The photographic underpinnings of Bill Culbert, one of the country’s most celebrated conceptual artists, are explored in an exciting new exhibition, curated by Julia Waite, that brings together pieces from across a remarkable career
Words | Adrian Hatwell
Bill Culbert occupies a unique position in Aotearoa’s art history. Over a career spanning seven decades, the artist was variously known as a painter, photographer, sculptor, and installation artist. Bill, who died in 2019, left a legacy of expansive curiosity that has, in some ways very literally, had a hand in shaping New Zealand’s visual character.
Having moved to London in the late 1950s, becoming part of Europe’s exciting contemporary art community, Bill found acclaim internationally before his artistic contributions were properly celebrated back home. However, by the time of his death the artist was one of Aotearoa’s best known — he had represented the country in the prestigious Venice Biennial, held numerous solo shows throughout the world, and various of his sculptures now have a permanent position as part of City Gallery Wellington, on the Wellington waterfront, and inside Te Papa.
Best known of Culbert’s works are his sculptures involving fluorescent tubes and everyday objects. While their interrogation of light as a medium may be clear, these pieces also flag a preoccupation with the photographic process that has remained a central thread in Bill’s work since the very beginning. A major new exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Bill Culbert | Slow Wonder, sets out to make clear this photographic connection in a career-spanning exploration of the man’s practice.
Billed as a “backstory of how Culbert’s investigations began”, Slow Wonder takes visitors back in time to a period of experimentation and discovery for the artist while he was living in London and France. Perhaps more than any Culbert exhibition to date, the show links Bill’s interrogation of light with an abiding fascination with the photographic process.
Exhibition curator Julia Waite explains how the works, largely from the time between 1968 and the mid 80s, illuminate a practice dominated by the qualities of light and the way it behaves in space.
“Central to these investigations, though somewhat hidden in the shadows, was the magical camera obscura — an object which had been critical to the development of art, especially for painters,” says Julia.
“Culbert was not interested in using the camera obscura as painters working in earlier centuries did — to aid the accurate representation of perspective. His motivations were conceptually driven as he committed himself to a seemingly endless questioning of the way light and objects physicalised the experience of perception.”
Although the exhibition does not cover Culbert’s earliest days of making in art in Aotearoa — initially as a schoolboy at Wellington’s Hutt Valley High School and later as a student at Christchurch’s Ilam School of Fine Arts — Julia notes that it was during this time that Bill first came in contact with a camera obscura. Interacting with the early photographic device left a powerful impression.
“He reimagined a camera obscura for his first major light installation, Cubic Projections, 1968, and continued experimenting with its form in the early 1970s,” Julia recalls. “References to the obscura also appear in his photographs, including one in which Culbert restages an eclipse, and another of a large glass container filled with water-refracting light.”
It was a painting scholarship that first gave Bill the opportunity to travel to Europe, but once there he would eventually transition from painting to the electric light sculptures and installations he would become famed for. Whatever the medium, however, Bill never found himself far from photography; he created many photographs observing the effects of natural light and documenting the visual phenomena created by his own sculptures.
Julia has pored over interviews from throughout the artist’s long-running career and has found references to the camera obscura at many different stages. Bill would often hint at the object’s significance, both physically and conceptually, right through to his later days.
“Even as late as 2012, on the eve of his exhibition at the Venice Biennale, Culbert again mentioned the experience of that first obscura he stepped inside in his school,” she notes.
While Bill’s mediums may have changed over time, there is one element that unifies the works at all of his different stages: a fascination with the character and nature of light. It’s a fixation any photographer can easily understand, although the extent of Bill’s enquiries over the years may be unequalled. Julia describes the artist’s attraction to light as follows:
“Light was ubiquitous, versatile, and mysterious in terms of its behaviour in space. It appealed to Culbert for its everydayness. It was also powerfully connected to the experience of perception, phenomena, and cognition.”
