we are all in the same boat

Moreton Bay

found objects: boat, lamps, chenille



Similar in methodology to my practice is the presence of simplicity within Bill Culbert's work. Simplicity stands a concept on its own. It acknowledges phenomena as worthy in its own right. It is this simplicity, which therefore brings another dimension of truth.

Vanessa Stanley discusses the idea of phenomenology in her paper, Perceptions of Light, Space and Time in the Works of James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson, 2009. Stanley describes phenomenology as objects or physics that provide a particular stimuli to the viewer and that light is one such phenomena” (Stanley, p. 4).

It is, I believe, the idea of phenomena, both the tangible and intangible object, in which Culbert is most interested. It is this ideology that forms the nexus between my practice and that of the New Zealand artist.

Culbert experiments with light and found objects within the visual language of installation and still images. The 1960’s, a time when conceptual art manifested as a movement, saw Culbert's interest in the found object stem from the discovery of a refuse dump in Luberon, France. Since the 1970's his practice has predominately been based upon the found object, particularly domestic products of the 1950’s to the 1970’s. 

Frederic Paul outlines in his essay, Home Sweet Home, how this discovery became a thirty year archaeological dig for Culbert (Paul, 1994). Domestic objects seduce Culbert as evidence in Table Lamp Interior, 1982 (Fig. 1). This process places his work in an innovative and experimental arena. It is chance find that plays a significant role in Culbert's work. 

Light - natural or artificial, holds an easily transferable capability and as Bann outlines (Bann 1986, n.p.) "the technique of electricity makes it possible to achieve a kind of self-transcendence of the object’ and therefore transforming it from its" original form.

Culbert's investigation into both artificial and natural light has been a constant throughout his extensive career taking on a visual language from one work to another and in reference to the 55th Biennale, one space to another. To the core of his work, Culbert is attempting to harness the phenomena of light.

The Age of Enlightenment was a time of questioning knowledge and religion. Questioning traditional ways of doing. Artists, including Joseph Wright of Derby, attempted to shed ‘light on something, illuminating it, making it clear’ (1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment viewed on 17 October 2013). This is evident in Wrights’ Candlelight Series.

Wright, a landscape and portrait artist, “meticulously painted groups of figures in dark interiors illuminated by candles or lamps” (Joseph Wright of Derby, para. 1). His work, The Alchemist (Fig. 7), is one of three well-known paintings reflecting scientific themes. Scenes based on experiments, inventions and machinery, it is easy to see how Culbert's work forms a dual link with Wright. The two fascinated by phenomena, light, object, and invention.

It is also interesting to note, as I embarked on my ‘Grand Tour’ that Wright had also. Wright left Derby in 1773, aged 39 to expand his practice in painting. Stephen Daniels states in his book, Joseph Wright (1999, p.63), what an impact his visit to Italy had on his study. “Wright followed the trail of the Grand Tour to Naples and a local landscape dominated by Mount Vesuvius” (1999 p. 63). It was at Mount Vesuvius in which Wright began to paint its volcanic eruption and conduct his intense study into light. 

Wright’s method of illuminating an object is evidenced in the painting The Alchemist, (Fig. 7). The vessel and the group gathered are easily and skillfully transformed from an otherwise cluttered and mechanical setting with the addition of candle light. This realises a romanticised outcome. This technique of utilising the properties of light accomplishes similar results for Culbert. 

Culbert continues this tradition of questioning. Ian Wedded explains how for Culbert “light became the means of letting him explore the possibilities in an almost scientific way” (Moore, 2011).  Stanley also points to the way in which light can be engineered to manipulate the level of cognitive loads and therefore creates a state of relaxation and tranquility for the viewer (Stanley, p. 6). The neon lights, wardrobes, cartons and chairs all surpass their history, their practical applications, to something rather sublime. In achieving this, Culbert, as with Wright, has managed to address the industrial spirit of light within the context of their time. Steven Bann (1986, n.p.) author of Bill Culbert Selected Works 1968 – 1986, explains how Culbert not only incorporates light into his spaces but how his use of light transforms the object. The object becomes “not only the vehicle but the source of light” (1986, n.p.). At La Biennale di Venezia, Culbert continues this practice piercing furniture with fluorescent tubing (Fig. 2). 

