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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Costello, workbooks

Art Studio, Week 9 21-25 Sept

Making artwork for exhibition at Thomas King Observatory, editing cicada song bites with Mike Bridgman

1.ARTWORK FOR THOMAS KING OBSERVATORY This is my installation for our exhibition Observing the Absurd held in Thomas King Observatory Sept 25t-29, 2020. It describes the paradoxical absurdity of our relationship with nature i.e. our protestations to nurture and protect nature while continuing to wreak havoc upon it.

Placement was difficult due to a small room that contained 3 doors, 2 windows and a passageway to the observatory room plus a horrible blue carpet that was always going to interfere with the artwork! I was initially using a small corner area but more space was made available after others changed wall areas. This was a relief as 3d needs to be experienced all around.

To overcome the horrible blue carpet I considered changing my intended artwork from a wooden stump to an earlier work of gold leaf and cicada that I would place on a plinth After discussions with Izzy during installation we felt the exhibition needed the wood to tie it all together.

Having decided to use the stump, I debarked, sanded and waxed it. It is a beautiful object butchered by the chainsaw when the tree was cut down and now marks and lines remain as evidence of this process.

I made a low plinth sized to fit the corner area but when the artwork was repositioned to the centre of the room the plinth was too small and ineffective to counter the dominance of the blue carpet. I considered gilding the plinth but decided there was insufficient time to experiment but in hindsight this could have looked really beautiful - the gold reflecting the truck...

I experimented with a variety of ways to incorporate the gold leaf into the grooves on the stump. The gold leaf was to elevate the stump from a discarded natural object into a refined and highly valued art object. Which line/s to use? Horizontal, diagonal or vertical, or the one on the outside of the stump? I settled on the deepest groove that cut right across the surface of the stump. It referenced the wall behind and tracked the space from entrance doorway to observatory doorway but also meant it lacked compositional tension and drama that diagonal lines provide. The gold leaf was placed in such a way as to fold and pleat its way across the groove rather than be buried into it and this echoed Izzy's beautiful handling of the paper she had folded and pleated around the cupola.

Next arranging the cicadas... it was important to me to use lots of insects, rather than just a few, as I wanted to represent the large number of cicada living under the tree and feeding on the sap via its root system. The death of the tree would naturally affect the nymphs living underneath. Arranging the cicada on the stump was problematic. I started with the mastaba casting I had used previously in one of my first arrangements with the cicada. This was too large for the size of the stump and placing it behind the gold leaf felt too restricted - the gold line seemed to dominant the the piece. After some reflection I felt the gold line needed to be broken, just like the tree itself, so I rearranged the cicada to be more loosely dispersed, creating a softer curve while also obscuring part of the gold line. In the end neither arrangements seemed satisfactory.

Gallery below shows

  • option 1: Mastaba shape positioned behind gold leaf

  • option 2: Curved shape cutting through gold leaf line

Lighting was problematic! I had hoped to draw attention to the negative spacing between the plinth but about 5 shadows of varying tonal ranges were being cast. This was an interesting moment given my last unsuccessful encounter with lighting and I was very grateful for Izzy's patience and help to resolve the matter. In the end we settled on 5 shadows within a light to mid-tonal range intersecting each other.

Ultimately I never really felt satisfied with the artwork. It lacked impact and tension and was swallowed up by the blue carpet.

Participatory Experience

Watching people hover close to the artwork on opening night, looking as if they wanted to touch it, I decided the following days to engage the audience more by inviting them to make their own golden cicada and place it on the stump. For me, adding gold leaf inside the discarded cicada shell is an intimate and reflective moment of engagement with the cicada's moulting process. It would be nice to share this with others. As the school holidays were just beginning that weekend, Space Place was visited by lots of young families who also visited the exhibition.

Feedback from audience and tutors:

  • "Everyone loves your interactive element, so many kids think it fantastic", Anoushka when exhibition minding

  • "Well the blue carpet ruined the reading of the work...I haven't much else to say"!, Richard Reddaway

  • "Wow its beautiful, my country we eat them", Jacqueline (Massey Fashion student)

  • "it looked a little one dimensional, like it needed more height and movement", John Costello.


I met with Mike Bridgman to help extract cicada songs collected on cassette by Charles Fleming (a distinguished scientist) during his field trips in the 1960s. The sounds are extraordinarily complex and the old-style recording of wind blowing against the microphone make you feel as if you are outside doing field research too.

"The varied songs of cicadas stimulated him to determine if analyses of the differences could be used in the classification of this group. In the 1960s this interest strengthened, and he published 12 papers on cicadas, several in conjunction with J. S. Dugdale....His ability to cross interdisciplinary boundaries and to communicate his findings well beyond the scientific community, together with his industrious research and publication record, had made him a leading scientific figure for nearly half a century. A memorial to him stands at the Waimeha lagoon in Waikanae, and he is commemorated in the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Charles Fleming Award for Environmental Achievement."

The complexity of the cicada songs, which are comprised of two parts including an introduction then coda, made me wonder about what is the best way to exhibition this audio performance. Water and sound into art, an installation by Finnbogi Pétursson, is beautiful


ROMAN ONDAK Ondak is a thoughtful artist whose approach to using materials is honest and subtle, placing them into historical and political context in surprising ways. The Event Horizon is a respectful and beautiful exhibition of a 100 year old oak tree.


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