Welcome to the Review Repository - an archive of reviews that were originally published in the Saturday edition of the Taranaki Daily News from September 2007 – April 2008.

The reviews were written for a general audience and therefore tend to be descriptive and educational in focus.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Wondering About Wilderness

Images courtesy of Govett-Brewster

It is easy to assume that nature is clearly definable but as we well know in Taranaki ‘nature’ can be perceived, experienced and thought of in many different ways. For instance, Mt Taranaki, by its foreboding presence and seismic murmurings, reminds us human occupants that life here is tentative (approximately 50 years until eruption so geologists tell us). However, from the air this looming giant looses its majesty appearing to be held captive by a circumference of grassy pastures. Similarly, while walking along clear cut paths through Taranaki’s goblin like forests we could view nature as charted and containable. Or, as a fuel resource when we witness oilrigs that suck and fleer oil and gas. Nature in Taranaki can be simultaneously perceived as a sightseeing reserve, sporting playground, site for industry, a placid backyard garden or a terrifyingly sublime wilderness. Depending on your particular worldview further classifications could be made, since ‘nature’ is culturally and politically relative.

The current exhibition New Nature at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery explores these and other contradictory preconceptions of ‘nature’ and our interaction/relationship with it. The exhibition takes place in and outside the gallery. One artwork can be found on the coastal walkway near Egmont Street. If you have come across an odd black object in that vicinity which serves no rational purpose then it is quite possible you have already experienced it. Standing roughly six feet tall and perched at the end of a wooden platform is an ominous looking black pod. Extraterrestrial in appearance this pod appears as though it might have flown and landed there. At first glance it could also be taken for an electrical substation or scientific device – it even emits electronic buzzing and crackling sounds. Although, the sound often changes from something mechanical to resembling jovial electronic music for a 1980s computer game. A few feet away from the black pod is a wind turbine busy generating electricity. Obviously powered by the turbine the pod could be seen as a type of dwelling. One could imagine a scientist (or even a small green alien) crouched in there with a cup of tea and computer studying data from the surrounding wild coastline.

A nearby sign informs us that the pod is an artwork entitled GROUNDHOG made by a collective called I-TASC (Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation) a group who individually are involved in the fields of art, engineering and science. GROUNDHOG is a replica of a pod which I-TASC has planted exactly 7,721 km away in Antarctica – currently equipped with weather recording technology to collect data that will aid their design of a mobile Antarctic dwelling. Some of the sounds emanating from the GROUNDHOG pod are recordings from this weather data. Other recordings are music made by members of the I-TASC group while they were in Antarctica. The stark contrast between the geometric and high-tech appearance of GROUNDHOG and the wild bolder clad coastline draws to mind the common assertion that ‘nature’ is something distinct from human habitation.

The collision of science, technology and nature is also a topic grappled in a series of objects by artist Joe Sheehan exhibited inside the gallery. Resting in a display case is a remote control intricately carved out of black jade. Rupturing the surface of the jade are growths of quartz crystal jutting out in various places. Crystals have long been imbued in mystic religions and science fiction as having similar invisible energies and properties like infrared technology used in remote controls. For me the work signifies scientific endeavours to harness or understand the sophisticated deign of nature to develop new technologies. While also suggesting the futility of such a pursuit as nature’s resilience and adaptable prerogative will ultimately foil human attempts of control. Accompanying the remote are other objects carved entirely out of pounamu and other types of greenstone from around the world including a fully functioning cassette tape.

There are many other artworks in this exhibition that explore the concept of nature through other perspectives. In my opinion the exhibition is let down by one or two works that promise great things but don’t quite deliver. One of which is Fiona Hall’s native flax and grass garden on Pukaka Marsland Memorial Hill Park surrounding the war memorial. The concept of the work is well researched and insightful. Unfortunately, due to its lack of visual/physical presence in the location, contrived spiral composition and infant growth it fails to insight debate about war as the artist was intending. The work resembles the result of a garden makeover reality TV episode rather than a well considered artwork. This may change however, once the plants reach maturity. There is a wide selection of other artworks on show including computer animation, paintings, photography, rug design and installations. New Nature is a bold and alluring exhibition that challenges preconceptions and contributes to contemporary ideas on what is ‘natural’ and how we define ‘nature’.