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Surface and space

Light, as much as material, plays a significant part in artist Cyndy McKenzie’s installation Liminal Space.

She enjoys exploring light, reflection and space. Synthetic materials and textures found in nature contribute to the process.

“The way I work in materials and process leads my practice,” says the former Gisborne woman.

“It’s about engaging with them and having interactions together and what they want to do.”

While studying for her Masters in Visual Art degree a few years ago, McKenzie began working with transparent materials.

“Process and material and finding out what they offer drives my work.”

She describes Liminal Space as controlled lighting in a dark space with projected imagery. While a similar technique is used for the projection of hologrammatic, 3D imagery, McKenzie is more interested in the layer of reflections and refractions in her work.

“When I first started to explore the notion of it I called it hologrammatic,” she says.

“I’d work with plastics and transparent materials that would throw these wonderful reflections that worked like holograms. You couldn’t discern between the surface and the space.”

Both transparent and plastic, clear, wide sellotape has proved a fulfilling medium for McKenzie’s installations.

“I started to explore the idea of surface and space as material,” she says.

“Sellotape has transparency, and reflectivity, as well as opacity on one side. Mirror or opacity — it depends on which way round the tape is. You play with illusion and surface and space and it takes you into deeper spaces. It takes you into the phenomenology of perception.”

Liminal Space aims to challenge the viewer’s perception of space, to ask what does looking feel like, says McKenzie.

“This is where Merleau-Ponty come into it.”

A 20th century French phenomenological philosopher, Merleau-Ponty posited perception plays a foundational role in people’s experience of the world. He believed perception to be an ongoing dialogue between a person’s lived body and the world which it perceives.

“I cannot conceive myself as nothing but a bit of the world, a mere object of biological, psychological or sociological investigation,” he says in his 1945 book, Phenomenology of Perception.

With surface and space as materials, phenomenology has been the driver of McKenzie’s art.

“That takes me into the ‘felt’ experience,” says McKenzie.

“The work can be tactile, sensory.

“What does looking feel like? It’s about touching with your eyes but engaging the haptic and somatosensory systems.”

Haptics is the science of transmitting and understanding information through touch or sensation while the somatosensory system relates to a sensation which can occur anywhere in the body.

“Once I started thinking about perception it raised the question, can space be read as surface or can surface be space?”

McKenzie lets the material and the space she is working in help guide her in creating the work.

“I never start with ‘I’m now going to do this’. I’m not designing for a production. I’m intuitively exploring and critically evaluating.”

McKenzie admires how New Zealand contemporary kinetic artist Len Lye drew directly on to film that would be used to project imagery.”

“It’s a sort of an analogue way of doing things. My technology is very analogue but Lye isn’t as much an influence as a link.”

Along with reflection, refraction and incidental colour, ephemerality is a major feature of the work and, in terms of ephemerality, McKenzie is inspired by nature.

“In the natural world I’m in awe of little moments that captivate me.”

Immediately prior to taking on her post-graduate study, McKenzie developed a body of work called Printing Shadows With Sunshine.

She used slightly opaque and transparent materials, such as lace, to cast textured shadows on a surface.

No photographic paper, such as that used in, for example, pinhole photography, came into play. Given the conceptual nature of the project, though, McKenzie kept a photographic record of the ephemeral creations.

“To get an image you had to wait for the sun to come out and be at the right position to ‘print’ these shadows. When the sun’s gone the work’s gone.

“Then my work started to become about light and textile. I collect from op shops and the natural world.

“The space it is put in is liminal, transitory because — at Tairawhiti Museum for instance — you have to pass through it to get to other galleries.”

The former Gisborne woman’s trajectory into installation art began almost 40 years ago when she gained a craft design certificate. McKenzie then gained a diploma in fine arts and textiles from the Dunedin School of Art at Otago Polytechnic. She later graduated with a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree then took on a post-graduate certificate course followed by a Masters in Visual Art. McKenzie now teaches textiles in the polytechnic’s School of Design Fashion.

She enjoys the cross-disciplinary nature of her work, she says.

“If someone said years ago, ‘Cyndy, you’ll be working with moving images and installation art’, I would have said ‘no, I won’t; I don’t have the technical ability’.”

But she has evolved a voice, a style and method so unhampered by art historical influences that when she dips into academia’s artspeak the phrasing sounds borrowed. For an artist who explores big ideas, McKenzie’s idiosyncratic lexicon — “felt”, “printing shadows”, “analogue”, “the phenomenology of perception”, like her arc from craft to installation, is evidently unhampered by angst, academic language, or portentousness.

Early modernist and the grandfather of conceptual art Marcel Duchamp’s self-definition as an artist was “I am a breather” (je suis un respirateur).

“Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral, it’s a sort of constant euphoria,” he once wrote.

Uninfluenced by Duchamp, McKenzie’s philosophy is same-but-different.

“I work to keep horses and do my artwork, basically.”

LIMINAL SPACE: Artist Cyndy McKenzie enjoys exploring light, reflection and space as seen in this image of one of her installations. The former Gisborne woman’s installation, Liminal Space, opens at Tairawhiti Museum tomorrow. Picture supplied