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Off the Wall: a moving image before its time

Arts & Culture

Flickering into being for the first time in decades as part of a new hang at the Art Gallery of SA, Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski’s Polachromatic image is a ‘moving image’ made long before the term became commonplace.

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Made in 1966, this small but significant work is one of hundreds by the Polish-born artist held in the state’s collections and archives.

Fifty years after its creation, and despite its diminutive scale, the work beckons viewers with its radiating colours and hard-edge brilliance.

Neither a painting nor a sculpture, this work is literally a “moving image”, made decades before the term gained currency in the art world. A modest motor concealed behind fluorescent tubes at the back of the frame powers a disc that creates shifts in light and, hence, colour, rendering a sense of movement in the abstract landscape seen by viewers.

Stanislaus Ostoja‑Kotkowski, Australia, 1922-1994, Polachromatic image, 1966, Adelaide, cellulose, glass, 35.5 x 35.5 x 13.7cm.

Ostoja-Kotkowski was forced to leave his native Poland towards the end of World War II. He arrived in South Australia following an art-driven spell in Germany, where between 1946 and 1949 he studied painting and drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf.

Upon arrival in Melbourne he enrolled at the National Gallery School, where he studied under the tutelage of Alan Sumner and William Dargie between 1950 and 1952. No doubt the latter teachers contributed to a more conservative turn in Ostoja-Kotkowski’s studies compared with the period of heady technological experimentation he had experienced in Europe. However, this did little to quell the young artist’s taste for innovation.

In order to fund his art career, Ostoja-Kotkowski worked in the Leigh Creek coal mines between 1954 and 1955, and, like fellow acclaimed artist Ralph Balson, he also found employment as a house painter.

Scant attention has been paid to the influence of the Australian landscape in Ostoja-Kotkowski’s oeuvre, which has traditionally been seen as abstract. However, his personal papers, held in the state’s archives, suggest that time spent in Central Australia made a compelling contribution to his work:

“In the centre of Australia I was struck by the iridescence of the colour… Not only did the colour seem to be vibrating with intensity but at the same time it gave the impression of being something solid… The surroundings were drowned in an exciting light that had a life of its own.”

The impact of light and landscape was such that Ostoja-Kotkowski began to produce kinetic images and objects to account for his experience and to enable him to share it with others.

Self-portrait of Stanislaus Ostoja‑Kotkowski, 1972, Adelaide.

He was an artist who strove to make art accessible and meaningful for all, and whose large public projects included a mural for Adelaide airport and sets for the South Australian Ballet Theatre and the Elder Conservatorium of the University of Adelaide.

In 1984 he staged a laser kinetics concert in the streets of Ballarat for the Ballarat Festival, and in 1991 he was invited back to Poland to present a concert in tandem with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, which comprised a laser-light show accompanied by the music of national composers.

Above all else, light was Ostoja-Kotkowski’s abiding subject, medium and obsession. He described light as “the most impressive, most flexible and richest tool imaginable for an artist”.

An early champion of STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics – Ostoja-Kotkowski travelled the world on a Churchill Fellowship in 1967. Upon his return, and with the help of a research laboratory in Salisbury, he created a laser beam that synchronised sound and image.

This experiment in art and science became his first Sound and Image production at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1968. Fifty years on,d artists and scientists are still grappling with the question of how best to represent time, space and light.

Ostoja-Kotkowski’s Polachromatic image is included in a new hang of Australian art at the Art Gallery of South Australia.  

Lisa Slade is assistant director, Artistic Programs, at the Art Gallery of South Australia. This article is the latest in a regular series, Off the Wall, highlighting the Art Gallery of South Australia’s lesser-known treasures.

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