Typified by fluorescent tubes intersecting with arrangements of everyday objects, New Zealand artist Bill Culbert's art practice revolved around utilising light as a medium.Read More
Born near Dunedin, New Zealand, Bill Culbert studied at the Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch from 1953 until 1956. In 1957, he was awarded a scholarship to study painting at the Royal College of Art in London. Staying in Europe, the artist moved to the Vaucluse region of Provence, France in 1961. There he made a home with his wife, British artist Pip Culbert, at Croagnes — a deserted hilltop hamlet. Foreshadowing Bill Culbert's interest in humble materials, the couple scoured a nearby tip at Sault for items to be recycled into the house's furnishings. Later documented in Culbert's photograph Décharge, Sault (1991), the tip became a source for the found materials of many of his works until the 1990s.
Bill Culbert's practice quickly transitioned from painting to using light as his principal subject and medium. In 1968, he began making the electric-light sculptures and installations that have become emblematic of his oeuvre. One suggested origin for this interest is an early encounter with a camera obscura built by his high school teacher, artist James Coe.
On the topic of his obsession with light, Culbert is cited as saying, 'I wanted to use light because it has no space or distance. Where the work finishes is only where you can't see the light anymore.' Culbert's wall-, floor-, and ceiling-based light sculptures utilise light from fluorescent tubes, incandescent bulbs, and natural light to breathe new life into ordinary objects such as plastic bottles, wine glasses, suitcases, and lampshades.
Often, Culbert's works simply engage with the dazzling aesthetics of light, both natural and artificial, and its interactions with objects. At other times, there is an underlying theme or political statement. Blackball to Roa (1978), comprising a kerosene tin pierced by a fluorescent tube, made a topical reference to coal mining on New Zealand's West Coast. On a more formal level, works like Bill Culbert's Long White Cloud (1985) and Total Black, Total White, Total Red, and Total Silver (1991) explore the diffusion and mediation of light by different plastics by piercing rows of plastic bottles along fluorescent tubes.
Environmental awareness permeates through several of Culbert's later works. Bill Culbert's Venice Biennale exhibition in 2013 featured Daylight flotsam Venice (2013). This work uses fluorescent tubes and plastic containers to visually recreate floating islands of plastic amidst the waves of the Pacific ocean.
Bill Culbert's photography reflects the process of observation that underpins his light-based installations. His black-and-white images capture the visual phenomena created by his works as well as spontaneous effects of natural light. Much of what Bill Culbert first documents in photography he later elaborated in installations and sculpture. One such example is the motif of shadows cast through wine glasses.
Among Bill Culbert's many commissioned works are public installations such as Skyline (2000) at the Millennium Dome, London and Wallwave (2002) at the PwC Tower, Auckland. In 2006, Culbert collaborated with Ralph Hotere on the site-specific commission Void for the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington. This was the last in a long list of collaborations between the two artists dating back to the 1990s. Among them is the environmental protest piece Pathway to the Sea / Aramoana (1991), and Fault (1994), which transformed the facade of Wellington's City Gallery.
Bill Culbert's solo exhibitions include Desk Lamp, Crash, Hopkinson Mossman, Wellington (2018); Bill Culbert, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dole, France, (2015); State of Light, PEER, London (2009); Light Wine Things, Dunedin Public Art Gallery (2004); Bill Culbert, Auckland Art Gallery (2003); Lightworks, Wellington City Gallery (1997); and An Explanation of Light, Serpentine Gallery, London (1984).
Bill Culbert's group exhibitions include Doble dirección, Centre d'Art la Panera, Catalonia (2014); Ralph Hotere and Bill Culbert, Dunedin Public Art Gallery (2011); Moving Towards a Balanced Earth: Kick the Carbon Habit, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington (2008); The state of things, Vigo Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO), Spain (2004); Alive!: Still Life into the Twenty First Century, Victoria University of Wellington (2002); and Toi Toi Toi, Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland (1999).
Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021
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