Vivid Sydney is underway for another year and as usual the centre-piece is the Sydney Opera House. Australian artist Jonathan Zawada talks to Limelight about this year’s artwork, his 3D light sculpture Mathemagical.

What are the technical and artistic challenges of creating a work for a site like the Sydney Opera House?

The Sydney Opera House is such a completely unique piece of geometry and creating work that can both utilise that geometry to its fullest while also maintaining compositional dynamism proved particularly challenging. This challenge also ended up being a huge source of inspiration and generator for ideas, making the process completely unlike any other.

What ideas did you want to explore in this work?

Metamathemagical is kind of a macroscopic view of the concept of creation, an exploration of what the creative process is on both an individual, personal level, but also on a cosmic and environmental level. The interplay between intentionality and inevitability, between natural evolution and directed action. I took inspiration for this piece from the natural world and natural sciences, in particular my own bush environment of Northern NSW and my experiences growing up and exploring Australia as a kid. My work often takes cues from the natural world around me and also the unnatural world, the artificial materials, substances and textures that make up much of our lived day-to-day experiences.

Vivid SydneyJonathan Zawada’s Metamathemagical, Sydney Opera House. Photo © Daniel Boud

What were the pleasures of creating it?

The pleasures really came from seeing the piece in action, witnessing the building disappear while the DNA of the form undeniably remains. The Sydney Opera House is both rigorous geometry and organic form at the same time and it was so exciting to see how it could be pushed in either direction with the slightest nudge. Seeing ideas come off successfully that I was excited about but couldn’t be sure would work until it was done, like implying the building was a hollow shell through negative space and giving the impression of false light sources was also incredibly satisfying.

What do you think the Opera House means to Australians, and how did this affect your approach?

I think the Opera House is one of the few modern masterpieces that make Australians feel that we haven’t been left behind and are keeping up with the rest of the world in terms of our artistic contributions on a global scale. The sense of freedom and elevation of spirit that the building generates, in particular through its position in the harbour also speaks to the simple pleasures and experience of the natural world that I think all Australians respond to and feel compelled by. I think this sense of freedom really just allowed me to respond to the building in my own personal, visceral way, without becoming bogged down in meaning and history I was able to respond with a sense of joy and optimism that I feel is something universal.

Jonathan Zawada’s Metamathemagical, Sydney Opera House. Photo © Daniel Boud

Metamathemagical pays tribute to some Australian artists – who should we look out for?

There have been two artists in particular that have directly influenced this piece, the sculptors Robert Klippel and Ricky Swallow. Robert Klippel’s work has a mechanical quality and often uses industrial materials, whereas Ricky Swallow’s work is more organic and representational. One is geometric and abstract and the other is hyperreal. All of these qualities can also be found in Metamathemagical. Other artists that have informed the piece through my research are: Kate Rhode, Margaret Preston and Margaret Ollie. I was inspired by these artists’ different representations of flora and fauna.

What do you hope audiences will come away with?

I hope people feel like they have been transported out of themselves for a moment and are able to respond viscerally to the sense of contemplation at the heart of the work.


Vivid Sydney runs until June 16. Read about The Liminal Hour at Barangaroo as part of Vivid Sydney here