When the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation we recognize as light enters the eye, it encounters a set of cells known as photoreceptors, activating and causing them to fire, sending electrical signals down the optic nerve and into the brain. This raw information is then processed and interpreted by a number of complex and not completely understood processes. Yet there is little doubt. It is literally how we see the world.
It is this role of light - that of genesis, discovery, unveiling the new – that informs the practice of New Zealand multimedia artist, Kristin O’Sullivan Peren.
Drawing on her history as a print maker, Kristin’s recent personal work combines sculpture and light in a mesmerizing example of literal metaphor. The cast resin form of her installation free beauties pulses with the shifting light of hundreds of LEDs, their activation based on an algorithm inspired by the naturalist Sir Joesph Banks’ gathering of flora and fauna when he first arrived in New Zealand. The flowers collected from this exploration were pressed between the pages of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, with Addison’s critique of the book providing the basis for the algorithm - inviting the audience to consider, in the artist’s own words, “the search for the Modern Sublime”.
Inspired by the UNESCO’s 2015 International Year of Light and its mission to “raise global awareness about how light-based technologies promote sustainable development”, Kristin’s sought to engage her community with the dual issues of climate change and consumption, working with local school children to construct illuminated icebergs out of used milk bottles and solar-powered Luci lights.
The project, conceived of as part of Queenstown’s annual WinterFest, reflects one of Kristin’s recurring themes – the reinterpretation of history.
As New Zealand’s self proclaimed “Adventure Capital”, Queenstown has long been a magnet for tourists, helped in no small part by the stunning natural landscape in which it is situated. While not undeserved, this popularity reflects a sustained and long history of marketing. The most widely exhibited New Zealand painting of the nineteenth century was a landscape of Queenstown’s Lake Wakatipu, created by the Austrian Eugene von Gerard. However, as with many historical representations, the painting contained a number of abnormalities. Despite the wind visible on the lake the mountains remain perfectly reflected, and the waka is traveling backwards – demonstrating a stated truth: history is never as accurate as those telling it would have you believe.
This painting and its inaccuracies informed the concept for the Icebergs Project, with Kristin altering the Von Gerad’s landscape to include her own interpretation of history. In it we see large icebergs floating in the lake, their presence evoking some inaccuracies present today: the silence around climate change, its real and current impact on our lives and the cost this has on the natural world.
What will we lose when they are gone? This was the implicit question throughout the project, with students from local primary schools collecting and cleaning used milk containers and then working together to construct icebergs out of the refuse. The issues raised engaged an emotional response from the children, leading to the construction of several endangered animals who will be further affected by climate change: an emperor penguin, two Maui dolphins and a Harlequin frog.
The Sustainable Icebergs Project was a tremendous success, not only helping the students and festival goers visualize their waste but also shining a light on the current and future impacts of climate change. As extreme weather events increase, it is the poor who are the most vulnerable – something acknowledged by the project, with the lights used to be sent to Nepal to help the school children there. This was something that resonated strongly with the children, their desire to ensure that other children could have light to learn by demonstrating the empathy so crucial to address this global challenge.
It is perhaps interesting to note that the voyage which discovered New Zealand – that which led to the record of flora and fauna that inspired Kristin’s work free beauties – was principally concerned with the observation of the transit of Venus. Some 40 years in the making, the successful observation was the first international scientific expedition and involved cooperation between a number of warring countries – an element that is more crucial now than ever.
As the Sustainable Icebergs Project demonstrates, it is not just the literal gift of light that is so crucial to UNESCO’s goal, but also its metaphorical value. In taking time to engage their own creativity and empathy the children of Queenstown pose a question to our leaders: come decision time in Paris, will they be as understanding?
The project received solar lights with 25,000 hours in the battery thechildren wrote letters to children in Vanuatu and Nepal who we hoped to send them too.. as yet the red tape still makes it near impossible.