I recently went down to Taranaki for WOMAD – always a good time to see New Plymouth, with all those cultural creative Womadians wandering about and the promise of getting down to the festival each night till midnight. On the Saturday I made a visit to the Govett-Brewster, a gallery that has always interested me, especially in the last few years under Rhana Davenport’s stewardship. There were two exhibitions – Len Lye: Kaleidoscope and Singular Companions: Sculpture from the collection.
There is no doubting the impact Lye has had and remains to have on New Plymouth and even with the plans for the Len Lye designated museum underway, it was good to see that the gallery could come up with a show that had a novel (if only just) angle on the artist’s work. I had an Australian friend with me so it was interesting to see her ‘discovering’ our kinetic sculptor son. The Govett-Brewster website states “This selection of works capture the energy and essence of the artist’s independent and inspired practice” (1). There were a few kinetic works and a number of his film works but what really stood out for me was some of the documentational material, from his time in the States for example. Some of this was fascinating – reviews in publications such as the New Yorker etc.
So to the Singular Companions show. Walking up the main stairs one was confronted by the large Paul Hartigan, Flush Arena (with Timekeeper) from 1987-1995. Its vibrant neon hieroglyphic lines a perfect segue from the Len Lye downstairs. The Govett-Brewster in fact has an impressive sculptural collection due in part, I am sure, to the legacy left by Lye. This show had good examples of the work of ‘big names’ in New Zealand sculptural history: Bill Culbert, Neil Dawson, Christine Hellyar and Peter Robinson.
There were two works that stood out for me. Mary-Louise Browne’s Milestones I-VII was a thought-provoking piece consisting of seven Carrara marble milestones, the carved lettering enhanced with gold leaf. The exhibition catalogue explains, “The seven Milestones register a survey and journey around the cities of New Zealand. The distance signified on each stone represents the combined length of all the streets in the district named after women”. (2)
Some of these were paltry – only two miles in one city. One was left wondering just how many miles of streets named after men there would be as a sad comparison; which women in New Zealand may have been honoured; and if Browne were to revisit the work twenty years hence, just how much might it have changed.
Lisa Reihana, an artist who has always caught my attention with a diverse and conceptually perspicacious practice, was represented by her 2005 Colour of sin: Headcase version, previously shown at the Liverpool Biennial in 2008. In an installation conjuring up a 1970s beauty parlour, the viewer is invited to sit beneath one of the three vintage plastic hair dryers to engage with what is essentially a sound piece. Intimate banter of the traditional female setting of the beauty parlour subtley explores notions of identity, gender and sexuality referencing the artist’s own childhood memories of growing up in her mother’s salon.
Like any participatory work, the audience was encouraged to take the plunge to engage with it, and in effect, be seen by others in the gallery while doing so. What was interesting was that, even though effectively ‘performing’ for others waiting their turn, because one had to pull the hair dryer down over the top half of one’s head in order to hear the sound track, one was largely unaware of anybody else, or that one was being ‘seen’. This enhanced the tranforming effect of being in that salon, while in turn enhancing the work on a visual level for anybody watching from the outside.
(2) Govett-Brewster. (2012). Singular companions: Sculpture from the collection exhibition catalogue. New Plymouth, New Zealand: Govett-Brewster. p.15.