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Pacific Flotsam by Bill Culbert

Collection

This article first appeared as 'Light sculpture reflections' in The Press on 21 December 2012.

Bill Culbert Pacific Flotsam. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū; purchased, 2008 Reproduced with permission. Image courtesy Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth.

Bill Culbert Pacific Flotsam. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū; purchased, 2008

Reproduced with permission. Image courtesy Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth.

In our On View collection series so far, gallery staff have written about paintings –usually somewhat historical. However, our collection also includes compelling sculpture and photography, as well as works in other media.

So, a forthcoming break in the series until February 2013, seems like a good moment to view Bill Culbert's Pacific Flotsam, a delicate piece literally made of light. Just as many householders throughout this city and elsewhere will light up thousands of family Christmas trees at this time of year, this sculpture is switched on each morning for the pleasure of viewers.

It's the largest floor piece we have and was created for a specific exhibition at Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art in 2007; then shown in New Plymouth's Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. But wherever it is, this work holds the space with absolute authority and we had no doubt when it was proposed by gallery curators for our collection.

Back in 2009 when we re-opened our refurbished collections display, I took a public walk through 'Brought to Light' with Auckland artist John Reynolds. He was hugely impressed with Pacific Flotsam, remarking, '...as we enter the room, [this work] draws us in. It's an ocean, of course – it's flotsam. Like us as an island nation, it's adrift in the South Pacific. And there's this cavalcade of gorgeous, plastic, non-corroding containers.'

Optimistic meanings are easily drawn from the illuminating use of discarded objects. But it may also feel intense and a little disorienting. The idea of a sea of plastic waste floating in the Pacific repels; water and electricity are a potentially shocking combination. In a formal sense, however, it's a carefully ordered meditation on the flow of light and its containment. It's by New Zealand's foremost sculptor of light, a prized item made from collected and cast-off remnants.

Remarkably, Bill Culbert will be seventy-eight when this country presents a major new site-specific work by him at the 55th Venice Biennale. Christchurch Art Gallery is proud to be supporting this biennale and, as New Zealand's commissioner, I'm looking forward expectantly to seeing Front door out back positively glow as it unfolds to the world in a series of atmospheric spaces at Istituto Santa Maria della Pietà (La Pietà) in Venice in late May 2013.

Equally I can't help admitting here how much we're yearning to see Pacific Flotsam on show once more after art gallery repairs enable us to re-open in the first half of 2014, with all the (now) familiar provisos applying.

Jenny Harper