Front Door Out Back: Bill Culbert at Venice

Coaxed on by some encouraging Facebook messages, I made my way to the TVNZ webpage for Garth Bray’s coverage of Bill Culbert’s show at New Zealand’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The title was promising: “New Zealand Artist Receives High Praise at Venice”, the reality was something altogether different. Interspersed with the “high praise” (from foreigners, of course), was the dull and dim commentary of Simon Dallow and Garth Bray on everything from the state of modern art to Creative New Zealand’s controversial decision to commit public funds to the pavilion. “Another man’s trash is another man’s art” Dallow says, though I must confess I’m unsure if he was referring to Culbert or TVNZ.

Are we really meant to think that the direction of $650, 000 to this exhibition is so criminal? When it takes several of our best curators and one of New Zealand’s finest artists months to prepare and months to stage? When TVNZ still manages to collect public subsidies through NZ on Air on top of its not inconsiderable advertising revenue, how can Dallow – whose predecessor seemed to have no qualms about receiving an $800, 000 salary – honestly bemoan the allocation public funds to showcase New Zealand art at the world’s premiere international art event? Will the same debate resurface when Team New Zealand take the Government’s multi-million dollar subsidy to San Francisco later this year? When Richie McCaw held aloft the William Web Ellis cup to an adoring nation, did we pause for a second to question the not inconsiderable salaries of the players – the haughty expression on the face of our leering Narcissus of a Prime Minister suggested that he, for one, did not. The message to young New Zealand artists from the establishment is quite simple – go somewhere else and many, Culbert included, do just that.

Bill Culbert - Long White Cloud - 1985

Bill Culbert – Long White Cloud – 1985

Culbert is a fine artist. As a Wellingtonian, I encounter his sculpture every day. The ominous presence of Fault, his collaboration with the late Ralph Hotere, adorns the exterior of the City Gallery in Civic Square – Culbert’s iridescent neon light forcing it’s way through Hotere’s obsidian blackness. His Long White Cloud, which he references in the Venice show, hangs on the wall of the Victoria University Art History Department. A work from the 80s, I see it as a prescient jab at New Zealand’s irritating ‘clean, green” self-image. A literal Aotearoa constructed from discarded milk-bottles – the neon light playfully tries to escape its plastic prison. In Venice, Culbert takes it one step further – perhaps inspired by our current ecological malaise. He reconstructs the piece from Anchor’s new “light-proof” milk bottles through which no light can escape. It’s a compelling statement as well as an amusing in-joke for New Zealander’s familiar with Anchor’s extensive marketing campaign for the product.

Bill Culbert - Strait - 2013

Bill Culbert – Strait – 2013

Light is the most basic tool of the artist. For Christians (among whom I do not count myself) light was created by God on the first day – indeed, light created the first day after God created light. No painting, no photography, no sculpture would exist without light. From Carrivaggio’s incandescent illumination of grimy Italian taverns to Picasso’s ghastly all-seeing light bulb in Guernica, light has always been the artist’s most important and beguiling tool. Culbert’s voice is an important one in this discourse. He understands the light of the 20th and 21st centuries better than most of his competitors. New Zealanders have always been a parochial bunch and, as Sir Nick Serota of the Tate Britain said at Venice, we will claim Bill Culbert. He’s an artist we should be proud of and one we should feel no hesitation of pushing to the international art community as we do our most accomplished sportspeople.


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Len Lye: Kaleidoscope at Wellington City Gallery

Visitors to “Len Lye:  Kaleidoscope” at Wellington City Gallery are told, via the informative labels, that the young Len Lye questioned why motion could not be manipulated and composed in the way that sound is composed into music. The Wellington retrospective of Lye’s kinetic sculptures sets out a career’s worth of Lye’s exploration of this question, but left this viewer asking another one: whether Lye ever managed to transcend the novelty and originally of this first idea.

The exhibition, curated by Paul Brobbel,, is promising. The first room is a veritable carnival of kinetic imagination – a cornucopia of whirling bars, convulsing metal bands and singing metal trees. The ratio of children to adults in the exhibition did nothing to allay my fear that I had walked into a fairground sideshow containing the wicked, playful imaginings of a precocious child.


Is there a common theme to Lye’s three-dimensional imaginings? A metallic mobius strip of sheet metal that makes a noise on contact with a floating metal ball. The intervals between successive contacts vary and so does the force and angle at which the two collide, leaving the viewer engaged in this pyrrhic game of sonic chicken. A long, malleable pole spins on an axis so fast it becomes a long, dancing line, like an out-of-control helicopter blade. It’s all fun and games, united by the fascination with kinesis, sounds and the troublesome relationship with human perception.

In the 18th Century, a Scottish philosopher-jurist, Henry Home, Lord Kames, was similarly preoccupied with what breaching the gulf between what was perceived and what could be known. “Superficial knowledge” – that is, what could be guessed at without experiment – “produces the boldest adventurers, because it gives no check to the imagination when fired by a new thought”. Kames believed it was necessary to apply rigorous Newtonian scientific methods to new discoveries so that they might be upheld as indisputable, scientific truths. Over 200 years later – the once-unchallengeable faculty of objective scientific reason ripped from the philosophic pantheon by the jealous tempest of postmodernism – humans are left with a profound doubt that anything we can ever see has some grounding and importance.


Lye doesn’t engage with this debate per se, but his fluctuating, sensoramic metal beams challenge our preconceptions of what metal’s tensile capabilities. He taunts the senses with unanswered, unending kinetic and sonic questions, like a record player perpetually stuck in the same groove.  “Kaleidoscope” shows that Len Lye has created the language for a musical exploration of kinetic sculpture that will challenge not just the senses, but how much we trust them.

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Simon Ogden at Bowen Galleries 29 April – 18 May

Simon Ogden’s Owaka series, currently on view at Bowen Galleries, is a contemplative and deeply referential exploration of mixed media. Each piece is composed of layers of found lino laid over plywood – but their mundane materials belie what is, in reality, a palimpsest of discovery and opportunity.

Ogden scores successive layers of lino, exposing the pattern of the lino below. Other pieces of lino have been laid on top and together, Ogden manages to suggest identifiable objects, like birds, but in spite (or perhaps because of) his media, he never breaks his strict two dimensional, depthless perspective. It is art of immersion, the suggestive interplay between the media is inviting – begging the casual viewer to take a closer look.


The exotic and pastoral patterns that Ogden has selected hark back to the tapestry, the medieval form that also challenged the perceptions of space within a textured, but two-dimensional form. The palette of Ogden’s series harks to the Met’s famous “Unicorn” series – an ode to pastoral mysticism. Only instead of using his textured media to suggest depth, as the tapestry does, Ogden seems to delight in defying it.


It was good to see the opening well attended. Ogden was in hot demand, being tugged this way and that by interested buyers. My orbit collided with perhaps the only woman in the room who was not in a position to buy. “They’re lovely,” she said, “but so decorative”. In the cab home, I couldn’t help but agree with her – so decorative. And yet, long after the artist disappeared, we’re still looking at decorative tapestries centuries later. The real test of the Owaka series will be if they intrigue and inspire on the cluttered collector’s wall as much as they do in the whitewashed room of a Bowen.


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“The reality is…

“The reality is even Wellington is dying and we don’t know how to turn it around”

John Key

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May 7, 2013 · 12:07 pm