Bill Culbert and Ralph Hotere: Fault

This permanent installation by Bill Culbert and Ralph Hotere illuminates Civic Square with two bands of searing white light, representing Wellington’s location on an earthquake fault line. Fault was installed in 1994, when City Gallery moved into its new building, the former Wellington Public Library.

City Gallery curators Aaron Lister and Abby Cunnane tell us more about Fault...

Fault asks difficult questions of the gallery building. It both ‘strikes out’ and highlights the sober monolithic architecture; it illuminates, and yet accentuates the blankness of the black-windowed façade. Since its installation in March 1994, this work has often been spoken about as visually completing or complementing the building, yet at the same time it alludes to what perhaps menaces that same building most significantly: Wellington’s location astride an earthquake fault line.

Made to be viewed from outside of the building, the work offers an interesting contrast with what goes on inside. Within what is effectively a great beige box, internally divided into a series of smaller white boxes, artworks engage with, render invisible, take to task their architectural surrounds. Fault, active 24 hours a day, embeds itself in the façade in such a way that it is not possible to see one without the other. Where, we might ask, does the artwork end and the architecture begin? In Bill Manhire’s text, published to accompany the work, he imagines gallery staff looking out from an upstairs window: They stare out at the contemporary weather. They note how the light changes, and they see their own building reflected in the building opposite. Perhaps the site of the work is the whole Square? Reflective, the work becomes a part of its own audience.

Fault was commissioned by Scollay Holdings Ltd through the Wellington City Council Arts Bonus scheme, which sought to incentivise local developers for commissioning artworks on or near their building sites. Artists Ralph Hotere and Bill Culbert both had a history of working with light and with darkness since the 1960s, often together. Did they sit late at night and stare out the window…Did one say dark and one say light? Manhire asks of their process. It’s a conversation that continues in these two unparallel lines, a dialogue played out across the face of a profoundly symmetrical, nearly seventy five year old building.

The sculpture uses about as much electricity as a two bar heater, and with few interruptions—most significantly, for nine months during the gallery’s closure for earthquake strengthening in 2009—has now been running some sixteen years. Art, hard at work, it has watched the Square night and day, and the city has looked back: Council workers, library-goers, regular gallery visitors and those who would never think of entering. As a site specific sculpture it ask us to consider what distinguishes this place, what is at stake in an institution like an art gallery; it draws a line to other points of light, borrows darkness, and gives it back in pieces, shined and polished.