27 Nov 2019
Dominic Hoey is an author, playwright and poet based in Tāmaki Makaurau. His debut novel, Iceland was a New Zealand bestseller and was long-listed for the 2018 Ockham Book Award.
I first discovered Gemma Syme’s work when I shared the bill with her band Diana Roz, a three-piece punk group who were regulars at Wellington’s now defunct Mighty Mighty. Not long afterwards, I began seeing Gemma’s video work around, then stumbled across an exhibition of her installation work. One thing I love about Gemma Syme’s work is that whether she’s playing music, performing or making prints, Gemma brings a feeling of play and fun to her art.
I spoke with the Ōtautahi artist about her work, shifting between so many different art forms, and how the changes in her hometown have affected her practice.
“I call myself a time-based artist who also does printmaking,” she says, laughing. “Time-based was the term Massey University used when I was there to encapsulate things like performance art, sound and video art.”
One thing I associate with Gemma’s work is humour, but she says she feels printmaking requires her to be more serious and she’s enjoying playing with the limitations of the art form. “I have a bit more of a, for lack of a better term, ‘punk attitude’ when it comes to my prints, and I'm having fun trying to communicate using the format.” She says that even when showing her printworks, she tries to add a performative element. “For my exhibition earlier this year I blew up lots of balloons and filled the room.”
'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magix" by Gemma Syme
Though Gemma has based herself in the UK, Europe and Wellington, she’s now back in her hometown of Christchurch. She says the Garden City has always had a strong arts scene but worries that artists are being priced out of the inner-city in the rebuild. She also feels that the city is lacking in smaller galleries, where artists and musicians are free to experiment. “There needs to be places for play!”
Though Gemma’s work doesn’t directly address the 2011 earthquake, she acknowledges it has had an effect on her work. Before the quake, she had a lot of shame associated with Christchurch. But she feels that things have shifted post-quake, with international artists coming to the city and groups like Toi Ōtautahi Christchurch Arts Strategy bringing the arts community together.
“It's only recently that I've really started calling myself an artist. I think it was that Kiwi idea that we shouldn't give ourselves too much credit.”
“My attitude towards Christchurch has changed after the quake and that shows up in my work,” she says.
As someone with experience working in multiple disciplines and in practicing art around the world, I ask Gemma what advice she has for the next generation of artists.
Gemma Syme (far left) in her art collective Fantasing. Supplied.
“Believe in yourself,” she says, emphatically. “It's only recently that I've really started calling myself an artist. I think it was that Kiwi idea that we shouldn't give ourselves too much credit or talk ourselves up.” She believes that artists need to change their mindset towards their art, and to no longer frame their practice in terms of having a real job.
“Think about and clarify why art is important to you. That will make you feel better about doing it and that it’s not just a hobby.”
She also identifies the importance of keeping going, despite how daunting it can be at times.
“If you are scared about booking an exhibition for yourself, do it! There is a difference between fear and danger.”
“Fear is a signal that can be flipped into a positive. If you are scared about booking an exhibition for yourself, do it! There is a difference between fear and danger.”
Gemma is currently focusing her energies on her printmaking, taking her exhibition “Small Gestures” around the country. She’s also excited to bring more of her performance art into what she’s doing in the print world. But her other focus, like a lot of artists in Aotearoa, is how to make it all work financially.
“I'm figuring out ways to sustain my art career without just thinking about ‘how do I sell my work?’ I want to create work with mana and I want to be able to do that full time one day.”
Gemma Syme will be exhibiting alongside Pat Kraus this Thursday November 28 at Auckland’s Strange Haven. More info here.