Setting the night on fire

Light artist Peter Roche generates his own energy in his recent performances. Dan Chappell visits the artist and eyes up his latest work.
Peter Roche, Saddleblaze

Having a $3 million public sculpture you’ve spent ten years sweating over axed by an Auckland council bureaucrat at the eleventh hour would be a severe setback for most, but artist Peter Roche is philosophical about it. “It is a very strong concept, and I’m having discussions about it going elsewhere. I doubt it’ll go ahead in Auckland—I’m not prepared to hang around for another ten years.”

The sculpture in question is Twister, a 20-metre-high whirlwind comprised of three intersecting spiralling vortices of steel and neon tubing planned for the end of the Halsey Street wharf in downtown Auckland. Council funding had been approved, and the fundraising trust was awaiting resource consent approvals, when a report from the council’s then public art manager, Pontus Kyander, unceremoniously dumped the project in late 2009, citing concerns over fundraising and design quality. The decision dumbfounded Roche and the trust, as several major arts patrons were supportive of the project and had already pledged $1 million towards construction. They were awaiting final resource consents before the final funding drive began, and the council’s commissioned consulting engineer had no concerns over the construction and design quality.

Though Roche has had to endure the political vicissitudes of trying to get a public artwork off the ground, he is also currently enjoying the freedom of creating a major outdoor work for a private client—and there’s not a petty bureaucrat or council committee in sight.

“Alan Gibbs invited me up to The Farm,” Roche explains, “and after giving me a tour of the property, took me down a bush road to Grief, the farm’s Western town. He said, ‘Peter, do something with this, please, something with light’. And that was it – no expectations, a totally open brief. Once I developed the concept, he agreed to it and the money was there to complete the work.”

The UK-based businessman Gibbs has created a farm park north of Auckland, with sculptures by local and international artists, including internationally significant works by Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt and Anish Kapoor.

Peter Roche, Twister
Peter Roche's Twister, computer generated image by IN3D

Roche initially looked at installing some of his trademark neon works on the buildings, but after several site visits realised that a grander vision was called for, and Saddleblaze came into being. And this is no wimpish, tentative artwork tucked away in a corner but a full-throttle, retina-searing, lights-on-everybody-home piece of art. In his proposal he outlines the concept: “Saddleblaze is composed of multiple lengths of fiery red neon tubes shooting 20 metres high up the lengthy stems of 200 gum trees which border the path leading to Grief …

On entering the pathway down to the township, the neon flames are simultaneously ignited via sensors, to spread like wildfire, consuming the entire town and pathway in a seething, blazing, towering inferno … that inspires both fear and awe in the viewer.”

The initial installation went in three years ago but severe storms damaged some of the glass neon tubes, so Roche has just completed the second version, this time using LEDs embedded in flexible tubing. Roche explains the change to newer technology: “In the three years since the initial installation the LED technology has advanced to a point where the light source is on a par with glass neon. We’ve encased thousands of tiny LED bulbs in coloured silicon, giving a continuous line of light, and they’re far easier to strap on the trees. This time we’ve put them on 110 trees, creating a corridor each side of the pathway, encroaching on the township.”

Saddleblaze was completed in February 2011 and its impact at night is overwhelming. The moment you trigger the lights you’re transported—out of your skin, into a maelstrom of light, colour and sensory overload. The effect Roche has created is mesmerising. Columns of flame flash on and off, and as you move your head around, the coruscations blur, meld, then slowly fade from your vision. As the sky darkens and the outlines of the trees fade, the light show takes over, static, then staccato, then slow, pulsing to a silent rhythm. Though, as Gibbs commented the night we visited, “It’s even more amazing when you turn on the music.”

So who is Peter Roche? The name may be familiar but this 53-year-old artist (who graduated with a BFA from Elam in 1979) hasn’t been setting the local art world on fire recently. True, his blue neon work Coral (2000) adorns the Vero Centre in downtown Auckland, and his works are in most of the country’s top public and private collections, but in the past decade he’s kept a remarkably low profile.

