Black tops, translucent

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Plastic bottles, fluorescent tube and fittings
300 x 1220 x 145mm

Black tops, translucent is a late example of the light-based sculptures for which Bill Culbert is best known. The work is contemporary with and closely related to Front door out back, Culbert’s presentation at the 55th Biennale Arte in Venice. Like that project, it can be read as a commentary on environmental issues, such as pollution and rising levels of plastic waste. Ecology, however, is but one part of the story. As Lizzie Baikie has observed, ‘By using light to animate and transform everyday domestic objects like plastic bottles, tables and chairs, [Culbert] challenges the viewer to re-evaluate their perceptions of the purpose of these objects and the potential they hold.’[1]

Black tops, translucent is a strikingly elegant work, one in sympathy with the minimalist paintings of his long-time friend and collaborator Ralph Hotere. As with Hotere’s Black Painting (1970), one tends to suppose that the work is limited to two colours, black and white. However, if one looks more closely, it can be discerned that one of the bottle tops is dark green—a fact that is, paradoxically, obfuscated by the light. Such subtle disruptions of expectation are a hallmark of Culbert’s practice. The apparently simple gives way to complexity, echoing processes of contemplation and learning.

The link between Culbert’s practice and pedagogy has been noted by Julia Waite, curator of a major Culbert retrospective: ‘In 2012, not long before the opening of his exhibition at the 2013 Venice Biennale, Culbert reiterated a fundamental: ‘I feel the simplicity I want to put in there and in the work is an energy.’ Today, his work, fuelled by that radical imagination, conveys a language of possibility and serves as a reminder of what can happen when art sits at the centre of education.’[2]


[1] Lizzie Baikie, ‘Daylight flotsam Venice’, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2018,

[2] Julia Waite and Justin Clemens, Bill Culbert: Slow Wonder (Tāmaki Makaurau: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2021), 20.

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Exhibition History

Bill Culbert: Slow Wonder, curated by Julia Waite, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Tāmaki Makaurau, 3 July 2021 to 23 January 2022.


Julia Waite and Justin Clemens, Bill Culbert: Slow Wonder (Tāmaki Makaurau: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2021), 98–99.


Fletcher Trust Collection, purchased from Fox Jensen McCrory, Tāmaki Makaurau, February 2021

Collection of the artist and his estate