Article featured in 'ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENTS', part of the 'CASH' section of The Observer.

In the Seventies holography was all the rage. John Windsor on a victim of fashion.

Art Form Hiding its Light

Holograms ‘ 3D photographs ‘ range from the ridiculous to the sublime. The ridiculous are embossed on cereal packets, credit cards, CD covers, even on the surfaces of chocolates and lollipops. The sublime are pictures made from light by artists who hail holography as a brave new medium.

It isn’t easy, being an art holographer. The public’s fascination with the iridescence, with the flat surface that flaunts a changing 3D image from different angles, has faded now that we all carry thumbnail-sized examples in our pockets. The industrial uses of holography, rather than the artistic, have defined it - as little more than a gimmick.

It took 130 years for photography ‘ another technological gimmick - to enter the mainstream of art collecting. As an alternative investment, the prospects for holography, developed as an art medium from raw technology by the "mother of British holography", Margaret Benyon, a mere 33 years ago, look somewhat more hopeful. For a start, its technology is developing much more rapidly. Holographic television is expected within the decade. When it arrives, the chances are that art holography will bask in its reflected light.

Unlike photography’s steady, snail’s-pace progression into the art market, display holography’s brief history has seen fits and starts of fashion. Back in 1978, there were queues round the block for the Royal Academy’s "Light Fantastic" exhibition. Holography was acclaimed as a latter-day form of Pop Art. Indeed, the mother of art holography has made a holographic portrait of the father of British Pop Art, Richard Hamilton.

Her services to art won her an MBE last year ‘ Prince Charles once asked her to make a holographic portrait of him ‘ and her major selling retrospective show is in London until 7 December. But it takes place at a time when holography has fallen from fashion. All four of the country’s university and art-school holography courses have been abolished, the RCA having auctioned off its holography equipment in 1996. The following year, there was an outcry when Agfa-Geveart discontinued its sole supply of silver-halide materials, essential for holography. Both London’s holography shops have closed. And the number of professional art holographers in Britain is now down to a dozen (worldwide, about 300). The V&A’s champion of holography, Chris Titterington, who built up the museum’s collection, quit his post as assistant curator of photographs in 1995. As Benyon puts it: "Holography is not yet part of the furniture of our lives".

Nevertheless, holography’s kinetic 3D, no matter how sniffily the art establishment may dismiss it, fulfils more completely than any other art medium what Leonardo proposed as the "main objective of painting ... to show a raised body projecting from a plane surface". It makes the Cubists&Mac226; attempts to achieve that effect look like clumsy experiments in optics. And it cocks a snook at the Abstract Expressionists, making their credo that art should be flat, devoid of perspective, seem like a cop-out.

In addition, for those more thoughtful, spiritually inclined, or simply bored with cereal packets, the primary property of laser light, used to make holograms, offers some engaging intimations about life, the universe, and everything. Laser light is coherent ‘ that is, its waves are of uniform phase, amplitude and frequency. As a result, every tiny part of a holographic image carries complete information about the image as a whole. If you break up an exposed holographic plate, each bit will show the whole image, a sort of test-bed demonstration of the holistic paradigm - "the universe in a grain sand", as Blake famously put it.

The secret of making holograms does not sound very enlightened. It is all to do with interference. A laser beam is split into two. One beam is aimed directly at a light sensitive plate. The other is bounced off an object before hitting the plate ‘ which records an interference pattern of light and dark, according to whether waves from the two beams interfere with one another in or out of phase. The result, after processing in the same way as photographic film, is a 3D version of the object. To reveal it requires illumination by laser light, or, more recently, white light such as halogen. There are plenty of tricks to learn, such as back-lighting and double exposure. Accuracy of a few billionths of a second is required. It is not something you can do with your bare hands.

Does that make you want to sprint to Earls Court to see the Benyon show? Remember that, with no high-street hologram dealers, an absence of holograms at auction and no established collectors’ market for them, you cannot be confident of selling-on the hologram that you buy. But prices for some artists are rising: three copies of Patrick Boyd’s portrait "Lucy in a Tin Hat", priced £400 in 1993, each sold for £1,650 at last month’s Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park. And Benyon’s "Tigirl" self-portrait with collaged tiger head, £600 ten years ago, is now priced £2,000.

Greeting you in the front room of the gallery is a unique self-portrait of Benyon’s made in 1985, (she is now aged 60), closely registered with a painting that that makes the skin appear as a mask. It is light unsupported by mass ‘ a bit like the Cheshire cat’s smile without the cat. The price is a self-effacing £1,560. The 17 exhibits are priced £199 to £15,600. Ten of them are in the £1,000-£4,000 range, little more than graduate-show prices ‘ a crude reflection of demand, rather than Benyon’s pioneering skills.

You could easily walk past the venue, Gallery 286. Number 286 is a lofty mansion, one of the few remaining private residences on the Earls Court Road (at the Old Brompton Road end). Entry is by invitation only, which grants the pleasure of being greeted by the owner-occupier, the amiable and avuncular Jonathan Ross, (no relation to the television presenter), who, for more than 20 years, has been Britain’s most assiduous promoter of holography. His own collection is Britain’s finest.

Ross became hooked on the medium in the late Seventies when he agreed to finance The Hologram Place, the first holography gallery in Europe (he is a beneficiary of the Fry’s chocolate fortune). The gallery folded and its stock became the basis for his collection. He now curates museum and gallery exhibitions of both fine-art and commercial holography, is a consultant for both, and holds regular exhibitions of his own, as well as representing artists. He says of his friends the holographers: "A more delightful group of obsessives you could not hope to meet".

A feminist strand runs through Benyon’s work, partly due to her own psyche and her insight that holography as a medium is integrative (feminine) rather than hierarchical (masculine) ‘ and partly due to her discovery during her early apprenticeship in the product development laboratories of Nottingham University that the building had no women’s lavatories.

A signature work of hers, "Cornucopia" (1994-96), priced £975, is a computer morphed animation that reflects both her attempt to place holography in the context of natural, organic things rather than intimidating products of technology, and her feminism. Not only does the mythical cornucopia represent a bridge between human constructs and natural objects, it is also intensely feminine, symbolising fertility and abundance.

Her "Pushing up the Daisies" (1996), a unique piece, price £5,200, is a soldier with flowers in his helmet, a mother’s message in time of war.

Margaret Benyon’s work and writings are at
www.holography.demon.co.uk.

© John Windsor

The Observer 25.11.01

Reproduced with permission.

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The article "A Guide to Tripping the Light Fantastic" by John Windsor, is also availalbe here.

   
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