Behind the Mind-Blowing Installation Taking over Sydney’s MCA

Images courtesy Destination NSW and © the artists

There’s two things to know about the light shows that happened at Vivid Sydney every winter.

Firstly, it’s a smorgasbord of light installations that manifest themselves on buildings, walls, tunnels, trees, parks and monuments all across the Sydney, drawing millions of visitors each year. Secondly, when it comes to available surfaces for said light, there’s two in particular that artists worldwide would no doubt be drooling to get the call up for: the Sydney Opera House, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

This year, the huge task of lighting the MCA’s facade has fallen on the capable shoulders of Sydney-based artist Jonny Niesche, whose experimentations with light, surface and perception will become mesmerising colour gradients moving and shifting across the building’s sandstone exterior. Providing the sonic element to the installation will be Jonny’s number one choice from the outset, UK electronic producer Mark Pritchard.

Jonny Niesche

“When Blair French from the MCA asked me if I’d be interested in doing it, I thought that I’d really love to collaborate with someone as the sound component is so important to me, and honestly I could hear Mark’s album in my head when I was thinking about it,” Jonny tells me. “Especially good that he said yes, because I didn’t even know him,” he adds laughing.

The album Jonny’s speaking of, is Mark’s 2016 album Under The Sun, a sonic voyage through synth-driven landscapes featuring the moodily elegant vocals from the likes of Thom Yorke and Linda Perhacs. Mark, who’s now based in Sydney, says that he himself may have even underestimated how well his album worked alongside Jonny’s visuals.

“It became apparent very quickly that the sounds I had used in Under The Sun were totally right, and once I started to deviate away from that too far towards synthetic sounds, it wasn’t working at all,” Mark explains. “Actually three of the pieces [from the album] I’d put in just as a guide for the animators, but they were totally perfect. Too perfect. And I was like, ‘What’s the point in me writing this again?’”

The end product from the pair is large-scale installation and accompanying soundtrack Virtual Vibration, projected in a 10-minute loop animation created by Spinifex. “It’ll be nice to see it on the building rather than looking at it on the laptops,” Jonny says. “There’s one part where the buildings turn around, I was worried it was going to make people a little bit giddy, I was worried someone might actually fall over.”

Coming from a sculpture, painting and digital printing background, trying to visualise his works projected as movement on a huge scale was just one of the challenges that Jonny was faced with. He mentions that colour, in particular, was a huge technical hurdle for him, given his works use vivid colour palettes inspired by everything from Debbie Harry’s makeup and clothes from 1978, to David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album cover.

“The animation is so driven by colour, and the building itself is made from an orangey, dirt-coloured sandstone that’s going to soak up a lot of different colours,” Jonny says. “I kept saying to the animator, ‘It’s too saturated! There’s too much colour, it’s not right!’ And he kept explaining that all the sandstone’s going to take out all the colour which will give it a different effect.”

Though both Jonny and Mark admit that understanding animation’s interaction with their work was the most challenging aspect, it’s obvious their partnership has been smooth sailing, and full of mutual respect for one another’s area of expertise. Jonny, of Mark’s musical process, thanks to years spent in New York playing in bands before calling it quits and giving his art career a shot. Mark, of Jonny’s artistic process, from having worked closely with renowned Australian artist Jonathan Zawada—who, coincidently, will be projecting his work just across the water on the sails of the Opera House—to create mesmerising album artwork and multi-dimensional exhibitions for Under The Sun.

Vivid Sydney officially opens tomorrow night, May the 25th, and with the festival expected to draw an audience of over two million, surely Jonny and Mark have been given a few midnight trial runs to work out the kinks? “There’s not really lots you can do in terms of changes, you can do some light edits or slight colour changes,” says Jonny calmly.

And when it comes to soundcheck, Mark says that while they won’t be able to “crank the sound” beforehand given it’ll be tested during the middle of the night—and if there’s one thing Sydney residents are adept at, it’s noise complaints—but he’s got his own foolproof plan for the duration of Vivid. “It’ll get turned down and every now and then I’ll probably just head down and make them turn it up a bit,” he laughs.

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