Kiwi making art in Vivaldi's corridor

Linda Herrick travels to the Venice Biennale and finds the light, and shade, in the work of a New Zealander.

Bill Culbert, New Zealand's artist for the 2013 Venice Biennale, at the entrance to the New Zealand Pavilion. Photo / Jennifer French
Bill Culbert, New Zealand's artist for the 2013 Venice Biennale, at the entrance to the New Zealand Pavilion. Photo / Jennifer French

Venice's foot-traffic superhighway, the waterfront Riva degli Schiavoni, swarms each day with a melee of one-day visitors marching this way and that, led by their flag-waving guides as they and their cameras head doggedly towards meccas like Piazza San Marco and the Doge's Palace complex.

On a tight and rigid timetable, they miss out on so many of Venice's quieter treasures, and don't spare a glance at another beloved historic landmark, the Istituto Santa Maria della Pieta, simply known as La Pieta, once home to the city's abandoned children and the place where Vivaldi composed music and taught the violin to those forgotten souls.

The building, directly bounded on its west side by a canal, Rio Del Greci, has a main entrance showing advertisements for a series of performances of Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons) by the Orchestra I Virtuosi Italiani. The doorway just to the left leads directly to the long corridor where Vivaldi conducted his lessons.

Today, the corridor is filled with light and shade cast by a series of three-in-one works by a modern master, New Zealand artist Bill Culbert's contribution to the Venice Biennale.

See: Works composed by Bill Culbert for the 2013 Venice Biennale.

It is just the start, with Culbert's show, Front Door Out Back, occupying nine spaces in La Pieta. In contrast, many of the national pavilions in the Biennale see the artist allotted just one showcase area.

In the corridor, which remains in what interior decorators might call a distressed state, Bebop (comprising Drop/Bebop/Two Drop) draws the eye upward to a 15m undulating arch hanging from the ceiling of 34 secondhand formica tables and chairs of various hues - white, opaque green, fawn, blue, a deeper green, yellow and red - all shot through by fluorescent tubes. These are Culbert's trademark materials, recycled objects invigorated by reuse.

At the end of the corridor, the unusual beauty of the installation is bounced back into the room by a large piece of reflective glass.

Next door, in a smaller corridor, Fonterra's latest contribution to the magic of marketing is revealed in eight of the new light-resistant milk bottles hanging on the wall, pierced by a fluorescent tube. True to Fonterra's word, the bottles do resist the light - but as Culbert has always proved, if light can get out, it will. So the lids shine bright blue and green. The piece is called Strait, made by Culbert on a recent visit to Christchurch. "Finding its weak point was irresistible," he laughs. "If you want to know how much is in there, shake it. It's the kind of thing that would drive you mad."

Another space, a beautiful outdoor courtyard hemmed in by several floors of old apartments, would give our health and safety boys a heart attack. Loose bricks, crumbling masonry and centuries of exposure to outdoor corrosion engulf two exquisite antique wardrobes given the Culbert treatment by each being pierced by three fluorescent tubes. One wardrobe has a mirrored front, the other blue glass. These are Walk Blue and Walk Reflection, a prelude of another work, Where are the other two?, in a simple white room filled with smaller pieces of antique furniture, again slashed by light. Some would call it vandalism, Culbert calls it transformation of the ordinary.

Culbert and NZ Biennale Commissioner Jenny Harper started searching for sites for his work during the 2011 Biennale. "We looked at 12 places," he says. "We had a look at it when it was in operation so we could see the place, see it working. We looked at the courtyard, the beautiful rooms and the access to the canal. It was just like magic."

La Pieta's large central room is home to a new instalment of one of Culbert's ongoing works, Flotsam, this time Daylight Flotsam Venice, an extraordinary accumulation of coloured plastic bottles collected over the past 20 years (mainly laundry, oil and even tomato sauce bottles, curator Justin Paton points out), nestled on the floor among an array of 150 carefully positioned glowing tubes.

Flotsam exactly mirrors what is happening outside in Venice's lagoons, where bottles and rubbish bob about in the water, contributing to the damage from the constant attacks on the city's delicate environment.

"Flotsam was natural for this space," Culbert says. "It is always unfinished business, a continuum. [With so much flotsam in Venice], that's it, and being on the same level as the water as well."

At the end of Flotsam's room is the building's business end, its dock, where barges used to float in goods. Culbert and his team used this to bring in his materials, which they drove in from France, then loaded on to a barge and floated directly into the space.

Perhaps the most poignant piece in the show is HUT, Made In Christchurch, a simple installation of fluorescent tubes in the outline of a shelter, either beginning or ending its existence. Culbert created the work in 2012 after visiting his old hometown and can only say, "It is a very shocking thing, what is happening down there".

He seems genuinely thrilled to be in the Biennale.

"It's a nice place to show, isn't it? It's pretty big. It's always demanding but it makes you work better. You go for it. This is the first time I've had people help me. There was a lot of work. The furniture suspended in the corridors, that was a major undertaking and I am not as fit as I used to be."

Venice Biennale

• Founded in 1895, it is the world's biggest contemporary art exhibition to be held every two years. The 55th Biennale opens today (it was disrupted for six years by World War II) and runs until November 24. This year 88 nations will be represented and 300,000 visitors are expected.

• The main site is the Giardini, a 50,000sq m park on the east side of the city which houses 28 permanent pavilions. The second venue is the nearby Arsenale shipyard (24 shows across 46,000sq m) supplemented by 36 official exhibitions and 50 collateral events across the island.

• Bill Culbert's exhibition, Front Door Out Back, is staged in nine rooms in La Pieta complex on the Riva degli Schiavoni, near Piazza San Marco. La Pieta, a former orphanage, is famous for its 30m corridor where Vivaldi taught violin to the children.

Bill Culbert

Born in Port Chalmers in 1935, he moved to Wellington in 1943 where he developed the family ethos of "frugal ingenuity". This included fossicking in rubbish dumps for material for his work, a practice he continues to this day. He attended Canterbury University School of Art and gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London in 1957. He divides his time between a house in London and Croagnes, Provence, where he bought a complex of ruined farm buildings in 1961 for £100. In the late 60s he began to wind down painting in favour of photography and creating installations using light and discarded objects like plastic bottles, suitcases and furniture. His work has been installed in the Millennium Dome in London, Te Papa, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, and in public spaces across Britain, Europe, South America and the United States. He comes back to New Zealand most years, and has worked on significant collaborations with his friend the late Ralph Hotere, including Fault along the facade of City Gallery in Wellington and Void in Te Papa.

New Zealand at the Biennale

NZ has participated since 2001 but controversy flared in 2005 over the selection of Fundamental Practice, a work described as a portaloo which brayed like a donkey. It didn't help that Auckland artist Merilyn Tweedie, who used the pseudonym "et al", refused to be interviewed by the media. Creative New Zealand ordered a review which concluded the visit every two years was good value for money but a better public relations strategy was needed. NZ Venice Biennale Commissioner, Jenny Harper, says this year's budget is $650,000, supplemented by $350,000 raised by patrons. "It's not that much money when you compare it with the Olympics, the Cannes Film Festival, the Rugby World Cup, all these things which people insist New Zealand goes to and would be horrified if we weren't there," says Harper, who is the director of the Christchurch Art Gallery.

Linda Herrick travelled to the Biennale with the assistance of Creative NZ.

- NZ Herald

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