Let There Be Light

Q: What do a selection of 19th century oil paintings, a 50-year old piece of 16mm film, and a 21st century carpet have in common?

A: They are all exhibits in ACMI’s winter show, “Light”, based on works from the Tate’s Collection.

Image: James Turrell, “Raemar, Blue” (1969) on display at ACMI (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Despite ACMI’s brief to showcase the moving image, only three of the art works in the exhibition consist of film. A few more incorporate movement in the form of kinetic sculptures. But otherwise, this is mostly a collection of paintings and photography (and yes, a carpet).

Does it work? Yes, because just as light can be regarded as an essential building material, the use, portrayal and capture of light is essential to render colour, shadow, depth, perspective and narrative in all forms of art.

Arranged thematically, by theory or technique of how light is represented and rendered in art, the exhibition is both diverse and cohesive. It avoids the risk of overload because the selection is quite compact (given the wide remit of the topic). It also avoids choosing works based on technical prowess alone. Therefore, the exhibition succeeds through the combined principles of quality over quantity, and content over form.

It was timely to see mention of The Enlightenment as a key source of artistic exploration, as well as being a driver in the fields of of scientific discovery and liberalism. The exchange of ideas between and across different disciplines has always been essential to progress in the sciences, the arts and the humanities.

My favourite exhibits among the works I hadn’t seen before were by Olafur Eliason, Lis Rhodes and Peter Sedgley. And it’s always a pleasure to immerse yourself in one of James Turrell‘s installations. The only slight disappointment was that visitors are kept at quite a distance from Yayoi Kusama‘s The Passing Winter, an intriguing cube-shaped sculpture that is like one of her infinity rooms in miniature. The last time I saw it in London, it was possible to peer right in to get the full effect.

All in all, highly recommended.

Next week: Hands on the wheel

Renzo Piano & the Centro Botín

In March this year, the Victorian Government unveiled the winning concept design for the NGV Contemporary, a new centre for art and design, forming part of the planned revamp of the Arts Precinct on Melbourne’s Southbank. Due to open in 2028, The Fox: NGV Contemporary (to give it’s full name, thanks to the benevolence of trucking magnate and close acquaintance of Premier Daniel Andrews, Lindsay Fox) is being heralded as an iconic, nation-defining statement in support of Melbourne’s claim to be the cultural centre of Australia. So far, so good – but I can’t help feeling the design competition has been conducted with some undue haste: Expressions of Interest were sought in March 2021, with a one-week registration deadline. The competition for Stage One of the project closed in August 2021, and Stage Two in November 2021, with the winning team announced in March 2022, barely 12 months from the EOI. Why the hurry (especially as Melbourne was in lockdown for much of that time), and up to now, there does not appear to have been any public consultation in the design process.

The Centro Botín, Santander, designed by Renzo Piano (image sourced from Wikimedia)

Contrast this with the design of the Centro Botín in Santander, Spain, by Italian architect Renzo Piano, whose story is told in an absorbing documentary, “Renzo Piano: The Architect of Light”. First, neither the architect nor the sponsoring Botín Foundation had any aspirations of creating an “iconic building”; instead, the goal was to have as minimal physical impact as possible, while reclaiming an area of land and returning it to public use. Second, there was a public consultation process, to overcome concerns expressed by some nearby residents. Third, while the documentary has no doubt been artfully edited, it does provide extensive “behind the scenes” access to the design and construction process over its 7-year development, which included a 3-year delay in completion. The fact that this was a private commission rather than a competition may account for this approach, but there was still a great deal of negotiation with municipal and community stakeholders.

The documentary itself is notable not only for the degree of transparency (we observe meetings between architect, client and project managers throughout the process), but also for the simplicity of its narrative, and the wise decision to dispense with any voiceover commentary – the subjects are allowed to speak for themselves. There are also references to cultural icons such as novelist Italo Calvino and film-maker Roberto Rossellini. The use of Mahler’s ‘Symphony No. 5’ in the soundtrack underlines Renzo Piano’s fascination with light as a construction material, as important to him as glass, concrete and steel – the music is most famously associated with the film of ‘Death in Venice’, a city renowned for its light.

If the primary inspiration for the design of the Centro Botín is light (and lightness of construction), I’m struggling, based on the available evidence, to see what the inspiration is for the NGV Contemporary. Despite being a statement about “art and design”, I fear that this project is as much about political statements and lasting personal legacies. Much has been made about the potential job creation during its construction, but much less about the design principles and aesthetic objectives. I hope this project does not turn into a municipal white elephant.

The original NGV (now referred to as NGV International) is a landmark building and one of the most popular destinations in Melbourne. I have known it most of my life, having first visited it aged 10, when it left an indelible impression on me. Having lived in Melbourne the past 20 years, I have been a regular visitor since it was extensively refurbished in 2003. As part of the Arts Precinct, the NGV is a focal point for the city’s cultural activities, and is a major draw card for local and international visitors. Any enhancement of the NGV and the surrounding facilities is generally to be welcomed, and certainly there are parts of the precinct that could do with upgrading. However, I’m not sure the design for the NGV Contemporary is the right decision.

