Making his own language

By Adam Gifford

Artist Bill Culbert will represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale, which opens in a couple of weeks. Adam Gifford talks to Culbert and his curator, Justin Paton.

Bill Culbert's Voie Lactee (1990) is believed to be similar to some of the work he will make in Venice. Photo / FRAC Corse, Corsica.
Bill Culbert's Voie Lactee (1990) is believed to be similar to some of the work he will make in Venice. Photo / FRAC Corse, Corsica.

Over the next six months some of the thousands of people who pass each day along the waterfront between Piazza San Marco and the main Biennale pavilions at the Giardini in Venice may be intrigued by light leaking out of the Istituto Santa Maria della Pieta.

If they go in, they will see the fruit of a lifetime's work by sculptor Bill Culbert, New Zealand's official contribution to the 55th Venice Biennale.

Culbert hasn't lived in New Zealand since gaining a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London in 1957 after studying as a painter at Canterbury University's Ilam School of Art.

But the 78-year-old has maintained his links back here, including a friendship with Ralph Hotere that resulted in a number of significant collaborations. It was through Dunedin Public Art Gallery's Hotere survey show, Black Light, that curator Justin Paton met Culbert. Paton is curating the Venice project, taking care of all the practical details needed to get the work in place.

"Because the venue is a big one, and because Bill is making really ambitious work, the main issue is to protect the artist from too many emails, too many requests that might distract him from the thing he signed on to do in the first place, which is to make great work," Paton says. "The role of the curator is to make sure there is no static on the line between the artist and the audience. That might mean writing a user-friendly text that goes on the wall in front of the artwork, it might mean ensuring there is no text at all getting in the way."

He has no doubts that New Zealand needs to be at Venice. "The Biennale is a wonderful, bewildering, amazing presentation of art. It has some terrible things and some totally unforgettable things, but it really is the stage on which the art world presents the things it thinks matter most. It is the place where artists and curators and viewers come to join the conversation about what matters in art and what matters to us generally because all of these artists are talking about things beyond the art world."

Culbert's contribution to that conversation is to continue work he has been doing since he started experimenting with light and movement in the 1960s. Paton points to some from the 1960s that were included in a show of British and South American Constructivists that ran alongside last year's Sao Paolo Biennale in Brazil.

"There was a black box with the sides slightly askew. When the light inside is on, it throws these lines around the room and really defines the space you stand in. There was also an early abstract painting, this white field with little, optically active dots of colours.

"In one of the outdoor spaces in Venice, Bill has light tubes running through these bulky, old, quite comical-looking wardrobes and, in effect, they are camera obscura boxes like the ones he was making in the 60s. His Daylight Flotsam piece consists of a huge field of white light with these bright blips of plastic colour in it. There is no sense that Bill is making the same work, but there is a sense of the same questions being explored differently in what he is doing today."

Culbert says Daylight Flotsam was his response to the atmosphere and sensibility of Canaletto's city. "The calm, the absence of noise and the reflection of light. It is a place of particular quality."

He sees his work as his own language. "You generate your own need or excitement, you are reacting positively to the society you are in, you are asking questions about yourself, what you think, and those questions are expressed not as solutions but probably as more questions."

Much of Culbert's work consists of neon tubes, often alongside or piercing discarded items like glass or plastic bottles or old furniture.

"It can be through accumulation, it can be through reduction, it can be through taking away or just adding and adding and adding. You can't make a mark that is a wrong mark. We live in a world of ambiguity and the rights are as right as they are wrong. Some people will see them as positive, some people will see them as negative. It's not clear."

Culbert says he was thrilled to be asked to represent New Zealand.

"It does give you a sense of being appreciated, and with a bit of humility, you try to do something that makes it worthwhile."

He says on such projects the relationship with the curator is important.

"It is nice to be able to talk to someone and discuss things you are doing and approaches to it. There are a lot of logistics involved in this and, because we are dealing with Venice, there are also issues about the walls and the ceilings and the conditions on that."

The works at La Pieta will be freestanding or on scaffolding, so there is no disruption to the fabric of the ancient building.

"Each gallery has a different sense. Making a piece of work, even the same piece of work, when you take it from one venue to another venue, you are taking something in time to another space, to another time. It is never the same piece of work even though you put it up identically. Curatorial work is about that."

Paton says the work is all Culbert's. "But, in the course of a given day, a curator can be so many things. You can be a fan, you can be a diplomat, you can be a lobbyist, you can be a fundraiser, you can be a sounding board, you might even be a bit of a coach, but I would affirm what Bill says, which is that the sense of open and trusting conversation between artist and curator is important.

"If the artist doesn't feel they are in good hands and can rely on the curator for an honest take on what they are up to, then you have a case of wheel wobble. I think a project can get into trouble at that point. Plus, it's also a lot less fun."

Culbert chimes in: "We do live in a society where we like to talk with people about the things we are doing and share them in that way. It doesn't mean much, but it is one of the things we do."

Venice Biennale

What: Front Door Out Back by Bill Culbert
Where and when: La Pieta Complex, Venice, June 1 to November 24

- NZ Herald

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