Seen in the right light, Jenny Harper

Bill Culbert: Making Light Work
Ian Wedde
Auckland University Press, $99.99,
ISBN 9781869404390

Making Light Work is a great title, the best I’ve come across for some time. It makes me smile and think of Bill Culbert, the subject of this monograph. Amusing, down-to-earth, a generous man; a careful retainer of archival material relevant to his work; an artist who reflects on his own practice as succinctly and carefully as he places light tubes, cords and reclaimed items of refuse in a given piece, site-specific or not, there or here. Culbert divides his time between London and the south of France as he has for many years, returning to this part of the world to make a mark about as regularly as there is a Bluff oyster season.

Ian Wedde is right about the centrality of light to this artist’s practice. He suggests an awareness of light was heightened by Culbert’s life in Provence,  and certainly the reader is convinced throughout that light is the “constant that link[s] theory, practice and context; conversation, studio and location.”

He began as a painter, but many of Culbert’s best known images are photographs (light working in one way); many also take light, reflected, reflecting, refracted and mirrored as their subject (light works here in other ways); and still others are literally plugged-in light works, refreshed at the flick of a switch.

In addition, Culbert’s own personality makes light [of the] work, of what it takes to alter the concrete reality of the commonplace and the vernacular and to position these in extraordinary and transformative ways. Indeed, of how well light is made to work on many levels.

But is one here to review the title, the man, the art or the book? For New Zealand Books, I guess the last two, but mostly the latter. I’ve sometimes remarked wryly about the number of poets and creative writers in this country who also write about art – even conjecturing from time to time that artists who have used words in their work may have been privileged in the “Landfall version” of the history of New Zealand art. But Landfall did play a pivotal role before art history was established in this country, and Culbert doesn’t use words in his work.

Here Wedde has effortlessly (or so it seems) analysed his practice in an interesting and successful account. Wedde’s angle is more about Culbert as an individual artist than a conventional art historian’s take, which might have placed the work more in the foreground, but nevertheless I’m unaware of any more thorough account of a contemporary New Zealand artist.

It is a substantial production at 270 pages, and the reader senses its authority from the outset. The artist has fully co-operated, providing access to all his records, his time and, one suspects, wine as well. Such is life. For his part, Wedde has compiled a wide range of visual images, documented the artist’s life and travels, his exhibition and installation history, and summarised his public works. Lastly, he’s provided a careful and extensive bibliography. The chapters are loosely chronological, but organised primarily as discussions and interpretations of groupings (such as electric works and suitcases, photo works, bottle combinations, installations and public works). There is also a full bibliographic record of critical responses to Culbert’s work, in the UK, France and here, and an exhibition history.

The organisational framework results in a degree of repetition of biographical details, but considerable benefit accrues to each chapter from being relatively well-contained – it enables Making Light Work to be read over several sittings without one feeling left behind. It also leads the reader to understand time and again the impact of James Coe, Culbert’s secondary-school teacher at Hutt Valley High, and the importance of the thinking of artists such as Marcel Duchamp and writers such as Samuel Beckett on the artist’s work in its different formats and presentations – public and private, permanent and more provisional.

I especially enjoyed the last chapter on “Blue Sky: The Commissions, 1991-2007”. It reminded me of the impact of Culbert’s interventions into public space, here in New Zealand, in Melbourne, France, London and elsewhere. Several of his New Zealand commissions were made in conjunction with Culbert’s long-term friend Ralph Hotere, and it is remarkable how fresh and contemporary these look some 10 or 20 years later.

What becomes clear is that, despite their sometimes cheerful air of improvisation, little is gratuitous. The work has “character” but seems curiously ageless, refreshing itself at the flick of a switch. These are serious engagements with the spaces they occupy, each in its own way a consummate, formal, aesthetic achievement that underlines the degree of imaginative freedom Culbert brings to his interventions. The public art which results is autonomous and independent, but at the same time totally dependent on where it is.

In the end I was left with a strong sense of a life-long commitment to making, as well as a recognition of, an unusual correlation between the made and the place of making. This is true of the more public commissions and the work Culbert initiates as part of his active life as an artist for, as Wedde makes clear, the artist’s studio is not only the place of work, it is also in many cases part of the work.

Overall there is little distinction or hierarchy in relation to space. Inasmuch as it is there, it may be used, enhanced, made observable or more memorable. Culbert emerges as a summary of 21st century discussions of the idea of the artist; he is at once an observer, researcher, recorder, selector, inventor, interventionist, activist and provocateur. He fills us with a sense of wonderment, but equally requires us to think as his wilful combinations of the material detritus of domestic life are re-cycled onto another plane. In the end, we are drawn in to looking and looking again.

Culbert’s work is not easy to photograph, nor to contain within the printed page, even if some are double-spreads. While I might have liked a more contemporary design, we can be grateful Wedde and Auckland University Press resisted making another glamorous coffee-table book about a key artist. The emphasis has been placed instead on the effort of working alongside the artist, assembling and thinking through the detail of an accumulated archive, teasing out key points, and elaborating throughout  the contexts and reception of Culbert’s work.

It is rare to find this level of hands-on research and it results in a co-operative venture, which establishes Making Light Work as a key reference text and ensures Culbert has the monograph he deserves at this stage of a well-established career.

Some of the usual niggles in a book of this sort emerge, but they were mercifully few: the name of Culbert’s alma mater fluctuates between Canterbury University School of Art, Canterbury College School of Art, and, as if for good measure, Canterbury University College School of Art. The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery loses its hyphen here and there, and – worst of all, in my view – a font unsympathetic to enabling a macron over the long a vowel in Maori transmutes this to an ā in Te Pātaka Toi. While it is understandable in Making Light Work to privilege French diacritical marks, it seems inexplicable for any New Zealand publisher in the 21st first century to choose a font that fails to accommodate the ways of both. This aside, Making Light Work is a great summary, a readable assessment, an intelligent critique and an engaging contribution to the international history of New Zealand art.

For me, the pleasures of reading the book are almost inextricable from a certain pleasure of anticipation. For it is now almost two years since Christchurch Art Gallery purchased Pacific Flotsam, 2007. As this review was being finished, Culbert’s daughter Colette arrived at the back entrance of the gallery direct from London with the artist’s careful instructions for its installation. The drawings are consummate, almost works of art in their own right. They provide a foolproof, detailed and personal guide for our designers and technicians to install the piece. I find myself looking forward to spending time with Pacific Flotsam – even more than before. This purchase, the large newly-configured space it will occupy, and the summary title of our collections display, “Brought to light”, all seem so very right.


Jenny Harper is director of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu.


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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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