from: Apparition, Holographic Art in Australia
by Rebecca Coyle and Phillip Hayward, published by Power Publications, University of Sydney 1995


Page 1

Chapter 2,  pp 23 -36

MARGARET BENYON: THE FOUNDING OF HOLOGRAPHIC ART

 

MARGARET BENYON lived and worked in Australia from 1976 to 1981. By the time of her arrival, she was already a significant figure in the history of holographic art. Generally recognised as a pioneer of the form in the 1960s, she is also acknowledged as one of the first artists to make holograms without the direct assistance of holographic technicians. Her solo holographic art exhibition held in England in 1969 was, similarly, the first of its kind. As such, she holds a unique position in the history and development of holography as a creative medium, producing a body of laser transmission holographic artworks that laid the groundwork for subsequent explorations in the field. In addition to her own holographic work, her lectures and published papers have served to introduce a range of artists and critics to the medium over the last twenty-five years.

Benyon was born in 1940 and spent her childhood in Kenya. Her art education included studying for diplomas in painting at Birmingham College of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art in London. These early roots in art practice and conventions have been a major influence on her work. Yet while her holographic pieces often allude to and/or critique art conventions, her attitude to the art establishment has remained deeply ambivalent. For several years she has, through her writing, struggled to define how holographic works can be considered 'Art,' and to gain acceptance for her works in centres of the art establishment. Yet she has also in a sense 'proven' the value of holography as an expressive medium through her own works and their reception. Although Benyon visited Australia relatively early in her career as a holographic artist, she brought a sophisticated approach to bear on her production and had a considerable impact on the growth of Australian holographic art, inspiring Australian artists such as Paula Dawson to devote themselves to the medium.

I: Holographic Debut

After completing her post-graduate studies at the Slade in 1965, Benyon began working on projects which attempted to question and re-figure a number of contemporary assumptions about the nature of visual art. As early as 1963-64, for instance, she was using the interference pattern on which holography is based, 'in order to question the abstract expressionists' assumption that the criterion of excellence in a painting was that it should be treated as a flat surface'. For her, the purpose of using such a technique was that it offered 'a means of altering the picture plane spatially without reverting to Renaissance space, perspective and traditional illusionism.' (Benyon, 1973). Benyon's entry into holography in 1968 can be seen to be directly anticipated by her production of a number of large stereoscopic 'anaglyph' paintings (in which two images representing an object from two slightly different angles are painted in two complementary colours). When viewed through coloured spectacles, the images merge to produce a stereoscopic image. An example is her 1964 work Droplet.

Droplet 1964. Polymer on board. Approx 175 x 52cm. Photo: M.Benyon. Work no longer exists

The work shows three images: the first is a series of circles radiating from a central point; the second shows two central points some distance apart with radiating circles overlapping each other; the third image shows an interference pattern of overlapping circles and parallel and diverging lines. The painting - albeit unintentionally - foreshadows aspects of the holographic production process such as the use of interference phenomena, the split laser beam and the two central sources of light used to create interference and optical effects.

Benyon's first contact with holography was through a newspaper article, and this in turn led her to read scientific papers. The conceptual nature of some of her early work seems influenced by her wry observation that 'I must be one of the only artists to get hooked by the theory, rather than the experience' (cited in Benyon interview, 1980). This was as much a comment about the lack of holograms then available for public observation as it was about Benyon's reasons for exploring the medium of holography. Chris Titterington has argued that the nature of her introduction to the medium led Benyon to make her own holograms with 'a relative lack of concern for the hologram as an end in itself (Titterington, 1988). Benyon explains that her move into holography as a medium was prompted by a number of factors, particularly, the desire to introduce fresh elements into the art domain:

I was interested in the connection between holography and painting and sculpture - where you have a two-dimensional surface reconstructing three dimensions. There are many more general reasons why I changed to holography: in 1968 there seemed to be a need for cultural mediators: people to go out into various areas and bring back information into the art area, to prevent it becoming sterile and to take art out of the traditional context: the gallery, the art school, etc. (cited in Cantrill & Cantrill, 1979:58)

