‘It’s before meaning’: Bill Culbert on ‘VOID’

In August 2014 contemporary artist Bill Culbert visited New Zealand to install two of his celebrated 2013 Venice Biennale works – Drop and Daylight flotsam Venice – in New Zealand for the first time at Te Papa. Curator Sarah Farrar took the opportunity to talk with Culbert about his work VOID, 2006, made in collaboration with the late artist Ralph Hotere, and commissioned for Te Papa.

VOID is permanently installed in the heart of the museum and activates the space between the Wellington foyer and the ceiling of the sixth floor of the museum.

Sarah Farrar: As an artist you often respond to a particular site and VOID engages with the architecture of the Te Papa building. How did you approach working in that particular space?

Bill Culbert: When Ralph and I first entered we didn’t want to fill the space or put things in it. It seemed that the space itself can be commanded or made such that people would really respect it as a piece of space and the space as a piece of work. And the floor and the ceiling should reflect each other with some kind of sensibility. What came about quite simply was the circle and the line. Then the question was what to do with the marble floor and the answer was putting down the rubber.

Sarah: Why rubber?

Bill: Well, because of the sound. People walking across it. I was always quite conscious of that. You can hear it throughout the building actually, people walking. But to have a place where it just went into a silence seemed pretty cool. And then on the ceiling. It’s sort of flocked but the flock became quite difficult to physically do. So we used paint, which seemed to be quite reasonable.

Sarah: It’s a particularly matt paint, isn’t it?

Bill: Yeah. It’s as dense as. It was a special paint actually. Non-reflective.

Sarah: Slightly more chalky.

Bill: Yeah. And at the base, the rubber had that matt black. But also, the space, particularly the floor space, could be used, and it wouldn’t affect what the piece of work was about.

Consequently I think the people walking across it, or walking around it, are using it quite positively. And it’s quite an unusual thing to do, I suppose. In a sense the ceiling was moved purposefully by the line being the diagonal of the circle. It appears to be flat but in fact on climbing up it, it begins to fall off.

Sarah: You’re talking about the angle that the neon light is suspended at?

Bill: Yes, the angle of the line. People talk about abstract art’s lack of meaning. But it’s full of it. So there’s a contradiction. The further you abstract something and the simpler you make it, the more engaging it becomes, perhaps. Avoiding any kind of design or decoration, those things were purposeful in this work. And the geometry was pretty useful in this way too. The black and white circle. And the neon light. There’s no colour. They’re very positive, I think, as marks, those two marks.

Sarah: In terms of responding to the site and developing your idea for the work, you must have come on-site and spent time engaging with the architecture, or had you been sent a lot of photos and plans in advance of your visit?

Bill: We spent time, yeah. It’s like the edge of a piece of space, as well. On all the levels people’s actions and things happen. And that in itself is kind of the content of Te Papa. The space existing solo – I think that was a kind of point. And the two ends were the containers, or the fixing points for the containment.

Sarah: Both your own works and Ralph’s are very much about the experience of looking. It’s not a static thing, it’s about moving in space, whether it’s Ralph’s black paintings that have that almost mirrored surface that reflect the viewer back into it. And your work, the way it can re-engage from all different angles. It’s interesting to think about the visitor, all the museum visitors, and how they’re interacting with the work, like you say, from the different vantage points. Would it be fair to say that the visitors activate the work? Or it exists both without people and with them?

Bill: Both, I think. The fact that people do react to the ground floor so well. But also crossing it, it’s really nice to see their determined crossing of it.

Sarah: Yes, and it echoes the diagonal that you have on the roof, as well. So you get the wonderful lines created by people walking across.

Bill: And people do look down. And they look up. They look more down than up. It’s quite difficult, if you want to hide something, you put it up!

Sarah: Not only do people walk across it to look up, but you also do have people that just sit there, or lie down. Just kind of contemplate the space.

Bill: I’ve seen that quite a few times, with people lying down. Giggling.

Sarah: Did you have a sense in advance of how people might interact with the work?

