Monday, November 26, 2007

The road to enlightenment is not linear

I am, in general, opposed to travel. Holidays, work trips, trans-hemisphere-immigration, family visits, international conferences, sight-seeing... I've done it all, all my life long, and enjoyed very little of it.

I am obsessed with the idea of staying in one place, planting trees, making a home and never going anywhere ever again. But despite my strong desire to stay put, I continue to live an unusually transient lifestyle.*

So when it came to thinking about my first solo exhibition, it is not surprising that I could find in my work a common thread: the tension between my desire to stay home and my semi-homeless reality. This theme resonated with the quirky shape of the Yvonne Rust Gallery (YRG) which directs visitors up steps, around a hairpin bend, down a ramp around another corner and into the wedge of the main space, which ends in tight, almost claustrophobic, corner - a relatively complex path within a single, small, open space.

It seems to me, from my prejudiced position, that at least some of what people crave from travel results from a heightened awareness engendered by immersion in the unfamiliar. I believe mundane, familiar places and activities can be just as rewarding when that kind of heightened awareness is activated at home. Thus I wanted to offer Domestic Pilgrimage as a kind of armchair traveller experience in which the viewer could be inspired to see themselves and their surroundings with the fresh eyes of contemplative attention.

My vision for installing Domestic Pilgrimage was a literal and linear path as outlined in my Artist's Statement. I wanted that metaphorical journey from mass delusion to inner truths to be experienced as a physical journey through the YRG. Each piece had been chosen to represent a place of learning along the route of the Pilgrimage, each carefully considered in relation to the other pieces to generate a coherent narrative.

O what hubris! My painstakingly planned itinerary came unstuck in the installation, that intense three day personal growth workshop undertaken with my darling E, who as a real life pilgrim, knows all about letting go of control. E has numerous qualities that made me eagerly accept her offer to come up from Wellington to help install the exhibition. Aside from being intelligent, generous, clear seeing, direct and honest, hardworking, and unfazed by emotional expression, she's undertaken Shikoku's 88 Temple Pilgrimage in Japan, worked as a curator for four years, and is incredibly stylish to boot (certainly turning heads in Whangarei last weekend!).

I couldn't have wished for a better person to be installing Domestic Pilgrimage with. She followed my curatorial lead until I couldn't think straight anymore and then she gracefully stepped in and curated the show through that impasse and to completion. She also, during that busy weekend, managed to totally re-style my studio from a chaotic work room into a beautiful welcoming area (not to mention feeding and clothing me when even those simple decisions seemed beyond my abilities).

The enlightenment part of the Domestic Pilgrimage went in mostly according to my plan. We started at the end of the journey, with the biggest and heaviest piece. You are Beautiful didn't fit exactly how I had originally hoped when I designed it for the wedge corner of YRG. But I had realised that a while ago, so it wasn't a shock when confirmed on Friday morning. It did fit in another, even better way, with the three mirrored pages at acute angles reflecting multiples of each other and us and eventually the distant gallery through the mist of the Membranes. Membranes also went in smoothly, if slowly, and benefitting from some careful editing over the next couple of days.

Sky in the City, the lantern book, was my Slough of Despair, my real challenge of the installation and occasion for a major tantrum releasing my fear and frustration, my exhaustion and overwhelmedness, my confusion and disappointment: feelings a lot like travelling in a foreign country! At the time it reminded me of the transition stage of being in labour: that bit before the pushing where you curse a lot and no one else can do anything right (though in this case I tried not to blame anyone else for my struggles) . Hard as the lanterns were to install (and I was still tutu-ing with them on the day after the opening!), they at least ended up on the wall where I had wanted them.

When I eventually couldn't continue to ignore my inability to figure out how to install the first piece of Pilgrimage: Addicted to Capitalism, I began to negotiate with E for her to take over that work. She wasn't prepared to take sole responsibility for that piece in isolation, but rather had a broader vision for it and several other pieces. Our negotiation was lengthy and challenging but I was, and am, incredibly proud of how we did it.

Where my plan simply followed my pilgrimage narrative around the room, E's approach paid more attention to how the individual pieces looked in their places. Articulating our different perspectives and coming to appreciate each others', led to a compromise in which three of the first four works in Domestic Pilgrimage ended up different parts of the gallery than I had originally planned. By Sunday afternoon the exhibition looked much better than it would have if I had clung rigidly to my structure. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to let go of my preconceptions.

The Pilgrimage, as a journey of spiritual devotion, was enacted in the soul work of installing. Each person takes their own path through Domestic Pilgrimage. I might be a tour guide, but I am not the only one, and I abandoned my flag on the stick last weekend.

