Thunder, lightning, very very frightening! Light can shock, expose, surprise and clarify, but cannot exist without its sister state – darkness. In Lumen, White Rabbit Gallery’s twenty-third exhibition, digital and new media artists examine the meaning of light to explore not only what we see, but what we cannot.
Elizabeth Harris | Ed. Peter Traynor | 27 June 2021
Photo courtesy of White Rabbit Gallery.
Established to showcase Australian billionaire Judith Neilson’s stunning collection of Chinese contemporary art, White Rabbit Gallery is known for its high-impact shows, and Lumen is no exception. Although the text at the exhibition entrance references the painters who ‘once put brush to canvas to suggest illumination’, Lumen’s curators are more entranced by the power of new media art than monastic illustrations. With works by 29 Chinese and Taiwanese contemporary artists, Lumen is a delight for those interested in the art world’s Sino scene. However, the exhibition demonstrates the ability of digital and new media art to express universal concerns and perplexities created by our increasingly interconnected global society.
LuxuryLogico, Miniature (2015) stainless steel, copper rods, LED lights, computer, 207 x 576 x 168cm. Courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.
Lumen provides plenty of opportunities to reflect on the relationship between the perceived and the perceiver. While light and sight are the focal points for this examination, the way our senses integrate information is key to many of the artists in Lumen’s engagement with new media art. In a piece typical of his practice, Yao Chung Han’s (@yaochunghan) DzDz operates at the convergence of performance, light and sound. Seven beams of light – each representing a musical note – radiate from sci-fi coils. When a visitor steps beneath the ray, the corresponding note is activated and ‘played’. To create something meaningful from the installation, viewers must collaborate, stepping into the light to create purposeful patterns. Illustrating the need not only for light to exist but for humans to interact collaboratively to make use of the light, DzDz facilitates and demands our engagement with our environment.
Yao Ching Han, DzDz (2015) sound, light, sensors and interactive software. 313 x 500 x 152cm. Courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.
Some pieces on show are less explicitly connected to the concept of light and have been chosen to address broader conceptual themes of perception and sensory awareness. Wuhan-born installation and video artist Feng Chen’s ongoing project The Darker Side of Light is represented in Lumen by his video piece, Moment by Moment. In a corridor of galleries between large display rooms, Moment by Moment seems to offer an opportunity to recalibrate our senses. On one side, the screen shows a virtual metronome, accompanied by the device’s rhythmic ticking. On the other, an identical, physical metronome sways along. Tricked into thinking the digital and tangible are keeping time in unison, and looking side to side to keep track of them, the viewer is lulled into a false sense of security. However, every so often, the video metronome falls out of synch, disorienting the mind as the viewer tries to right themselves, and find the right beat again. In a world of many realities, only complicated by our dual physical and digital lives, Moment by Moment challenges our sense of objective reality, asking to what extent we can truly rely on our senses.
Feng Chen, Moment by Moment (2019) HD video 6 min 13 sec, Arduino, servo-motor, metronome. Courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.
Entering the final room of the exhibition is like stepping into the fevered imagination of Nikola Tesla. After walking through a tunnel disorientingly painted with yellow and black hazard stripes, you enter a wide, dark room. Sequestered behind a room divider of glass panes is Wei Wei’s Mood Machine. Two Tesla coils speak to each other with frenetic zaps of sparks, as static sings a tune to communicate the sense of one of eight temperaments (passion, brilliance, fear, and more) selected by a visitor on a touch screen. In this way, Wei Wei – a self-proclaimed ‘creative technologist’ – facilitates a lightning show of emotions, asking us whether computers can successfully communicate with humanity on an emotional level. The visceral panic instigated by the electric display (even as the Mood Machine communicates ‘peace’) poses the question of whether, even if computers could successfully communicate emotion, we would accept this, or if we would dismiss it out of fear for what that means for humanity.
Wei Wei, Mood Machine (2009) interactive installation. Courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.
Stunningly curated and thought-provoking, Lumen won’t have you leaving with a warm glow inside, but rather with sparks flying around your mind as you reconsider the networked world we live in. The role of new media and digital art in Lumen’s success in interrogating the (un)knowable is undeniable. This mirrors the general human experience, considering the extent to which our lives are now mediated by technology. If you too want to fall into the digital rabbit hole with Judith Neilson, you can visit Lumen at White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney until November 2021.