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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Costello, workbooks

MFA, May 24-30 2021

Writing Artist Talk, Completing Blog.



Today I'd like to share the process of my artmaking practice this semester, take you on a trip to Ireland to see ancient Celtic art from the stone age and then discuss my art in the formative critique, the issues it raised and what I might do next semester.

Artmaking Practice

When I began at Massey 2 years ago, one of my decisions was to engage with a bicultural learning environment. As a 6th generation New Zealander it was certainly well overdue!

Rather quickly it was clear that at Massey, art that did not hold a socio-political narrative was not contemporary art! This was unsettling as I had just spent 4 wonderful years at The Learning Connexion, two of which were spent exploring Process Art - an art movement that believes the narrative is in the process itself, and each work is self-referential and it does not refer to something outside of itself.

Fortuitously, the material I chose to work with when beginning at Massey was cardboard boxes, of which I had many, and by choosing to follow the narratives of the discarded natural materials, I was steered towards the place, space, and site where I live.

In the first year of study the cardboard boxes led to a narrative of consumption and the environment. The following year pohutukawa stamen, cicadas, and felled trees led to an ecological narrative and an opportunity for me to hear the land tell its history of tangata whenua and colonisation.

Choosing my response

This year, when we were asked to respond to one of a group of artworks I was interested in both Kate Newby's Yes, Tomorrow! and the Recalibrate exhibition at Barkley & Co.

Kate describes her work as 'antagonising the site' and while I appreciated her novel approach to site and mark making, I found her works were more about her own marks rather than the marks inherent in the materiality of the materials and site.

In contrast, while sitting quietly in the white cube space of the Recalibrate show, I felt each artist had responded sensitively to the space and place of they're choosing. Kelcy Taratoa's hard-edged abstract painting beautifully described his daily walks up Mount Maunganui to witness the sunrise; Joyce Campbell's tonal photographs captured the mystical quality of a sacred place; and Brett Graham's whakairo seemed to fill the room with a potency. These works sang to my soul!

Response to Site

So my first response to the provocation of SITE was to examine, not the white cube or the sites referenced in the artworks, but the space between the artwork, the artist and me, the audience. It felt a fragile space between my pakeha culture and Aotearoa's indigenous Maori culture.

Instinctively I started to stitch on tissue paper, following on from the Indigo shibori quilt I had recently done -

  • First I stitched the world

  • Then I stitched red crosses to define the landmasses and peoples of NZ and Australia which were overlaid with weather maps; an idea that the same wind touches us all

  • Playing with different cross-stitching techniques, I stumbled upon the diagonal running stitch thinking it would result in a page of crosses. Instead as I stitched the diagonal opposing thread a most unusual pattern emerged, a pattern that changed and morphed with each additional line according to predetermined rules that seemed more magic than mathematics to me.

  • I suspected the pattern wouldn't repeat and was a non-periodic pattern and by using prime numbers on each grid I hoped to created a variety of patterns.

This is the artwork presented; I placed it on a plinth in the hallway and in front of an internal window to speak to the idea that the site was an inner landscape.

The critique responses referenced stitching as a craft that is historically performed by females; Matt suggested the positioning of the work on a plinth might suggest that the work was sculptural rather a flatbed object, and Belinda asked if the work referenced indigenous patterns.

Response to Materiality

Given the high level of technical craftsmanship in the Recalibrate show, my response to its materiality was a little more challenging than site. The works have been created in order to sell for large sums of money and so the evidence of materiality (i.e. its vital matter, physical properties, and the process of making) seems to have been neatly and tidily cleaned away.

I found the meticulous 'tidying up' of the physical material produced a surprising response in me of both admiration and irritability. While I was awed by the artists' technical abilities, this meant the vitality of the maker's marks, and his/her mistakes, were hard to see. I felt at times that the works lacked an honest response to the materials chosen - why was the MDF hidden behind paint? Was it to hide the quality of wood used? Where were the symbols that Leonnie had cut out of the builders paper? What did she do with them?

