The James Tapscott Interview

James Tapscott is a visual artist from Melbourne working primarily with installation and photography. He works with a delicate balance between man-made, energy efficient technology and the natural environment to create temporary works that seek to establish a fusion of subjective and objective reality and an exploration of the effect our perception has on the world around and within us. By using simple, elegant forms and light he creates a balance between displaying evidence of ritualistic artistic process, and purely natural phenomena – a balance that inevitably has some influence on the experience of the viewer / participant, as they themselves enter a state of cohesion with the environment. The works’ temporal, ephemeral nature tries to remind us of the similar traits our world expresses, something we are conditioned with ourselves also. It exists in time, perhaps more than in space, and lives on through its documentation. Like a memory of an event.

Could you tell us a little about you new exhibition ‘SYNTHESIS’ currently showing at the Kaleidoscope Gallery?

The show is a selection of works produced over the last 3 years, consisting of photographic docum-entation of the site-specific installations I have created using light and natural elements. Most of the works were situated at sites in Victoria, with one piece created in Death Valley, California while I was there for an exhibition last year.

A lot of your work is experimental. Do the outcomes surprise even you as the artist?

Most of the time my process produces unexpected results, its part of working with the chaos of nature. I provide vague parameters for the work and the results rarely produce something outside of these, so more unexpected than surprising. When I started working with light my expectations were a little more rigid, which led to a lot of surprises, and taught me a lot too. These days the process is more of a progressive collaboration, I’m more sensitive to what’s going on and I tend to be the more flexible part of the process – nature dictates much more than it used to. The process is much more fluid as it evolves to a conclusion.

How did you first come to choose ‘lighting as a medium’

It took me years of wanting more than painting to turn away from a medium I’d spent well over a decade devoted to, and has been a much more rewarding journey since. I’d been exposed to some great site-specific works on a visit to California some years ago by artists like Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, Richard Serra etc. that absolutely blew me away. Living and studying in Australia gives you very little opportunity to experience such amazing works first hand and so the frustration of the limitations of painting just felt kind of normal. Then I finally made the step and committed to this branch of work and haven’t looked back. Being able to see painting in a different light has made me realize the similarities – paint manipulates the way light bounces off a surface.  But I want to use light itself. Using light enables the viewer not only to immerse themselves in the work, but to become part of the work. It changes the way you see, experience a space.

Your ethic is to ensure you work is both energy efficient and environmentally sensitive. Does this self imposed restriction make it more difficult for you to reach your creative goals?

Not necessarily. I feel that energy efficiency actually is a creative goal in itself and the restrictions it can place seems to open more doors than it closes. It forces me to use other forms of energy to create the work, which comes from the sites I use (wind, water current, gravity etc). Light becomes only part of the work, more like the medium than the product/subject – like charcoal would be to someone drawing a nude. Its also led me to understand and use natural light in a space more, the effects it has on vegetation for example, or the way it can alter or focus one’s perception within a space.

From your work I can see that you have a great affinity with the environment. Do you feel a spiritual connection as well as an artistic one?

Definitely – although not all the time. Sometimes I feel almost no connection to a site, which is always disappointing and leads to a lot of frustration as I try to understand why. I feel an affinity more with certain kinds of landscape than with others. I like open spaces, deserts, rock, water – places that have a real sense of time on a large scale. One thing especially that helped me open my perception of natural phenomena was reading a diary of Andy Goldsworthy, who commented on how he sees rock as a liquid form, just on a much slower scale. I find that with a broader perception of time I can understand how all things are connected on a deeper level. So I’ve become much more interested in places where stone and water meet; rivers, beaches etc.

You are currently working with water as a medium. How do you see the fusion of water and light?

The reflective and refractive elements of water are the subject of recent experiments I’ve been conducting in my studio that I’m hoping will lead to a significant piece sometime in the near future, although at the moment my main involvement with water is based on the kinetic nature of it – its fluidity, its motion. More as a vehicle to carry lights as opposed to light itself. Being able to capture that motion in time is one thing that really excites me about photography as a medium, which is normally just a method of documentation for me.  The way photography can compress and expand time is for me (my practice) the most valuable aspect of it as a creative medium.

You work in a lot of remote locations in very difficult terrain and one assumes poor weather conditions. How does this affect your work technically?

Much like the energy efficiency “problem”, the weather is as much a creative force as it is destructive to an Idea. The technical failures that occur out on site teach me a lot about the site itself, the way it works. Everything present at a site, from the tallest tree or sand dune down to a little shrub, ant nest, pebble, even a cap from a coke bottle is there in its present state due to the conditions of the site. I try to keep my materials as flexible and simple as possible to achieve a balance where they are used by the space, but not damaged – which can take a lot of fine tuning. Especially where electricity and water are concerned. You just have to be respectful and sensitive to what can and can’t be done. Nature almost always has the last say.

How spooky was it visiting the spooky locations in Death Valley. Any trouble with the authorities?

I didn’t find death valley spooky at all. Places with no presence of mankind seem much less likely to cause trouble all those kind of ideas are only there because one brings them with them. Death Valley is probably the most ‘primal’ place I’ve ever been to – its like another world. The energy of the place just dwarfs you and all your social constructs. Visiting is a truly transcendental experience. Having said that it is hard to escape the presence of man altogether, you need to go quite off the beaten track. The US has well over 10 times the amount of people in it as Australia, so empty spaces are rare. I tried to create a second piece in the desert that was to be left there for 6 months (while I was travelling Europe) and finished on my return, but it got destroyed by someone. I’m assuming it was “the Authorities” and since what I was doing was technically illegal I didn’t bother looking into it.

Any hints on what your next project might be?

I’m hoping to have a productive summer after trying to produce work for the Kaleidoscope show throughout winter got the better of me on many an occasion. Especially with water based work. My main focus will be the “flow” project, that is like a light-drawing exercise with river systems. The early pieces were a real success and two of them are in the Synthesis show, but I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of where this project will take me.

I also have plans to work with arctic conditions up in Norway next year and possibly an urban installation while completing a residency in New York.