making artworks that interact with light about 10 years ago.

Light Divided - A Spectral Journey features a work called The Portal, which is similar to the sculpture he has on show in the MGM Grand Hotel.

The Portal, made from high-chrome stainless steel from Japan, hangs from the ceiling in the G-Space Gallery in NMIT's Creative Industries building, and spins with the aid of a fan. Cunningham says when it spins at a very high speed, with light shone on it, "the sculpture disappears and the optics take over".

Another work that plays with light is The Sphere of Illusion, which was made using a 20-centimetre crystal ball impregnated with mirrors that spins with a motor.

Cunningham cut it in half by hand using a diamond wire and "three months of watching CNN and the Discovery Channel", and put outward-facing mirrors in the centre. The sphere was used to create the abstract photography featured in the exhibition.

The artist spun it in a dark room and used LED lights to make discotheque-like photographic images, reproduced without digital manipulation as giclee prints on canvas.

Cunningham has also developed a new laser light show prototype, which he plans to demonstrate at the G-Space Gallery from 1pm to 5pm this Saturday.