Critic: “And what, sir, is the subject matter of that painting?” Claude Monet: “The subject matter, my dear good fellow, is the light.”
Light Play: Ideas, Optics, Atmosphere is just one of many events around the globe conceived in support of the United Nation’s International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies, an initiative that aims to highlight the elemental role this natural phenomenon plays in our lives. Drawn mostly from The University of Queensland’s Art Collection and curated by Samantha Littley, Light Play: Ideas, Optics, Atmosphere demonstrates the variety of artworks being created around this theme. Ahead of the August 15 opening, we chatted to Samantha about the exhibition…
Q: The UN-designated International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies highlights the importance of light and optical technologies to promote “sustainable development and provide solutions to worldwide challenges in energy, education, agriculture, communications and health”. How does art factor into that equation?
A: As the artworks in the exhibition show, the diverse and complex approaches that contemporary artists are adopting in response to light make it a rich and rewarding subject to explore. The centrality of the medium to perception, and the importance light has held historically, scientifically and culturally, creates dialogues across time that allow the viewer to trace their own points of reference. Recent advances have made light sources such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) more affordable and accessible, providing solutions to environmental and humanitarian concerns, and revolutionising display technologies. Wedded as these and related developments are to our experiences of the world, the links between light and art are certain to expand, creating new forms of expression that connect to the contemporary moment.
Q: What has been the most interesting aspect of curating an exhibition around this theme?
A: Light has been an enduring subject in art. It’s been interesting to unpick that, and to determine the exact nature of the engagement as reflected in the work of individual artists. Several artworks included in the ‘Ideas’ section of the exhibition relate to the light art of the 1960s and 1970s, sharing, as they do, a relationship to the fluorescent- and neon-based work of American Minimalists and Conceptualists, including Dan Flavin and Bruce Nauman, and, here in Australia, to works made by Peter Kennedy in the 1970s. The term ‘Optics’, which refers to the study of the physical properties of light, acts as a touchstone for artworks in the second section of the exhibition, made by artists motivated to explore the experience of looking. Many of them reference Kinetic Art and Op Art, while others like Nigel Lendon make work that connects with Minimalism, while complicating its non-referential premise. Artists included in the third section of the exhibition, ‘Atmosphere’, explore light’s potential to create ambience. Some look to the nineteenth century, creating landscapes imbued with metaphor. Others, like photographer Bill Henson, reference earlier conventions in deference to artists such as Italian Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and seventeenth-century Flemish artist Jan Vermeer.
Q: From a curatorial perspective, is there something you’d like the viewer to keep in mind when they visit Light Play: Ideas, Optics, Atmosphere?
A: While the artworks are grouped into the sub-themes ‘Ideas, Optics and Atmosphere’, in several instances, they relate to more than one of these. It would be great if visitors were drawn to make connections between the gallery spaces, and to find links between the exhibition and their own experiences.
Q: For centuries artists have been captivated by light. What do you think draws artists to work with or represent light in their artwork?
A: Light is prerequisite to sight and thus inextricably linked to the creation and appreciation of art. Photography is, for example, a medium that is wholly reliant on light. If we think about art as phenomenon that is tied to vision and the act of looking, and consider the way that light technology is continuing to expand that realm, it makes sense that artists have, and will continue to be, captivated by light.
Q: Can you give us an idea of the kinds of work visitors can expect to see in the exhibition?
A: Viewers will be intrigued by many of the artworks in the exhibition, by Brook Andrew’s neon matrix, Flow chart (2011), which scrutinises images of, and ideas about, first peoples; by Lincoln Austin’s light box Lady Stardust (2013), which plays with perception, and on distinctions between painting and sculpture; with Carl Warner’s ethereal photograph Darkness visible #1 (2015), which was taken at Milford Sound, New Zealand, and inspired by a nineteenth-century painting by English artist JMW Turner (1775–1851). I expect Paula Dawson’s digital hologram Hyperobject: Homeland (2013) will also attract a lot of interest. The work unites art, science and technology to consider the strategies of war, and the need to find a shared sense of humanity in our globalised world.
Light Play: Ideas, Optics, Atmosphere opens on 15 August and runs until 15 November.