New Zealand is a country that does not have a long history unlike some others. New Zealand was originally settled by people who developed the Maori culture 700 years ago. After 500 years of peace, the British arrived and had the Maori sign the Waitangi Treaty, making New Zealand a British colony and increasing immigration sharply. After conflicts between Maori and British, the Maori people had some of their land confiscated by the British. The Maori population was dwindling at this point. After this, the government linked up with the US and things stayed somewhat economically stable until the 1970s when a recession came about from oil price drops. In the 1980s, New Zealand changed into a free trade economy and has seen prosperity ever since. Despite economic prosperity, they still don’t quite make enough money to attend the Venice Biennale without a very conscious effort on representing New Zealand and increasing artistic tourism to their country. Geographically, New Zealand is known to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth, inspiring site-specific and minimalist art pieces all over it.
Front Door Out Back is Bill Culbert’s 2013 Biennale exhibition. For the exhibit, Bill Culbert carefully chose a building with many different types of rooms and spaces. The Santa Maria Della Pieta is a unique place that used to be an orphanage. Bill chose this area because of the mixture of long corridors, open rooms, outdoors, and entrances by the water. For this show, Culbert reimagined every room to include his signature fluorescent lights along with dressers, plastic containers, chairs, and many other household or common items. Bill surprises us without illusions: by using common objects juxtaposed with fluorescent light bulbs he creates a visually stunning piece that also has meaning. In his piece “Level,” we can see several jugs of water suspended in midair and at different angles, but with the exact same water level within, suggesting the levels of water that have competed with Venice for decades.
New Zealand’s 2013 Venice Biennale pavilion was very successful. It drew more people in than any other Biennale that New Zealand has been in. Culbert’s exhibition garnered much interest for the contemporary art world in New Zealand, with 78% of people surveyed at the New Zealand exhibit saying they would be interested in learning more about what other art New Zealand has to offer. Bill Culbert was chosen for this exhibition partly due to his already prolific and dynamic past creating art as a New Zealander. With his proven success as an artist, New Zealand’s curator had a sure choice with Bill, which is an additional welcome because in 2007, New Zealand did not have a pavillion so that they could assess whether or not putting $500,000 into entering the Biennale is worth it in the end.
Bill Culbert was born in Port Chalmers, New Zealand, in 1935. He studied painting and received a grant to go to the Royal College of Art in London in the 1950s. It was here that he met his wife Pip, a fellow artist. It was also here that he developed a love of light, both as medium and subject. He transitioned from painting to photography, sculpture, and installations in the late 1960s. By the 1970s, he was being shown around the world in solo exhibitions and group projects. His photography includes pictures of wine glasses whose shadows create light bulbs, shadows completing circles, and reflections. His installations are usually somewhat minimalist. He is still hard at work creating art, and now lives between London, New Zealand, and Southern France.