I chose to respond to Kelcy's work and these were my criteria for responding to the physical properties of a material -

  1. Employ an honesty and transparency in the materials and processes I chose to use that would counteract the sophistication of materials and processes in the show

  2. Source materials from a location that is significant to me - my local beach

  3. Reference the materiality of the blue-purple colour used by Kelcy in addition to the monochromatic palette.

All the greywacke rocks and burnt wood are sourced from my local beach on the eastern side of Te Whanganui-a-Tara. This is a place I walk every day, and echos Kelcy's painting inspired by his daily walks up Mt Maunganui.

The colbat blue colour so dominant in Kelcy's work is incorporated into mine as well, and testifies to the materiality of colour. While the blue colour obviously references sky and sea, I was interested in discussing the properties of the pastel too. I placed 3 colbat pastels between a folded and cut sheet of white pastel paper then hammered them till the pastels turned to dust. One sheet was hung on the wall and the other on the floor.

I feel the simplicity in the way I had chosen to treat the materials allowed a transparency and honesty that evidences the biological processes that have occurred in transporting the material onto the seashore. I was really pleased with this installation. The two things I would have liked to change were allowing the last line of rocks to break away from the hard-edge and become more organic, and shifting the installation into the middle of the room rather than being placed in the far end.

The critique offered me insights to the work I had not anticipated. Matthew questioned the appropriateness of removing rocks from their natural location, and Winona wondered if the materiality of the installation might be a process of embodiment i.e. experiencing the work by walking around it. This is really liked.

Response to Agency

This is my response to Agency - that which emerges "when elements come together to form actual networks, and (agency) becomes distributed symmetrically across those networks" (March 135).

It is inspired by the concept of diffraction (the bending of light through an aperture or around an obstacle), an idea often used in Material Engagement Theory to describe creativity in the artmaking process.

Creating the artwork was complex and exhausting. I found myself lost in a series of ever-expanding circles and felt the work unconvincing. I had allowed the graphic quality of the marks to dominate the piece. Comments from the critique reflected this.

Final Artwork

When deciding on the final work, I was led by Julieanna's comment to respond to my own responses. Of the three works, I was most curious to see what other patterns might emerge from the stitched work. While I was considering what my final work would be, something unexpected happened to help me decide.

Newgrange in Boyne Valley

Just over a month ago, I woke to one of those clear autumn skies, reminiscing that it was 4 years to the day that my mother had passed away, and exactly 2 years ago that my husband, four adult children, me and my twin and her husband travelled to mum’s birthplace in Ireland to place some of her ashes with her parents.

A little ping from my phone distracted me so I went to see what it was and this is what I clicked on …

What an amazing coincidence - sharing a twilight night in Ireland with people all over the world while I stood under a dawn sky in Aotearoa, New Zealand. It felt good to know mum was alright.

Newgrange is a stone age megalithic burial tomb and astrological site in Boyne Valley in the mid East region of Ireland. It is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids.

For over 5,200 years the winter solstice sun has illuminated its inner passage and burial chamber for precisely 17 minutes

There are several engraved kerbstones that ring the mound.

This is the kerbstone marking the entrance to the burial passage. The quartz stone is carved with a complex triple spiral pattern called the Triskele – the 3 legs. There is another within the burial passage too.

Triple spiral patterns are rare. The earliest example is found in Malta nearly 7000 years ago, but simpler double and single spiral patterns have been found dating back over 20,000 years ago. As bands of people migrated over land and sea, they carried these symbols with them to mark their new homeland and the burial places of those they loved. Pattern recognition was not only a tool for survival but also a way of expressing meaning.

So, what is the meaning of the triple spiral pattern? It signifies the movement of energies – the motion of action; the motion of cycles like birth, death and rebirth; the motion of progression where energies move from the outer world to the inner world then return back to the Great Beyond; and the motion of revolution and change. By describing the active, passive, and neutralising energies required for creation, it confirms how life came into existence and reaffirms our own existence.

For those people living during the stone age, accustomed to witnessing the motion of the night sky, these patterns served to locate their place on Earth, an Earth bound within a space moving in a spiral motion. They understood it is a motion that moves within us all.

As a symbol it connects us with the divine, said with the eloquence that only art can offer.

Process of Making the Work

So it seemed clear to me that I should proceed with the pattern making series titled The Space That Binds Us.

First I selected my colour scheme. This installation marks the progress of an autumnal sunset; from blue sky and golden sun, through to scattered colours of blues, greens, ochres and pinks, then purple and finally indigo.

