MFA, March 1-7 2021
Masterclass, readings on Site, making art to respond to site of Recalibrate, Kate Newby's exhibition at Adams Art Gallery and MFA artist talks.
1. MASTERCLASS ON SITE
These are the readings on Site selected for our masterclass -
Park, Geoff. Theatre Country: Essays on Landscape & Whenua. Victoria University Press, 2006.
Despite hearing about Geoff Park two years ago, this is my first reading of his writings, and I now understand why people speak so highly of him. His concepts are thoughtfully composed, his writing style engaging and descriptive, while his multi-layered perspectives of historical events during the colonisation of Aotearoa jolt the reader out of complacency like a stone pinging on a car windscreen. I was left a little dazed by his masterful use of language.
The essay explores the flourishing of "pictorial scenery" in mid-eigthteenth century England; that "picturesque view of nature, of seeing it as scene after scene, each chosen for its capability of being formed into a picture... a landscape" (Park 103). English gentlemen, inspired by Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poetry and the writings of Reverend William Gilpin's Essays on Picturesque Travel, ventured into woods and wilderness to "aestheticise nature and the natural" (Park 103). Pictorical scenes were painted, brought into the home and hung on the wall - a little bit of nature collected and captured.
Park writes, "While Gilpin toured the mountains of Scotland, Wales and Cumberland, Cook's artists began the long process of 'aestheticising the exotic landscapes of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and Australia'" (Park 103). Early settlers to Aotearoa sent home letters filled with poetry, written in the style of Wordsworth, to describe their enchantment with New Zealand's scenic landscapes.
The tentacles of imperialism, and its desire for pictorial scenery, spawned Seddon's 1905 Scenery Preservation Commission, which took large tracts of 'picturesque' Maori whenua (land) in the hope of enticing travelers to New Zealand. Thus began our tourism industry, hand-in-hand with our 'conservation idealism', which "forced human life and indigenous nature apart, and still does today" (Park 104). "What Maori lost when English taste for scenery took their most beautiful coast or lakeshore was not just the land as a tradable commodity...but their psychic, spiritual landscape... with its ancestry in the intimacy, reciprocity and inhabitation" (Park 108).
Did your windscreen shatter a little too? So powerful is Park's essay that it has changed my viewing of our picturesque scenery.
Rosalind Krauss. “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” October, vol. 8, Apr. 1979, pp. 31–44. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2307/778224.
Miwon Kwon. “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity.” October, vol. 80, Apr. 1997, pp. 85–110. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2307/778809.
Te MaIre Tau. I-ngä-rä-o-mua. Journal of New Zealand Studies 19?
2. RESPONSE TO SITE OF RECALIBRATE
As I sat on the floor in Bartley & Co Art space, listening to the artworks, I was taken aback by the sophistication of their making and the thematic connection between the works. Bartley & Co Art states, "the artists in this exhibition offer us fresh perspectives on the way we view history or culture - reminding of different world view and narratives that have most been untold or suppressed".
Sited in a white cube installation, the works are placed within its inherent cultural and historic intentions of "actively disassociating the space of art from the outer world" (Miwon Kwon), and the economic value it imposes on a cultural art practice. Tricky things for an artist to navigate.
However, the longer I sat listening to the works, the more I felt the site was less a physical space, or noun, and more a space of process, a verb. The space seemed to be between people - a place where culture lives and evolves and is manifest in people's adherence to its values and the meaning ascribed by the collective cultural beliefs that bind people together. It is a place in their hearts and minds and expressed through their art.
Many of the works spoke to a location of cultural significance to the artist - Te Urewera, Ruakituri Valley and Te Reinga Falls, Tiwai, Mount Maunganui, House of the god of the sea Hui Te Ananui. This connection between people and their land is a sacred tradition - as people of the land they are Tangata Whenua, who are kaitiaki of the environment within their rohe.
So it seems to me there are three sites referenced in this exhibition -
the white cube gallery space,
the space between people and the cultural beliefs, language and symbols that bind them together, and
the deep connection of Tangata Whenua to their land and their role as kaitiaki.
In my efforts to respond to the space between people, I began by stitching into tissue paper with silk thread (white, cream and red). The paper is recycled, holding the marks of its previous use, which I like, as each culture remakes itself from the seeds of a past culture. The fragility of the tissue paper speaks to the fragility of cultural survival. The act of stitching, with its two strands of warp and weft, symbolises the process of people continuously working together to keep a culture alive and evolving.
I started with stitching world maps with the intention of working in my own whakapapa of Irish, English and French descent by placing red crosses to mark the site where my ancestors had lived (I've yet to work out a system to do this). I stitched topographical maps of Wellington harbour, marking with a red cross where my family lives. Weather maps were stitched over New Zealand and Australia to discuss the wind that touches us all and binds us together. I made use of graph paper and a needle to puncture holes in the paper to guide my stitching.
After playing with the process of filling a page with stitches of red crosses, I was enthralled by the patterns that revealed themselves as warp and weft threads crossed in front and behind themselves, visible in the transparency of the tissue paper. I stitched a white cube around the red stitches and extended the thread stitching outside the white cube to reference the culture that exists beyond the white cube exhibition site. This seemed to me to capture more abstractly the three sites mentioned above. For next week's masterclass presentation I will display this on the table I used to stitch the work - another reference to site.
3. YES TOMORROW WITH KATE NEWBY AND CHRISTINA BARTON, ADAM ART GALLERY DIRECTOR
What a treat, to be given a tour of YES TOMORROW with artist Kate Newby, and gallery director Christina Barton. Each offered their unique perspective on the show.
Kate is shy and prefers her work to be experienced through the audience's physical engagement (sensations) and interaction with it, rather than an interpretation of layered words and content. So, as we experienced her artwork, she offered us glimpses into her art practice - the way she "antagonises" the building site to challenge and blur boundaries of inside and out; the process of gathering broken glass and detrius from a location which she elevates in order to bring it back into a fine arts setting; her interaction with clay and the value of an exploration that includes mistakes and detours; and the enormity of an installation process, produced globally, involving big artworks created locally during a frenetic onsite installation.
Kate's talk was enhanced by Christina's insightful perspective on what it felt to be caretaker of a precious building being forcefully opened up i.e. windows replaced with glass with holes in it to allow the wind and rain to funnel through, flooring cut into to expose the underside, and buckets of cobalt-coloured scree poured over the basement floor to create a watercolour. She described it as "liberating" to see her building being opened up after years of protecting it from outside elements and delighted in Kate's novel response to the site's unique architect.
Christina expressed admiration in Kate's confidence to ask for such an aggressive response to the site, despite issues of restoration costs. She felt the gallery's consent required a high level of trust between artist and gallery.
Part of this trust was an attitude of honesty evident in both artist and director. Kate describes her approach to materiality as being honest and transparent, while Christina's discussion revealed an honesty of emotion and truthfulness in taking on such a risky and costly exhibition.
For me YES TOMORROW is not just an exhibition exploring the boundaries of site but also an exhibition that explores the boundaries between gallery staff and artist.