Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fertility and the Imagination

In his book The Gift (one of my studio Bibles), Lewis Hyde writes:

Just as treating nature's bounty as a gift ensures the fertility of nature, so to treat the products of the imagination as gifts ensures the fertility of the imagination.


The Gift is one. If you don't already have a copy on the pile next to your bed, I'd urge you to get one. My pre-loved book came from Amazon. I read it often and always with pencil in hand: it's an ongoing pleasure that never fails to yield more. My exploration of it and its fundamental premises will form the basis of a sequence of seven small new works that I'm about to embark on (they really are small - 350 x 280MM). The paper's torn and prepared, the images have been taking shape for some time (in that ever-so-mysterious incubation space that exists between the head, the hand and the page) and today I hope to get the initial grounds laid down. (These are to be part of a group exhibition that opens in Dunedin 0n Friday 19 June.) 

Hyde considers art as gift, not as commodity. "Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two 'economics,' a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.' He goes on to suggest that when gifts - rather than commodities - circulate within a group, the exchange leaves a series of satisfyingly interconnected relationships in its wake, so that a kind of 'decentralized cohesiveness emerges' (i.e a cooperative, collaborative, connected community).  

One of the most insistent dilemmas I face regarding my own creative work and its ongoing life in the world is around precisely these questions... The lines between meaning and value are easily blurred in our fiercely competitive and commercially-driven world. Very little is simply, unconditionally 'gifted' these days - just about everything comes with a price-tag attached to it. I find this troubling. Within this 'set system,' there has still to be room for 'pure gift', surely? In order to sustain a practice, make a living, pay the bills, etc... our creative work (in all its forms/media/genres/dimensions) has to exist to some degree or other in the trickily-charged space between 'market economy' and 'gift economy.' Is there some way round - and through - this? I like to think so. 

There are times when conflicts can be creative and tensions productive, but I must admit that this particular dilemma continues to be an area of considerable discomfort to me. In my dreams - naive as this may seem - our community would grow forward (as opposed to the cliched adage, 'go back') to a modus operandi where gift, exchange and barter are once again our primary currency. Once upon a time, this used to be the way - and it worked. It wasn't all that long ago, either. 

Can an echo sound retrospectively? Apparently so... In an earlier book - a memoir, titled Journal of a Solitude - poet and novelist May Sarton wrote: "There is only one real deprivation, I decided this morning, and that is not to be able to give one's gift to those one loves most... The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up..."  

Gifts - unlike so many 'things' - are not used up in circulation or in use. 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Feeding the birds

This weekend, a handsome new bird feeder arrived on my doorstep; within the next day or two, it'll be mounted to hang from the big old tree in my front garden. The bellbirds, kereru, wax-eyes, tuis and I will be able to enjoy breakfast in each others' company - perch to porch - each morning.

If birds could write thank you letters, I have no doubt there'd be a stuffed mailbox for the kind and clever person who hand-crafted this safe-haven for our feathered friends. It's beautifully made; the wood (cedar, manuka, macrocarpa) will silver over time and the copper flashings will tarnish as they're exposed to our salt-laden harbour-side weather; this feeder's built to last.  

A small green visitor (spot the cicada?)

I'm in contented nesting mode at the moment; after several years of accelerated adventure, learning and transition, it's good to be settling back into a quietly considered rhythm. What pleasure to be able to plunge my hands daily into the rich, fertile soil of home. House, studio and garden are getting a good deal of much-needed attention; since returning from my last big trip, I've laid the grounds for a new body of work and when I haven't been in the studio, I've been outside digging up and re-planting a section of my garden that seems to me to have been waiting for this kind of time and dedicated affection. 

Every now and then it strikes me that I'm in the slightly surprising company of clarity, ease and balance. Dare I believe this might even become a sustainable pattern?  

Speaking of balance, my much-anticipated spirit vials (the 'bubble' components used to make builders' levels and to provide a level axis on navigation instruments, cameras, etc... ) arrived from the US. Yay. I was relieved to find them waiting on my front doorstep when I returned from Wellington a week or so ago. I'm incorporating these fragile glass vials in a series of paintings and sculptural pieces for my exhibition at The Arthouse in Christchurch in August. The vials (as object and metaphor) are integral to what's been a life-long exploration into the methods and modes of relationship we play out in our lives. This new work addresses the various imperatives of solitude, one-on-one companionship, family, small group dynamics and, too, communal, collaborative exchange. (I'll say more about all this as the process unfolds.)

As I write, it occurs to me that certain things - whether bird feeder, spirit vial, opportunity, challenge, departure or meeting - certain things come along at precisely the right time. 

Going back to birds for one more moment... They make me think warmly of my father. My childhood home in Johannesburg was named Izinyoni (Zulu word meaning 'home of birds) and feeding birds is a ritual my dear pa - now living in the UK - has been faithful to for as long as I can remember. He advocates that we have much to learn from birds, that nature is nurture. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009


How often do we encounter loss and love back-to-back; death and life, back-to-back; the sacred and the profane, back-to-back; equilibrium and turbulence, back-to-back; grumble and gratitude, back-to-back? 

