Buried in sunlight
by Madeline Reece
Distilled in my mind from a young age was the notion that art and science sat on opposite sides of a great divide. Science, so I thought, being an objective pursuit, fixed on articulating the indisputable truth of how things work and what they are made of, and art being subjective in nature, based around the expression and experience of feelings and whim. However, I later learnt that harboured at the nexus of these two faculties are the artists who operate as scientists, and vice versa, such as Polish-born Australian artist, Jozef Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski (1922–1994).
Following his migration to Australia from Germany in 1949, illustration of the kaleidoscopic variations in Australian light became Ostoja’s sole pursuit. While working at the Leigh Creek coalmines in the early 1950s, Ostoja noted that, "in the morning just before the sunrise, everything would be covered with blue, and then you would get the green sky with pink clouds or pink sky with green clouds".(1) This encounter with the iridescent desert light recalled for Ostoja, as Stephen Jones writes, "the perceptual effects he had first experienced as a young man, when he found that if he pressed on his eyeballs he could generate the sparkling internal light effect known as phosphenes".(2)
Phosphene is the sensational experience of perceiving light without any light entering the eye.(3) This experience can be induced mechanically, by stimulating the eye with pressure, or by visual means, for example the moiré pattern (4) evident in Ostoja’s Op Art collage Sunscape 1 (c. 1980).
Onto a bed of psychedelic orange, the artist has carefully applied thin strips of viscous and reflective tape, at varying lengths, angles and disparities. Across the surface, the lines sweep and glide to reveal cosmic spheres and circles floating in an imagined void. As our eyes navigate the conflicting rhythms, the illusion of light and movement is established.
Regarded by critics as the country’s ‘first true multimedia artist’, Ostoja’s practice evolved from drawing and painting to encompass experimental photography, film, laser kinetics and moving image and sound performances.(5) He believed that light was the most powerful medium available to any artist.(6) Pursuing this belief, Ostoja employed the objective means of science for the purpose of his subjective desire: to articulate his unique perspective of the world in which we live, and to attempt to make visible the invisible.
"I am not seeking to smear art with science… but I am trying to free the imagination from the impediments of means"
— Josef Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski (7)
Jones S, 2009, ‘Light becomes the medium’, Meanjin, vol. 68, no. 1, Melbourne University Publishing Ltd, Victoria, pg. 29-31
A moiré pattern occurs when two similar, opaque and transparent patterns are overlaid each other but slightly offset, resulting in a ripple or flowering effect and produces the illusion of movement. It occurs because we are unable to bring the image into focus, which allows our brain to adjust.
Jones S, 2009, ‘Light becomes the medium’, Meanjin, vol. 68, no. 1, Melbourne University Publishing Ltd, Victoria, pg. 29