Australian artist James Tapscott’s latest project in China continues his impressive history of combining mist with light to create art.
Melbourne-based land and light artist James Tapscott teamed up with Art Front Gallery and United Art Projects when he devised his latest project in Shenzhen, China. Named “Diaphanous Bloom,” this abstracted tree stands nearly 30 feet high and is constructed in polished stainless steel, which is softened and buffeted by a canopy of illuminated mist.
Completed in early 2018, Tapscott uses the mist as a medium to delineate between man-made and natural elements. In a historical context, the city of Shenzhen has grown from a fishing village to a metropolis of 12+ million people in a few decades. Since almost all of the vegetation has been placed there ‘artificially,’ Diaphanous Bloom was commissioned for the new MixC development, which is similarly landscaped with greenery.
“I wanted to produce a work that shows the stark contrast between natural and unnatural. The tree itself is abstracted – and then it erupts in a mist, something that is purely natural, escaping to the wild,” Tapscott explains. Diaphanous Bloom will remain in place permanently in its location.
Working with mist is Tapscott’s analogy of human control over nature, with the mist acting as a “ghostly” reminder of the Earth’s disappearing green spaces. By placing his artwork at the end of a line of similarly sized trees, Tapscott connects his artistic interpretation with the pre-existing site.
The continual mist is created by pumping water through a high-pressure system into fine misting nozzles. “The variety of nozzles available is quite staggering, and something of a rabbit hole I ventured into for a project [I did] in Japan, as it was the first time I’d worked with mist,” he notes. “I had some help from an engineering company in Melbourne that specializes in that technology. They’ve worked on a few creative projects in the past and were happy for me to come in and play around with some different options. From there, we added the expertise of another company in Japan which helped design and refine the system to get the right effect. A very high level of control can be achieved with the right resources.”
While Tapscott wasn’t the sort of child that was always building something with his hands, he was an accomplished piano player and later studied painting and film-making while at Curtin University in Perth.
“It’s interesting the number of light artists who have a background in painting,” he remarks. “I find I can often tell the ones that do by their work there’s a really high sensitivity to the ‘qualities’ of light and other elements like color and texture. I’m constantly grateful for my background in painting to have honed these qualities in my approach to all materials I work with, and it’s something I’ve only quite recently come to understand.”
Tapscott has been incorporating LED lighting in his work. “The first few projects I did after my departure from painting used incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes – which meant I had to carry around heavy generators in places that were often inaccessible by vehicle – something I definitely don’t miss,” he quips. “Now that LEDs are powerful enough, I’ve really enjoyed using them for their portability, color control (with the higher-quality products) and the ability to use them discretely within the space or the structure, so that the light itself takes center stage. [Overall] I try to avoid complicated technology, as it can be a real barrier between people and their experience of the space. Since I try to work with elemental materials (sand, salt, water, mist, light) I keep my lighting equipment simple, too.”
This award-winning artist is perhaps best known internationally for a 2017 installation at the Japan Alps Festival orchestrated by Fram Kitagawa. In the forest, Tapscott’s “Arc Zero Nimbus” established a magical presence in the trees.
“I don’t like to impose my will on a place,” Tapscott reveals. “Beginning a project with a soft set of parameters allows for real magic to happen. I was delighted to be part of the Japan Alps festival and fortunate to receive their wonderful support.”
Arc Zero is a nearly nine-foot, walk-through ring that is set over a wooden bridge in a forest. Illuminated by two layers of soft LEDs, the ring is set with nozzles that mist local river water like a halo, creating a magical play between light and liquid, and turning the negative space of the ring into a diaphanous crystalline O.
Blending with the forest surroundings during the day, the mist works with the ambient conditions to produce twilight-like rays and rainbows around the viewer, while in darker hours the structure glows as if with a spiritual energy. A discrete hut nearby houses the many pumps and filters required to get the river water clean and pressurized into mist.
It was another Arc project (called Arc One) done in 2009 that especially stands out in Tapscott’s mind. “It was an experimental piece in a large salt lake a few hours from Melbourne – a site I’ve visited and worked at many times now, with vastly differing results,” he recalls. “My original intention for the work was so far removed from what the result was (which was something quite magical), it taught me a different way to approach a project — a much more flexible, and truly site-specific approach. I learned not to try to bend things to my will, and impose just the right amount of control to coax a work towards a result, while allowing the phenomena of the site to do its thing; it’s a 50/50 collaboration.”
It began as a length of rope light just over 100 yards long, embedded into the surface of the lake (dug by hand in 100-degree heat) in the shape of a very subtle arc. “The intention was that at the right time of day, it would effectively enhance the curvature of the earth from a specific point of view – something already heightened by the featureless terrain of the lake,” Tapscott explains. “Due to a faulty generator, it didn’t work. So I decided to leave it there for a while and see what would happen, hoping it would form a natural crust and become part of the landscape. After one month, I went back to the site and found the work had been moved around, little by little by the daily tide flow, to create a shape formed entirely by the site itself. It also effected the surrounding structure of the salt crust to alter the adjacent landscape. It really taught me to read a site in more detail and recognize the potential of very subtle natural phenomena to have an amazing effect when combined with my influence in the right way.”
The future looks bright for Tapscott, the founder and director of the Globelight Festival in Australia, who has exhibited in galleries and sculpture parks in Australia, Italy, Slovakia, Austria, and California.
“I have a few temporary projects on the horizon, one in Tasmania for the Dark MOFO festival, and one at the Amsterdam Light Festival which should be fun,” Tapscott comments. “The main thing I’m excited about at the moment is a residency with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Boulder, Colorado. It will give me the opportunity to collaborate with some of the best research facilities and universities studying environmental and atmospheric sciences in the country and a chance to take my work to another level.”