Benyon's optical paintings led to a three-year art fellowship, researching and making holograms at Nottingham University and working with scientists at the National Physical Laboratory in London. In 1969, the University art gallery hosted an exhibition of her holographic work, now acknowledged as the first solo art holography show, simply titled 'Margaret Benyon.' While this exhibition was seminal in the field, Benyon considers the exhibition to have been a 'failure':

I thought I could continue in holography the preoccupations as a painter which led me into it. I quickly discovered after the failure of my first show in 1969 that I could not do this and that I should have to go back to square one. (cited in Benyon interview, 1980)

The holograms were small in size, relative to standard scale paintings (measuring around 13cm x 18cm) and were displayed in a semi-darkened room. They were mounted on a turntable so that a number of holograms could be lit by one laser. People attending the show had not seen holograms before, so some guidance instructions were needed as to where to look, and how to fix the image, but these were not sufficient. A laser safety notice was required by University regulations to be fixed to the entrance, which had a deterrent effect, and the abstruse subject matter did not help. As a result, Benyon's work — engaging with ideas concerning phenomena such as light wave interference — left many viewers puzzled as to what the 'art' aspect of the show was.

One example of the work on display was Interference Pattern Box, a laser transmission hologram measuring 13cm x 18cm and made at the British Aircraft Corporation in 1969. The hologram shows a graphic kinetic interference pattern that mirrors an aspect of the holographic process not apparent in the end product, that is, the interference principle itself. The lack of viewer understanding of the work was reinforced by the limited critical coverage given to the show. Most reviews featured critiques of Benyon's stereoscopic paintings displayed in an accompanying room and only referred to the holograms in passing. For all that the show did not have the effect Benyon desired or expected, her early work was significant enough to be described in detail in Jonathan Benthall's 1972 study of art and technology work, Science and Technology in Art Today.

In response to reactions to her show, Benyon began to challenge accepted notions of fine art, and to experiment with pictorial elements such as light, space, colour and form in her holographic work. She explains that in the 1969 exhibition:

People were presented with esoteric subject matter in a totally unfamiliar medium and couldn't see the work at all. For me this meant going back to using familiar objects in a familiar art genre [such as still life], in an attempt to establish an understood basis for communication. I made still lifes which were a greeting, if you like, and it was possible to go on from them to less restricted pieces. .. (Cited in Cantrill & Cantrill, 1979)

Cubism provided one particular starting point in this area and she responded to Cubist attempts to render three-dimensional materiality without recourse to traditional painting techniques of perspectival or colouristic logic. Playing on the familiarity of the early Cubist work by Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon which Douglas Cooper has described as 'an invaluable lexicon for the early phase of Cubism' (Cooper, 1976:23) — she produced a hologram titled Picasso (1969) based on a model of the painting. Picasso is a 20cm x 25cm laser transmission hologram, produced at the National Physical Laboratory, that attempts to 'comment on the way holography automatically achieves the aim of Cubism to show three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface.' (Benyon, 1973:4). Her concern with aspects of spatial and tactile reality relevant to the representation of material objects on a two-dimensional surface, and her awareness of the viewer's desire to take hold of holographic objects, paralleled concerns of Cubists such as Georges Braque, who once said, 'It is not enough to make people see what one has painted ... one must also make them touch it.' (cited in Cooper:37).