Bill: I think it’s maybe a meeting place. A point. There’s no confusion where you are. It is describable, I suppose, as indescribable. As I mentioned before, it’s not necessarily understandable, but able to be used.

Sarah: We’ve talked before about Ralph’s answer when people asked him about the work, and that he preferred to let the work speak for itself. And in terms of coming up with the title, how did that come about? Because it does direct interpretation. What I find interesting about ‘void’ is that as a word it’s both suggestive and empty.

Bill: I think it’s before meaning. As a word we both thought of it as being that. We asked people about it, and they said that’s nothing. You can’t use it. They thought it would be wrong. And that was interesting because there is a sense of ambiguity about the kind of art like that. It’s not upsetting. There’s almost a sound thing with the circle and the line. The neon does make noise. Not real noise, but noise in terms of visual vibration I suppose.

Sarah: So it’s always active in that sense.

Bill: I don’t know, I suppose it’s on 24 hours? I’ve no idea.

Sarah: I think it is, yeah.

Bill: That’s nice, I think, that constant sense of it.

Sarah: When you said people had difficulty with that idea of the ‘void’ was that because they were reading it as a negation, rather than a space of possibility? Were they reading it as a denial?

Bill: I think maybe it’s the interpretation of the meaning. VOID is, I think I mentioned this, a beginning. Or it could be the end. It’s both generative and silent.

Sarah: And that’s one of the things I find, experiencing the work. It is in such a busy part of Te Papa. It’s really the hub of the building. And I find it very moving, actually; what you and Ralph have done. You’ve managed to create a sense of stillness that’s not really about silence. It’s almost like the air changes, for me, in that space. Which is a really powerful thing. I’ve no idea how you managed to do it in that space.

Bill: Well, evidently the original intention was to have a tree in that location.

Sarah: When Te Papa was first opened?

Bill: We found out about that when the floor was taken up. We found that there was this base underneath it almost exactly the size of the circle. And that was completely unknown.

Sarah: My goodness. They’d forgotten.

Bill: People had forgotten. It’s on the drawings. And it was about planting. It was quite a nice thing to do. I’ve forgotten what it looks like under there now. But when they cut the marble, they uncovered the original plans for a living tree in the centre of Te Papa. A massive big kauri in the centre of the building – that’s pretty something, isn’t it?

Sarah: Absolutely. Another life force in the building. One of the other things I wanted to ask you about was your working relationship, or your collaborative relationship, with Ralph Hotere. Could you comment on that process of working together?

Bill: It was a lot of fun. I think we were both intrigued that we could work on something almost as one. Even talking, Ralph would say, ‘You draw that Bill, you draw better than me,’ and I said, ‘Rubbish.’ He was very humble. But again, we stripped everything down as much as possible. It’s quite complex in a way, the piece, because it’s got two ends to it. I talked about the almost existentialist sense of meaning something else, even if you’re spot on, you know. ‘Oh no, no, no, it’s not like that,’ he’d say. And, well, it is about argument and all that. There are a lot of sensibilities involved in abstraction and abstracting.

Now that the work is finished that aspect is not recognisable, except now it is very recognisable ’cause of line and circle. It has a lot of aspects of everything we do, like a sense of returning and going on. But also I think that we both found the result of it to be something we couldn’t change. There was no way of changing it. There was no alternative to the hard edge approach which we both found, in that we didn’t want to smudge it. And the textural thing was to do, as I said, with the sound thing, the rubber. But also it was a very useful way of sealing the piece of floor and making it in harmony with the rest of the space.

Bill Culbert, and Ralph Hotere, VOID, 2006, neon tubes, rubber, glass, steel, paint. Commissioned 2006. Te Papa (2006-0032-1)

Sarah: There are a number of your collaborative works in Te Papa’s collection, and for me, VOID is the most pared back. I’m interested to know, do you think you and Ralph would have come up with that sort of solution earlier on in your collaborative working relationship? Or was it the result of that ...

