Approaches to time and space in the work of Michaela Gleave

'We are made of stardust': New work by Michaela Gleave
Boxcopy, Brisbane

Sydney-based artist Michaela Gleave’s previous works have seen her inflate balloons for hours on end, create artificial snow and cloud (on separate occasions), measure weather, work with a vast amount of glitter and, most recently, for her solo show at Boxcopy, employ LED (light-emitting diode) tape to drench her audience in light. In a practice that spans sculpture, performance and installation, Gleave utilises a wide variety of materials and techniques to subtly question her own and her audience’s perception of time and space. Her first foray in LED, We are made of stardust, revealed Gleave’s keenly developed sensibility to and adeptness at working with new materials.

Constructed in-situ, We are made of stardust took the form of a pared-back bill board. The work’s title was written out in low-profile LED lights across a rough pine support, slowly shifting between colours and washing over the entire room and its audience. Standing three metres high and crossing four metres of floor, the work was a tight fit in the small space, deliberately requiring audiences to engage with its physical presence by circumnavigating the frame to read its message: ‘WE ARE MADE OF STARDUST’. In an email to Camille Serisier, author of the exhibition’s catalogue essay, Gleave described her desire to create ‘something really primal and sensorial, thinking back to the moment when my dad told me I was made of star dust as a little kid and it being the most beautiful and amazing idea ever. I think it was the same conversation where I found out about the Universe constantly expanding into nothingness’.1 A straightforward aphorism for the 21st century, ‘We are made of stardust’ succinctly describes the human condition by revealing our material sameness, based on the theory that every element on earth was born in the heart of a star. This idea delves straight to the fundamental core of human existence, to the beginning of time and the formation of the universe.

Light and text-based works are sometimes met with critical trepidation. Ben Lewis’s searing sound bite, ‘I worry that neon is the cheese sandwich of contemporary art’, from his documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble (2008), frequently springs to mind. However, Gleave’s contemplative work is more obviously attuned to the seriously philosophical ideas of Joseph Kosuth, as outlined in his foundational writings, ‘Art After Philosophy’ (1969), as opposed to Lewis’s accused YBAs.2 And it is even closer to Bruce Nauman’s spiral neon, The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths (Window or wall sign) (1967), and to Jenny Holzer’s series of almost three hundred Truisms of the late 1970s, which were disseminated first as stickers, posters and t-shirts and later, in 1982, displayed across the giant electronic advertising signs in Times Square, New York. Like much of Holzer’s internal, gallery-based work, We are made of stardust employs light as a space-filling device, creating an atmospheric environment which balances the content behind the text with its presentation.

We are made of stardust relies heavily on its audience’s preconditioning to glitzy lights within both an art context and as part of the everyday advertise-and-consume vernacular. But aside from the work’s advertisement-like support and the text’s metaphysical mantra, the slow, rhythmic graduation of colour emanating from the LED lights elegantly reveals the phenomenological properties of artificial light. The Boxcopy space, and its audience, are completely subsumed by the work; suffused in LED brilliance. Standing in front of the work it became apparent that for some viewers the intensity was too much—the strong red transitions deemed particularly uncomfortable. The physical and psychological effect manifested differently for each viewer. Gleave programmed the LEDs to transition from colour to colour in quiet, languorous waves, which left her audience measuring the work’s meter and awaiting the next atmospheric change. On this the artist said, ‘I wanted the work to have an existence beyond the viewer in this regard (not to be audience responsive for example), perhaps as some kind of nod towards the relentless march of time and our position within in’.3 This ability to incite a personalised experience of meaning and internal reference for each viewer is one of the work’s most endearing and enduring elements.

A carefully balanced equation of form and content, in Gleave’s own words the all-pervasive glow thrown by the LED lights is ‘an expansion on the meaning of the text—the infinite and encompassing nature of this phrase’.4 Those who stood in front of We are made of stardust were simultaneously made aware of their place and origin in the universe and, through either their ability to enjoy or endure the work, the inherent relationship between consciousness and time.

Michaela Gleave, We are made of stardust, 2011. Installation view, Boxcopy, Brisbane. Courtesy the arist and Boxcopy.


1. Michaela Gleaver, in Camille Serisier, 'We Are Made of Stardust' (exhibition catalogue), Boxcopy, Brisbane, 2011.

2. Ben Lewis, The Great Contemporary Art Bubble (DVD), ZDF/Arte, 2009; Joseph Kosuth, 'Art After Philosophy: Parts 1-3' Studio International, October, November and December 1969.

3. Michaela Gleav in an email to the author December 2011.

4. Ibid.