Nikolaus Lang: Evolution

Exhibition review Nikolaus Lang Adelaide Convention Centre and Adelaide Railway Station SA April 1995

NIKOLAUS LANG: EVOLUTION

Adelaide Convention Centre and Adelaide Railway Station
April 1995

Reviewed by Rosemary Brooks


In 1988, after visiting Lang on site at the quarries near Maslins Beach where he was participating in the dialogue of human beings in relationship with the land through making astonishing sand pieces, I called his work Powerful Emotional Dangerous Nature Sculpture.1 Seven years later, against the backdrop of the Mabo judgements and the Native Title Act of 1993, his imagery which demands that Aboriginal spiritual links with the land be taken seriously seems less powerful, emotional and dangerous.

We are accustomed to the idea that ochre has symbolic significance. Bangarra Dance Theatre's Artistic Director, Stephen Page, wrote in the program of the recent work "Ochres":
"...the awareness of its spiritual significance has challenged our contemporary expression.

YELLOW I believe the landscape to be mother. Its flowing rivers she cleanses in, the yellow ochre she dresses in, the sun and the seasons she nourishes gathering, nesting and birthing along her travels.

BLACK An ash storm has blown over. The call and pain of the invitation can only be viewed from a distance ... Mens Business.
RED Custom, Law and Values placed on the relationships between women and men have been on a path of change since time began. In each of these relationships, the youth, the obsession, the poison, the pain, there is struggle.
WHITE At dawn MOTHER EARTH yawns, her call engulfs the white ochre spirits to spiritually bathe them in preparation for the day's journey."2

Lang's two current pieces were launched in April by Arts Minister Diana Laidlaw. The permanent wall piece in the Exhibition Hall, a 4.5m x 3m "Imaginary Figuration" triptych commissioned by the ASER Property Trust, is no longer confrontational, and one must screen off the environment to become absorbed in its miraculous warmth. Dedicated to the Kaurna People of the Adelaide Plains, it represents "an attempt to make earth colours visible and to let nature speak for itself."3

As a result of Lang's original vision, a joint Department for the Arts and SA Tourism Comission study of the Maslin Sand Quarry has proposed that the site be redeveloped following commercial use, so that future generations can appreciate this 50-million-years-old geological phenomena.

In contrast with the wall piece, the very format of the temporary floor piece in the Adelaide Railway Station was more mellow, carpet-like, domestic. Lang is exploring colour, and through it, nature's diversity and intensity. The passion is less on behalf of an oppressed people and more for universal visual morphemes. Lang calls his piece "3 Colour Fields". Its material is not pure ochre, he told me, but quartz sand, every grain coloured with a very fine film of ochre.

"So if you put a handful of sand in water in a glass and shake it, you
can wash the ochre off and get very clean white sand. The little mound in the middle was to show that it is material, it is three-dimensional. I found out that if a colour covers a three-dimensional object it gets much stronger than on a flat surface, because the light comes stronger from one side and it becomes volume.

"I was very happy to be able to install it there because I was confronted not with museum visitors, but with people going about their business, walking through the station, going to the trains. It was a special experience and it fitted my original idea very well because by doing it I pointed at Maslins. I believe that the deposit you have there is something unique and may be worthwhile to keep for future generations. This aspect was our biggest task."

Lang's eyes were opened to colour through ochre:

"We collected coloured sands coming from iron and manganese oxides. It's a big, big family of shades of colours, each related to the next. We collected 80 samples, but we could have gone on and on, we just stopped because we ran out of sacks. Any sample you take is slightly different from the previous one. The richness of nature's offerings is enormous - if you look at vegetation in a tree, there are so many greens. Our eyes are so overpowered by the number of variations of colour that we see, that we are really not very sensitive any more to this very fine harmony or disharmony of colours. I am not a painter myself, but by handling this coloured sand, I learned a lot about colour that was very interesting.

"Some colours have psychological qualities, for example I can say that a certain colour is aggressive, or cool, or cold, so it is something you can use to speak to people. I was aware that the soothing moment, the aesthetic moment of the colours would be quite astonishing. The next step was to use colour to build, in the sense that I build as a sculptor. It's not like a carpet, with patches very subjectively laid out. The possibilities the material is offering me are enormous, and to find the language to speak with or through this colour is so enormous a task that I am aware that I haven't touched it yet. I am just like a young art student who discovers what colour is."

Lang was particularly interested in people's response to his work. "People were so curious, they slipped underneath the little fence to touch it with their fingers to prove to themselves what it was. Some people saw us sieving the sand onto pieces of paper, and most of them thought it was coloured by me. But I believe that the colours in nature are much more brilliant than we can produce. One lady approached me quite angrily and asked if it was advertising for carpets. When I explained where the sand came from, she became absolutely positive towards us. But in the end it wouldn't matter if this colour came from nature or from a chemist, because what is important is how we take the message. In the beginning this lady closed her eyes and also the window through which she could gain some awareness; then in the moment she heard the sand came from nature, she opened up. We call our colours artificial, but there is nothing artificial, everything comes from nature and chemists just copy.

"My dialogue with it has just started. It is a fantastic field, colours... I found that women had much more openness to the colours than men. They acknowledged that a certain range of colour was exactly their taste, as if they were choosing clothes or lipstick."

Lang's way of creating is the discovery. He finds and presents humane offerings, whether the magic landscape in the sands or an offering to humanity about the perception of colour. He may see the diversity of colour in nature as a metaphor for the treasured diversity of human culture, reflecting the serious matter of the diversity of beliefs of indigenous peoples - too serious to be dealt with lightly. This may be his deep and lasting message.

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