In photography, we know what we mean when we say a subject is ‘lit’, but there is an idiom of ‘lit’ that is now little used and that implies a physical force in sight.
It may mean ‘fell’ or ‘settled’ as when Harriett Jay (aka Charles Marlowe) in her 1877 The Dark Colleen: A Love Story of 1877, writes; “…the bird lit on the grass on the top of the cliff, close to Truagh’s side.” Moreover, Robert Louis Stevenson‘s 1897 The Black Arrow extends an ancient Greek conception of the eye projecting vision, as if it too were a bird;
He turned to go home; but even as he turned, his eye lit upon a figure behind a tree. ”Stand!” he cried. ”Who goes?” The figure stepped forth and waved its hand like a dumb person. It was arrayed like a pilgrim, the hood lowered over the face, but Dick, in an instant, recognised Sir Daniel.
So ‘lit’ can mean ‘to land on’ or ‘to settle on’ someone or something, with ‘upon’ replacing ‘on’ in more formal phrasing. It can also mean to ‘arrive at’—an idea or a solution, for example—by chance or without direct agency, as in “The committee lit upon a solution that pleased almost everyone.”
Ancient Greek, pre-socratic philosophers who used analogy to explain the origin of things and the processes of nature, drew on simile to make fundamental assumptions about sight, variously understanding vision as a form of reflection, prompted by the black mirror of the pupil; or as rays from the eye making objects visible (in extramission); or vision as an intromissionist process, in which images or effluences from an external object enter the eye. What that implies for the representation of, or with, light in imagery in which artists continue to generate or employ analogy is answered in the work of a New Zealander.
Today comes the sad news that Bill Culbert has died. Born in Port Chalmers, near Dunedin on the South Island in 1935 and like compatriots of other generations, Len Lye (1901–1980) and Lloyd Godman (*1952), his art developed from a constant reinvention achieved through a profound—poetic—investigation of the essential mechanics of his medium. Like the Greeks his analogies for sight and light draw on the phenomena of illumination, opacity, shadow, transparency and reflection in materials and prosaic objects he encountered; water, wine glasses, fluorescent tubes, plastic containers. In both black and white photography and sculptural installations Culbert’s works imbue such ordinary things with poetic presence.
Initially studying at the Ilam School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University College in Christchurch from 1953 to 1956, Culbert received a National Art Gallery scholarship in 1957 and left New Zealand to study at the Royal College of Art, London, where he produced cubist paintings. From the mid-60s he lived there, and in the tiny hilltop village Croagnes in southern France which he and his wife Pip (1938–2016) found abandoned, and where they purchased a farmhouse for 100 pounds. Periodically he returned to his native New Zealand to exhibit work during the oyster and whitebait seasons.
He parted ways with painting in the mid-1960s to use electric light in his work, making time-based installations composed of ‘walls’ or ‘carpets’ of light bulbs activated by phased electrical switching, a fascination which may be traced back to an experience during WW2. As a nine-year-old beachcomber he found colourful cigarette tins. Prising open one of the lids and peering in, he was surprised to discover unexpected wiring. That evening, the family heard emergency broadcasts warning that booby-trapped tin cans had fallen from the deck of an American military vessel in Cook Strait. His father called the army’s bomb disposal squad.
In France, Culbert swapped his beach combing for tip-scrounging, searching the décharges, the old-style, informal rubbish dumps of rural France, recently closed in the interests of the environment. His finds (above), photographed on medium-format film, parallel his sculptural work in their subject matter and served his overarching concern with light, represented as obliquely as in these lampshade skeletons, x-rayed by Provençal skies.
The product of his astute observation, these bonbonnes, normally enclosed in wicker and used for transporting water, serve as massive ‘eyes’ to encompass the bucolic landscape behind them.
The same principle was applied by Culbert when in 2013 he represented New Zealand in their canal-side pavilion at the Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà in the 55th Venice Biennale with his exhibition of site-specific work Front Door Out Back. At a window over the rio dei Greci canal in the flooded city he placed his work Level; further bonbonnes, each filled with water to the same height and each presenting a fisheye view of the opposite building, headquarters of the Carabinieri.
The photographs, then, are not merely sketches for the sculptural works, but are a means of grasping at rarifed ideas about the nature of light and sight.
Each is a joyful discovery; sometimes photographed as seen, elsewhere a reenactment of an earlier observation. Here he challenges us with the counterintuitive phenomenon of the absent shadow of the lit filament, reprising in black and white the puzzle of his 1975 sculpture. The exchange in Culbert’s practice of these two media is rare.
Below he demonstrates that, strangely, light appears to penetrate even the dense liquor of red wine to manifest an eye-like image on the stone table-top.
A picture may be taken in 1980 or in 2002, and often (as is the case with the two above, taken seven years apart) in the same setting, but the simple, square format and centred composition, and the deadpan presentation remains the same, belying the depth of his wit, whereby a water-filled wine-glass becomes a lens…
…or wine-glass shadows dream of the drunken celebration to come…
…or the distorted shadow of an ancient window pane stands in for spilt milk…
…or a makeshift and weather-beaten bus-shelter performs a delightfully spooky shadow-play…
From another instance of rural ‘street photography’, made on-the-fly, is his discovery of this phantom script projected cryptically on a hotel facade by reflection from the back of its own metal sign.
Sometimes their inspiration for his sculptures is quite apparent in his photographs such as this one of a wet plastic bottle, the object he so frequently uses (or re-uses) in his found-object fluorescent-lit works.
Culbert had his first solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London in 1977 and participated in the first Auckland Triennial in 2001. Permanent commissioned Culbert sculptures may be found in London, Wellington and Auckland, and many are collaborative works with Ralph Hotere. He was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to art, particularly sculpture, in 2008.