Bill: The space itself, I think. When we were invited to do the commission we were told that there were other people who wanted an aeroplane hung there instead. And it’s gone now. Maybe it’s nice, but they do work better at airports, and trains at railway stations. VOID does give a dimension to the building, I think. I don’t know how noticeable it is. It’s hard for me to gauge that, walking in to it and really noticing it. Or then becoming aware of it. Or whether it’s something that you see right from the first time you walk in.

No, well we couldn’t anticipate this, because we’d put it on paper. It’s quite good to put it on paper as well. And there’s been some nice photographs of it. Nobody knows how to photograph it anyway, ’cause we certainly didn’t know how to build it even...

Sarah: So the drawings helped you both visualise what it would be.

Bill: Yes, and then it was into the logistics of making, cutting, putting up a tent, moving people, closing sections down. I thought it went very well. It was all over quite quickly.

Sarah: Can you recall the first time you and Ralph met? From what I understand, you had known each other for a long time before you ever started working collaboratively. Is that right?

Bill: No, not particularly. I think we knew each other before ever meeting. We both knew each other’s work, and we met in London. He came around one night with a friend. A friend brought him around. I didn’t know he was coming around. We grinned and it was a very, very super – it was a meeting that was like one we both felt was useful. And then I think he came and had a look at the studio and what I was working on.

Sarah: What sort of work were you working on then?

Bill: Well I opened up tin cans, quite big tin cans, and painting the insides of them. And the piece on the table was, one was red, one was yellow, one was blue and one was white [New work, 1978]. I’ve still got it. I’m quite pleased with it still. That was the work. Ralph got quite excited about it. It’s got a light through it. It’s a pre-bottle one. So I was painting the colours to see how they, and they all had these separate containers with the light.

Sarah: And do you remember the first times that you saw Ralph’s work? Was that in an exhibition or in his studio?

Bill: Oh I’d certainly seen his piece in Hamilton [Founders Theatre mural, 1973]. And his piece in Auckland at the Music Department is it? Big corrugated work. [Black drop, 1985, was commissioned for the University of Auckland’s new music school on Symonds Street in 1985. It is an eight-metre high enamel on corrugated iron work.] And the Hamilton one’s in a theatre, or is it a chapel? A theatre in Hamilton. He’s painted the whole wall. Big, big, grand work and very – quite dark. I’m probably describing it completely wrongly, but that’s what I remember.

Sarah: Yeah, memory works like that. It’s not a neat chronology.

Bill: I can’t remember the bits in between. Wall space I suppose. But the Hamilton one is still there. There was also the one he did at the airport in Auckland [Godwit/Kuaka, 1977, now in the Chartwell collection at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki]. The one with Pat’s [Pat Hanly] and the motorway painter.

Sarah: Yeah, Robert Ellis.

Bill: Robert, yep. But in fact Pip [Culbert, British artist and Bill’s wife] and I were coming out to New Zealand at that time to do something, and we were going to be in Dunedin. And Ralph said, well go and stay in his place, which was in fact his studio at Observation Point. And it was my kind of return to Port Chalmers. I loved it. We looked down on what was it, the two islands, I’ve just lost their names. Quarantine and something.

Sarah: And was that the first time you’d been back to Port Chalmers?

Bill: No. No, I think I’d been back with Pip. But maybe it was? I remember taking photographs from the house down onto the Quarantine, and I can’t remember the other one. Anyway, I checked them in your collection actually and there was three or four of them.

Sarah: And was it on that visit that you and Ralph developed Pathway to the Sea-Aramoana or was that much, much later?

Bill: It was quite a bit later.

Sarah: So you obviously stayed in close contact.

Bill: Oh yes, yes. We were – we became ... I can’t even remember the date of Pathway to the Sea.

Sarah: Ninety-one I think.