* Transient for various reasons, most of which I accept responsibility for as the result of my own choices. However I do harbour some considerable resentment towards the state of the economy which, despite my best efforts to be a force for positive change, continues operate not only as though the laws of physics don't apply, but also as though an inflated housing market which excludes and/or impoverishes so many people is a Good Thing. Not!

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Monday morning, I was back in the Gallery re-hanging the lanterns which kept falling like autumn leaves from Sky in the City. My original idea for attaching them turned out to not be the best - and one of the many lessons learned through this exhibition is Fully Test All Technical Aspects Before Opening.

Anyway, it was a quiet time alone, as I worked my way up the 3.1 metre tall lantern book reattaching the 140 or so of the lanterns that were hanging loose. Only a few visitors came by while I was there and it suited me that none seemed very interested in chatting or lingering.

But one gentleman walked in, stopped at the top of the entrance steps and exclaimed, "Oh! I thought there was an exhibition on."
Thinking he was put off by the ladder and my little array of tools, I replied, "Yes there is. The show opened yesterday. I'm just doing some repairs, but please come on in and look around."
He took a couple more steps in and said, "But there's nothing here."
"Yes there is," I insisted. "It's an exhibition of artist's books, come and have a look."
"An exhibition of what?"
"Artist's books."
He took a couple more steps, and finally noticed Love Falls, the first piece on the wall. He peered at it for a few seconds and then turned and left without saying anything more.

I gave a mental shrug and continued with my lantern-fiddling, thinking about the encounter. All the people at the opening who were so enthusiastic about my work were primed for it, looking for it, ready to see and find something for themselves in it. Many people commented on how it was so unlike anything they had seen before/in Whangarei.

Everything in the exhibition is in a limited palette, predominantly white background with black text. There are some blue greys, the very dark brown of Charnal Grounds, the golden buff of the lanterns and a splash of bright pink here, a hint of emerald green there. There are few graphic images or patterns and they are very minor. If you were coming in from a bright sunny day to the dim inner light of the gallery looking for the bold colours, big canvases, solid ceramics or turned wood that are the usual Yvonne Rust Gallery fare, you might honestly not be able to see my work.

Domestic Pilgrimage has been described as minimalist, Zen-like, subtle and pristine. I think it is bold work (as in daring) and challenging (in the sense of demanding sustained attention - rather than being confrontational) , but it is certainly not gaudy or bright!

Witnessing Domestic Pilgrimage's invisibility to a casual visitor makes me wonder if a different kind of gallery space would make my work stand out more strongly. Dark walls rather than white? Spotlights rather than diffused natural light? A sophisticated urban contemporary art context rather than an earthy, quirky, crafty context? I think I would like the opportunity to find out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Artist's Statement

Domestic Pilgrimage: a journey from Samsara (the delusions of suffering) to Nirvana (enlightenment).

Domestic Pilgrimage begins with Addicted to Capitalism, poking fun at the ubiquitous ways our society distorts our awareness, and impairs our ability to be aware, through socially sanctioned addictions.

Love Falls is about looking to romantic relationships to feel more connected and alive, yet those relationships are often sabotaged by our confusion about the nature of reality and the transience of emotions.

Charnal Grounds is a memorial to the dharma (teaching) of staying present in the darkest depths of despair, without escaping into addictions and distractions; coming to understand that suffering is as transient as pleasure and of no more or less importance.

The mobius Meditation Journal has no boundaries between inside and outside. Meditation involves a series of repeated attempts to quiet that part of the mind that is so busy distinguishing between ‘like’ and ‘not like’. When the mind is stilled to a blank page, the breath connects you without judgement.

Do the Dishes takes the discipline of meditation into daily, domestic life. Being fully present in each moment, no matter how mundane, brings great peace.

Sky in the City takes that awareness for a walk, beyond the sanctuaries of the meditation space and home, into the crowded concrete city.

The final two works in the Domestic Pilgrimage were inspired by the enthusiastic conversations taking place between Buddhist psychology and the frontiers of western science, concerning the nature and origins of life, the universe and consciousness.

One of the defining features of all life on earth, past and present, is Membranes, those permeable boundaries that paradoxically both spatially contain and connect all beings, from slime to humans.

Another commonality is DNA/RNA, the purpose of which is to communicate information across time. Like books, DNA tells stories that reminisce all the way back to our bacterial origins in primordial oceans. You are Beautiful responds to intersections between the searches for inner truths through contemplative practices and the inner truths being decoded from our DNA.

Photographs by Louise Simms.

