N I K E   S A V V A S

Nike Savvas Atomic: Full of love, full of wonder

Juliana Engberg

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

One way of viewing Nike Savvas’ immense project, which I have found revealing, is to watch the watchers. Over the past few days since we have installed and opened Atomic: Full of love, full of wonder, hundreds of people have come to gaze upon, through and beyond the thousands of coloured balls hovering in the space of ACCA’s great hall.

Invariably each visitor encounters the work in a number of progressive manoeuvres. First they pause at the entry-way to appreciate the totality and mass of the project. Then they move closer to test their optical limit. They then go right up to the edge of the first screen of balls and peer through into the constellation of endlessness. They repeat these operations a number of times over. Each time retreating further to visually gather the balls together in a comprehensive view, and then give themselves over to the magic of the seemingly infinite cosmos they find when they relinquish the need for orientation.
A couple seem grateful to hug each other as they encounter the unknown of this vast coloured universe. One points out something to another person. People talk. Individuals stand in rapt reverie. Everyone smiles. They have indeed encountered love and wonder: something full of vitality, which is happily inexplicable.

It is important to notice the ways in which a project such as Atomic: Full of love, full of wonder, is activated by the viewer because it offers us clues about the multiple visual, cultural and philosophical operations Savvas is creating in this shifting plane of imminence. 

In certain ways Savvas’ project is an encapsulation of artistic visual illusion from the beginnings of image making until now. In her work we find the trace of Byzantine mosaic, the flamboyance of baroque and rococo intricacies, reference to Seurat’s Pointilism, Kandinsky’s colour experiments, and Pollock’s cosmological filigrees. Early twentieth century abstraction, Abstract Expressionism, Op Art, Colour Field, Neo-Geo, indigenous Dot Painting, and digital pixilations all accumulate in this absorbing work.
But as well as formal legacies, Savvas’ project also encounters, proposes and informs some of the most important philosophical inquiries made through art production. Once again the viewer is the key to certain of these propositions. For instance the tendency of the spectator to move backwards and forwards in relation to the colossal cosmology in front of them, signals an intuitive attempt to assert their need for the Gestalt of the thing. In stepping back, viewers seek the single, totalising image that reaffirms their own egocentric position as central to, and controlling, the vista.

For a brief second they may apprehend the fleeting affirmation of a desert landscape, as if like a chimera, but in recognising this probability, they are compelled by the sheer immensity of the work to re-orient themselves to contemplate the vastness that such a landscape would represent. They return to the abstracted chaos once more, to ‘seek deliverance’ as Wilhelm Worringer would say, ‘from the fortuitousness of humanity as a whole, from the seeming arbitrariness of organic existence in general, in the contemplation of something necessary and irrefragable’, in order to once again lose themselves.
‘One might say’, wrote Gaston Bachelard, ‘that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. That ‘daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur.’ And this is most certainly an aspect of Savvas’ project that attracts viewers, to then hold them transfixed as they gaze, almost without specific focus, through the multitude of coloured balls that float in the immensity of space.

It is appealing to be so absorbed into the centre of this colourful chaos, which has both a random and yet evidently planned pattern. In this way Savvas’ installation confirms our sense and need for a universe that has logic within its own seemingly endless computation, which in turn confirms our own place within the order of things. As Bachelard suggests: ‘in the direction of daydreams of immensity, the product is consciousness of enlargement. We feel that we have been promoted to the dignity of the admiring being’.

This absorption and contemplation is perhaps one of the aspects of transcendence that manifests in Atomic: Full of love, full of wonder. Savvas’ operation of vastness functions in a similar way to a forest and its effect of limitlessness. ‘Forests, especially, with the mystery of their space prolonged indefinitely beyond the eyes, but transparent to action, are veritable psychological transcendents’.

In certain ways, though, Atomic: Full of love, full of wonder proposes a paradox. It can offer to the admiring being, the opportunity of getting lost and transcending, yet equally, to the unabsorbed it can offer mere spectacle and entertaining distraction. Like Seurat’s Le Grand Jatte, with its dotty celebration of the bourgeois weekend leisure seekers, we might consider that Savvas’ project, with its disco-song-like title, suggests the hedonistic pleasure seeking of the club scene and the fun park. Neither aspect, transcendent or transient, is, I expect, far off the mark.

Blown by fans, like little pop stars or molecular pollens, the 100,000 balls vibrate and gyrate in giddy making fashion, causing a kind of optical mixing to occur. Savvas’ project also alludes to the way in which the science of optics has constructed our vision, reaching new heights in Byzantium, Modernity and our current digitally organised world. But her project is to assert sensuality over the clever, yet brittle science. In fact her quest to emphasis aesthetics over mechanics might be construed as a form of nostalgia for the deep delights of Rothko, for the sight of the sublime landscape, or a passion for painting in general.

I imagine it is sometimes difficult for painting devotees to understand why artists seem now to pursue the concept and idea of painting through other media (video, sculpture, installation, for instance); indeed why painting seems to have been relegated to the too hard basket or the reject bin. And Atomic: Full of love, full of wonder is one such hybrid art child in pursuit of answers to this current dilemma of the painting medium. While it is not a painting in the traditional use of ‘paint’, it is nevertheless a painting in spirit. One that unpacks and repacks the multitude of procedures that a painting operates in order to produce its visual affect, and psychological impact.

Vista landscapes have horizons, and if one regards Savvas’ project from afar, indeed the desert rises to meet the sky through the intersection of the white haze of the horizon line. But inside the landscape, which is the opportunity of Atomic’s three dimensionality there is no horizon, just a continuing centre. In the realm of images, Savvas has produced a project that brings together two spirits, two planes of discovery and reaction. One empowers us and ‘makes our situation in the world smoother’, the other allows us to participate in reverie and be lost ‘in an elsewhere that is floating, fluid, in the wide open spaces.’ Hence our love and wonder in this atomic extravagance.

Juliana Engberg 2005