When the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation we recognize as light enters the eye, it activates a set of cells known as photoreceptors, causing them to fire and sending electrical signals down the optic nerve and into the brain. This raw information is then processed and interpreted by a number of complex processes, the exact workings of which still remain unclear. 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. As Peren herself notes, “you cannot see light unless there is darkness.”
Drawing on her history as a print maker, Peren’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 Joseph Banks’ gathering of flora and fauna when he first arrived in New Zealand in 1769. The weeds collected from this exploration were pressed between the pages of Spectator Magazine, a critique of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, with this 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”, Peren 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 plastic milk bottles and solar-powered Luci lights.
The project, conceived of as part of Queenstown’s annual Winter Festival, reflects one of Peren’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 (a Maori canoe) 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 Peren altering Von Gerard’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. In the process of cleaning, the bottles’ labels were removed – erasing their brand and all their associated price points imply – making the refuse uniform within the landscape and offering a further play on history and how we might escape it.
The task of constructing icebergs was not a simple one, requiring a considerable degree of leadership and cooperation – with this crucially driven by the students themselves. As the project progressed the children involved developed their own networks and systems, dividing themselves into teams based on interest and ability and working together to achieve the overall result. This required considerable commitment, with many of the 5-12 year olds organizing time outside of that allocated in the school week, and showing admirable persistence and creativity.
The issues raised over the two month project 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.
Overall the Sustainable Icebergs Project was a tremendous success, with the community element proving far more rewarding than that of any individual responses. The project not only helped the students and festivalgoers visualize their waste but also shone 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 Luci lights used to be sent to Nepal and Vanuatu to help the school children there.
This was something that resonated strongly with the children – captured in letters written to accompany the aid. The desire of those involved to ensure that other children could have light to learn by provides a crucial demonstration of the empathy necessary in addressing climate change: we are all in this together.
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 Peren’s work Free Beauties – was principally concerned with the observation of the Transit of Venus in 1769, a collaboration between scientists and their monarchs that was some 40 years in the making. The collection of data from this 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, empathy and persistence the children of Queenstown pose a question to our leaders: come decision time in Paris, will they be as understanding?