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A Guide to Tripping the Light Fantastic

Holography has been around as an art form since the Sixties, yet it remains largely ignored in Britain, says John Windsor


At their most sublime, holograms - three-dimensional images formed by light - represent a model for a new description of reality: the poet's world in a grain of sand, the holographic unity-in-diversity first propounded in the early Eighties by Karl Pribram, a neuroscientist, and David Bohm, a theoretical physicist. At their most ridiculous, holograms are banal commercial novelties, eyecatchers on packaging such as Tony the Tiger on Kellogg's Frosties, or Ghostbusters on Five Alive fruit juice.

Somewhere in between, gripping infinity in the palm of his hand, is Jonathan Ross (no relation to the television presenter), Britain's leading hologram dealer/collector, whose splendid mansion in south London contains holograms ranging from packaging junk to a 3-D life-size head of the pop artist Richard Hamilton by Britain's foremost pioneer in holographic art, Margaret Benyon, priced at £1,800.

In one moving-image hologram - technically a holographic stereogram - a fully 3-D toddler runs towards her mother, who embraces her. Mother and child, both nude, are long dead - the embrace was photographed in sequence more than 130 years ago. The viewer moves from left to right in front of the 4in by 5in glass plate and the trapped moment of Victorian time unfolds once more. The child hesitates, the mother's smile broadens, the child runs towards her. The limited edition of 25, by the British holographer David Pizzanelli, sells for £250 each.

The mother-and-child sequence was originally captured by Edweard Muybridge, whose rapid-succession photographs of galloping horses proved to the art world of the 1870s that the traditional all-fours-spread pose in sporting pictures of the time was wrong.

In San Francisco in the Seventies the invention by Lloyd Cross of multiplex holograms - an early type of holographic stereogram that combined holography with cinematography - inspired a coterie of "holoflakes", who financed their holographic art by selling pornographic multiplexes.

Holography is all to do with coherence. Without coherence - literally, sticking together - the universe would fall apart. Laser light is coherent light. It consists of waves of uniform phase, amplitude and frequency. If, using a splitter and a mirror, a laser beam is split in two, and one beam is bounced off an object before reuniting with the other beam on a photographic plate, the result on the plate is an "interference pattern". Illuminated by laser, the interference pattern yields a 3-D image of the object.

The 3-D effect arises because the coherence underlying the interference pattern has given each part of it full information about the object (most notably its shape). Hence the fascination of poets, cosmologists and mystics.

Illumination by laser hindered commercial exploitation. Holograms viewable by ordinary white light were developed in the Sixties. A point-source such as a halogen bulb is recommended. Embossing, used for commercial knick-knacks, came soon after.

To create a multiplex (in its most rudimentary application), a 35mm movie is made of a revolving object. The moving image is then reconstructed in a holographic cylinder. The viewer does the moving, from side to side, around and around. Mr.Ross calls this jigging-about "the holographic dance". Therein lies the secret gratification of the hologram enthusiast. "The brilliance of the colour and the spectral quality give me a charge," he explains. "It can be quite ecstatic. Holographers get hooked on it."

Holographic stereography, the technique that brought Muybridge's mother-and-child photographs back to life, seems likely to take holography to the outside world. Patrick Boyd (b.1960), a British holographer, uses sequences of montaged photographs to produce 3-D moving views of the real world in works such as Jackson Makes It to Manhattan (1990), with 3-D moving images of the Staten Island ferry. An edition of 10 costs £1,000 each.

Mr.Ross says: "Besides its brilliant colour and kineticism, the hologram can record many images on the same plate, so it can tell stories. It can be quite moving because of the emotions expressed."

Pizzanelli's New Moon Through Glass records his romance with a German woman in about a dozen images. Her image is interspersed with others of the moon and a disintegrating television set. Elusive images, such as her undraped bottom, flash unpredictably during the holographic dance. The unique piece is priced at £1,500.

Pizzanelli and Boyd are typical of British names in holographic art who are winning acclaim abroad but are virtually unknown in Britain. Who has heard of the US's Shearwater Foundation Holography Award or the European Holography Prize? Last yearBoyd won both, the second award coinciding with an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Holography and New Visual Media in Pulheim, Germany.

There are museums of holography in New York, Paris, Berlin and Cologne. Holographic art galleries are flourishing in Germany, the US and Japan. In London, with the exception of the V&A, which has been buying holograpic art since 1986, museums have not been lit up by it. The last holography exhibitions at the Royal Academy were in 1977 and 1978.

Mr.Ross's gallery, The Hologram Place, in Camden, lasted only from 1978 to 1979 and Light Fantastic in Covent Garden did not survive the Eighties. Mr.Ross says: "I found that people loved looking at holograms but were reluctant to fork out for them".

He recalls the kitschy dripping-tap hologram popular at the time. "I can't decide whether companies have been condescending in thinking the public only wants holographic kitsch - or whether it really does."

The Royal College of Art, under its enthusiastic director, Jocelyn Stephens, has offered an MA in holography since 1985 and has the most up-to-date equipment in Europe, including image generating computers - the next technological leap forward.

Margaret Benyon, a PhD in holography and the first British artist to make her own holograms in 1968, is one of the names to watch in the Nineties. The most acclaimed British partnership is Susan Gamble (b.1957) and Michael Wenyon (b.1955). They are visiting professors in holographic art at the University of Tsukuba, Japan, who make use of the "speckle" in holograms, the optical equivalent of "white noise".

Our visual naïvety towards holograms could explain our reluctance to buy them. They have transcended art as craft, only to be derided as illusions or condemned as aridly conceptual. But Ms Benyon believes holographic art should use only those properties peculiar to the medium itself.

As technology races ahead, we shall find out whether the message can keep pace with the medium.

© John Windsor
The Independent 15.2.92
Reproduced with permission.

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See also  "Art Form Hiding its Light", also by John Windsor.

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