On a grand scale as well as in our ordinary, everyday lives, the extremes of our human reality jostle for attention and take up sometimes uncomfortable residence beside each other.

Christina Bryer's fragile porcelain form shares the Antarctic ocean floor with a Nemertine (ribbon worm) - photo: Shawn Harper

The subject of polarities is a vast one that could quickly lead to the exploration of many corners and layers of both our individual and communal existence. The reason I bring it up is because there's evidence of this paradoxical 'back-to-back-ness' everywhere one looks at the moment and it seems to be happening as insistently on a personal level as on a local, regional, national and global one. There are junctions and disjunctions, congruencies and disparities, fractures and healing opportunities at just about every turn. 

As has been the case since the beginning of time, light and dark are in the throes of emphatically announcing their different potentials to the world. 

Take yesterday, for example - in the States, the exemplary (and - charmingly - domestic-as-oatmeal) Obama family was shown bonding delightedly with their new puppy; at the same time, Barack's head must have been dogged by ongoing issues of concern for the people of Afghanistan and Iran. Beyond the comforting domain of family, his nation's top sixteen banks are under question and under scrutiny; safety and threat, back-to-back.

In Zimbabwe, where Mugabe continues his despotic reign of terror, small acts of kindness are lifelines to hope; survival, a daily triumph. In Fiji, one man's hunger for power has led to violence and chaos - and the world is protesting, 'this is not okay.' In South Africa, Jacob Zuma (bigamist, alleged rapist, a man with blatantly questionable morals and ethics) looks likely to become the country's new president... and even as pre-election tensions rise, people around the world are being inspired to take positive action towards the ever-increasing tragedy of South African children orphaned by the HIV/Aids crisis. 

In my own small home town of Dunedin, the Rugby Stadium issue (I want to whisper and shout about it at the same time, gross absurdity that it is) has brought out the very best and worst in people. The lack of insight demonstrated by the deluded folk driving the pro-stadium madness has drawn us out of our complacency and onto the streets to protest. The sense of a community united is more palpable today than it's been in ages - or so it feels to me. 
Every day, we are witness to (and by proxy, participants in?) acts of brutality and courage, cowardice and compassion, greed and generosity, despair and promise. I'm not sure what it is I'm trying to say here; certainly I had no idea this was what I'd write today, nor where I'd end up. 

I started with a question, and it looks as though I'm finishing with one. I ask it of myself, of course - ought not we to be our own first port of call? - and put it out to you, too. What is being asked of us in these times?   

Monday, April 13, 2009


I'm posting this image for Jan in the UK. Jan recently pointed me in the direction of Wegener's Jigsaw by Clare Dudman (thank you, Jan) and while I don't yet have a copy of this intriguing, Greenland-based book in hand, something about it - together with the timbre and ethos of Easter - lead me to re-contemplate this painting.   

I hope your weekend's been warm in the middle and soft around the edges. 

Tracking I - Gesso, acrylic, ink & pencil on a plywood crate lid - 2006

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Leather banana

I've just spent an enthralling six days up in Wellington working on a collaborative project with jeweler, Kate Alterio.  Metal + flame = sure-fire delight. At some stage, I'll write up a bit more about our shared process, but for now would like to introduce you to my thirteen-year-old leather banana.

I'm absurdly fond of this object; it first accompanied me to my George Street studio way back in 1996. It was supposed to be lunch, but you know how it goes; one gets immersed in work and forgets about one's stomach; the banana ends up languishing amongst pastels and paints till it's long past eating. Days become weeks, weeks become months and months become years. Thirteen, in this case - almost as many years as I've been living in Dunedin. I quickly became intrigued by the daily metamorphosis taking place in this once green, then yellow, then brown, increasingly reptilian-looking piece of fruit. 

This same - as yet, unnamed - banana has moved with me to three different work spaces. It currently has pride of place on one of my studio work shelves where it lives cheek-by-jowl with various other bits and pieces I've collected over the years - precious things like Katherine's porcelain vessels, metal and wooden type face, spirit levels and rusty old bolts, a ship's lamp and quay-side detritus. 

Pablo Neruda has written extensively on the value of the overlooked object. Here's a favourite excerpt from his piece Towards an Impure Poetry -

'It is well, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coalbins, barrels and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter’s tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all harassed lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things – all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.

In them one meets the confused impurity of the human condition, the massing of things, the use and disuse of substances, footprints and fingerprints, the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artefacts, inside and out.

Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand's obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it...' 

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Snap Frozen

This is a transcript from Sunday night's Pecha Kucha presentation - a little long as a blog entry, but a welcome opportunity for me to synthesize certain aspects of a rich and significant period of my life. 

It has been my joy and privilege to travel to Antarctica twice in the past three years. As a place - and as a metaphor - the continent and its community have altered me and my way of being in the world. Antarctica epitomizes the back-to-back existence of constancy and change, devastation and transformation. The landscape draws and re-draws itself, an echo perhaps of the processes we are called on to practice and refine in our lives.

