Objects are nothing but the significance we give or impose upon them. The means to which we apply meaning to inanimate objects, however, is a complex and confusing muddle of various factors. Stories, memory, emotion, smell, texture, the use of something, the context in which it is utilised and by whom – are but a few contributing aspects that influence what an object means to us. On a national level the significance of objects gets even more knotted and convoluted as the power of cultural, political and economic forces govern the use, production and value of things. Despite their powerful governance these forces – at least in the passing of our daily lives – remain secondary or even subliminally veiled to our personal understandings and meanings of objects.
On show at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington is an exhibition that reveals how such implicit influences have tainted the meaning of wood in New Zealand. The exhibition is called Primary Products and is curated by gallery director Christina Barton. Here is Barton's introduction text in pdf. Through the work of five artists Barton charts New Zealand’s economic dependence on the forestry industry particularly the production of exotic forests and the politics of its export. The art is a mixture of new work and other works acquired from museum collections (including a stunning installation by artist Jim Allan on loan from the Govett-Brewster collection and a monumental 20 meter long Paratene Matchitt work borrowed from Te Papa). Of the most curious inclusions is a series of black and white photographs by the late commercial photographer John Johns.
Originally commissioned by Forestry New Zealand (between the mid 50s - late 80s) these photographs could be viewed as straightforward documentation. However, the objective perspective that Johns has photographed is not just the result of taking a snapshot rather through great care of lighting conditions and fine artistic skill of composition. It takes no explanation to emphasise the quality and seductive allure of the photographs once you experience them. Although, what really makes these photographs captivating artworks is that they communicate a particular perspective and story to us. Strolling past the 25 photographs we witness the processes and stages of turning trees into timber, its export and ultimate use. We are shown forests inserted like pins in grid formation into vast hill sides - miniscule men scaling tower like trees in strategic fashion in order to manicure and thin out the forest - saw mills that dice and filet logs into timber - which is then stack and sorted in warehouses and yards as if data on mathematic paper. The scale of the production is not clearly apparent until we study an image of a containership - laden with an entire forest of timber - carving through a platinum sea with obvious mass and propulsion. Johns is successful in capturing the enormity and vast scale of the industry through his particular pictorial perspectives and emphasis of linier form. His ridged formalist control of the photographic process also in turn draws our attention to how humankind controls and manipulates the natural world by imposing rational order on wilderness. The images are also significant of the military like efficiency of trade and commerce.
This formalism is also seen in Maddie Leach’s body of work centred around a simple looking crate (exactly 1m high x 1m wide x 3m in length so the wall text informs us) containing a pedantically stacked and securely bound bundle of eucalyptus logs. Confronted with what merely seems a pile of logs in a box it is hard at first not to be perplexed. Indeed, the overtly standard issue industrial appearance of this crate and contents appear deceptively normal. It is not until we read the accompanying wall text that the context of the work becomes clear. Apparently the logs were supposed to have been shipped to Santiago as an artwork for exhibition but due to Chilean customs Leach’s crate was not allowed to arrive. Additional works by the artist nearby act as evidence to this story. Evidence including customs pro-forma stating the crates dispatch and destination. There is also video evidence of the tree being felled - albeit oddly choreographed so that the tree falls exactly centre stage. There is also further footage of Leach’s attempt to find the vessel containing her logs in Santiago harbour. This ridiculously small consignment of eucalyptus therefore, becomes significant of the economic competition between New Zealand’s and Chile’s forestry industries and the political powers that go to great lengths to control international exchange.
Reflecting the formalism of the artworks this exhibition appears to be the result of considered research and planning. Its curious mix of vastly different artists strangely ties together well – perhaps due to the fact that each artists work is isolated in different galleries. This exhibition is successful at making us aware of how political and economic forces pervasively influence the meaning of the objects we are continually in contact with. You will find the Adam Art Gallery nestled amongst Victoria University’s Kelburn campus. Exhibition closes 7th of October 2007.