Sculpture on Ice
By Mark Amery
For a magnificent, vital sculptural object forget the tired, neoclassical war memorial heroics of Weta Sculpture’s Rugby World Cup bronze - due to rupture the grassy banks of Ilott Green anytime now. Instead, head upstairs at City Gallery Wellington to the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery to Gabby O’Connor’s What Lies Beneath. You’ll be hard pressed to find sculpture this year as elegant yet dangerous, impressive yet thought provoking.
As a creative place full of developing excellence it would be prudent right now for Wellington to spend less funding on giant Weta paperweights and gargantuan Wellywood signs, and more investing in the plethora of strong emerging artists currently in our midst. Otherwise, expect to start seeing them on the road going north soon.
What Lies Beneath is a good example. It is described as an iceberg. Hanging down from the rafters of the gallery as a patchwork blanket of blue, it is based on shape of the underwater, underside of a berg. In fact, it resembles the scaly tail fin of a surfboard or other graceful but tough ocean-going vessel or fish, plus the abstraction of its strong, dynamic crystalline shapes calls up any number of natural and cultural references for the visitor.
Moving around the work in the gallery there is the eerie sensation of swimming below the water, looking up to bathe in the earth’s blue atmospheric glow. The iceberg analogy connects with the importance and fragility of our ice caps. Indeed, spend some time in the quiet gallery and you get to hear this creature creak, with a very real dangerous sensation that, like a melting iceform, it might fall to the ground at any time. Capturing the air like an inverted parachute, it seems to breathe like an organ - expressive of Antarctica’s description as the earth’s lung.
O’Connor’s sculpture is very clearly handmade – triangles of individually dyed paper stitched together, with many a small hole letting in the light. It echoes our need to take more care and time over the things around us. Water is our most important resource, and in making water physical through handicraft, using cheap materials anyone can obtain, that need for its care is made human and tangible.
It is a beautiful inversion of the Weta sculpture. Instead of the heavy solidity of bronze we have the lightness and transparency of tissue paper (3000 A1 sheets) and staples (28,000). Instead of sculpture building mass heroically up, working against nature, it hangs in tension with gravity as a vessel for colour and light (I’m reminded of glass art like that of Ann Robinson’s).
Usually such sculptural behemoths are plonked in a park or on pavement, often working against architecture. Here O’Connor has worked intelligently with the interior of a building. The award-winning upstairs gallery additions to City Gallery have light wells running along their length. Rather ironically however these are usually closed off to avoid light damage to the art. O’Connor’s work instead brings the outer environment into the interior. It is as if with the use of light sensitive paper she has made a photographic chamber to create impressions with.
The complex variation in shapes and tones makes this a rewarding three-dimensional cubist form. It is in effect an abstract painting – I’m reminded of the beautifully coloured abstraction of the late Dame Louise Henderson - and one in which I find an ever evolving number of resonances. One moment an even row of triangular shapes reminds me of Tibetan prayer flags, the next Harlequin costuming.
Like much abstract painting What Lies Beneath feels like a study of what lies beneath everything. O’Connor is playing with essential forms. The fractal forms cascade down to a sharp point that seems to be reaching as growth for the ground, like a compass point or stalactite. The form in its entirety feels alive and figurative, sharing something of the fragile human spirit of Joanna Langford’s sculpture.
Looking up at it from below it is also as if our position in regards to the world has been turned upside down. Gazing at the topographical crystalline features of the earth’s landforms, as if they were constellations in the night sky. The work’s dramatic shifts in scale and perspective help shift our perspective on the world around us.
What Lies Beneath collects for the artist the many different dreams and imaginative representations of Antarctica she has herself and has also researched. O’Connor has not actually been to the white continent. Perhaps that is why the work is so rich in potential meanings. And yet this representative aspect of the work means little to me as viewer. Arguably it is overly emphasised.
Upcoming companion exhibitions at The North Wall Arts Centre Gallery in Oxford England and at Mahara Gallery, Waikanae are said to be part of an imagined journey home for an ‘ice tomb’ – a separated piece of the Ross Ice Shelf containing the bodies of explorers Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his companions. This is interesting background but doesn’t really mean much to me in the presence of the work.
Rather, the power of Gabby O’Connor’s What Lies Beneath is as a new membrane in the architecture of City Gallery, soaking up a myriad of experiences of the world from outside its container. This is sublime sculpture for our times.