Ben Cobham is best known for his imaginative lighting design across theatre, performance, galleries and architectural spaces. As a boy in Geelong, he dreamed up theatre productions in his back shed before touring at 16 with Geoff Cobham, his older brother. Ben, now co-director of award-winning studio bluebottle, has collaborated with choreographers Helen Herbertson and Lucy Guerin and worked with the likes of The Australian Ballet, Chunky Move, Legs on the Wall and Malthouse Theatre. In 2011, he conceived the Quartetthaus, an inventive listening chamber originally presented at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.
In May, the 52-seat space will host three Australian and three British quartets as part of a season presented in partnership with London’s Royal College of Music, the Australian String Quartet, the Marmen Quartet, Museum Victoria and the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM).
Here, Cobham speaks about the work of Gordon Matta-Clark. He says the New York artist’s 1974 work Splitting is both an exercise in radical simplicity – and a lesson in what a space can do and be.
Gordon Matta-Clark is best known for cleaving derelict houses and buildings. He made structural cuts that changed the way we see domestic and urban space. When did you first come across his work?
I have made a lot of work with Helen Herbertson, a choreographer who ran Danceworks for many years. Helen and I made a work together called Morphia. It [involved] a seating bank on rails that travelled towards a box that Helen was in. It travelled to Dublin in 2003 and we performed it in one of the train tunnels. Helen and I used to run workshops, take people on journeys around the city and get them to notice things that they wouldn’t have noticed.
One of the things we did was go to the art gallery and there was a Gordon Matta-Clark exhibition. We were both like, oh my god. The work was really beautiful but it was about the way he was repurposing something that others feel had no use. It felt like there were lots of synergies there for us, in terms of what we were trying to do. We were trying to shift ourselves and put ourselves in places that were kind of uncomfortable. It’s also just about his simplicity. The hardest thing to do is get rid of stuff.
At the same time, you think, wow – how special would it have been to be there. If you had watched him do it. That, to me, seems really theatrical. That’s what’s really great about theatre – not everybody gets to see it. You can talk about it or watch it on video or look at a picture, but it’s not the same.
In Splitting, Matta-Clark splits a two-storey New Jersey home, slated for demolition, down the middle. Light from the cut floods through, creating a dazzling sundial and exposing a series of sliced rooms. What do you admire about the way he draws on light as material?
When you are doing lighting, there is a certain contrivance to it. It is all constructed. Obviously, the sun is the king of all light sources. In Splitting, there’s the manipulation of the sun. There’s the randomness of being able to do that, given that there are all kinds of other factors that get in the way of what you are trying to do!
There was another show I did with Helen in 2008 called Sunstruck. We would work quite privately and then come together and see if the things sat together well or not. Sunstruck was going to be performed in an A-frame house that ran a track around the audience and had a big light. We directed that show live because we both felt that we were always in control of absolutely everything – and we thought, let’s not be in control.
There’s such a powerful element of chance in Matta-Clark’s work. The sense that he could never have planned it but just created the conditions for it to happen.
I think you just don’t know anything. In the old-fashioned sense of architecture, [Jørn] Utzon was making changes to the Opera House while he was building it. If you do really good stuff, it is not going to be a prosaic process. It is going to be up and down, and you are going to feel sick and other people are going to feel sick and sometimes you are going to feel really good. I think often the ability for chance, or for the random, is not as present as it could be.
Matta-Clark, who was part of a movement called Anarchitecture, was interested in gaps and voids revealed for the viewer, a beauty in spaces that were overlooked. How does this resonate with you?
If you apply it to theatre, it’s about how you get the most out of the least. I’ve always liked dance and I’ve always liked music generally. And I like it because I feel like I don’t necessarily have to be told what to think. You can be a happy person listening to a sad song. That opens a door for the viewer. You look at the Gordon Matta-Clark stuff, and I know for different people it will have different impacts. For me, the exciting thing is the thinking behind it.
The idea that you can break open a house is thrilling…
I was also really taken by Matta-Clark’s project [Reality Properties:] Fake Estates (1973), when he purchased all these worthless parcels of land. In 2006, I did this project with [my partner] Michelle called The Impossible House. It was this little cardboard house that we built on this tiny little block of land that we rented off the owners.
Because we couldn’t get insurance for it, we made everything like theatre. There was a Japanese bath with the shower poking out. We could lock it all up and it didn’t really matter. It was just cardboard with the tarpaulin stretched over it. The Impossible House project was meant to be about taking a house from a rented block of land in the inner city to the ’burbs, where there are McMansions, to the country. We only ever got the first thing done. It was really about the obsession with owning land and land value.
Sounds like some of these ideas are also at work in ANAM Quartetthaus, the listening space you built that re-creates the experience of being inside a string instrument. What are your hopes for it?
Nick Bailey [ANAM general manager] and I had a long history of doing unusual things with choirs and classical music in odd spaces. I had seen this building in Frankfurt that was all black and had no doors. That’s when we started talking about listening in the chamber – going to someone’s house and having a string quartet play. All the history of that fed into me and that developed Quartetthaus.
I have a bit of trepidation about it, because the last time I did it was a really long time ago. But always for me, it’s about the form and the light and the performance and the way you treat it. After a performance, you don’t come out and say, gee, the lighting was good. You just come out and say, that is the best show I’ve ever seen. I think it is a pretty exciting thing for the musicians, because they are less than a metre away from the audience. It is a new way to hear a string quartet. I hope because of that it is timeless.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "Ben Cobham".
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