At the 55th Biennale Culbert takes up residency at the Istituto Santa Maria Della Pieta, a former church and orphanage. In 2011 Culbert visited some twenty sites throughout Venezia in preparation for the Biennale. His site choice reflects his appeal to light. (Greeson, 2011). 

Culbert has made a conscious decision to leave the building as he found it, to work with its history, its properties of texture and light. Culbert stated, “It was perfect… I felt that, in that state, I wouldn’t want to do anything to the building. I’ll just keep it as it is, and let the works I put there make what they can” (The Venue, 2013).

Not only has Culbert utilised the historical narrative of the building but he too acknowledges the significance of everyday life in the city of Venezia.

In doing this, is Culbert attempting to highlight, shed light on, the man-made, and the natural landscape? Or as Will Gleeson suggests, author of Bill Culbert in Venice, is he attempting to reference “Venice’s history as an important center for the craft of glasswork” (Gresson, W. 2013) I believe he is doing both, located somewhere else, not in Venezia, this may not be the case.

During an interview with Adam Giffard of the New Zealand Herald, Culbert acknowledged the significance of painter Canaletto in relation to the work, Daylight Flotsam (Fig. 6), and explains how the work was his response to the atmosphere and sensibility of Canaletto's city (Moore, 2011). 

Interestingly, early in his career, Canaletto painted predominately and directly from nature, however later, he also painted within the studio using the technique camera obscura.

Culbert's work, Level, 2013 (Fig.3) comprising seven glass vessels, filled with exactly the same level of water, are placed on a shelf, as if floating over the background scene, the canal and passing vaporetto.

At close inspection the glass vessels become a kind of camera obscura. The reflections bring the exterior of everyday Venezia to the viewer within the interior space.

Camera obscura involves the process of projection. In recent times painter David Hockney and physicist and optics expert Falco, developed the Hockney-Falco Thesis. Hockey outlines this thesis in his book Secret Knowledge (Hockney 2001). 

Hockney claims that for artists of the Renaissance to achieve the impeccable results of accuracy and realism, the development in Renaissance art must have stemmed from the use of some sort of aid such as camera obscura.

Hockney believes optics is ephemeral, always changing, and that it is, the mark made by artists, which gives the work its permanency. In Level, 2013 (Fig.3) depending upon where the viewer is positioned the scale of reflection morphs and creates an ephemeral perception for the work.

In blending the old and the new in a manner of camera obscura, is Culbert questioning the traditional theoretical ideas of the Renaissance as the Hockney-Falco thesis does? Or is he paying homage to this time?

In heading further along evolution from camera obscura to photography. Observed at the 55th Biennale and typical of Culbert's installations his assemblages are often temporary. Culbert documents his work with still images, transforming them from ephemeral to permanent works.

Frederic Paul in his essay Home Sweet Home (Paul 1994) emphasizes the significance in Culbert being introduced to photography in 1973. It was from this point in time that Culbert was able to bring permanence to his work, his images becoming works in themselves.

Unintentionally and unreservedly the still image is significant in documenting my own work. As an emerging artist with resource limitations and financial constraints this is noteworthy.

As is obvious of Culbert's still images (Fig. 1 and Fig. 4) he experiments with the photograph under various conditions, indoors, the domestic setting, the outdoors, and the natural landscape to name a few.

The obvious similarities between my practice and Culbert is the use of lighting, however it is not so much the objects but the concept the object brings forth to the work. The similarities, particularly the uses of light as tangible or intangible phenomena, do not necessarily mean similar outcomes.

Additionally, using light, my own work has the intention to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, to inspire curiosity and reflection. It is the intention of my work to cultivate questioning and to also pay homage to invention. My practice attempts to emphasis the impact the man-made has had and is having on the natural landscape.

