art with land nature spirit community
Art and nature have always been important to me. My parents’ love of nature had a huge impact on me and my three brothers. We grew up on an organic orchard surrounded by native bush bordered by a boulder strewn river. Most weekends we were taken exploring the local coast, rivers or bush. Our mother, an artist, painted. They encouraged us to to use our eyes – to read the land, it’s ecology and human history. A seed was firmly sown.
In the early to mid 1960’s Selwyn Te Ngareatua Wilson, my art teacher at Northland College, Kaikohe, helped guide that early interest of art and nature into a passion, which lead to my artistic abilities being seriously expanded at Ilam Art School, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, under the tutelage of Tom Taylor. Then, in 1968 when 19, I left and traveled by sea to UK. My goal was to learn from Barbara Hepworth, the great British sculptor living in St Ives, Cornwall and later with Quinto Ghermandi in Verona, Italy.
As well as being taken under Barbara’s wing in St Ives and being in the presence of other great artists there, I reveled in a new found freedom to explore the natural world around me; seeking for ways to express my art; reaching to satisfy the depths of my young soul. Barbara Hepworth helped reinforce both this passion for nature and compassion I felt for humanity; these qualities came through so strongly in her sculpture.
Focusing attention on my own artistic language, in those first two months in St Ives, it was a grass blade defiantly standing up to the wind that became the seed of my creative language. Also, hiking along the coast from St Ives to Hayle one spring day in 1969, brought home to me further applications for and extensions of the structural principle learned from this grass blade. I looked at specific natural phenomena: the effect of wind on an object like a bent marram-grass leaf, and its effect in turn on the land (the constant movement of the leaf would leave an arc scribed in the sand); the effects of tidal and wave movement on the sand, resulting in a pattern of pools and sand mounds; the flow of a small stream being constricted by boulders then falling to a pool below with resulting ripple patterns. This intense observation of the landscape became the principle for my future land art – sculpture firmly inspired by, made from and meaningful to its specific place in the world.
And it was there during this time that another vital component to my art emerged: spirit of place. Cornwall is where human cultures have lived for thousands of years and have left their marks, including their land art. These marks are imbued with the spirit of the land. It was this spirit that finally lead to my turning my eyes homeward, to return to my own roots two years later. It was time for me to learn to speak, make art using my own language of spirit of place. What better place to learn than my family land in Kerikeri, New Zealand, where I was brought up.
Being home in 1970 meant it was easier for me to see, to learn the foundations and the philosophy of my art – knowledge about how to make a work relevant to place: the land, it’s nature and it’s people. Through relevance to the people of a place – it’s community – my art, I believe, became richer in meaning. Consultation with selected members of a community meant it was easier to make a wise, more profound artistic response. Learning about ancestors and their activities led to knowledge of the geomorphology, geology, flora and fauna. Communities are inextricably intertwined with the land. Also, it was a practical solution to learning the best source for materials (always local), particularly so when working with post colonial cultures to ensure these materials were not removed from sacred sites.
My close involvement with the Māori community along with lessons learnt during my formative years at secondary school in Kaikohe under Selwyn Te Ngareatua Wilson influenced me to consult with elders. For major projects it became my practice to invite an elder of the place to share the creation process. A consultative process meant I gained a level of social/cultural/customary understanding: that my ideas were imbued with their place. My consultation was such that if the elder, on behalf of the community, seriously doubted the concept proposal, I would be prepared to drop it and start again, though this has never happened.
It is a great privilege to work with another culture in their environment. Working in close consultation with that culture means enrichment – enrichment leads to fertility and creative freedom.
I use the word ‘holism’ to mean that the source for the inspiration of many of my works is broad based. My family and I live with, share and I consult with the local inhabitants, often over many weeks. Once a site is identified and approved for a specific land art work I look closely at, for example, the origins of the land, itʼs flora and fauna, the spirit of the land, the social history and land use from ancient times to the present day. Also, my materials are researched and sourced locally. To me this is holism. By way of explaining this further, sometimes in the past I chose to ʻpoint fingersʼ in my work such as showing my opposition to the testing of nuclear devices in the Pacific Ocean, the destruction of indigenous forests in Northland, NZ or the exposing of injustices such as racism. At first these works had the desired effect of alerting others to the problem or adding to the voice of objectors. But, as I became more known, my work became more ʻcollectableʼ and, instead of achieving my original objective, these works became collectable commodities with a monetary value for investment! In 1986 I made a major shift back to holism (my first explorations into holism were carried out in the early 70ʼs using scale models and drawings). Gateway 1986-1990 and the Rainbow Warrior Memorial 1988-1990 were the first major public art works of mine to use this holistic approach.