Peter Roche in his studio
Peter Roche in his studio, Ambassador Theatre, Auckland. Photo: Alistair Keddie, Big Alba Photography

He began his career as a performance artist whose early events involved self-mutilation, and in one performance in 1979, 11 sheep’s kidneys were sewn onto his body. He then began creating large sculptural pieces, typically using sheet-metal, often burning or scarifying the surfaces with military insignia, computer graphics or arcane iconography. These earlier wall-mounted works soon took on lives of their own, as light and movement became Roche’s enduring hallmark. During the 1980s and 1990s he exhibited frequently, and was invited to the first Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 1993, and the inaugural Korean Biennale of Contemporary Art in Cheju in 1995. But apart from taking part in Christchurch’s SCAPE in 2004, and a few public and private commissions, including the aforementioned Coral, what has Roche been up to in the past decade?

When Art News visited him recently, the answer became clear. Fifteen years ago he bought the derelict Ambassador Cinema in Auckland’s Point Chevalier, and has since transformed it into a king-sized studio with an apartment upstairs and a Rock’n’Roll bar at street level, which he opens when the mood takes him. In the old art deco theatre his works are everywhere, filling the stage, walls and sloping floor, flashing, glowing and reflecting as you wander amongst them. Triggered by timers and motion sensors, the jagged banks and serried rows of neon tubes perform an eyeball-scarring cacophony of soundless music.

Peter Roche, Coral, 1999, 8 m diameter x 2 m height, steel, aluminium, and animated neon. Commissioned by the Kiwi Development Trust for Vero Centre, Auckland

Earlier painted works are mounted on satellite dishes and perspex discs, some self-portraits, some scrawled erotic sketches, others with psychedelic blobs and whorls, lit by ultraviolet backlights glowing softly in the half-light of the theatre. And theatre it is – Roche has set up a bank of four cameras, sending a live feed of the studio to his website——24 hours a day. From time to time Roche wanders through, as if in strobe motion, like some black-clad mad scientist lighting up his macabre world as he passes by. You can also watch a feed of Slipstreaming, the launch of the live website last September, including a performance where Roche, swinging a revving chainsaw, scythes through a circle of glowing fluorescent lights, whirling and hacking amid the flying glass, smoke, sparks and pyrotechnics.

Peter Roche, Electrum
Peter Roche, Electrum, The Farm, Kaukapakapa, 2008. Photo: Alistair Keddy, Big Alba photography

In an earlier pyrotechnic display Roche played off a latter-day Thor, firing a salvo of thunderbolts as he raged against a different machine – in this case the world’s largest Tesla Coil. In a collaborative session in 2008, Roche and Scottish photographer Alistair Keddie visited The Farm, where Alan Gibbs had recently installed Electrum, the Tesla Coil created by sculptor Eric Orr. Over a century ago inventor Nikola Tesla developed this energy source, an electrical current generator that could hypothetically shoot lightning into the atmosphere—energy which he postulated could be pulled down by customers around the world. In Orr’s creation the coil rests atop a four-storey structure, generating three million volts of electricity and 40-foot bolts of lightning.

Keddie recalls the visit: “We had brought along bundles of fluorescent lighting tubes to ‘do something with’ in the electrical field that surrounds Electrum when it’s firing. These would light up and glow when inside the field, demonstrating Tesla’s wireless transmission of power. However, we had failed to realise we would be in the danger zone, and open the possibility of a fatal lightning strike to anyone who wandered in carrying a tube. Various solutions were suggested … until Roche exclaimed, “Fuck it!” and in an impromptu performance started hurling the tubes towards Electrum, each glowing briefly as it curved into the electrical field before smashing with a pop and tinkle of glass against the sculpture. The resulting exposures create an unexpected and surprising sense of Roche ‘fighting’ with some sort of living creature.”

Roche also recalls the events of the night. “The energy being given off by the coil generates a physical response, with the cracking noise as well as the lightning flashes—it still gives me goose-bumps thinking about it.” (Further images can be viewed on

As with all his works, Roche wants the viewer to be more than a detached observer. “My work is generated by my physical response, so you should interact with the work in your own way. It’s not all easy work, not all dark and heavy—it’s often a lot of fun. I definitely don’t ever do things by halves.”

Header image: Peter Roche, Saddleblaze, 2011, LED neon. Installation at The Farm, Kaukapakapa. Photo: Stuart Page Brilliant Films 

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