Then I looked at different arrangements for the grid system using prime numbers to maximise pattern variation.

Next I pierced the paper to make the grids and then began the long, long process of stitching 5 works to represent the changes in the Earth's atmosphere as it progresses from day into night. I set myself up at the dining room table. Stitching involved moving large swathes of thread from one side of the paper to the other and I learnt to slowly and softly pull the thread to reduce tangling. The indigo thread seemed impossible to use without it knotting and, exasperated, I decided to leave them in the works as marks of the process.

Promptings - Tukutuku Panels and Climate Change

Stitching is a meditative process and allows the mind to wander and daydream. During this time, two promptings arrived; the first was of Tukutuku Panels and the second Climate Change.

This is one of a number of Tukutuku panels made in 2014 under the guidance of Rotoiti weaver Christina Wirihana, which were gifted to the United Nations (2014). The panels are permanently installed in the UN headquarters in New York. I felt humbled by these beautiful works and wondered if my work was appropriate or was it misappropriation?

The second prompting was an item on TV announcing new findings by scientists and their efforts to alert world governments and humanity to the impending degradation of the Earth's atmosphere. Using a new model based on historical climate data, the scientific community can more accurately project the Earth's temperature until 2100. They found that we will cross the threshold for dangerous warming (+1.5 C) between 2027 and 2042.

This is truly alarming. How will the world respond to these scientific predictions? Will governments ignore the scientific community's pleas for urgent action just as they did their warnings of a global pandemic? As I stitched it became apparent to me the complex patterns and dynamics of earth's atmosphere are going to change dramatically. I can feel this in the non-periodic patterns I am stitching - the fabric of our atmosphere, held together by the merest of threads is going to change. Like the ancient Celtic spiral patterns that describe the movement of energies, these lines speak of the motion of revolution and change. If there was ever a need for a narrative, this is it.

Completing and Installing the works

After discussions with Shannon, I decided on 5 works for the installation.

The non-periodic pattern of a grid with axes of prime numbers begins simply with works 1 (Sky) and 2 (Sun), then colours fragment and a figure-ground shift appears in works 3 (Dusk) and 4 (Twilight). The final work (Night), sees a new pattern emerge (one axis is now, accidentally, an even number) and the thread knots interrupt the patterns. The needle remains in the paper where a portion of the stitching has been left unfinished, speaking to the notion that we are running out of time to correct the degradation of the Earth's atmosphere.

I had hoped to hang the works as an installation so that people could walk around them and encounter them one at a time, with coloured threads falling from the ceiling and draping the floor. Unfortunately time was too tight so they were installed on the wall in a linear fashion. The lighting didn't allow the coloured threads to sing either, so I was a little disappointed with the installation.

Formative Critique

Critique to the installation was interesting; people discussed the tangles and wondered if they were on purpose and illustrated order to chaos. They enjoyed the nonsensical effort of stitching something so complex onto tissue paper and the novel use of a female craft. Belinda asked if it was referencing indigenous art and this was something Shannon and I spoke about later. He felt the installation was too close to Tukutuku panels that held the same narrative of weaving dusk and darkness and wondered if there was another way for me to explore the colours of dusk.

This space, between my pakeha culture and Maori indigenous culture, is something I need to work through more clearly so that I don't misappropriate.

What Next

After the intensity of pattern making and line I am going to begin next semester by making circular pinched pots with clay. Leaving the linear behind for a while and allowing myself to explore curves and clay will be soothing. I may use thread, or tissue paper, or gold leaf; I'm not sure yet and am happy to see what reveals itself.

Something else has altered for me this year too. When I collected the rocks from Muritai beach intending to make an artwork in their honour, I could read the marks of weathering and geological morphosis on their surface - 23 million years in the making, recycled from greywacke in Queensland Australia and even further back from South East Asia 380 million years ago.

What I could not see, what was invisible to me, and to my ancestors before me, was the mark of tangata whenua on the rock. This I need to understand and draw into my art practice – to appreciate tangata whenua’s role as kaitiakitanga of the land and rocks, the sea and its creatures, the flora and fauna, with an attitude of respect and humility.

Thank you.


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