Monday, October 26, 2009

Antarctica, Ross Island, Erebus: memory and imagination

Cape Crozier

This is part three of 'what I did in the holidays' but like the other projects that I worked on in the holidays this one is still work in progress and will be for some time. The origins and influences on this piece also go back many years.

My fascination with Antarctica was launched the first time I read Kim Stanley Robinson's novel, Antarctica. That book also (re)launched my enthusiasm for reading contemporary science fiction, so that for me Antarctica and imagining the future are inextricably bound together. Antarctica's human history is so recent and so sparse that there is a lot of room for speculative creativity on that vast white continent.

More recently I came across Ursula K Le Guin's brilliant short story, 'Sur', about a group of South American women making a secret successful expedition to the South Pole and getting there before Amundsen and Scott (but leaving no trace and telling no one so as not to bruise the great heroes' egos). I particularly love this comment by the narrator on seeing the mess Scott had left in his hut in after his first failed expedition: "... housekeeping, the art of the infinite, is no game for amateurs". (The women leave the dirty hut untouched and make their own shelter).

an island or a stack of pancakes?

I originally began thinking about using topographical information when I first started making visual art but I never really felt that my usual materials of paper and card were going to work. But now I have the Kaiapoi blanket which I like to imagine has visited Antarctica. If it hasn't, some just like it certainly must have. Christchurch was, and is, where so many Antarctic expeditions have been launched in a flurry of final provisioning, that surely the local Kaiapoi Woolen Mill (1878-1978) must have supplied some thick warm blankets, if not as official procurement, then to a crewman supplementing his personal kit in anticipation of the extreme cold.

I've cut my op shop felted Kaiapoi blanket (seen as Mars brooches and the ongoing fossil embroideries) along the 1000m contour lines of Ross Island to create a topographical model map, and now I am blanket-stitching it in white. Ross Island is arguably Antarctica's most significant nexus of historical, contemporary and imaginative power. It's where Scott and Shackleton wintered and launched their attempts on the Pole- their huts are still there, preserved as historical monuments (somewhat looted/cleaned). The main US and NZ bases (MacMurdo and Ross) are close by the historical sites and have the largest populations on the continent.

Mt Erebus

And towering over it all is Mt Erebus, a live volcano which has been in the news this week on the 30th anniversary of Air New Zealand's worst ever air crash in which 257 people were killed. With a population of only 3 million it was a national tragedy and like many NZers there was only one degree of separation between me and a victim. Those memories have made it difficult to consider Mt Erebus as a benign, neutral geographical feature. This weekend, on the anniversary of the crash I was been stitching the Mt Erebus portion of my Ross Island piece, honouring and grieving for those who were lost and who they left behind.

Mt Bird

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Altering books with Bethwyn

(This post is part two of 'what I did in the holidays')

One of my objectives for this year was to do some collaborative art projects. I started the Response* book project which involved sending a blank journal out into the world for other people to fill in a page and pass it on until its full and comes home to me. Response disappears for months at a time, and then I'll suddenly (like today) get an email from a complete stranger on the other side of the world letting me know they're playing.

Earlier this year I collaborated with Dylan to create Daintree Calling, a video poem/digital story. And recently I collaborated with Alan and Katie to produce an edition of handmade books on commission for WSA. But my favourite collaborative project so far, and the one that I think will be the most long lived, is getting Frugal with the Bruegel with Bethwyn.

The name, getting Frugal with the Bruegel, comes from this bit of collaged cover on our first-started and most-completed book. We had one fabulous Brueghel reproduction and cut it up to create a frock, a hat and two priapic Thatcher fans out of it. We have started about half a dozen books, one of them mostly text and the others are all children's picture books. We are learning a lot about what works and what doesn't in this kind of altered book art: experimenting with scale, colour, themes and so on.

Why is this collaboration the most enjoyable of all my forays this year? I think it has a lot to do with what we each bring in terms of complementary skills, intentions, appetites, politics, materials and a shared cynical sense of humour leavened with an appreciation of cuteness. Even though we didn't know each other terribly well before, from the beginning of this project we have consistently found that one will offer a suggestion that is exactly what the other one was thinking. So it's easy to trust each other and ourselves, and the process becomes increasingly fluid, dynamic and playful. We laugh a lot, we like what we are making, and someday we might even show it off, but there's no hurry; which is part of what makes it work too.

*The Response blog, on the other hand has turned out to be a complete fizzer. A more successful collaborative blog that I'm involved in is our family's recipe blog, called Nourish Us.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cute baby birds at Hamilton's Lake

baby coot
Its been raining and raining for weeks, but every now and then there's been a day of sunshine. One fine Tuesday I broke out of the studio and went for a walk around the volcanic crater in the middle of Hamilton, Lake Rotorua. I thought I might see some ducklings but there were none.

baby coot
Instead, the lake was full of dozens of baby coots with their bulging blue eyes, shiny red heads, and yellow ruffs. They are freaky little balls of fluff, and its hard to see how they will ever turn into the sleek elegant white faced coots parenting them so assiduously. Of course the adult coots have those weird scalloped feet, so maybe the freaky coot look just settles into their toes.