Bill: Ninety-one. Oh we knew each other a bit before that. It was back in the late seventies, ’78 or ’79. I know I’d had a show at The Serpentine [Bill Culbert, An Explanation of Light, Serpentine Gallery, London, 1984]. Canterbury asked me to go out to do a residency, and Pip and I went out, and then that’s when we went down to stay at Ralph’s. And in fact, Ralph went to live in France, but we didn’t know where he was or we’d have gone to see him – but he was in Avignon so he was not far away. But later on he used to come out and stay with us in France. When we were making works, he often came over rather than me coming over here. He preferred that he travelled. And all the work we did, we did it in France, London or in Port Chalmers. Or in Auckland sometimes. They were very good, but very sociable times.

When we worked, ’cause sometimes we’d work for five minutes or 10 minutes, sometimes we’d have to plod through a lot of ground work, particularly making stuff and preparing stuff. When we’d have a position on a piece of work, I can’t think of ever changing anything, or if there was, it was the process of working with Ralph, and Ralph with me. It was so simple. Whoever was closest would say, ‘that’s alright, I’ll do that.’ But there was never any question about how it should be. It was always the only solution.

But all the time with VOID, I was here in Wellington for the making of it because Ralph was not well. He never travelled after that when he did come up, after it was more or less in place – it was visible from inside the tent, from the lift where we were talking before, up on that balcony. I lifted him up out of his chair and he looked over. ‘It’s good, it’s good,’ he said. He was looking down at this tent and he could see the top bit, and he’d been in the tent so he could see it anyway.

Sarah: That must have been a great moment though.

Bill: Oh it was, it was. It was super. Quite – very emotional, ’cause it was your director that was very helpful. I’ve lost his name.

Sarah: Was it Jonathan Mane-Wheoki?

Bill: No, pre-Jonathan.

Sarah: Seddon Bennington?

Bill: Seddon, mm.

Sarah: At that point did you know that VOID would be the last collaborative work?

Bill: No. No, we sat and talked later. If I was down there I’d go and talked to him. We did some odd things. We did some bits on paper, but we were not, it wasn’t ... Ralph was very good, though his speech was pretty difficult. He was aware of things but he wasn’t up to actually – or indeed didn’t want to make anything that was not up to his standards. But he’d talk about it. And that was fine. Things being useful. And before the exhibition that was in Dunedin last year, we’d had a couple of very good sessions and, he was in a home then. But it was fun having – we’d have lunch and a bit of pinot noir.

Sarah: Waipara or Central Otago?

Bill: Oh, Ralph was Central Otago, I was in my Waipara phase, but all of it was good. It was all good.

Sarah: Is there anything else that you’d like to say about the work that I haven’t asked you about?

Bill: Ralph was a very generous and lovely person. I have very fond memories of making VOID ’cause I’d come here and work and then I’d go down and see Ralph and it was good. It’s not easy to actually describe what Ralph was, being with Ralph and what we were doing. We could be as silent as we wanted to as well. But things were a laugh. We were very happy. And I think the discussion of art was very important for us. We talked a lot about its usefulness and it’s a way of making things that you didn’t have to explain, but were important enough to yourselves to maybe be useful for other people. All those kinds of things.

Ralph didn’t normally talk about it, but we did. I think VOID is possibly the most complex and the most difficult piece, and it’s most difficult because it has no releases. You have to take it and you have to go with it. Pathway to the Sea was a gift and even Fault in a way was a kind of like that… And also the fact that VOID was in the centre of the museum. It seemed a pretty special place to put something, hoping it would be useful and maybe – there’s not words for it actually other than speculative. As to it being good or bad, that didn’t come into it.

Obviously the aesthetics of it, it was just the force of the space to be able to have some kind of grip. It’s quite challenging. Ralph had no trouble with it at all, and I liked that. I think of it very strongly, in that neither of us did, in terms of what we were doing. We didn’t think an aeroplane was quite right ... Ralph used to fly, he was a bit of a flyer, and he said, ‘we don’t want an aeroplane’ and I said, ‘yeah, mumble mumble.’ Anyway, they’ve got a couple of wakas up there haven’t they? There’s more than one.

Sarah: Yeah. Who needs a flying one?

View Daylight flotsam Venice on Collections Online

View Drop on Collections Online

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