"See that green chair," says Melbourne artist Taree Mackenzie, pointing, politely reminding me of the basic properties of colour perception, "it's just reflecting green light into your eyes and absorbing the other colours."
White light, she goes on, is made up of all the colours we can perceive. Objects simply absorb or reflect different amounts of light, which to our eyes appear as different colours. And so by combining the primary colours of light – red, green and blue – you create a white surface.
For the last few years, Mackenzie has been playing with this premise; using colour mixing and simple mechanical devices to reveal qualities of everyday visual perception that we sometimes take for granted. Her latest artwork, currently in the group exhibition NEW14 at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (until 18 May), is the glorious culmination of several years of experimentation.
White Light Shadows: Circles, Squares, Triangles consists of three geometric paper cut-outs spinning on a "Lazy Susan" under three lights. A live feed of the set-up is projected large on the gallery walls, revealing colourful patterns that shift hypnotically as the shadows cast by the light shining on the paper produce primary and secondary colours.
It’s a little tricky to describe, but it looks vaguely like a trippy, analogue animation loop, except that it isn’t animated all. The projections are an optical phenomenon playing out in real time. Mackenzie has created the right conditions for generating the visual effect, but what happens next is simply the result of physics and human perception.
As with many of her other works, White Light Shadows has the feel of an elaborate, d-i-y experiment. "At school I liked maths, science, and then art," says Mackenzie, "Often my studio will look a lot like a lab. I do tests. I set up something and go this should do this, and then I test it out." In a way, the question of whether or not a work is good is irrelevant. "Either things work or they don’t work. And if they don’t work I don’t show them."
This slightly hands-off process – "testing" and "demonstrating" rather than "creating" – is a large part of the appeal of Mackenzie’s art. For the work in NEW14, Mackenzie originally toyed with simply showing the end result, the colourful projections created by the lights and paper cut-outs, but it didn’t work nearly as well. It seems back-to-front, but you need to know how they got made to be amazed by them (a bit like what Neil Harris calls an "operational aesthetic"; the pleasure of discovering how the cogs turn).
"We use white light all the time in different devices but you don’t think about how it works," says Mackenzie. "I don’t know why that they teach children that red, yellow and blue are the primary colours. They’re not."
And that right there is the crux of Taree Mackenzie’s recent work. Curiosity about colour, light, visual perception, and the delight that comes from discovering maybe we don’t know as much about what we see around us as we think we do.
"What I like about white light is that it seems really counter-intuitive – that white contains all the colours – because we think of it as being colourless. So when you put your hand through it and you get this rainbow shadow, it still feels a bit magical."
>> Maura Edmond
>> Posted 19 March 2014
NEW14 is curated by Kyla McFarlane. The featured artists are Kenny Pittock, Danae Valenza, Taree Mackenzie, Charles Dennington, Daniel McKewen, Andrew Hazewinkel, and Jelena Telecki.