Seven Seas 1987 by the artist Bill Culbert consists of seven rows of used, unlabelled plastic bottles (mainly detergent bottles) with their caps on. The bottles are arranged in a pyramidal shape, and the bottom row is made up of eighteen bottles while the top row has six. Fluorescent light tubes pass through each bottle via holes cut in their sides, drawing a horizontal line of light through each row. The bottom two rows contain two fluorescent light tubes positioned end to end, while the upper five contain successively shorter single tubes. The wiring of the light tubes is exposed, trailing around and in front of the work down to a sequence of junction boxes positioned on the floor beneath it.
Seven Seas is one of two works made to a similar scale and format; the other, titled Cascade 1986 (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Auckland) is made up of four rows of bottles rather than seven. Both titles are indicative of the sense of movement and flow that the form of the works projects – the cumulative pooling of light from top to bottom and the flowing veins or rivulets suggested by the pull of gravity on the lights’ wiring. This sense of oceanic space is captured in other works that Culbert has made since the 1980s, such as the multiple colour combinations of Underwater 1986 (reproduced in Wedde 2009, pp.48, 143), the single fluorescent tube cutting through pink rimmed containers in Crayfish 1987 (private collection), or the later floor installation Pacific Flotsam 2007 (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Christchurch).
Seven Seas is characteristic of the bottle combinations made from found, used plastic bottles that Culbert has produced since 1982. They are prefigured by New Work 1978 (reproduced in Wedde 2009, pp.45, 140) in which five tin oil cans with one side removed are arranged laterally with a single fluorescent light tube passing through them. Although the bottle combinations are sometimes given titles that reflect the specific locations in which they were made, or punning titles that underscore either the arrangement of bottles and lights or the origin or type of container used, the common denominator for these works is the conjunction of a standard manufactured light in the form of the isolated fluorescent light tube and found, mostly plastic, containers. Since 1962 Culbert has lived part of each year in a hill village in the Vaucluse area of the south of France and has exploited unofficial rubbish dumps there to provide much of the material for his work.
In the early 1960s Culbert trained and exhibited as a painter. His earlier work shows a preoccupation with cubist and futurist forms, but paintings produced after the mid-1960s focus more on the play of light in space. These works share an affinity with the emerging nouvelle tendance movement, which encompassed op, kinetic and concrete art, and focused on the viewer’s encounter with the artwork. Culbert’s work of this period can also be read in the context of his friendship with Stuart Brisley, with whom he studied at the Royal College of Art in London, as well as Bridget Riley, whom he taught alongside Brisley at Hornsey School of Art in London in the late 1960s. Culbert’s work in the ‘visual research’ studio at Hornsey led him to explore the effect of the camera obscura and then to create light installations such as ‘Fields of Light’, first realised with Brisley for a collaborative exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, London in 1968.
Whereas earlier light works negotiate the relationship between natural and artificial light, later work, made in the latter half of the 1970s, use electric light in combination with other materials. These works include his so-called ‘implement works’ Shovel 1975 (reproduced in Institute of Contemporary Arts 1986, p.35), Triangular Hoe 1976 (reproduced in Institute of Contemporary Arts 1986, p.36) and Two Prong Fork 1976 (reproduced in Wedde 2009, pp.21, 75). In each of these sculptures fluorescent light tubes provide the handle for a farmyard tool. By the end of the decade Culbert’s work became more preoccupied with light as a material, rather than illuminated objects. In New Work and the subsequent bottle combinations light is contained and made to emanate, while the black and white photograph Small Glass Pouring Light 1979 (reproduced in Wedde 2009, pl.34, p.111) illustrates light pouring through a wine glass filled with red wine, which casts a shadow that evokes the image of an incandescent light bulb.
What characterises these later works, and especially bottle combinations such as Seven Seas, is the use of found and standardised materials to create an image-based sculpture. The image produced in Culbert’s work results from the conjunction of metaphor and everyday materials, imbuing the effect of the light with a particular function or purpose, for instance the oceanic tides in Seven Seas. The critic Stephen Bann has described this in terms of the ‘manifestation of light, which the modernists called “epiphany”’ (Stephen Bann, untitled text in Institute of Contemporary Arts 1986, p.112). Culbert’s bottle combinations and related works of this period reveal direct allegiances with contemporaries in the 1980s such as Ed Allington, Kate Blacker, Tony Cragg, David Mach and Bill Woodrow – object sculptors whose work the critic Nena Dimitrijevic identified as ‘bricolage sculpture’, and which the critic Anne Tronche, writing about Culbert in 1990, saw as making works that ‘link the rigour of abstraction with the simplicity of the vernacular’ (both quoted in Wedde 2009, p.165). It is indicative of Culbert’s newfound identity at this time that he was selected by Blacker for inclusion in the Sculpture Show in 1983 at the Hayward Gallery, London, positioning him among the practitioners of New British Sculpture.
Seven Seas was initially titled Cascade, but its title was changed by 1990 to avoid confusion with the slightly earlier work of 1986, which is also titled Cascade. The work was exhibited at Nature Artificielle, Espace Electra (Fondation Electricité de France), Paris in 1990 and in Bill Culbert: New Light Works at Galerie Andata/Ritorno, Geneva in 1991.
Bill Culbert: Selected Works 1968–1986, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1986.
Bill Culbert: Bottle Combinations, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Six Friedrich, Munich and Victoria Miro Gallery, London 1990, unpaginated (included under the title Cascade).
Ian Wedde, Bill Culbert: Making Light Work, Auckland 2009, p.146.