Other examples of my work using this holistic approach are now seen within many different cultural landscapes in many countries such as for example:
Cave, 1994-97, Takahanga Marae, Kaikoura, New Zealand
Tuuram Cairn, 1996, Deakin University, Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia
Wiyung Tchellungnai-Najil, 1997, Evandale Sculpture Walk, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia
Tranekaer Varder, 1998, Tickon (Tranekaer Internationale Center for Kunst Og Natur), Tranekaer Slotspark, Rudkobing, Langeland, Denmark
Stele di Sella, 1998, Arte Sella, Borgo Valsugana, Trento, Italy
Echo van de Veluwe, 2003-05, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands
Nga Uri o Hinetuparimaunga, Hamilton, New Zealand
Wurrungwuri, 2008-11, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, Australia.
living land art
For many years it has been a vision of mine to inhabit my art with flora and fauna as well as working with land/nature/spirit/community. All my out door work naturally grows lichen, algae, moss and fern over time. Deliberate incorporation of methods to encourage living nature within my art began almost twenty years ago with In Celebration of a Tor, 1993, Grizedale Forest Park, Cumbria, UK where the hollow of the helical woven stone ‘tube’ encouraged animals to make a home. Then, within a small wood, Shelter Munnatawket, 1995, Fishers Island, New York, USA was built so that in winter, when covered with snow, it truly became a shelter for animals – albeit temporary. Nikau, 1995, and Nikau II, 2011, in New Zealand also serve as temporary shelters.
Cave, 1994-97, Takahanga Marae, Kaikoura, New Zealand is now festooned with plants which were planted on the buttresses by the late Wiremu (Bill) Solomon (Kati Kuri) as I was building it. This Māori community, originally inspired by Bill, integrates vegetable gardens, orchards and ornamentals for practical purposes as well as in remembrance and celebration of deceased family members. They have taken cuttings and seeds from their late grand parents, parents, aunties and uncles gardens and orchards for propagation at Takahanga. All visitors respect the Kati Kuri custom of passing through the festooned Cave before entering the Marae.
The next opportunity came on a grand scale with Wiyung Tchellungnai-Najil, 1997, Evandale Sculpture Walk, Queensland, Australia. Here the joints and niches left deliberately within the stone were successfully inhabited by spiders and reptiles.
Stele di Sella, 1998, Arte Sella, Borgo Valsugana, Trento, Italy was built to be a fertility symbol dedicated to the survival of the planet. Inspired by the prehistoric fertility stele that had been discovered in this area and the vulva-shaped healed wounds I found in local beech trees. The hollow and helical stone sculpture would itself rise up out of a World War One bomb crater. This hollow form was filled with leaf matter, cut up maize stalks and flower heads from the cultivated fields of the valley below plus wild cyclamen plants from the forest floor. The plan was that the sculpture would literally flower one day, as the cyclamens grew out from between the stones. Women farmers from the valley below made a commitment to be padroni – caretakers – of this fertility symbol. Sadly the sculpture was bowled by an avalanche the following hard winter!
In the year 2000, an abandoned small quarry near Hanover, Germany was slowly healing with regrowth of flora and fauna. Steinbergen Strata, 2000, Steinbergen, Germany was built to honour the stone and assist this healing process by creating a habitat for the various creatures that were now coming back to live there. Boulders placed on top of the stratified land art work would catch a blanket of leaves over time, creating a further habitat.
The generous budget for Wurrungwuri, 2008-11, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, Australia allowed me to at last research, design and build a visionary land art work that encompassed every level of interest of mine to a greater degree: living art using my skills with land/nature/spirit/community. In creating this living land art work in close consultation with a Cadigal and project elder I attempted to imbue the sculpture with a sense of celebration and respect for the land that it emerged from, and to the people who have for millennia walked the land. In taking stone from country I have returned it, transformed, to country. In this nutrient-poor sandstone country the soil slowly nurtured a unique wealth of amazing and diverse plants and animals. Following close consultation with an Australian Museum naturalist, there is now, living within the sculpture, some of this brilliant flora and fauna. Along with various fauna inhabiting the cracks and niches in the sand stone wave form, the woven pebble form hosts a micro bat colony living within. Specialised indigenous sandstone flora now grows in prepared gardens in the troughs of the sandstone waves – many of these plants assist the survival of the indigenous fauna that inhabit the sculpture.
