The light fantastic

by Gregory O'Brien / 15 August, 2009
Bill Culbert's fascination with electricity began in boyhood, he tells Gregory O'brien, as the wiring behind his life and art is revealed in a new book.

Early in life, Bill Culbert learnt to look closely at things. He recalls, as a boy in Wellington during World War II, collecting tin cans on the beach near Moa Point after a storm. The nine-year-old beachcomber recognised the tins by their colourful lids - they usually contained 50 cigarettes a piece - and took home all 10 he found. Upon opening one of the lids and peering in, however, he noticed some unusual wiring connecting it to the base of the tin. He quickly pressed the lid shut. When his father arrived home that evening, the radio was switched on and the family listened to an emergency broadcast warning Wellingtonians that a consignment of booby-trapped tin cans had been washed off the deck of an American military vessel in Cook Strait. Soon after, the army's bomb disposal squad was removing the tins from the Culberts' front garden, where they were stacked amid all the other flotsam.


A fascination with wiring and electrical circuitry has stayed with the adult artist. To this day, Culbert remains a deft handler of both, along with bulbs and switches. Caution and studious attentiveness to electricity characterise his approach to art. As to his life in general, this is leavened by a sense of curiosity and a commendably anarchic spirit.


Moa Point was close by the Strathmore dump, and Culbert would set off after school either to the beach, to see what had washed in, or to the adjacent mound of rubbish, where he would collect not only wheels, suitcases and bottles, but also less predictable fare. "The New Zealand Film Unit would dump unbelievable mountains of film at the dump. I used to take cans of film home and look at them with a torch under the bed." Between the wiring of the explosive cigarette tins and the recycled newsreels, Culbert may well have gleaned an early sense of the unpredictability, wonder and imaginative potential - as well as risks - to be found in the most familiar objects.


As Ian Wedde points out in his new book, Bill Culbert: Making Light Work, Culbert's art is, in part, a lament for the passing of old-style, informal rubbish dumps - in particular the recently closed décharges of rural France, where, from the early 1960s until recently, he gathered much of the material for his art. As was the case in New Zealand, French tips were often placed in scenic locations - for instance, on the hillside outside Sault, not far from the tiny Provençal village of Croagnes, where Culbert has, over the past five decades, lived for half of each year.


Culbert has taken numerous photographs of landfills, as well as gathering plastic containers, light shades and other detritus to incorporate into his sculptural work. "It was the décharge at Sault that Culbert photographed most often, as though this was his Mont Sainte Victoire," Wedde writes, linking Culbert to the great painter of the Provençal landscape, Paul Cézanne. In the 1985 photograph Décharge Sault, Culbert's beloved Citroen 2CV is parked at the base of the tip-face, in much the same way as Cézanne would have installed his easel before a Provençal vista.


Art history is another décharge - albeit a more respectable one - that Culbert visits regularly in his work. Lightbulbs and wine glasses are often placed in his photographs like human heads, playfully evoking a history of portraiture, as they sit on the square shoulders of a tabletop or are laid sideways after the fashion of Constantin Brancusi's Sleeping Muse (1910). A stack of suitcases on a beach has a figural presence reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich - as do the standing fluorescent tubes he has incorporated into many works. His line-ups of plastic containers, run through by a single fluorescent tube, have the horizontality (and bustling life) of the crew assembled around the long table in Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.


Culbert's earliest memories are of Port Chalmers, where he was born in 1935. After time in Wellington - at Worser Bay, as well as Moa Point - and then Lower Hutt, he moved to Christchurch, where he studied at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts. Among the lifelong friends he made there were the artists Pat and Gil Hanly, Quentin MacFarlane and Ted Bracey. The earliest works reproduced in Wedde's book are figure studies, many of them of Culbert's art school friends. In 1957, the precociously talented young artist was awarded a three-year scholarship to study in London. While he was en route, however, tragedy struck: his sole sibling, Rae - who had been studying at Oxford - was killed in a climbing accident in north Pakistan. That heart-rending story is told in Ralph Barker's 1959 book The Last Blue Mountain.


At the same time as a new world of art was unfolding before him in London, Culbert was coping with the most traumatic of losses. By the end of the decade, he had discovered Europe - France, in particular - and was working as a part-time stage hand at the Royal Court Theatre, where, as Wedde relates, "he watched Orson Welles direct Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros and became friends with Albert Finney; Welles once told him to shut up".


One of the great revelations of Making Light Work is Culbert's paintings of the early 1960s. In these relatively unknown works, we see an emergent interest in serial effects, in time and motion (Culbert could easily have become an experimental film maker). "Ideas about light in my later work were there in the early paintings," he notes. "That came from my early interest in Cubism, turning things around, twisting them." He was soon exploring notions of movement suggested by the work of Marcel Du­champ and was busy debating more recent developments such as Pop and Op Art with his contemporaries.


