Shadow truths

Peter Johnson, July 2017

Steven Cybulka works intuitively, creating sculptures and architectural compositions that balance order and chaos, embracing each as part of a larger harmony. His most subtle interventions involve the slight tilting of a gallery wall such that it seems to loom over the viewer. In other artworks, the wall itself appears to blister, new geometrical shapes metastasising from a hidden realm into our own. The viewer’s body is enveloped in syncopated space; their eye is drawn across disjointed forms and planes, polygons that tumble forth from walls and floors, explosions frozen in time.

The relationship between space, body and emotion is central to the artist’s practice, whose works often evoke a complex of feelings, including joy, unease and wonder. By disrupting the reassuring right-angles of conventional architecture, Cybulka destabilises our embodied assumptions about the spaces in which we live and work. Experiencing these artworks can be equal parts disturbing and liberating, and yet the individual elements of each composition work in concert in a way that ‘feels right’ at a subconscious level.

Cybulka is interested in how such architecture and design operate metaphorically for our own psychological states. In particular, Cybulka is drawn to psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow. The shadow is the part of our personality that is instinctive and hidden from our conscious minds. Unlike the collective subconscious, each person’s shadow is unique, formed of our irrational fears and neuroses. If ignored, these unresolved emotional states lash out, seeking freedom in oft-destructive ways, and are liable to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in others.

For Cybulka, the barriers that we erect in our minds and the walls we build in the physical world operate in the same way – as a manifestation of our conscious desire for order, to partition the shadow from the conscious realm. However, there is real danger in repression, and Cybulka instead seeks to find a balance between order and chaos. This productive tension is evident throughout his practice in the negotiation between technical precision and affect, security and uncertainty. Cybulka’s manifestation of a shadow geometry in real space is not an invasion or cause for alarm - but an attempt to achieve balance by integrating the shadow into conscious life.

A significant strand of Cybulka’s practice engages directly with architecture and built form as medium. In Transition…109 (2015), Cybulka created a series of large site-specific interventions as a part of a new apartment complex in Adelaide. Each element, treated to look like concrete, mimics built forms we would expect to find in such surroundings, emerging from the established architecture. One work, taking the form of a bench bordering green space, is a dynamic complex of curves and planes, both enticing the viewer to sit and repelling easy use. Another, like a Euclidean tumour, consumes and distorts a sheer, black dividing wall.

Divisions (2016), Cybulka’s artwork for Primavera 2016 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, took the gallery wall itself as its subject. A series of intersecting and irregular walls installed in the gallery space formed a stilted spiral amongst which other artworks were installed. Visitors were at once enticed and frustrated in their attempts to navigate through Cybulka’s work and, indeed, the gallery itself, as the two became confused, or perhaps extensions of one another. The affective experience of the work was a perverse combination of dread and liberation – that the gallery had been somehow corrupted, or perhaps set free.

Cybulka’s object-based practice develops these themes on a more personal level, exploring the interplay between transparency, opacity, light and shadow. Searching Shadows (2015), a body of work developed for his Honours degree, consists of dozens of transparent shards which seem to have exploded across the gallery space. Some fragments tower over the viewer, while other smaller shapes are embedded in the walls or scattered across the floor. Each piece has been marked with black paint, giving the appearance that it has been scorched – the abstract remnants of a bomb blast. The ability to move in and around them, and their more intimate scale, produces an emotional relationship with the viewer. The shadows cast by these objects are diffuse and distorted, overlapping or disappearing where you would expect them to be – compounding the sense that something has been torn or rent. Is this the aftermath of some terrible tragedy? Or the broken cage of something having burst free?

Steven Cybulka’s artworks disrupt and distort the built forms of our day-to-day lives, revealing a shadow architecture, both born of and representing our subconscious minds. His work reminds us of the intimate connections between our embodied existence, our emotions, and the architecture which surrounds us - and of the complicated, sometimes unexpected balance that can be found between them.

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