Dark cloud / white light

TEXT by Greer Braam

above:  Ki Piopiotahi — Gertrude Saddle  to catch the sun  (2013)

above: Ki Piopiotahi — Gertrude Saddle to catch the sun (2013)


dark cloud / white light is one of the most ambitious representations of the New Zealand landscape to date. Artist, Joseph Michael, combines the cutting edge technique of ‘holy grail’ timelapse photography with soundtracks of various musicians (William Basinski, Claire Cowan of NZSO, and Mike Hodgson of Pitch Black) to provide an audiovisual synthaesthesic experience paralleled only by film itself. On viewing one of the ten spectacular clips (each a collection of over 10,000 photographs linked in such a way to create the appearance of a seamless 24 hour loop) our senses are saturated and emotions stirred by the magnificent scenery and surrounding sounds. These images mean something to us and whether emotionally, biologically or culturally driven this meaning informs the way in which we experience the landscape. This short essay looks at how we can explore these ideas in dark cloud / white light.

One way in which we experience the landscape is through our emotional response and this is what artists of the romantic period attempted to portray in their work. The romanticists validated strong emotions such as apprehension, horror, terror and awe as a source of aesthetic experience and whether in the field of art, music or literature their works aimed to evoke feelings through confrontation of the sublime {1}. Michael and Hodgson’s collaboration on Hine-pipi-wai combines timelapse photography of changing weather patterns with the expressive qualities of music to elicit different emotional reactions. At first we are presented with a picturesque view of the lake, the kind many New Zealanders have experienced growing up and may expect to see on a tourist brochure. The sky is blue, the lake is placid and a soft whooshing sound surrounds us. The general feeling is one of calmness and serenity. As the fog sets in and obscures our view, we are reminded of Casper Friederich’s famous, The traveler above a sea of clouds (1818). The atmosphere is suddenly so dense that the viewer could be lost within it and it becomes possible to imagine how one might experience a feeling of apprehension or fear in confronting the ‘sublime’. In a fashion similar to that of the romanticists, Hine-pipi-wai evokes a variety of emotional responses and in doing so draws attention to the many different ways that is possible to experience any one particular landscape.

above:  Hine-pipi-wai — Lake Marian  synchronicity  (2013)

above: Hine-pipi-wai — Lake Marian synchronicity (2013)

Another way we are able to experience the landscape in dark cloud / white light is through our biological connection. Echopsychology is a branch of philosophy that addresses this interconnectedness through the concept of the ecological self described as ‘a wide, expansive or field like sense of self, which ultimately includes all life forms, ecosystems and the planet itself.’ {2} Astrophysicist, Dr Neil deGrasse, believes that this connection extends beyond our planet to the entire universe due to the simple fact that everything (including our species) is made up of the same atoms. {3} Michael shares this view and uses timelapse photography to convey this special biological connection we feel on viewing the landscape. The timelapse technique of dark cloud / white light allows us to observe processes that would normally appear subtle to the human eye such as circadian rhythms and the earth spinning upon its axis. This is particularly evident in the works, Ki-Piopiotahi and Mātakitaki, where this rotational effect is exaggerated by the stillness of the mountains juxtaposed against a constantly revolving starry night sky. On watching nature unfold before us we somehow feel a part of the process and Michael identifies with deGrasse’s view {4} that rather than feeling small and insignificant, he feels large and connected through the knowledge that we share the same matter as the cosmos and therefore are biologically bound with what we see.

above:  Mātatitaki — Matukituki Valley  thwarted aspiration  (2013)

above: Mātatitaki — Matukituki Valley thwarted aspiration (2013)

The final way in which dark cloud / white light refers to the landscape is from a cultural perspective. In the book Beyond the Scene, Alisa Smith, talks about the spirituality and interconnectedness between tangata whenua (people of the land) and turangawaewae (a place to stand e.g. the marae or surrounding places an iwi connects with such as a nearby mountain or river) writing about the ‘link with places we have grown familiar with not just during the lifetime of the individual but through the extended lifespan of countless generations .... often reflected in the Māori names for places of significance.’ {5}

above:  Kirikirikatata — Mount Cook  identity . solidarity . purpose  (2013)

above: Kirikirikatata — Mount Cook identity . solidarity . purpose (2013)

While Michael was traveling and photographing various regions of New Zealand he managed to capture a number of landscapes significant to Māori and these have been given their Māori names due to the artist’s interest in the stories behind these. Just one example is Kapowairua otherwise known as Spirits Bay. According to Muriwhenua iwi, Kapowairua means ‘to catch the spirit’, and is the place where Māori believe the spirits of the dead gather to depart from this world and travel to their ancestral home. {6} It is from this cultural perspective that the landscape takes on yet another type of meaning, one completely unique to the Māori people of New Zealand.

above:  Kapowairua — Spirits Bay  450nm  (2013)

above: Kapowairua — Spirits Bay 450nm (2013)

dark cloud / white light is without doubt a remarkable showcase of the New Zealand landscape in its most untamed and magnificent form. Michael maintains however that it is our emotional, biological and cultural connection to the landscape that shapes our experience of it and gives it meaning. On viewing the exhibition I ask you to consider the ideas covered in this short essay and the statement below:

‘Nature - just like a painting, sculpture or building - only becomes meaningful when we make an active connection with it. Like a canvas in a gallery, a landscape comes to life in the eyes of the people who look at it. The act of observation brings pleasure and enrichment and sometimes poses questions. In return, the observer confers meaning on the works of nature and artists and the hybrid forms produced through human action on the environment, and transmits that meaning to others.’{7}

above:  Kā Mauka Whakatipu — 2085  resilience  (2013)

above: Kā Mauka Whakatipu — 2085 resilience (2013)


1 Romanticism, site accessed May 2013 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanticism
2 Elizabeth Ann Bragg, “Towards Ecological Self: Deep Ecology Meets Constructionist Self-Theory,” Journal of Environmental Psychology (1996) 16, p.100
3 Astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked in an interview with TIME magazine, “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?” This is his answer. Site accessed May 2013 at http://vimeo.com/38101676
4 Ibid., May 2013
5 Janet Stephenson, Mick Abbott, Jacinta Ruru et al, “Beyond the scene: landscape and identity in a Aotearoa New Zealand”, University of Otago Press, (2010), p.6
6 Ancestors - Muriwhenua tribes - Te Ara encyclopaedia of New Zealand, site accessed May 2013 at http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/2374/kapowairua-spirits-bay
7 Walter Schwimmer, “The representation of nature in art”, Naturopa, (2000) 93, p.2