Welcome to the Review Repository - an archive of reviews that were originally published in the Saturday edition of the Taranaki Daily News from September 2007 – April 2008.

The reviews were written for a general audience and therefore tend to be descriptive and educational in focus.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Revealing objects

View West Taranaki, 2008 by Bill Culbert Photo: Govett- Brewster Art Gallery

Objects are receptacles of meaning and memory. This is especially true of used everyday objects. Our familiarity of what objects are, how they are made and what they are used for influences the perceived significance and value of them. This is further complicated when we consider the age of an object and its potential to reveal historical information. However, this transference of meaning onto objects is so implicit to our daily lives that we are almost completely unaware of it. One of the great things about art is that it has the potential of revealing this hidden cognitive process. Art that in some way uses pre-existing or readymade objects is most successful at achieving this. The readymade was a term coined by an early modernist artist called Marcel Duchamp who first started making artworks out of everyday objects in 1913 - at a time when Pablo Picasso was also collaging news paper clippings in his oil paintings. The notion of the readymade was then taken up by dada and surrealist artists who began making alterations to objects or combining them together. The readymade was later developed during the 1950s-60s in movements such as fluxus, pop, conceptual, and performance art. When artists began using readymade objects as a medium - just as they would paint - they made apparent how we attribute meaning and value to objects. In doing so they unlocked a sense of wonder of the banal by helping us view the everyday moments of life as aesthetic and meaningful. This sense of wonder also lead to understandings of how we comprehend the world and what it means to live in an age of mass production and consumerism.

Bill Culbert – currently exhibiting at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery – has devoted almost half a century to investigating the potential of electrical light to reveal the meanings that are latent in everyday objects. His exhibition Groundworks features three large floor installations displayed in separate gallery spaces. Of the most alluring is the installation View West Taranaki which consists of 21 hard-shell suitcases within which Culbert has inserted rectangular TV like screens - converting the suitcases into light-box like creations. What makes the work transfixing is the assortment of red, blue, purple, orange and yellow lights that beam loudly out of otherwise nondescript and ordinary suitcases. The wall text accompanying the work proposes that these colours are an abstract depiction of a Taranaki sunset. Suggesting a contrived romantic longing for distant shores beyond the horizon – as one could deduce from the title. More interesting however is the potential for the work to comment on the post 9/11 geopolitical issues governing international travel. The vibrant glowing screens resemble the colourful images of boarder security x-ray technology. The physical piecing of the hard suitcase shell also indicates the invasion of privacy on the traveller by the all seeing eye of customs who treat every passenger as a potential tourist - typifying the government surveillance of our age. Furthermore, the random arrangement of unlabeled suitcases – as if abandoned for some suspicious purpose – could lead us to read the colours as the eruptive chemical hues of a terrorist explosion.

Flotsam by Bill Culbert Photo: Govett- Brewster Art Gallery

Colonising the GBAG’s largest gallery is the work Flotsam - which consists of a considered but haphazard arrangement of approximately 80 fluorescent lights and a large assortment of used plastic bottles. The result is a blinding vista of diagonal lines of light inter-dispersed with nuggets of pure primary and secondary colours. After your eyes adjust, the bottles become the focus of the work. Journeying around the vast length of the work you may identify a detergent, milk or oil bottle – on the most part however, the bottles are anonymous to their previous life having had their labels removed. With their commercial robes removed the alluring advertising campaigns that once convinced us to purchase vanish to reveal the naked plastic skins. A stark reminder of the very permanent existence of such plastic - that is freely disposed of today only to take hundreds to thousand of years to degrade. The title Flotsam - a maritime term for shipwreck debris – suggests that the buoyant refuse we are present is evident of a catastrophe – in this case the sinking of our planet under irreversible damage.

The third work entitled Flat Lighthouse is a hodgepodge collection of shabby wooden door and window frames configured in an irregular rectangular grid on the floor. Laid on top of the composition is a scattering of fluorescent lights and desk lamps. Built probably out of rimu and caked in lead paint the doors and windows lay discarded like the numerous domestic lives they once witnessed and concealed. This is enhanced by the fluorescent tubes which appear as frozen shards of light – evoking the memory of how these doors and windows were once useful for controlling the aperture of light within domestic interiors.

As if using the fluorescent tube as a modern day magical rod of glowing mercury vapour Culbert breaks the spell of everyday life. To reveal how the objects that clutter our world hold telling information about our contemporary lives. Groundworks runs till the 18th of May.