Travelling in France in 1961, Culbert and his wife, Pip, a fellow artist, came upon the abandoned village of Croagnes on a Provençal hilltop. "We fell on this place by accident," he says, "which is pretty much the way I also come across most things in art, and life in general." There, they bought a ramshackle farmhouse (part of which was used to store hay) for £100. As the 60s progressed, Culbert found his art moving away from oil on canvas and towards new media. These were years when he was quietly working away, bringing up a family, teaching part-time. France quickly became a huge influence on his life and art, he says, moving both into a single overlapping territory.


Throughout his book, Wedde returns to the words "congeniality" and "conviviality" in relation to Culbert and his art. While engaging with contemporary conceptual and formal debates, the artist's work has always been underwritten by a subtly placed sense of the personal. It's hard to imagine Culbert making a work about, or using something, he isn't in some fundamental way attached to. His oeuvre unfolds like an understated yet ultimately affecting series of meditations: on a sequence of places, pieces of furniture, a Citroen 2CV, the Provençal light at a certain time of day, the reflective qualities of Dunedin Harbour in the early morning. Very much in that vein, his new exhibition at Wanganui's Sarjeant Gallery, 180° x 2 Whanganui, includes eight photographs taken in the city last November, featuring local subjects that fascinated him: a park bench on a hilltop, the river, some tyre marks left by hoons on asphalt. Culbert is clearly delighted by the Sarjeant Gallery dome, beneath which his work is sited. Suspended fluorescent tubes create "pathways of light in space", while the photographs are hung sideways, leading the viewer's eyes up towards the dome itself. "Site-specific" is too clinical a term to describe a work so attuned not only to its place of exhibit but also to the mood, history and personality of its gathered subjects.


In relation to the Wanganui project, or, for that matter, his work in general (including a new show at Auckland's Sue Crockford Gallery and contributions to a group exhibition at the city's Gus Fisher Gallery), Culbert doesn't feel the need to say much. He seems to have kept Orson Welles' assertive "shut up" in mind, at least in this respect. Yet the immense bibliography of writing about Culbert's work - in France, the UK and New Zealand - attests to a great amount of thinking and writing (some of it very fine) about his project by other people. These most intellectually porous works have an immense capacity to soak up as well as discharge, when squeezed, art theory.


After a two-decade absence, Culbert took up a visiting artist's fellowship in New Zealand in 1978, and has returned frequently since then. When asked the extent to which he thinks his art was formed in, or by, New Zealand, he says that is one of the things he is constantly in the process of finding out. Culbert dislikes the term "expatriate" - he has always maintained that he is a New Zealander. "Expat is a real British term," he says, "which usually describes someone who is sitting around drinking gin and tonic in some part of the world where they don't really belong."


Many New Zealanders, me included, first discovered Culbert's work after its inspired inclusion in the 1988 Auckland City Art Gallery exhibition NZ XI. The neon works featured hit an unmistakably new note, while fitting into a tradition of New Zealand vernacular art epitomised by James K Baxter's Jerusalem Sonnets, Don Driver's wall relief works, From Scratch's Rhythm Works and Wedde's great ditch-digging, post-pioneering poem Pathway to the Sea. As with the works of that disparate team, Culbert's productions are at once rustic and finely tuned. (You wouldn't mess around with the voltages that power large-scale neon installations such as Light Plain, 1996).


Like Len Lye, the "New Zealand" artist he reminds me of most (on account of his high spirits, sociability and sheer optimism), Culbert has an ability to use technology on his own terms and with his own personal ends in mind. Whereas Lye summed up his philosophy in three words, "Individual Happiness Now", I can imagine Wedde proposing, on behalf of Culbert, an adjacent, and not unrelated, philosophy of "Collective Conviviality Now".


Yet such sociability and good humour do not exist in a vacuum. Just as a tin of cigarettes found on a beach might be an intimation of mortality, Culbert's deployment of discarded objects, pieces of furniture with missing legs, and full wine glasses at unpeopled tables underlines the fact that absence, loss and awareness of death are also wired into the circuitry of his sculptures and photographs.


Since 1978, Culbert has been good friends with Ralph Hotere and the two have produced remarkable works in collaboration, among them Pathway to the sea - Aramoana (1991), Blackwater (1998) and Fault (1994) - the latter on the exterior of City Gallery Wellington. A mutual connection with Port Chalmers was instrumental. "Ralph was living there, and I was from there," Culbert says. "And we soon found the elements we used in our art were surprisingly compatible." They also shared a love of demolition materials and recycled things, a spirit that Culbert describes as "throwaway conservationist".


Stacked to the gunnels with more than 400 images, Making Light Work is a phenomenal production, written with dexterity, sensitivity and formidable archival industry. In Culbert's art, Wedde has found one of those bodies of thought/work that offer, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, "a sufficient head of water for the critic to install a power station on them". He presents the artist's oeuvre - and his very busy life - as yet another kind of electrical circuit. Herein we see some of the wiring behind the walls, the circuitry beyond the visible wiring that Culbert so likes us to see. Linking together his home bases in France, England and New Zealand - while encompassing travels elsewhere - Wedde's book allows us to follow the direction of the thinking, as well as the life and the work. "Living is travelling," Culbert says - and art can be a poignant way of getting on with it.


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