Rebecca Baumann: Sculpting with Light

With installations that revere space and collective experience, Rebecca Baumann gives new meaning to the power of light and colour. Rose of Sharon Leake talks to the artist about emotion, subjectivity and new works.

How does one explain colour? For installation artist Rebecca Baumann, colour is a bodily cognition, an intuition inextricably linked with emotion. “The experience of colour is universal and highly subjective,” she tells me. “We can never fully understand it and it can never be the same from one eye to another.”

This subjective nature of colour, and our inability to define it, is precisely what has intrigued Rebecca for more than a decade. Creating immense installation works with materials such as acrylic, vinyl, glass, confetti and smoke, Rebecca transforms space by altering how light interacts around it. It may sound like some elaborate magic trick – reflective surfaces, smoke machines and flashing lights challenge our natural perception of space. Yet Rebecca’s works are grounded in intense and rigorous material and conceptual research. “Researching different materials is a big part of my practice,” she says. “Sometimes I have the idea, but it may take a year to get it working. Like my smoke device for example, I went down lots of rabbit holes where I tried to make the coloured smoke myself through researching on the internet. I make by looking at things, and doing the research is definitely the fun part.”

While initially interested in kinetic processes – as evident in her most well-known kinetic sculpture Automated Colour Field (2011) which is now part of the MCA collection – in recent works Rebecca has shifted her focus to her audience. How audiences might move through the spaces she delineates with her installations has become the driving force behind her work.

While hung panes of coloured acrylic, or transparent vinyl outlining a glass window may sound materially simple, the technical skill behind each work is complex. “I work with physicists, engineers, computer programmers, the list goes on. I guess what I like about being an artist is it’s collaborative nature.”

Beyond experimentation with material and process, Rebecca’s work relies heavily on audience interaction, along with the subjectivities people bring to their experience of her work. In 2020, Sydney’s Carriageworks presented Rebecca’s largest work to date titled, Radiant Flux. The work, which took a month to install, made use of the site’s existing warehouse ceiling windows. Interested in how light might be able to disrupt the site’s spatial qualities, Rebecca gave reverence to the volume of the structure to create a monolithic work that can only be described as cathedral-like. “I guess I thought of it as if I were trying to capture the volume of the space. I wanted to sculpt the space with light.”

Radiant Flux transformed the main atrium of Carriageworks into a colour-drenched cave. Iridescent purples, oranges and yellows bathed viewers below, enshrining them in a crypt of colour as they walked through the space intended to ignite emotional and sensory reactions. While the site allowed hundreds of people to experience the work simultaneously, the space Rebecca created using light and colour was an intensely personal, if not emotional, experience. “In my practice I’ve always been quite interested in people,” Rebecca tells me. “There’s sort of a primal understanding which shapes our experience of the world. I’m interested in thinking about how colour can affect you emotionally.”

Along with presenting large scale public works, Rebecca is represented by Auckland’s Starkwhite gallery, and is well versed in creating installations that are smaller in scale, but still pack a punch. In 2019 Starkwhite presented a series of works which used kinetic flip-dot displays, an electro-magnetic signage originally created for the stock market, to visually demonstrate the passing of time.

So what can we expect for her show with Starkwhite opening in November 2021? “There’s a number of different avenues which are all a bit up in the air at the moment,” she reveals. “But I’ll be working more with paper and I’m excited to be releasing a publication then too.”

There is clearly rich contextual and material rigor to Rebecca’s practice, yet there is something beyond this that sets her work apart. There is an intangibility, perhaps even spirituality within her work that leaves us questioning why we can’t, and don’t want to, define the colour surrounding us.

Featured image: artist Rebecca Baumann.

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