Text by Anthony Thomas
Light is a fascinating thing. It plays a pivotal role in our perception, although it’s a role overlooked by most. In the most rudimental sense, light is our visual perception. Without it, nothing we see before us would exist; visibly anyway. That goes without saying though, right? Thinking about light in a more sophisticated sense unveils its much more interesting subtleties. Single-handedly, it has the power to define mood and atmosphere both socially and spatially. Throw colour into the mix and the game changes all over again. While perhaps not his intention, Brisbane-artist Ross Manning’s work certainly stimulates thought and discussion about the unique power light and colour holds over our interaction with the visible world. Currently exhibiting at the Foundation’s Edge exhibition, I caught up with Ross last week to have a chat about his work. As I found out, the man himself is as refined and well-polished as the breathtaking light sculptures he creates.
MM: What’s the brief history of Ross Manning?
RM: I come from a music and instrument-building background. Throughout high school, I was totally nuts about music, avant-garde music, and sound in general. As far as art goes, the built instruments I made were all automated, self-playing, and composing, then I’d play along with them in a live performance context. From there, the instruments became more sculptural, cleaner and had more longevity. They ended up being shown in galleries and that kicked started my art interest. I mean, I’ve always been interested and made art; I’ve always drawn and painted but not seriously. Then I got into light and using light space and technologies such as data projectors and TVs.
So, sound and light are central to your practice?
Absolutely. For me, as a personal thing, I’m entirely infatuated by sound and light.
Where does that infatuation come from?
I don’t actually know. There is something in the purity of colours and light that just hits a sweet spot in my brain, as it probably does a lot of people. I just can’t go past that purity and intensity of coloured light. And sound, early on was triggered by my dad playing his music. It made me aware of the power it could have.
Technology is used quite frequently throughout. How exactly do you use it to achieve the desired results?
It depends on what work it is but a lot of time the technology will trigger an idea in another work. I used to work a service technician, doing television repair work, so I got to understand how they put together an electronic image and how they use lenses and optics to present an image. So, I guess I reverse-engineered to my own aesthetic ends.
Tell me about the Spectra series.
So, the Spectra series are all hanging mobile works. They’re beams that are suspended at varying points of balance from one to another, with a fluorescent, coloured tube at one end and a domestic fan at the other. As the fan oscillates and turns, each beam turns on its own independent orbit. The original idea was to create a real-time colour-mixing environment. The first one I made was based on additive colour theory, which is just your primary red, green, and blue mixing together as a white light. There has been different variations on the colour and the relationship since, though.
How has the idea changed from what is now to what it started out as?
The third model was trying to get the basic white light and trying to break it down into its basic primary colours. That has now gone onto using secondary colours and creating different colour washes that change gradually across the wall and not just trying to make white light. The way the sculpture is made changes; I haven’t repeated the same layout or construction of the work. For each one, I have different length beams and the lights will be different on each beam, which changes the balance. So some will be really centrally balanced and quite equal, whereas others will be quite augmented and asymmetrically balanced. And bigger and smaller, I’ve made really big ones that are like ten meters high and four meters wide. So scale has changed.
Do you intend the audience to interact with the piece?
In a way, yes. It was not the original intention but what I found was when the viewer was present, because of the directional nature of the light, their body blocks the direction of the colour so their shadow becomes a multi-coloured shadow. So, for instance, if there were four lights, then there would be four different shadows of the corresponding colours. The varying architecture of gallery spaces also creates shadows, so that was nice. I like the idea that these sculptures are mixing together, generating different colours, then your body can pull apart that colour mix.
All your work is very kinetic and movement plays a large role. Does physics interest you at all?
Science and physics and all that is very fascinating but I like the idea that everything in the world is moving or changing; whether it be physically or chemically. Having the sculptures moving puts them into the real world that we inhabit. Human perception of time space is transferred across to the sculptures, it’s living and moving in the same time space as the viewer. It pushes against the same physical forces as the universe as we do. It has to act against gravity, wind, inertia, and all those kind of forces.
Every component of the Spectra works is visibly to the viewer. Is that intentional?
Absolutely. I like to keep everything exposed and real. I don’t like the idea of covering or tidying things up. It’s like a political statement almost. With technology, especially digital technology, nobody can see it and it’s hard to understand. All that code, etc. I like to try and create something that is spectacular but you can still understand it at its basic level.
So, you use pieces of technology and break it down to the base level?
I more so construct it in a way that keeps the realness of the objects.
Making the digital world tangible?
That’s a way to describe it, I guess. It’s still a moving electronic image, just another impersonation of it.
Are the sculptures themselves, or the light projected, the actual piece of art?
They have almost become two separate works. The sculpture itself is the initial piece of art but the light generated from it can be played with. One of the Spectra at GOMA won the New Media Award and I wanted to do something with that, so I had the sculpture in one room and three holes in the wall to an adjoining room. When you were in one room you could see the sculpture and the light mixing, but then the colour would separate back into its component colours as it went through the apertures in the wall. It also flipped the image upside down. So if I had red, green, and blue; after it went through the hole in the wall it would be blue, green, red. Much like a pin-hole camera really, and the nature of optics.
What sort of response have you received from audiences?
It’s been pretty positive. With all my work, you get the first impression and then the longer you spend with it, you can pick it apart and get an understanding of what’s happening. That isn’t the main point of the work but I think it holds interest and it’s human nature to try and figure out how things work.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I’ve a got a commission with the Brisbane City Council to do eleven in Burnett Lane, which is coming along. I’ve been using film and components out of LCD screens to create these light shades and mucking around with the optical quality of those. You get this 3D, holographic effect with them. So that’s the biggest thing at the moment. I’m always getting heaps of ideas and my sketch books are full of them. There’s plenty of fuel in the tank.