Monday, November 19, 2007


The opening of Domestic Pilgrimage was delightful. The weather was glorious and the outdoor setting for the food and wine part of it was beautiful. We put the finishing touches in the gallery minutes before people started to arrive, and I felt that everything was perfect, so could relax with my family.

The food, which my parents made with help from E, Louise and Liz, was a work of art in itself.

Lots of people came and said lots of lovely things about my work. They tended to spend quite a long time in the gallery which mostly had a hushed atmosphere, before coming out into the hot sunshine to socialise.

This is what is next for me, but I will also post more about the show soon.

Thanks Liz for these lovely photos, and for all your advice and encouragement over the past months of preparing for the opening.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Visit from an old friend

Moe iho au i te po nei
Ka kite au i to wairua
E awhi mai ana i ahau
ano pea kei te ao nei*

A couple of nights after the funeral for Brad, I dreamt that he gave me an enormous rain water tank. At the time it seemed like an odd thing to give someone as transient as myself, but it was gifted with such affection and respect that I was pleased to accept.

Over the next two or three months that tank filled to overflowing with new ideas, skills, words and images, until I pleaded for a break from the floods.

I've spent the past three or four months drawing down on that well of inspiration, creating Domestic Pilgrimage which opens this afternoon.

This morning Brad visited me again. I dreamt I was in the gallery, and Brad was perched up on the cross beams by the entrance, looking out over the exhibition, looking very pleased and proud. As dream conversations go, what we talked about was lucid, memorable and reassuring.

Dedicated to the memory of

Brad McGann


*rough translation: Asleep in the night, I saw your spirit, and I felt your embrace. Perhaps you are still here with me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Still making lanterns...

... but last night I also finished You are Beautiful, Meliors' Scarey Biggest Book Ever.

The catalogues are printed, the posters are up, I've had some embarrassingly good media attention and an emotional meltdown. So really, its just making lanterns left to do, which I should finish tonight.

Folding lanterns only requires about 5% of my attention and I've really had enough of being fully present in this particular now for now, so while I make I'm already looking past the two days of installation and the exhibition opening to what I will get to do next. I'm going to play! Paper-making and C&P press cleaning and writing and drawing and making stickers and... who knows what other fun, bring it all on!

Preparing for Domestic Pilgrimage has required absolute focus, discipline and hard work this spring. Now I am ready for a free-form summer of artistic experimentation and self-indulgent dabbling. I remember being in such a dynamic space this winter just past and how the work I am now completing evolved so thrillingly from that playfulness. I look forward to enjoying the next round even more while bathed in hot sunshine.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Making Lanterns

Pretty much everything is as ready as it can be for installing the exhibition at the end of the week.
The main task to be achieved between now and then is finishing my Lantern Book. Sunday was spent reprinting the most sloppily printed pages to look a bit nicer. And now I have to fold them all.

This is such a repetitive, dare I say, tedious task that I thought I would share the endless cycle with you, dear reader.

On Sunday, when the typesetting and printing was going smoothly, I reckoned it was taking a minimum of 8 minutes to set the type, lock it, proof it, print it and dis(tribute) it back into the drawer. When I am on a roll with folding, I can make a lantern in about 4 minutes.

My lanterns are a well-loved origami structure which many people recognise as the water bombs they used to make at school to torment teachers and nerdy kids like me. I learned it from my dear friends on Dancing Vege Farm in upstate New York.

Expanding the tightly folded structure into a little cube filled with air is the trickiest part. After about 70 or so lanterns I have finally perfected my cotton bud expansion technique. Only another 90 to go...

It's all very monotonous and wearisome for my young 'helper' and Bella is quite tuckered out from trying to hunt down the lanterns (the belt is an effective distraction when slithered about from on high, though not necessarily as enticing as the abundance electrical cords snaking around the room) .

Sunday, November 11, 2007

39 weeks

A week out from the opening and it's feeling a lot like the end of a pregnancy: emotional, exhausted, irrational, scared, excited, inevitable, on the brink... If I pulled a tarot card right now it would probably be the Tower. I feel like my judgment is unreliable, yet I have been impulsively making some major decisions.

For example, I bought a printing press this week. Since I don't have anywhere of my own to put a ton of dirty old cast iron, Neil said I could move it into Te Kowhai Print Trust. I didn't have time to check with anyone else, so I'm hoping no-one gets cross with me. A couple of members came by today to see for themselves the rumoured new press, and seemed to agree that my impulsive rescue from the scrappers fate was a good idea.

Here it is coming off the truck shrouded in baby blue. Shifting it a dozen blocks across town was a major logistical exercise involving joists and hoists and a big truck and a hand truck and the fork lift pictured above. The man on the left was the amazingly good humoured truck driver who responded to each new challenge with equanimity. The fork lift driver never cracked a smile.

