Review: ‘Light Works’ at NGV International, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 23rd March – 16th September 2012


David Stephenson. 'Star Drawing 1996/402' 1996


David Stephenson (Australian, b. 1955)
Star Drawing 1996/402
40 x 40″
Cibachrome Print
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1997
© Courtesy of the artist



“Light is a scientific fact, a metaphorical construct and even a spiritual force. It is considered an agent of truth, authenticity and revelation just as the absence of light signals mystery, danger and disorder. Light is also fundamental in the creation of photographs.”

Dr Isobel Crombie, Senior Curator, Photography NGV, 2012


“Light is a metaphor: where you have a dark place, and where that place becomes illuminated; where darkness becomes visible and one can see. The darkness is me, is my being. Why am I here? What am I here for? What is this experience I’m having? This is darkness. Light produces understanding.”

Adam Fuss 1990



This is an intimate and stimulating photographic exhibition at the NGV International featuring the work of artists Mike and Doug Starn, David Stephenson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Bill Henson, Adam Fuss, Simone Douglas, Park Hong-Chun, Eugenia Raskopoulos, Sam Shmith, Christoph Dahlhausen and Patrick Bailly-Maitre-Grand. It is fantastic to see an exhibition of solely contemporary photographs at the National Gallery of Victoria taken from their collection (with nary a vintage silver gelatin photograph in sight!), one which examines the orchestration of light from which all photography emanates – used by different photographers in the creation, and there is the key word, of their work. Collectively, the works seem to ooze a mysterious inner light, a facing towards the transcendent divine – both comforting, astonishing and terrifying in part measure.

Works included range from photograms (camera-less images), large scale installations and photographs produced using digital light-based technologies. Every one of the fifteen works on display is worthy of inclusion, worthy of study at significant length so that the viewer may obtain insight into this element and its capture (by the camera, or not) on photographic paper, orthographic film and by the retina of the eye. What afterimage does this light leave, in the mind’s eye, in our subconscious thought?

The two Bill Henson photographs are evocative of the Romantic ideals of the nineteenth century where twilight possesses a luminescence that reveals shifting forms and meaning only through contemplation. As with all Henson the “mood” of the photographs is constructed as much by the artist as the thing being photographed. It is his understanding of the reflection of light from that object and the meaning of that reflection that creates the narrative “reality,” that allows the viewer the space for contemplation. In Sam Shmith’s photograph Untitled (In spates 2) (2011, below), Shimth turns day into night, creating his own reality by digitally compositing “30-40 photographs per pictorial narrative” taken during the day and then digitally darkened to form one single photographic instance. As a spectral ‘body’ the photograph works to create a new form of hallucination, one that haunts and perturbs the mind, like a disturbing psychological thriller. The viewer is (not really) flying, (not really) floating above the clouds contemplating the narrative, creating a visual memory of things. Spectral luminescences, not-quite-right perspectives, the photograph as temporal/temporary hallucination. The image takes me to other spaces and memories, opening up new vistas in my imagination (see more of my thoughts on Shmith’s work and the digital punctum).

Beginning in 1988, Adam Fuss began to explore studies of abstracted light and colour which “involved placing the paper in a tray of water and recording the concentric circles caused by disturbing the water or dripping droplets of water into the trays. These pieces, done between 1988-1990, have an eerie, spatial quality. Infused with bright, vibrant colours and blinding white light, they resemble some hitherto unknown solar system. [Here] Fuss is concerned with the metaphorical qualities of light.

In an interview with Ross Bleckner conducted in 1992, Fuss explained the role of light in his imagery: “Light is a physical sensation. If you look at it with purely scientific eyes, its a particle that behaves like a wave or a wave that behaves like a particle. No one knows exactly what it is. It travels very fast. It has something to do with our perception of time… When one works with the idea of light, one’s working with a metaphor that’s endless and huge and unspecific. because you’re talking about something that’s almost just an idea, we can think about it but we can never grasp it. The light of the sun represents life on Earth. Light represents the fuel that is behind our existence… It’s a mystery.”1

Another beautiful photograph is Eugenia Raskopoulos’ elegiac requiem to the dis/appearance of language and the body, Diglossia #8 (2009, below). Diglossic is defined as a situation in which two languages (or two varieties of the same language) are used under different conditions within a community, often by the same speakers, with one variety of speech being more prestigious or formal and the other more suited to informal conversation or taken as a mark of lower social status or less education. As Victoria Lynn states of the series, “Each of these images carries within it a letter from the Greek alphabet. There is a word in there somewhere, but the order has been disrupted. This word, or name, has been cut, and its pieces are now before us as fragments that refuse to re-collect themselves into meaning. As such, the relationship between the letters also becomes temporal, fluid, and heterogeneous opening up the question of translation between one language to another, and one culture to another.

