Nike Savvas Atomic: Full of love, full of wonder
trust your head around
it’s all around you
all is full of love
all around you—Björk
Atomic: Full of love, full of wonder consists of thousands of coloured balls suspended and shimmering in a three-dimensional field. Like the best installations, Nike Savvas’ extraordinary kinetic sculpture occupies the entire gallery space and focuses attention on the embodied sensations of the viewer – it is ‘theatrical’ in precisely the way that Michael Fried critiqued minimal art. And yet it has a formal power of absorption. The whole effect is like a giant abstract painting in mild motion, or atmospheric visual music.
The balls are fishing floats the artist gathered in the US, and they have been spray-painted in various shades of blue, pink, purple, red, orange and green. They are then laboriously threaded in hundreds of rows onto nylon fishing wire. Several strategically positioned industrial fans keep the balls in a state of gentle agitation.
But we forget all this, because Atomic immerses our senses. We might initially stand back, attempting to take control over the scene, but our desire to be engulfed draws us closer. Romantic concepts like the sublime fail to do justice to the visual overload, even if we stand in awe in the face of apparent infinity. The spatialised colour field incites and exhausts our vocabulary of wonderment.
I like to think that Nicolai Fuglsig was inspired by one of Savvas’ installation when he came up with the visual concept for the recent Sony Bravia TV advertisement – in which 250,000 multi-coloured balls are sent bouncing down a street in San Francisco. Like Savvas’ installation, the wonderfully childish marketing concept is hard not to love for its pure celebration of colour.
Advertising has appropriated the space of the marvellous that used to belong to art. But where advertising uses sentiment to manipulate desire, art remains radically indeterminate. Atomic is proof of this: in the absence of anything but the experience to sell, we are required to engage more fully and ultimately to consider the nature of looking. As Ben Curnow has written, Savvas work generates “an aesthetic space of open association and reverie, shimmering between concrete sensory engagement and the alternately ‘naturalised’ states of abstraction and representation.”
Atomic collapses the boundaries between painting and sculpture. Savvas studied painting at art school and formal questions around the medium continue to fascinate her. Atomic recalls various histories of abstraction, from pointillism to Op-Art and beyond. The artist described an earlier work, Simple Division (1994–96) as a parody of the pointillist painter Georges Seurat – or more specifically, of his utopian colour theories, which attempted to quantify the optical effects of colour. Andrew Frost described that work, which also featured painted polystyrene balls hung on nylon fishing lines, as “an exploded, three dimensional painting transforming the space of the room into a large-scale optical illusion, a resonating field of colour”. But while Savvas points to the highly subjective, even giddy nature of vision, Atomic nevertheless aspires to a certain universal dimension. Its utopian sounding title, for instance, refers to the basic particles of matter that make up the world, as well as love and wonder.
The artist calls it ‘gallactical’, and there is something of the school room planetary or molecular arrangement about the work. But Atomic holds our attention without representing anything in particular. We might see a certain landscape dimension to this work, in the way that the colours stretch up from the red or red soil to the blue of blue sky. For the now London-based artist the work’s colour scheme is the product of her nostalgic longing for the Australian bush, longing heightened by grey England skies. Positioning herself as Dorothy from Kansas, Savvas says “the senses and sensations of Oz never leave me. I’ve been existing in a swirling halfway world between reality, simulation and art.” But at the same time as celebrating the potential of memory and the imagination, one might also infer a more sinister virtual dimension: the work’s elemental weightlessness implies that the sublimity of nature has been overwhelmed by the infinity of data.
Atomic is an open work, and its openness to a multitude of experiences is one of its strengths. Savvas has long endeavoured to make her art accessible, through the use of humour or popular culture or by making her work visually excessive. In the process, her work refocuses modernism within the realm of everyday experience (here the influence of her research at Goldsmiths College in London during the height of ‘Cool Britannia’ in the 1990s is apparent). The artist has even installed a related installation in the window foyer of Selfridges department store in London. And in 2000 Savvas was commissioned to produce a public sculpture at a shopping centre in Canberra, composed of a giant curtain of coloured metallic strips hanging from the ceiling which she called Scintillations.
As Juliana Engberg wrote of Atomic, “Sometimes art should just be exuberant, and lush, and wonderfully spectacular...” However, in the permanent present of today’s visual culture, it might seem odd to flatter our consumerist impulses with such formal play. But it could also be argued that Savvas’ work heightens art’s utopian impulse. Along these lines, the gentle movement of the balls suggests that no reality – not even the most complex system – is fixed. Spaces of love and wonder are indeed all around. To be moved, you just have to be open to the experience.
Daniel Palmer is a Lecturer in the Theory of Art & Design at Monash University.
<small>1. The Sony advertisement was filmed in July 2005, a few months after the original version of Savvas’ installation was show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne. However, Atomic is an extension of earlier works, and it is quite plausible that the young Danish director, a former photojournalist, had indeed encountered one of Savvas’ installations. See the website dedicated to the advertisement: www.bravia-advert.com
2. Ben Curnow, ‘Nike Savvas’ in Ross Wolf (ed.), Kindle and Swag: The Samstag Effect, exh. cat. (Adelaide: University of South Australia, 2004), 32.
3. Andrew Frost, ‘Real Abstract’, Monument, 31 August/September 1999, 99.
4. An earlier work Anthem (The Carney) (2003) featured programmed club lights and a mirror ball, transcribing the musical composition by Nick Cave into a light show and engulfing the viewer in visual information. The work was recently included in the exhibition Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900 at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
5. The work was called Divisional Sampling (Red), 1999.
6. Press statement for the original exhibition of Atomic: Full of love, full of wonder in the great hall at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, May 2005.