Holograms: High art or just a gimmick?
June 23, 2004
By Jonathan Duffy,
Before they became ubiquitous on credit cards and
packets of toothpaste, holograms were the buzz of the avant-garde art world. But
as a new holographic portrait of the Queen (right) is unveiled, 3D pictures are
sneered at by the art elite.
When Margaret Benyon installed her "stereo painting" Web in London's
cutting-edge Lisson Gallery in 1970, the whole world wanted to know.
"There were queues around the block," says Benyon, recalling the sudden wave of
interest in the exhibit, one of her first exploits in holographic art.
A few years later the queues were even longer, this time snaking around the
courtyard of the hallowed Royal Academy, as the public patiently waited to see
an exhibition of holographic art called Light Fantastic. (The show was so
successful it was resurrected shortly afterwards.)
Today, Benyon, "the mother of British holography", has all but given up on the
medium to which she devoted her entire career.
"I had more requests for exhibitions than I could meet, I went from one fellowship to another around the world"
Tired of being ignored by the artistic establishment she also lacks the cash to
finance what is a costly, and highly volatile, pursuit.
Holography - the science, or art (and therein lies a well trodden debate), of
making holograms - was born in the 1960s with the invention of lasers.
By splitting a laser beam over an object and recording the light pattern on
chemically sensitive film, it became possible to make a three-dimensional
representation on a flat surface.
It was one of the "white heat" technological breakthroughs of the decade, to
some minds akin to the founding of photography a century earlier.
Forty years on, holograms have indeed become part of the everyday. As
anti-forgery devices, they appear on credit cards, bank notes, concert tickets
and bottles of wine.
Advertisers have seized on holography's potential to make a strong statement.
Chris Levine, the man behind the holographic portrait of the Queen, made a
reputation from putting holograms on CDs and greetings cards.
Pop art successor
Yet for some years it looked like the art galleries of the future would line
their walls with holograms rather than oil paintings.
Initially acclaimed as a worthy successor to the Pop Art crown, holography began
to seed itself as a serious medium in art capitals around the world.
"There was an excitement and a buzz about it," recalls Benyon. "I had more
requests for exhibitions than I could meet, I went from one fellowship to
another around the world."
British universities leapt on the bandwagon. The Victoria and Albert Museum
built a small collection of holograms and the venerated Royal College of Arts
started an MA.
Britain's leading collector of holographic art, Jonathan Ross (no relation to
the TV presenter) was swept up in all the optimism.
"Everybody was talking about it. It was extraordinary because it achieved
something that, since the dawn of time, artists had struggled to do - show a 3D
image on a 2D surface."
Ross, a beneficiary of the Fry's chocolate fortune, has amassed a collection of
several hundred holographic prints, some of which are displayed at his private
gallery in London.
"I love the fact that it's pure light that's creating shapes and forms and you
can catch animation in holograms so you can tell a story."
BRIEF HISTORY OF HOLOGRAMS|
►1947: Denis Gabor invents theory of holography
►1960: Invention of laser helps hologram development
►1962: Leith and Upatnieks make first laser hologram
of toy train and bird
►1977: Royal Academy stages Light Fantastic show
►2003: Stephen Benton, inventor of credit card holograms, dies
But such views have noticeably fallen out of fashion with cultural arbiters. The
RCA shut its post-grad course in the mid 1990s after colleges dropped holography
modules from their degree courses. Chris Titterington, the V&A's champion of
holography, has moved on.
A further setback came when Agfa stopped making its sole supply of silver-halide
materials, essential for making holograms.
Ross apportions some blame to the hype and sci-fi associations which raised
people's expectations of what holograms might look like.
On the commercial side, holography continues to make great leaps. Extensive
research into holographic computer memory, which promises to store 50 times the
amount of information as a DVD on a disk the same size, looks like coming to
Holographic TV - projecting 3D images into thin air - sits on a distant horizon.
But while Ross detects "small ripples" of a cultural revival, his latest
purchase - a limited edition Elvis Presley hologram lamp (which blasts out the
King's version of Reddy Teddy) - is an indication of where things are at today
in holographic art.
"In the public mind," he concedes, "holograms have become kitsch and naff."