The images have been created using the gesture of a hand writing on a steamed up mirror. The photograph is taken very quickly, before the image, the letter and the mark of the artist disappears. We have to ask, what is disappearing here? Is it the language, the name, the aura of the photograph (in the Benjaminian sense) or indeed the body? For behind each letter we can detect a human presence – the artists’ naked body as she makes the photograph. The apparatus of photography is revealed, undressed and made naked.”2

Sol Invictus (1992, below) by the Starn Twins overwhelms in the brute force of the installation, something that cannot really be captured in the two-dimensional representation posted here (go and see the real thing!). The layering and curving of orthographic film relates to the curvature of the sun, the film held in place by screw clamps as though the artist’s were trying to contain, to fix, to regulate the radiation of the sun. Sol Invictus (here is the paradox, it means “unconquered sun” even as the Starn Twins seek to tie it down) explores the metaphorical, scientific and religious properties that gives life to this Earth. A very powerful installation that had me transfixed. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s famous series Theaters is represented in the exhibition by the work Winnetka Drive-In, Paramount (1993, below) where  Sugimoto “photographs auditoriums of American movie theaters, and drive-in movies, during showings. The exposure time used for the photograph corresponds with the projection time of the film. This allows him to save the duration of the entire film in a single shot. What remains visible of the film’s time-compressed, individual images is the bright screen of the movie theater, which illuminates the architecture of the space. That its content retreats into the background makes the actual film a piece of information, manifesting itself in the (movie theater) space. As a result, instead of a content-related event, film presents itself here as the relationship between time and spatial perception.”3

If we think of the camera lens as being fully open, like an eye without blinking, for the duration of the length of the film then the shutter of the lens has to be set on “B” for Bulb which allows for long exposure times under the direct control of the photographer. “The term bulb is a reference to old-style pneumatically actuated shutters; squeezing an air bulb would open the shutter and releasing the bulb would close it… It appears that when instantaneous shutters were introduced, they included a B setting so that the familiar bulb behaviour could be duplicated with a cable release.”4 In other words light waves, reflecting from the surface of objects, are controlled by the photographer over an indefinite period (not the short “snap” of the freeze frame / the decisive moment), accumulating light from thousands of years in the past through the lens of the camera onto the focal plane, coalescing into a single image, controlled and constructed by the photographer.

My favourite works in the exhibition are David Stephenson’s two Star Drawings (1996, below) which use the same Bulb technique to capture star trails travelling across the night sky. Stephenson says that drawing the stars at night by long time exposures, “are a contemporary expression of the sublime – a transcendental experience of awe with the vast space and time of existence” (DS, 1998). The photographs map our position and help us understand our space in the world, that we are all made of stars, every last one of us. As far as being expressions of the sublime, these almost Abstract Expressionist, geometric light drawings are only achieved through the tilting of the camera at certain points doing the exposure and the opening and closing of the shutter, to make the intricate patterns. Man and stars combine to create a spiritual force that emanates from everything and everyone. Stephenson tilts the axis of meaning. When we look at these photographs the light that has emanated from these stars may no longer exist. It had travelled thousands of light years from the past to the present to be embedded in the film at the time of exposure and is then projected into the future so that the viewer may acknowledge it a hundred years from now.


Emanation > recognition > existence . . . . . . . . . . ∞
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . .. .  . . . . .  . .. . . . . . . . . . death


How Light Works

In a truly inspired piece of writing, artist and author Pablo Helguera muses on the nature of light falling on a landscape in his piece How to Understand the light on a Landscape (2005). In the text he examines qualities of light such as experiential light, home light, ghost light, the light of the deathbed (think Emmet Gowin’s photograph of Rennie Booher in her casket, “dead now and committed to mystery,” as Gowin puts it), rain light, protective light, artificial light, the light of the truly blind, the light of adolescence, sunday light, hotel light, used light, narrated light, transparent light, the light of the last day and after light.

“The conjunction of a random site, the accumulated data in the body’s memory that is linked to emotion, and the general behaviour of light form experience. Experience is triggered by light, but not exclusively by the visible light of the electromagnetic spectrum. What the human eye is incapable to perceive is absorbed by other sensory parts of the body, which contribute to the perception that light causes an effect that goes beyond the merely visual.”5

This is the crux of the “matter.” As much as photography is a dialogue between the natural and the unnatural, it is also an invocation to the gods (inside each of us and all around us). It is the breaking down of subjective and objective truths so that the myth of origin becomes fluid in this light. It is the light of creation that goes beyond the merely visual, that is an expression of an individualism that rises above the threshold of visibility – to stimulate sensory experience; to prick the imagination and memory; to make us aware and recognise the WAVELENGTH of creation. It is the LIGHT OF EXPERIENCE.

Helguera concludes, “The intersection of our body with the light and the landscape and the coded form of language that we have to construct by ourselves and explain to ourselves is our daily ordeal, and we are free to choose to ignore and live without it, because there is nothing we can do with this language other than talking to ourselves. There is no point in trying to explain it to others because it is not designed to be this way, other than remaining a remote, if equivalent, language.

