l'ambiente: a collaborative installation

richard skinner, matthew perkins, vicki sauvage, matt warren
CAST Gallery, Hobart
February 2001

It was a warm sunny day in Hobart. The birds sang and happy people wore shorts and revelled in the sunshine. It was a normal Saturday afternoon in the Southern-most city of Australia. I nodded at the gallery attendant and ambled up the stairs to the cool tempting air of the gallery. Perusing the CV's of Richard Skinner, Matthew Perkins, Vicki Sauvage and Matt Warren, the collaborative force of designer-makers and video/sound artists behind L'Ambiente, I noticed that the gallery door was shut. A sign at the entrance mysteriously proclaimed , 'Please come in, close the door behind you'. I stood for a while staring at the door, my intrigue sparked as to what unknown treasures might lie beyond the elusive portal. I felt like Alice pausing in front of a giant rabbit hole: if I went in, would I ever come back? Holding my breath I turned the handle and stepped inside.

At first I was a little dubious as to what I could expect from an installation which claimed to 'explore the emotional potential of light, sound and form' .1 How could a space make me feel emotion; was I going to cry, laugh or get angry? I walked up the stairs doubtful, only to emerge an hour later a devoted believer.

L'Ambiente was not of this world. Without overhead lighting the gallery was subdued and dim. Strange 'pinging' sounds reverberated around the room and created the effect of being underwater or cocooned inside the retro lounge room of a space station. Foamy white screens of woven polyethylene strips guided me along into the centre of the space like fleshy, !issued curves flexing and rolling, leading me back to the womb. I stood and let the atmosphere soak in. A muted glow of pink and blue beckoned from behind the screens and, over the digitised pings, came the echo of wind swirling through the space; at the same time a medium-pitched hum seemed to stretch into eternity like the unearthly vibrations of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The stillness of the room made me feel as though I had walked into something meditative and sacred. I eagerly wanted to explore all that was to be found yet was conscious of the disturbance my excited footfalls might make in the surreal sanctity of L'Ambiente.

The space was loosely divided by the polyethylene screens into several embracing cavities, and each turn I made persuaded me to go deeper into L'Ambiente. With the tranquil simplicity of a sushi bar on Venus, laced onto the screens were sparsely positioned lights resembling a starry constellation or a band of hovering fireflies, and these contrasted against projections of blue squares which shimmered over the wispy surface. Shades of pale rose seemed to have been percolated into the foam panels from the base, like a cotton wool ball dipped in the watery residue of a raspberry ice cream. In one section, a snowy pillow made from the same woven foam as the screens sat on the polished floor; a welcoming gesture inviting calm contemplation of the three essential elements of the installation light, sound and form.

While immersed in the sedate atmosphere behind the screens, my eye glanced over several red objects resembling upturned fish tails diving into small black boxes positioned near the back wall of the gallery. On closer inspection, the structures appeared more like sinewy muscles splashing out of their ivory skin. Long spindly veins of thin aluminium welding-wire threaded with portions of pink plastic straws gave the impression of twisting flesh opening gracefully into a vase-like mouth at the surface. Knee high to the viewer, the twirling, elegant fluidity of the objects gave a cool burst of metallic texture and volcanic energy to the effervescent minimalism of the space.

Realising I had been in the gallery for almost an hour, I struggled with the thought of leaving the dreamy tactile hollow. Visitors had disturbed my vigil near the silvery muscle-like forms and the presence of others drove a dull knife into the thick, oscillating sounds surging around the room. Moving reluctantly towards the door I noticed three spherical wire forms looming out of the hazy light. Like a group of planetary systems floating into infinity, the unexpected discovery held me captured in the spell of L'Ambiente for a moment longer.

Looking towards the door that would lead me back, I felt as though I was drifting in a parallel realm. Just like Lucy in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe I had stumbled into a fantastical place of frothy objects, abstract arrangements and sparkling lights seamlessly enmeshed within a lingering cacophony of sounds. With an echoing tone similar to the flat line on a heart monitor ringing in my ears, I knew my time was up. Would the world outside be different? Had I really been gone only an hour or had a hundred years passed by? I slowly moved to the closed door, comforted by the promise of Tomorrow. Same time. Same place.


I. L'Ambiente, exhibition catalogue CAST Gal lery, Hobart, February 2001