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Artist David Batchelor Talks Light Show, Light Boxes and Magic Hour

By Benjamen Judd

One of the most successful exhibitions in London, Light Show, has come to the Museum of Contemporary Art where it will show until July 5, 2015.

Put together by the brilliant Dr Cliff Lauson, Light Show explores the phenomenal aspects of light and its versatility as a sculptural medium.

With almost 20 installations and sculptures by international artists from the 1960s to the present, Light Show brings to Sydney some of the most visually stimulating artworks seen in recent years, with installations re-created specially for the exhibition.

The QT was lucky enough to speak to one of the artists showing in Light Show, David Batchelor, and ask him about what inspires him in his work and some the challenges he has experienced working light over the years.


QT: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us David. Can you tell us what first inspired you to work with light and colour?

DAVID BATCHELOR: It all came about by accident really.

I never intended to work with colour and in fact I spent twenty years after I finished college not even thinking about colour. I then had one of those studio accidents where I was working on something that wasn’t going very well and in a moment of slight desperation I stuck some colour on it. Not long after doing that I began to realise there was something about colour, more than anything else it was interesting. Not least because there seemed at the time so little colour in contemporary art and that began to make me think why that was the case and it made me think maybe this is a space I could work in. I had no idea then that twenty years later I would be here talking to you about it. It was one of those fortuitous studio accidents.


QT: Found objects and ‘ready-mades’ also play a huge part in your work. What is the process of discovery here? Do the objects guide the work or does your idea of the work guide the objects you seek?

DB: The former – it is more that the objects themselves point in certain directions. The first objects I started using were old industrial trolleys. I really came across them more or less by chance and found that I could use them literally as vehicles for colour. And then, those found objects, those ready-mades, begin to shape the work quite literally, and they suggest possible ways of developing the work. When I started using salvaged industrial light boxes, this was just another way of supporting the colour and finding a medium in which to pursue colour.


QT: Do you think that living in cities that are filled with artificial colour and constant lighting that we take colour’s impact on our psyche for granted?

DB: Yeah I do. I think a lot of art is about drawing your attention to things we tend to overlook; those things that are present but we don’t have time to look at closely or we don’t pay attention to. In one sense, my work is about inviting people to look more closely at the kind experience in the city. Particularly, the experience of the city as opposed to nature as they [the objects themselves] are artificial – electrical, petrochemical sometimes glass and other kinds of materials. In a way the work is not doing much more than saying, “have a look at this”. It’s just an invitation to think about how we experience these colours and what kind of colours they are and where they are.


QT: How has technology, and the vast changes that have taken place in this area, impacted your work?

DB: It’s true that the technology of colour and of light is changing incredibly fast and when I started making the light box works like the one in Light Show, all those lights were lit with fluorescent lights with starters and then that pretty quickly moved to electronic components.

The medium has been completely transformed by LEDs now. LED has much more low energy which is a good thing, they’re more controllable and more reliable. Having said that, in some respects LED is a nightmare because they have taken over from neon and you can’t reproduce the quality of colour or the type of colour or the quality of colour LEDs that you get in neon so in a sense there is also a kind of loss as well as a gain.


QT: What was your inspiration for Magic Hour, your sculpture showing as part if Light Show.

DB: The work itself took several years to get right. It appears to face the wall at the moment, and you see the back of the boxes while the colour faces the wall forming a halo, a reflective colour, around the dark centre of the work.

Originally I had the work facing the other way around but I didn’t like the look of it. Then I took it back to the studio, rotated it, and that changed it massively. But it’s not something that I planned and was a happy studio accident.

For me, that relationship of colour and darkness is something very unique to the city. In nature you more or less the best colours to come when it is maximum daylight but in the city, the best colours come out at night and so darkness and the night sky is often the best backdrop for artificial colour.


QT: What is, out of your entire career, your favourite piece of art you have created?

DB: To be honest, Magic Hour is one of, if not the most, significant work I’ve made, at least for me. It sort of brings together all the kinds of themes and problems I was trying to figure out over a period of years.

The relationship between the front and the back of the work, which has been an ongoing subject; the relationship between colour and darkness – it was that work where I felt it was coming together and it has generated a lot of work since.


Light Show is now showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Circular Quay until July 5.

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