Bill entered London’s Royal College of Art in 1957 and spent a decade dedicated to painting. He encountered such teachers as Maurice de Sausmarez, who encouraged Bill to investigate areas beyond artistic tradition. This path led him to the Hornsey College of Art, where he experimented with light in a ‘visual research’ studio with the influential British artist Stuart Brisley.
“He makes the critical break from painting in 1968, which was a time of great political unrest and saw the rising up of students and workers in the UK and France,” says Julia. “Culbert was undoubtedly influenced by the politics of the period as his work evolves into something more experiential for the viewer.”
Although his earliest photographs are not published in any readily available form, Bill’s consistent use of photography is well documented. Whether as a secondary medium during his painting period, recording the luminous effects of a three-dimensional sculpture, or as a piece of work unto itself, it is clear that the photograph held an unwavering appeal to the artist.
For Julia, photography is critical to Culbert’s mode of conceptualism.
“He talked about his black and white photography in terms of ‘thinking through the camera’ and this could be read two ways: thoughts running through the camera to focus on the subject and subsequent image; and a consideration of the mechanical structure of the camera itself.”
Bill’s best-known works may fall under different branches of visual arts, but photography can never be far away in any analysis of the artist’s light works.
Sculpture, installation, and photography are all closely connected in Bill’s work. Even behind pieces that have no photo elements to them, the spectre of the photographic process can still be felt, as Julia explains.
“Often, Culbert would record in film a scenario he either encountered or constructed, and then elaborate on the idea in the photograph in three-dimensional form,” she says.
“Much of the sculpture and installation utilises photographic principles and processes. Examples of this are all the early reverse camera obscura sculptures, such as Cubic Projections, 1968. Late installations, such as Spacific Plastics, 2001, can also be understood in the context of photography and especially photomontage.”
Cubic Projections comprises a plastic ball, 60cm in diameter, covered in pinholes. Light radiates out from within the sphere, projecting shapes upon the installation walls. Spacific Plastics sees a group of different-coloured pastel Tupperware containers arranged around a series of fluorescent tubes, creating a montage of refracted light.
Running across nine gallery spaces, the Slow Wonder exhibition explores this strong connection between Bill’s sculpture and photography as a central thread. Julia points to the pairing of the photographs Clay, Sun, Shadow I & II and the sculpture Daylight to Nightlight, Five Cubes to Black as a powerful illustration of this theme.
“In both works, Culbert investigates the relationship between light and time by placing different stages of the day next to each other. Both works powerfully convey the physical nature of light and time.”
The artist’s use of everyday and discarded objects in his artwork also finds a link back to Bill’s photographic interrogation of light. Central to many of his pieces are found objects, such as used plastic bottles, battered tin drums, wine glasses, old furniture, and various other elements of refuse. Many of these objects were repurposed from a rubbish dump near the artist’s house in Croagnes, France. Julia connects Bill’s fascination with the intangibility of light to the immateriality of rubbish and other old objects.
“Rubbish has been wrested from expectations of everyday functionality,” she says. “Culbert recharges that which has been discarded, bringing it back into circulation and challenging our perceptions of what constitutes fine art.”
This practice also reflects the emerging environmental themes of Bill’s art. Julia explains that, rather than introduce even more new things into the world, the artist preferred to work with objects already in existence.
“He began incorporating everyday recycled materials into his art in the mid 1970s and his concerns for the environment stretch back to this time and reflect a belief in the importance of ordinary things as capable of engaging creative thinking and the imagination.”
Bill Culbert died 28 March 2019, at his home in Provence, France, at the age of 84. A painter, photographer, sculptor, and installation artist, Bill has left us with an expansive oeuvre to treasure.
Bill Culbert | Slow Wonder presents an immersive way to explore the breadth of his practice and the depth of his enquiries. For Julia, the show is a chance to introduce audiences to a sense of wonder and delight in the subtleties and humour of the artist’s work.
“Hopefully, people will come away with more questions than answers and they will be compelled by a sense of curiosity to make their own investigations into Culbert’s art, and the questions it raises.”
The Bill Culbert | Slow Wonder exhibition runs until 21 November 2021, at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Entry is free. See aucklandartgallery.com for more info.