living kinetic land art
The kinetic sculptures:Tranekaer-Vader, 1998, Tickon, Langeland, Denmark; Vader III, 2003, Tytsjerk, The Netherlands; Zunderschwamm, 1999, Förderverein Müritz-National Park, Neustrelitz, Germany;Terre Ciel, 1999, Lehaymeix, France; Homage to a Broken Stone, 2011, artists garden, Kerikeri, New Zealand and nac̓θətəɬp “Transformation Plant“, 2012, VanDusen Gardens, Vancouver, Canada all owe most of their kinetic ability to the action of the greatest recycler on the planet: fungi. For example with nac̓θətəɬp “Transformation Plant”, over the 30 or so years, as the fungi breaks down the stacked wood, recycling it into humus, the cedar tree planted in the middle will flourish into a beautiful tree while the stone slabs (‘petals’) will slowly open up like a flower.
In doing these living works, it is one of the artist’s aims to highlight the wonders of fungi. This ancient and generally lesser known plant-like organism is vital to all life on earth, yet is threatened by human activities. Fungi is the supreme terrestrial recycler, the most extensive of all living organisms and is one of our most ancient sources of food and medicine.
Currently I’m working on the development of three major living land art works. One of them, for example, is the SLS (Subterranean Living Sculpture) which I’ve been developing in association with the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. The major focus of the SLS is educating people about the importance of lower plants and fungi for our survival and the effect of climate change.
sls (subterranean living sculpture)
It is my aim in the SLS to highlight the range of life on/in the land, rivers and seas, including microscopic forms, in our rivers and in the sea. These ancient and generally lesser known plants and plant-like organisms are vital to all life on earth, yet are threatened by human activities.
Located inside the contours of a suitable hill, the sculpture will inhabit over 250m of sunlit underground passageways, chambers and installations.
The entry passage, located 30m below the hilltop, will be shaped like the root of a giant bracken fern penetrating 125m into the hillside. All along this stunning parabolic passage will be jewels of life, in fissures and bubble-like niches, cocooned in chambers and suspended in sun shafts.
These jewels range from diamonds to kidney ferns; from fluorescent fungi that give enough light by which to read, to a sunlit chandelier of filmy ferns; from the tiniest moss that glows, to the plant with the largest of all sperms.
Visitors will experience surreal visions reflected in crude oil and will come face-to-face with coal as it is before the miners extract it. SLS will feature sculptures made from living fungi ‒ culinary, hallucinogenic and medicinal. There will be a kinetic fungi tower that will eventually collapse a 20-tonne pile of logs, sticks and boulders. Within a giant chamber filled with seawater will be an ethereal space for viewing gently waving 12 m giant kelp.
All of this will be underground, but at no point will there be any sense of exploring a dark, oppressive tunnel. SLS will be filled with natural light. Mirrors at the surface will track the sun all day and direct its rays down shafts; the natural properties of the shafts themselves will transmit the available light to provide a constant, appropriate level of illumination.
Various viewing levels will cater for babies and children as well as adults, and the SLS environment will feature the very best air quality.
There will be no labels, no educative sign boards, no videos and no computer-generated images.
Forests are being destroyed; rivers are dying; oceans are seriously under threat: what was a luxuriant environment is turning into a wasteland and the uncontrolled build-up of man-made greenhouse gas emissions is making our atmosphere inhospitable ‒ even toxic ‒ to life as we know it. The devastation caused by people is happening around us on an ever-increasing scale. The Subterranean Living Sculpture will educate the visitor to be wiser – to become proactive in reversing this spiralling catastrophe.
It is still early days for the SLS, despite the years our close knit team of the Eden Project Creative Director, Arup (engineers), Greenwall (vertical garden experts) and myself have been working on it. We have all donated our time at no charge to date. Impacted by the global economic situation, the work’s realisation will unfortunately no longer happen in Cornwall. Plans are underway to establish the SLS in New Zealand, in association with the Eden Project.
Having the privilege of working on such broad and often visionary projects with diverse cultures in many countries over many years has allowed me to develop meaningful principles for making my land art. The underlying most important principle of all has been to create work that promotes a sense of balance, harmony and respect for our precious earth and all that lives on her.
Published by Random House 2007