The Chandler and Price Old Style (C&P) is fitted with an relatively recent electric motor which is surplus to my requirements (I like letterpress because it is slow). The C&P makes the Arab look very small and clean in comparison, but once the belt and motor attachments (visible as the white hose and the wheel on the far right, above, and the small wheel at the back, below) are removed, it should be much more sleek and balanced looking. Machines in those days were designed to be elegant as well as indestructible.

Don't worry, I won't be abandoning my beloved Arab for the new big boy in my life, even if he does have a brake (the Arab requires skill, strength and sheer nerve to try and stop mid flow). As the C&P has been used exclusively for die cutting for at least 13 years, I will probably stick to cutting on the C&P and keep printing on the Arab, at least for a while. But eventually I will put the rollers back on and let the C&P have a print run and see how it goes

Meantime I look forward to researching its provenance (Murray thinks it was part of the Northern Advocate plant -our local daily paper- and apparently they have very good archives) . I haven't managed to exactly date this model yet but the Old Style was made 1884-1912 (after that C&P made New Style recognisable by their straight spokes instead of the curvacious ones like mine has).

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Mobius Dream

After staying up far too late to write the previous post I spent much of the night tossing and turning in a disturbing half-dream in which the mobius book would not fit into its box: one of them was kinked and I had (typically) done my maths wrong.

It was like a persistently unsolvable cryptic crossword clue. I thought I was awake, yet my kinky mobius problem seemed compelling and implacable as only a dream can be. The boundaries between sleep and wake were as elided as the surfaces of a mobius page.

I finally convinced myself it was not something I could solve in the night, and sunk into a peaceful sleep, ruefully remembering the dream this morning when I woke properly.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Meditation Journal

I have been infatuated with the mobius strip (a band of paper with only one side and one edge) for quite some time. I made my first mobius strip book about two years ago during my green paper phase (using up leftovers from the Bush Book series). It was a dream journal and although conceptually interesting, it was structurally unsatisfying.

The thing about the mobius that makes it so irresistible is that it has no inside, no outside and no boundaries between verso and recto and these qualities make it challenging to bind as book pages, which is what I keep trying to do.

A year or so later I returned to mobius strips, determined to find a better way to bind them together as pages attached to a spine. I fell in love with this version of the mobius for the way it evokes vertebrae. Life circumstances were not amenable however, to the creation of a book of chunky three dimensional pages that cannot be closed. There was nowhere to keep it, no where to show it. Until now.

In anticipation of including a mobius book in my Domestic Pilgrimage exhibition, I first made a three page version, to ensure that it would work as well as I visualised. For the past few months that model has been hanging over my bed where, upon opening my eyes in the morning, the thrill of seeing its creamy curves, and anticipating the pleasure of eventually getting to make the real thing motivated me to get up and on with all other fifty things higher up the To Do list than the mobius book.

Friday, mobius finally surfaced as the next thing To Do. Sometimes books that I have spent months or years thinking about before I make them are nothing but disappointment and frustration. The mobius book surprised me with the ease with which it came into being exactly as I had visualised. Based on my earlier struggles with the three page model I thought the full size version might take two or three days to make, but it was done in less than a day. I hung it in the studio for a few minutes to take blurry camera phone photos and to see how it works vertically: something like a dinosaur spine.

It is a little bit taller than me, and a little slimmer (an idealised version of myself as a book). I also made a box to keep it clean and safe until the exhibition, and the box (made from windscreen packaging) resembles nothing so much as a very low-budget coffin. I didn't try lying in it, but I'm sure I would fit comfortably. However the book is so light that I can easily carry it in the box by myself. (I found the Styrofoam peanuts in a rubbish bag outside a shop the night before and decided to rescue them from their intended landfill fate).

I don't often make blank books- usually my inspiration starts with the text and the structure follows. I toyed with writing poems for this book and may yet make a future edition with text. (In fact I'm certain this is not the last mobius book I will make.) However, living with the three page model in my bedroom has made me appreciate it's pristine qualities: the shifting shadows of white on white, the echoing curves of thick creamy paper, the miraculous mystery of its mathematical qualities.

I have used it many times as a meditation focus, riding my breath up and down the snowy slopes, breathing in and out as one continuous loop. Hence this unique blank book is called Meditation Journal. Its future owner is welcome to use it as a book to record their meditative insights, to hang it in front of their meditation cushion or to enjoy it as a kinetic sculpture suspended from the ceiling, rotating gently in the slightest breeze.