Aside from the hastiness shown by the NGV Contemporary’s design phase, I’m surprised that the winning design team, Angelo Candalepas and Associates, do not appear to have built any comparable projects, despite winning multiple awards for their past work. The Candalepas studio has designed many residential buildings (and I lived very happily in one of their first competition successes, ‘The Point’ in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Pyrmont), but as far as I can see, nothing on the scale, significance or importance as NGV Contemporary. The proposed design looks very “blocky”, notwithstanding the internal “spherical hall”, which is highly reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. It’s also not clear what the spacial relationship will be with the existing NGV and other neighbouring buildings, nor whether any of them will need to be remodelled or demolished to make way for this latest addition. I’ve tried, without success, to find a map or ground plan of the proposed development, or any details on how the NGV Contemporary will be accessed from adjacent streets, other than via a new garden that appears to envelop the NGV International – so what existing land will this garden occupy, and what current facilities might be lost in the process?

In conclusion, since its opening in 2017, the Centro Botín appears to have been enthusiastically embraced by the residents of Santander, and manages to be both utterly modern and easily accessible, unlike so many other examples of “statement” architecture. I hope we will see a similar outcome for NGV Contemporary.

Next week: Mopping up after the LNP

The bells, the bells…

Melbourne is host to a remarkable work of sculpture, in the form of the Federation Bells. Part sound installation, part open-air instrument, this ensemble of tuned percussion represents a quirky exercise in public access arts: not only do the Bells play three times a day (featuring a repertoire of specially-composed pieces), there are also opportunities for members of the public to interact directly with the instrument and play it for themselves.From time to time, the Bells have featured in live performances by contemporary composers and electronic musicians, most notably, Pantha Du Prince back in 2013. More recently, Melbourne artist Cale Sexton has released a wonderful album that was composed using the Bells.

There is also a mobile phone app that replicates the notation and sound of the Bells, as well as plug-ins for various digital audio workstations. For anyone wanting to learn more about composing for the Bells, there are occasional workshops and open competitions for new submissions.

Next week: New Labor?

When is a print not a print?

Alongside drawing, painting and sculpture, print-making is one of the oldest forms of visual art. Although it wasn’t generally recognised as a fine art discipline in the west until the European Renaissance (with the work of Dürer, among others), the practice can be traced back to Paleolithic times when humans first made hand-prints on cave walls. It evolved largely through developments in paper-making and image creation, such as Japanese wood-block printing 1200 years ago, or metal plate engravings in the Middle Ages, and has developed alongside related technologies in lithography, etching, off-set press printing, photography, lino-cut and silk-screen printing, to name a few key methods.

Print-making in this “classical” sense uses a combination of mechanical, manual and chemical processes to transfer an image (created from one or more media) from one surface to another, using ink or paint to “carry” the image between the plate and paper or other printed surface.

While the printing industry has been using the same techniques for centuries (in the service of book publishing, newspapers, advertising, packaging, textiles, etc.) there are key differences between the commercial and the artistic.

First, traditional print-making still retains a high-degree of manual process, and the work is usually produced in limited numbers (sometimes in single editions), and even where multiple copies are generated, variations and differences will appear thanks to inherent “imperfections” of the process.

Second, despite the importance of technical process in print-making, the practice should not be seen as a mere mechanical exercise in reproducing an image – the resulting image is still far more important than the actual technique (i.e., content over form should be the order of the day).

Third, the role of “mark-making” in print-making is as significant as the brush strokes in an oil painting, and are part of the artist’s signature. Equally, choice of materials is also important, just as an artist working in oils will make specific decisions about their brushes, pigments, medium and canvass.

In terms of art curation, print-making can get lumped in with other “works on paper”, which may extend to collage, photography, photo-montage, graphic design and illustration. Photography itself can be used in the course of print-making (e.g., rayographs), but a photographic print of a film-based negative is not the same as print-making in this context.

Likewise, the use of digital processes to capture, create, manipulate, transfer and reproduce an image on paper (or other medium) is further blurring the boundaries as to what constitutes a “print” as opposed to a “technique”.

This delineation between traditional print-making and image creation processes was further highlighted by the recent Experimental Print Prize organised by Castlemaine Art Museum in Victoria’s gold field region. While there were examples of etching, lino-cut, lithography, photographic and other techniques on display, the prize is intended to push the boundaries into more conceptual notions of “what is a print?”.

Examples included the use of light-sensitive paper to create long-delay images, a neon-light to generate an after-image on the viewer’s retinas, and a muon particle detector to track and plot their “image” onto a computer monitor. Although these are all interesting approaches, they perhaps over-step the boundary of permanence, which is usually a feature of print-making, to the extent that the fixed paper and ink endure long after the artist has made his or her mark. Nevertheless, the museum is to be applauded for bringing a new dimension to an ancient art-form.

Next week: Literary legacies