Light is something we experience every day – natural, ambient, accidental, manmade. It can dance between the ordinary and extraordinary, all the while possessing the power to influence the way we perceive moments, experiences and places. This is an idea that has captivated neon installation artist Sam Mitchell-Fin since childhood. “My obsession with light started at the time I saw my first rainbow bend from a piece of glass,” she says. “I thought I should contain it, like it was an animal to be tamed.”
Having always been somewhat enchanted by neon, Mitchell-Fin’s enthusiasm for light as an artistic and expressive medium certainly matches my own. Glenn Ligon’s blacked out neon tubes somehow still glowing ‘America’ at the Tate Modern in London, Tracey Emin’s heart-wrenching neon scrawls and a stroll or two through an Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the austere Berlin exhibition hall Martin-Gropius-Bau have all cemented my fascination with light art.
About midway through last year I began searching for a light installation artist who might be interested in the idea of working within the Gallery 2010 space. As a new exhibition space, our concept was different (opening out of hours in an operational loading dock) and was something I wanted to build and develop organically through the creative intervention and expression of the artists we were choosing to show.
I met Mitchell-Fin predictably enough through a friend working in lighting design. At the time, a series of her neon sculptures had become the focal point at the Hermès Sydney flagship. Refined rainbow bows and bars were set amongst coloured Birkin bags in the Market Street store window for three months during their Artist Window series. A great part of our curatorial process is based on an artist’s reaction to the space and on a collaboration built from this, and from the outset, both Mitchell-Fin and I liked the idea of a cluster of her larger sculptures held up in a small and intimate setting, raising the intensity of the emotion in her neons. In her words, “you are almost thrust up against the lights.”
The appeal of Mitchell-Fin’s work is perhaps its ability to operate beyond just the aesthetic charm of neon, where each sculpture invites viewers to engage in its communicative and representative qualities. Her large-scale neon installation Kiom Eos (2011) was designed to test the sensation of anticipation. “I am really interested in how certain colours and frequencies of light affect us in physical ways,” she tells me. “How we can be moved or even challenged by it. Not only the colours and shapes, but the intensity and the application is important to me.” As an experiment in colour psychology, the maze of neon bars in Kiom Eos inspired emotions based on expectation and perceptive memory.
After we agreed on some imprecise but hopeful exhibition dates for the future, Mitchell-Fin began to develop ideas for the space. Both confident in and intrigued by the thought behind her work, I wanted to give Mitchell-Fin free scope to develop a new collection of neon. She has said, “To me, the kitsch nature of neon and the way that it sits perfectly somewhere between low and high art is what helps make it special.” She believes the allure of the medium lies in our ability to engage in its different elements – and I agree. We can be absorbed on a physical level, with the wiring and gases creating different colours; on a contextual level, as a medium most commonly used in late-night signage, and then on an emotional level, where colours come to symbolise personal experience. The idea was to create an experience in the Gallery 2010 space that expressed this.
The result is Triginta, an autobiographical collection of 10 neon sculptures, each representing significant moments in her life leading to the age of 30. The exhibition will populate both the Gallery 2010 exhibition space and its rooftop terrace. The street level loading dock space will feature six to seven of Mitchell-Fin’s larger sculptures, with the remainder of the work set on the rooftop, along with a projected video piece. The juxtaposition of the indoor and outdoor spaces is intended to divide the work, aiming to deliver different sentiments.
“I am always excited by the way light works within a physical space,” says Mitchell-Fin. “Like that first time I saw light through a glass prism and was mesmerised, I am still excited by the way light in all its forms bends around corners, creeps through crevices. The world is a place where light will always find you.”
Triginta is being held as a part of Art Month Sydney and opens at Gallery 2010 on Thursday March 14 from 6pm to 8pm. The show runs until March 24.
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*Sammy Preston is the curator of Gallery 2010.