James Tapscott

Artist Profile is delighted to share a catalogue essay by contributor Dr Ashley Crawford on James Tapscott's work in 'Light and Dark,' at MARS Gallery. The show, which also includes work from Chris Henschke, PhD, Jenna Lee, Jason Sims, and Meagan Streader, opens with the panel Public Art NOW on July 15.

Humans have devised ways of creating sculptural forms out of almost any known or available materials at hand. Stone, metal, timber, glass and plastics. Hair and bone, mud and bark have all been put to use. Even light and fire have been conquered via fireworks through to lasers over the millennia. But water has proven far trickier. As any half-way competent plumber will tell you; water finds its own ways and means. Even Marcel Duchamp’s wetly titled Fountain, 1917, came up dry. One may argue that the Fontana di Trevi , 1762, in Rome is a sculpture, and certainly water is the key to its charms, but it is the architecture and sculpture made of stone that harbour the pumping liquid at its heart, not the water itself. In more contemporary terms there is Immersion, a 1987 photograph by the American artist and photographer Andres Serrano which was rapidly dubbed Piss Christ by the media. It depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a small glass tank of the artist’s urine. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it was a strangely beautiful sculpture, but one also had to recognise that an average batch of human urine is in fact composed of ninety-five percent water. But inevitably it was the crucifix, not the liquid, that drew both ire and praise.

Faced with James Tapscott’s awesome Aura Vale Column 2, 2021, I had to ask what contemporary works of art could I juxtapose this portrait of water with? The answer was slim to none. Artists have often utilised water as subject, especially painters, but subject and medium? I recalled Australian artist Jennifer Turpin’s The Water Works III, 1991, which was installed in the vestibule of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the 1991 Australian Perspecta. Turpin began working with water in 1988 and it became the motivating force and feature of her sculptures and installations ever since. But, as with the Fontana di Trevi, viewers and critics contextualised it architecturally, installed as it was in the neoclassical sandstone antechamber of the AGNSW. 

James Tapscott’s Aura Vale Column 2 is strangely different. It doesn’t really require context, architectural or otherwise. It is both subject and medium, a portrait, if you like, of Earth’s most precious resource.

‘The work is an extension of my exploration of water as an artistic medium, and how the re-contextualising of common, elemental substances can completely transform the viewer’s perception and relationship with them,’ Tapscott says of this work. ‘For a few years I’ve been documenting water from natural sources as pure visual phenomena, by using customized vessels to present it as a simple gradient of colour. This work uses water from Aura Vale lake – once hailed as Melbourne’s ‘dirtiest’ water – and presents it as an experience of natural beauty and pure colour.’

Tapscott describes himself as a contemporary land artist who works primarily outdoors, in the public realm, though often in remote locations. ‘My works are site specific, often site-determined and fuse simple materials and aesthetics with localised natural phenomena and light. I will often create an installation and adapt it to a number of sites, creating subtly (sometimes profoundly) different experiences. I work in a reductive way – eliminating unnecessary visual material and aesthetic baggage to communicate a sense of the sublime as directly as possible. The experiences of my work are felt as much as they are observed and remind us how our modes of perception are merely a choice, be it conscious or unconscious.’

Tapscott utilises a wide variety of materials and methods to create his works, as the creative process changes between projects. The site determines the idea, the idea then determines the materials and methodology. ‘For the past few years my materials have become softer, none more-so than light, which I pair with water and wind to explore their relationship and how the experience of these things can be more than just visual.’

Water, light and wind – truly universal media. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Tapscott’s work has travelled widely with installations in Los Angeles, Florence, Salzburg, Slovakia, the Japan Alps, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing in China, Busan in Korea, Beipu and Hsinchu in Taiwan, York in the UK, Odense in Denmark and throughout Australia. And what do all of these locales have in common? Water, light and wind.

Light and Dark
14 July – 7 August 2021
MARS Gallery, Melbourne

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