Last year, during my second season on the ice, I took along an unusual assortment of 'props for projects.' Along with the expected things like notebooks, camera and pencils, I packed a flotilla of 97 gessoed and painted paper boats and, too, thirteen high-fired porcelain bell vessels (the latter made by Cape Town artist, Katherine Glenday.). When gently struck with a soft-headed tympanum-type stick, these vessels emit a range of resonant bell-like tones. My scientist collaborator friend, Sam, and I played and recorded these instruments in as many research sites and weather conditions as time and imagination allowed, the intention being to incorporate these recordings as sound tracks in a series of short art and ArtScience films...  

A collection of porcelain sculptures also accompanied us down to the ice. South African artist Christina Bryer was inspired to create this series of exquisitely fragile forms when she encountered the structural and mathematical complexity of the microscopic aquatic organisms - Foraminifera - that Sam and his fellow researchers have been studying in Explorers Cove waters for the past quarter of a century. 
It struck me recently that I have a penchant for things that begin with the letter P - people, place, paper, punctuation, paint, pastels, protists, prime numbers, poetry, pattern, portals, poppies, pistachios - and, of course, passion itself. By the time I get to the end of this conversation, hopefully there will be a portrait of the White Continent that is more than bare bones.

With the sea ice like polished glass in places, it is necessary to wear crampons when out walking. These occasionally 'sproing' off one's boots and land in oddly configured shapes on the blue.

Antarctica is alive with stories. In the image above, one of Christina's porcelain pieces alludes to a legend that tells of a rare, snow-white petrel that flies both Arctic and Antarctic skies. Skuas (tenacious, and - I think - largely misunderstood survivors) prey on these petrels and will devour everything but the bone that spans their shoulders and defines their wings. When all is said and done, what's left of the petrel drifts to the ground like fallen angels' wings. It's a gruesome, but somehow tender image.

When salt, oxygen and ice get together, the collaborative artistry they demonstrate is extraordinary. Above, alphabet soup....

and here, an elaborately filagree-d lattice formed as a result of subtle changes in temperature in the ice's internal and external structures; this small beauty found snap-frozen above the algal mats in Lake Hoare. 

From above, to below the ice (my thanks to Shawn Harper for the following two images)... divers enter a surreal, dreamlike space where forms become quasi-weightless and silence reigns even more supreme than it does in the world above. Research divers (Sam Bowser, Henry Kaiser, Steve Clabeusch, Cecil Chin and Shawn Harper) set my flotilla of boats adrift in this mysterious 'other' place, then filmed them voyaging in communal groups as well as 'going solo.' The implied metaphors are self-explanatory.  
Photograph - Shawn Harper

Sam, Shawn and Henry also took Katherine and Christina's porcelain forms beneath the ice, 80 feet down to the cold ocean floor. Transported upwards by way of trapped bubbles, they - the vessels and boats - drifted in slow motion up to the ice ceiling.

When I was in the US last month, Sam and I teamed up our exceptionally generous and gifted videographer friend, Mary Lynn Price and embarked on learning a raft of film-editing skills required for further work with the glorious film footage captured on these dives. 

Photograph - Shawn Harper

Each day, walking around our camp, or on the way out to the dive sites, we would pass things tragic, triumphant, amusing, magnicent... the 'skin map' shown here is the pelt of a mummified seal estimated to be around six hundred years old.   

And every once in a while, an ice rabbit - 

The following 'belly button of the Canada Glacier' made me think of our Moeraki boulders - each landscape, an archive of hidden secrets, neither one in any hurry to deliver itself of its charge, till suddenly - or so it seems - there they are; rocks/blueprints no longer sheltered but exposed to the dazzling reality of the outside world. 

Portals always get me wondering - this one, a 'closed opening' on the carcass of a crashed plane near Pegasus airfield. No one died in the accident. Somewhat absurdly, a man named Dave from Dunedin had scratched an 'I was here' announcement into the plane's tail rudder.

Sometimes, in the solitude of that vast wilderness space, the ice conspired to keep one company. . .

Victoria Finlay wrote (in Colour - Travels through the paintbox), "I had thought, when I set out on my travels... that I would somehow find, in the original stories of colours, something pure. It was a naive Garden of Eden moment, and of course I forgot about the rainbow serpent that had to be there in order to make it a real paradise."

I have always been moved by surfaces weathering. This fondness extends as much to things decaying as it does to the aging human face. I'm inclined to think that evidence of weather equals the truth of the story.

Aah, man and the environment. Never a more fragile, urgent relationship than now. How often resistance and compliance go hand-in-hand; it's a process that calls for pause...

... which brings me to my conclusion. This last photograph was taken in McMurdo base, not long before I left the continent for the final time. I was lured outside by a strange and haunting sound. The wind had come up and for some reason had set the small town's communication network humming. I hadn't heard harmonics quite like this before - neither will I hear them again. It occurred to me that for the briefest yet immeasurable moment, the elements and our well-intentioned, but oh-so-clumsy human presence had met throat-to-throat and were harmonizing.  

I slept like a child that night, the continent's lullaby in my ears.


Let this be my quiet, true note of thanks.