Some for that reason prefer to construct empty spaces with nondescript imagery, and thus be free of the seductive and nostalgic indecipherability of the landscape and the light. Or we may choose to openly embrace the darkness of light, and thus let ourselves through the great gates of placehood, where we can finally accept the unexplainable concreteness of our moments for what they are.”6

I believe this is the role of artists, to embrace the darkness of light and the trace of experience and to show it to people that may not recognise it or have turned away from the light of experience. So many people walk through life as if in a dream, neither recognising their energy nor the good or bad that emanates from that light. As Helguera notes it causes us to create our own coded form of language to explain the LIGHT OF LIFE to ourselves. We can choose to ignore it (at out peril!) but we can also embrace light in an act of recognition, awareness, forgiveness. We can banish the empty spaces and nondescript imagery in our own lives and make connection to others so that they make gain insight into their own existence and being.

Dr Marcus Bunyan


  1. Halpert, Peter. “Adam Fuss: Light and Darkness,” in Art Press International, July/August 1993 on the Peter Hay Halpert Fine Art website. Nd. [Online] Cited 08/09/2012 No longer available online
  2. Lynn, Victoria. “Writing Towards Disappearance,” on the Eugenia Raskopoulos website. Nd. [Online] Cited 08/09/2012 No longer available online
  3. Kellein, Thomas Sugimoto, Hiroshi. Time Exposed. Thames & Hudson, First edition, 1995, p. 91, quoted on the Media Art Net website. [Online] Cited 08/09/2012.
  4. Anon. “Bulb (photography),” on the Wikipedia website. Nd. [Online] Cited 08/09/2012
  5. Helguera, Pablo. How to Understand the Light on a Landscape (video, 15 min., 2005) is a work that simulates a scientific documentary about light to discuss the experiential aspects of light as triggered by memory. The images and text, taken from the video, are part of the book by Patt,Lise (ed.). Searching for Sebald: Photography After W.G. Sebald. Institute of Cultural Inquiry, 2007, pp. 110-119
  6. Ibid.,

Many thankx to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting.  Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Hiroshi Sugimoto. 'Winnetka Drive-In, Paramount' 1993


Hiroshi Sugimoto (Japanese, b. 1948, worked in United States 1972- )
Winnetka Drive-In, Paramount
Gelatin silver photograph
42.3 x 54.1cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by the Bowness Family Fund for Contemporary Photography, 2009
© Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy The Pace Gallery, New York


Simone Douglas. 'Surrender (Collision) III' 1998 (detail)


Simone Douglas (Australian)
Surrender (Collision) III (detail)
Type C photograph
45.9 x 64.0cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
© Simone Douglas


Sam Shmith (Australian, b. London, 1980) 'Untitled (In spates 2)' 2011


Sam Shmith (Australian born London, b. 1980)
Untitled (In spates 2)
from the In spates series 2011
Inkjet print
75.0 x 124.8cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2011
© Sam Shmith, courtesy Arc One Gallery, Melbourne



On March 23, the National Gallery of Victoria will open Light Works, a contemporary photography exhibition that explores various artists’ approaches to light – a fundamental element in the creation of photography. Drawn from the NGV’s Collection, the fifteen works on display show how photographers have exploited the creative potentials of natural and artificial light in their artworks.

Dr Isobel Crombie, Senior Curator, Photography NGV said: “Light is a scientific fact, a metaphorical construct and even a spiritual force. It is considered an agent of truth, authenticity and revelation just as the absence of light signals mystery, danger and disorder. Through a careful selection of works by international and Australian artists the emotive potential and scientific capacities of light are explored.”

Dr Gerard Vaughan, Director, NGV said: “Light Works is an exhibition that has broad appeal as it will intrigue those who are artistically, spiritually, technologically or scientifically minded. The works on display demonstrate the diverse and limitless depiction of this vital element. This exhibition also provides visitors with an opportunity to see works by some of the most important contemporary global and local photography artists – a must-see exhibition for 2012.”

Works included range from photograms (camera-less images), large scale installations and photographs produced using digital light-based technologies highlighting the depth of the NGV’s remarkable photography collection. On display are works by Mike and Doug Starn, David Stephenson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Bill Henson, Adam Fuss, Simone Douglas, Park Hong-Chun, Eugenia Raskopoulos, Sam Shmith, Christoph Dahlhausen and Patrick Bailly-Maitre-Grand.

Text from the NGV website


Eugenia Raskopoulos. 'Diglossia #8' 2009


Eugenia Raskopoulos (Australian, b. 1959)
Diglossia #8
from the Diglossia series 2009
Inkjet print
139.5 x 93.3cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2009
© Eugenia Raskopoulos


This photograph shows a letter from the Greek alphabet which has been marked by hand onto a foggy mirror.


Mike and Doug Starn. 'Sol Invictus' 1992


Mike Starn (American, b. 1961)
Doug Starn (American, b. 1961)
Sol Invictus
Orthographic film, silicon, pipe clamps, steel and adhesive tape
175.0 x 200.0 x 35.0cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with funds donated by the National Gallery Women’s Association, 1994
© Doug Starn, Mike Starn/ARS, New York. Licensed by VISCOPY, Sydney


Adam Fuss (English, b. 1961, worked in Australia 1962-82, United States 1982- ) 'Untitled' 1991


Adam Fuss (English, b. 1961, worked in Australia 1962-82, United States 1982- )
Cibachrome photograph
164.3 x 125.0cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of the Rudy Komon Fund, Governor, 1992
© Adam Fuss. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York



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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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