Similar to Culbert, I invite viewers to immerse themselves within the space and therefore the visual language attempts to be inclusive. Stanley also points to the way in which Olufar Eliasson uses light to engage the viewer. In using diffused light, Stanley acknowledges how the spaces “appear boundless and homogenous” and in doing so Eliasson’s work is reflective and communal (2009, p. 30).

Similar to my own work (fig. 8) artists such as Culbert and Eliasson's use of light is effective in constructing an atmosphere that the audience because of its infinite qualities.

Using “the simple electric light to create powerful metaphors about our relationship with our natural and artificial environment” (Wilson, n.d.) I believe there is honesty and humbleness to his work which helps create a harmonious space for the viewer to feel welcome initiate thought. This inclusive approach I strive in my art practice also.

Culbert reflects this ideology into his everyday life also. Oliver Blanckart, outlines in his essay, Not a Lot, But a Whole World, how Culbert has used the objects collected over the past thirty years as practical uses in his home (1994, p. 62) This process of honesty throughout Culbert's professional and personal practice, is important in my own search for authenticity.

Within an enclosed space I deliberately attempt to slow the viewer, a concept explored by Stanley. “Two dimensional space can only be looked upon whereas 3D space allows movement within, is inclusive, captivates and affords physical, visual, emotional and psychological experiences”(2009, p. 6).

Once the viewer feels inclusive through the seduction of light, the space then becomes the tool for inspiring curiosity, reflecting, questioning and to walk away with something.

It is this, in which leads my investigation into the Era of Enlightenment. I see the connection between Wright, Culbert and myself as practices of questioning traditional ideas and ways of doing. For my practice I question domesticity, the industrial using installation, space, the still photograph and the moving image.

A letter written from Sol Lewitt to Eva Hesse inspires my work. Lewitt implores Hesse to do, to stop thinking, and just ‘do’. It is in the doing, the making, in which my work evolves and I believe Culbert does also.

A worthy art practice is one, which blend research and doing. I turn to Culbert and other artist to lead my theoretical knowledge about the phenomena of light. I acknowledge however the different applications and outcomes that develop through the individual practices.

When arranged in a particular composition and within a specific space an object is able to adopt a new meaning denoting to a memory, a place in time (fig. 6). By centralizing the focus to either a lone object or using multiples the viewer is unable to ignore its presence and therefore its importance. Simplicity is key to my approach.

Whatever the case, it is obvious that Culbert's artistic practice is about juggling, line, shape, colour, and space, creating a cohesive whole, which is inviting and inclusive to the viewer. As the Grand Tour influenced Wright of Derby I wonder in what way the 2013 European Grand Tour shall influence my practice?


Abrioux, Y, Blanckart, O, & Paul, F. 1994, Bill Culbert: Entre Chien et Loup - Afterdark, British Council, Mulhouse.

Bann, S, Culbert, B & Cutts, S 1986, Bill Culbert Selected Works 1968 -1986, ICA Publication, Great Britain.

Butterfield, J. 1993, The Art of Light and Space, Abbeville Press, New York.

Daniels, S. 1999, Joseph Wright, Tate Gallery, London.

Dunn, M. 2002, New Zealand Sculpture: A History, Auckland University Press, Auckland.

Gresson, W. 2013, Bill Culbert in Venice, viewed 17th October 2013, http://eyecontactsite.com/2013/06/bill-culbert-in-venice

Hockey, D. 2001, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, New York, Viking Studio.

Moore, C 2011. Lighting the Way with Art, viewed 16th October 2013, http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/arts/5818727/Lighting-the-way-with-art

Stanley, V. 2009, Perceptions of Light, Space and Time in the Works of James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson, Griffith University, Brisbane.

Wilson, T. Bill Culbert, viewed 17th October 2013, http://www.art-newzealand.com/Issues11to20/exhibitions11ch.htm

1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment, viewed on 17 October 2013 http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/1700-1800-Age-of-Enlightenment.html

Joseph Wright of Derby, JP Getty Trust, viewed 17 October 2013 http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artMakerDetails?maker=697&page=1

The Venue, viewed on 21 October 2013 http://www.nzatvenice.com/venue