Rearranging the found, Mark Amery

Shifting Nature: Photographs by Wayne Barrar
Wayne Barrar, with an essay by Geoff Park
Otago University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1877276057

Chris Booth: Sculpture in Europe, Australia and New Zealand
Edward Lucie-Smith, Ken Scarlett and Gregory O’Brien
Godwit, $49.95,
ISBN 1869620739

Perhaps it’s our contemporary urban sensibility, perhaps still a touch of cultural cringe. I’m not sure. But I’m often disturbed by how, for a country of coastlines and a people dominated by our landscape, we give so little attention to a number of fine New Zealand artists who comment on our relationship with our natural environment. It’s one strength our art possesses, born of isolation. Sculptor Chris Booth and photographer Wayne Barrar are fine examples, and these two surveys of their work come highly recommended to the general reader.

With Shifting Nature, Barrar realises a collaboration with a perfect bedfellow, ecologist and historian Geoff Park. Both are attracted to our water’s edge, the place where our interaction with the land is most evident. Both also have a seductive way of bringing creative and scientific enquiry together to ease the passage of a strong environmental message. As Park puts it bluntly: “no other OECD nation has given agriculture such free rein, and let it annihilate its forests, its wetlands and swamps so fast and so thoroughly.”

Park provides an essay which begins like a lost chapter from his Nga Uruora: Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape (1995). In that book, Park explored the richly intertwined human and ecological history of some of our most fragile, yet little considered, coastal environments. He and Barrar follow Frank Gohlke’s belief that:

landscapes are collections of stories, only fragments of which are visible at any one time. In linking the fragments, unearthing the connections between them, we create the landscape anew. A landscape whose story is known is harder to dismiss.

 

Drawing me in with his storytelling, Park’s is a book I return to regularly.

At the beginning of Shifting Ground, Park is slipping his kayak quietly back into the water. The boyish thrill of his solitary fossicking is almost cinematic in his writing’s sensual vividness. Even on arrival at his set-off place the night before, his “headlights are raking the strip of gravel” as if we’re on the brink of an astounding discovery. While critiquing the concept of the scenic reserve and its framing of “the view”, he does a pretty excellent job himself of romancing the picturesque.

Park “paddles his way into a Barrar photograph”, his journey across a lake revealing a hydroelectric outlet and the stories of a drowned lakeshore beneath. He primes us for
the fragilities inherent in what Barrar photographs – destroying illusions of what we see around us as un-touched, uncontrolled or unmoving.

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Shifting nature. Barrar’s images bear out the title, emphasis-ing the constancy of change over time by their very stillness. As Park remarks, “all land in New Zealand is a contestable space.” Not only are people absent from these images but all forms of fauna; as if these sites were being visited after a chemical attack. This “quiet earth” is a disturbing place – there’s always something spooky about a Wayne Barrar print.

The artist’s camera causes us to stop and consider those things we usually ignore. You can imagine Barrar arriving at the Milford Track and not getting past the carpark. The way he captures the visual allure of these uneasy sites whilst making us aware of their fragility provides what Park describes as the “deepest scare of reality shift”. Where beauty has supposedly been destroyed or tainted, Barrar like Park doesn’t shy away from presenting us with a new dangerous kind of splendour.

Reading Park’s essay, it’s easy to neglect consideration of Barrar’s work as artist. In fact, it’s the very duality of his artistic and documentary approach that sees Barrar high-light the complexity behind what attracts us to scenery. Barrar arrests us by framing these passed-over sites and then seducing us with the play of light, texture, colour and form. He finds visual pleasure in the sites of passionless industry. In “Silencers”, for example, it’s the serpentine curve of a scaly silver pipe set before smoke stacks running with rust and pouring out steam in the Wairakei geothermal fields.

One of Barrar’s particular strengths is to capture the immense power held in the monumental man-made structures in our environment – as if in these images a tremendous power has been temporarily stilled. In another image from the same series (an exploration of the Waikato as our “most controlled river”), the spillway falls at Arapuni Power Station are framed like a waterfall picture postcard. Yet the way the gleaming water flows over the concrete ramp is like steel cutting a path into nature below.

Barrar’s interest in different photographic processes and formats and how they affect our reading is also evident throughout. The way his use of the rare cyanotype blue print process softly preserves images as memories. Or the fragility selenium-toned gelatin prints made from paper negatives give his Nauru Portfolio – a barren rocky landscape looking as brittle as an engraving.

It’s unfortunate then that a number of factors make this book less substantial than it deserves to be. The design and soft-bound format don’t give the words or the work the weight they deserve. Also an essay on Barrar’s work from either a photographic or artistic perspective would have been welcome.

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Shifting nature is exactly what Chris Booth does physically. Known best in New Zealand for the elegant towers of smooth stones that grace a number of our most visible public spaces, part of the unwritten poetry of Booth’s work is his movement of stones (often with Herculean effort) from one part of the country to another. While Barrar provides environmental commentary by framing, Booth rearranges the found to highlight our cultural and ecological history. Both make the existing landscape more visible, more articulate. These new markers on our landscape are not only memory rods for migrations and mythologies (like those of moving mountains, for example) but also set up dialogue with one of the few other pillars of our sculptural tradition, war memorials.

Standing stones have a place in most cultures and, as the title of this book emphasises, Booth is an international artist, producing as much work in Europe and Australia as he does here. You probably didn’t know that. (It’s a sad reflection on our media that we’re not aware of the outstanding international success of many of our contemporary artists.) You may also not know that Booth as a young artist studied in St Ives under Barbara Hepworth, the great sculptress of organic form.

Even if you did know these things, the international work in this book will be a revelation, principally because you won’t have seen it. While Booth’s work isn’t deliberately ephemeral like that of British creative colleagues like Goldsworthy and Richard Long, the fact that it’s geographically so spread out and hard to get to means that for most of us this book provides the first real opportunity to appraise Booth’s oeuvre.

In the mind’s eye, Booth has become forever associated with those pillars. What this publication reveals is a practice of greater aesthetic breadth than you might have suspected. Also, that Booth’s work is much more poetic in its response to the sculptural site’s history than the stones in Civic Square, Wellington, or at the top of Victoria Street, Auckland, might initially make you think. The poetry of Booth’s practice is emphasised alongside his feats of engineering. Put more bluntly: Booth’s best work perhaps isn’t his best known.

The essays in this collection are a little too insubstantial for my liking. English Art Historian Edward Lucie-Smith’s pedestrian approach disappoints. Here was a rare opportunity for a European take on a New Zealander’s work in a different cultural context. The same goes for Ken Scarlett’s essay on the Australian work. His factual commentary fails to do justice to the richness of Booth’s interaction with Australian sites, a failure pointed up by the informative text accompanying each suite of images. An Aboriginal writer’s response would have been invaluable here.

Refreshingly, Gregory O’Brien’s essay is more in tune with the poetic dimension. Through personal meditations, he opens up different ways of thinking about Booth’s New Zealand work. It’s as if O’Brien skipped one of Booth’s stones over the water to see what reflections could be seen in the ever-diminishing ripples.

Quibbles aside, this is a fantastic illustrated introduction to Booth’s work. And, as with Barrar’s book, its publication signals the need for deeper scholarship on the artist’s work.

 

Mark Amery is an arts writer and critic, and curator at the City Gallery in Wellington. He is currently completing a radio series on six New Zealand sculptors.

 

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction, Photography and Review
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