Benyon's art historical trajectory was modified at an early stage by her concern to broaden the potential public for holographic images and work. During 1969-70, she produced a series of holographic still lives which attempted to familiarise viewers with less 'abstruse subject matter' (Benyon, 1973:4). However, this approach also had its problems, since the veracity of the representational images gave them a 'wonder effect' which arrested viewers' attention:

The reaction of most people on their first look at a hologram is one of astonishment and occasionally disbelief. They look through what appears to be an almost clear piece of glass, as if through a window, to see on the other side a three-dimensional image which looks like an actual scene but exists only in the form of light. They have a strong desire to reach round the glass and touch objects that they can see round and behind, and, if they attempt to do this, their fingers pass right through the image. (Benyon, 1973)

Benyon's identification of the 'wonder effect' as an impediment to deeper engagement with the medium developed into an attempt to demystify holography and holographic production. Although she continues to identify herself as 'a worker in the blurred area traditionally known as fine art' (Benyon, 1989), she has always been concerned to break down the barriers between fine art, especially painting, and the general public. Benyon has argued that holography's relative lack of prescription by complex cultural traditions and codes has meant that it is 'perceptually a more direct medium,' in that the viewer does not need special art education to 'experience a hologram' since 'the illusion is self-evident.' But, as she also emphasised: 'This is not to say that there are no difficulties in viewing the hologram — in our culture a sophisticated awareness of three-dimensions is undeveloped' (Benyon, 1973). This concern has been an abiding theme for Benyon and, in her later work, she overtly attempted to demystify holography and 'educate' the public by creating, for example, pieces on rocks that could be held in the hand and 'handed around' and work designed to function "as part of the furniture' hanging on the wall 'in a way you can live with' (Benyon interview, 1990).

Benyon's perception of holography as a powerful way of affecting human sensory response led her to challenge accepted notions of reality through work with pseudoscopic space, that is, turning objects 'inside out' — as in the strangely disorienting Clock, Mirror and Hypercube (1970), a 20cm x 25cm transmission hologram; through holograms of phenomena normally invisible to the eye, such as currents of hot air; through doubly exposed holograms in which objects appeared to float in space; and through triply exposed holograms in which three separate images can be seen as the holographic plate is turned from side to side. These works not only explored the characteristics of holographic technology but also attempted to introduce these into a holographic art context. They explored the unique properties of holography and demonstrated aspects of the medium that were impossible to create elsewhere. They were based on her belief that, 'Use of a medium should involve those properties of the medium peculiar to it' (cited in Titterington, 1988). Hot Air (1970), for example, a 20cm x 25cm laser transmission hologram produced at Loughborough University, was one of the first holograms in which the technique of backlighting a subject was used.

Hot Air also shows how an object that moves more than a fraction of a wavelength of light during the exposure will appear black in the image. The hologram shows the 'shadow' of a hand — a 'three-dimensional silhouette' — against a pale background, together with a jug and steaming cup of hot liquid. Benyon describes the work as a 'non-hologram' (Benyon, 1973) although the technique was later re-named a 'shadowgram' by American holographer Rick Silberman and became widely used by artists.

Benyon's holograms at this time directly explored the medium and its possibilities, yet they can be differentiated from other holograms produced during the 1970s and 1980s. Posy Jackson, former Director of the Museum of Holography in New York, argues that Benyon 'civilized a frontier for us, and in the process has made the primitive both human and refined' and 'has taught us how to accept and understand what can be done with holography to enrich our feelings' and she has done this by 'pushing her feelings through the technology, by making it respond to her needs'. (Jackson, 1980). Benyon's concerns during this period were the personal, the emotional and the everyday. Where other holograms of the time portrayed ornaments, chess pieces or scientific phenomena using bullets,2 Benyon's holograms often featured items familiar in everyday (often domestic) life — like food, milk bottles (for example, her 1970 Double Exposure Still Life) and cups of tea. In 1971, over a number of days, she made a series of exposures of a loaf of bread. As the bread grew more stale and moved less during the exposure, the holographic image became clearer and the broken loaf appeared to be 'fresher' than in the first plate where the bread is moist, soft and moving during the recording, thus turning it black in the image. The bread has a basic food value and the increasing clarity of the image almost represents the greater awareness of the food as hunger might grow over a period of days. While Bread Series demonstrates a scientific phenomenon and demonstrates how holography as a medium differs from photography, it also uses an item of universal human value to do this.

 
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