Also on the lake was a large family of goslings being herded around by a flock of doting adult geese. I know better than to get on the wrong side of a goose or gander so I didn't get many good pictures of them.

pukeko chick
But being seen taking pictures of cute animals meant people kept stopping to tell me where I'd find another lot of baby birds to photograph. I'm not sure I would have seen the discreet family of pukeko if I hadn't known to look out for them hidden in the rushes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What I did in the school holidays... Part 1

The girls are back at school and the quiet spaciousness of my two weeks alone in the Artist in Residence studio is now sizzling with the vibrant energy of the students. What did I get up to during the holidays? Lots... with progress on some long term projects, taking up long desired or neglected directions and lots of creative play.

My biggest project at the moment involves painting 570 metres of scroll to represent the 570 million years of complex multicellular life on earth. It's a brain boggling amount of time, especially when the entirety of human history occupies the equivalent of about 3 millimetres on the end of the last scroll. I'm not adding text, image or even pattern to the paper, just washing it with colour and allowing the accidental artifacts of the acrylic ink off a soft fat brush to differentiate one stretch of paper/time from another. Some of it is quite luscious.

Also part of the Punctuated Equilibrium collection which includes the scrolls, but at the opposite scale of perception, I am making microfossil sketchbooks. I'm drawing microfossil radiolaria and foraminfera from electron microscope photographs. My clumsy sketches will be bound into tiny little hardback books, just a little too big for a standard dollhouse. I've made two mockup mini blank books so far, and will probably make a couple more before I am confident enough to bind my sketches to the standard I want. Meanwhile, the girls who visit my studio have been so excited by the cuteness of these tiny books that they are making their own during Open Studios.

These tiny books are the first case bound/sewn multi signature books that I've made for quite a few years and I'm having a renewed burst of enthusiasm for these kind of structures. This is leading me into experimentation with similar structure including a possible jellyfish book using plastic bags. I really want to use plastic bags because so many predators are mistaking bags for jellyfish and choking to death, allowing the jellyfish population to expand unimpeded. But plastic bags are a difficult book-making material, and I'm not entirely sure about my jellyfish book experiment.

I'm also working on a paid commission at the moment, to sew an edition of 1000 art bindings. Making such a big edition means breaking the process down to the smallest possible steps. Possibly my least favourite task is threading needles, so I do about 26 at time. To my delight, the plate of waiting threaded needles look a bit like a jellyfish diagram to my jellyfish hungry eyes.

Coming soon: Part 2 ('Frugal with the Bruegel' altered books) and Part 3 (Antarctic blanket sculpture)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Don't forget the Magnolias

Marcia sent this picture of the Friendship Tree in the Chinese Garden at the Hamilton Gardens

Life got in the way of giving timely closure to my Magnolia of the Year competition. It's been a challenging couple of months for me during this magnolia season, but their fresh beauty everywhere around Hamilton has been a frequent beacon of light and hope everytime I see them.

Bussaco Woodland at Hamilton Gardens. The white one in the foreground is M.stellata, the pink one is a cambellii or similar, and there's an evergreen m. delavayi from Geoff

Three local magnolia fans sent me photos, all but one depicting trees in the Hamilton Gardens. I can't decide on a single winner this year. So all three entrants will receive a set of five blind embossed fossils.

Blind embossed fossils

I recommend checking out their blogs: Geoff writes about the Hamilton Gardens where he works. Marcia, a beekeeper, shares her passions for plants, bees and all sorts of interesting things she does.

A stella magnolia from Marcia

Joan, one of my most talented book making students, doesn't have a blog but perhaps should. She wrote of her magnolia photo, "It is a Star or Stella magnolia and I love the tattiness of the petals. The flowers remind me of Tibetan prayer flags in the mountains. The petals blow in the breeze and scatter on the lawn and as always I am in awe at the bounty and ease within and all around me."

Joan's favourite magnolia is in her neighbour's garden

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

If Jellyfish Wrote History

Way back
before the sky was even blue
in the preCambrian eternity
while plankton were inventing photosynthesis
Jellyfish ruled the waves.

The biggest and the baddest,
the most beautiful
creatures in the sea
and back then, the sea held
the entirety of life
rocking in a shallow soup
of our Ediacaran Eden.

Jellyfish invented self-propulsion
and almost immediately, dance.

Jellyfish harnessed electricity,
stealth, and society.
Continent-sized families
floated in gelatinous communion
dominating the seas
for a stretch of time so vast
that the entire history of shell wearers
and skeleton bearers,
their millions of years
of evolution, extinction, adaption;
the slip-sliding of continents
from before Gondwana to geopolitics;
the ascendancy of the Himalayas
from muddy sea floor
to icy heights;

has all been but a shimmering
turbulence on the surface.

My blind emboss print of woodcut of fossilised impression of preCambrian jellyfish

Top jellyfish photo by Rachel Bolstad

Saturday, October 03, 2009

White Tim Tams

Some time ago, I can't remember exactly when, I casually entered an online competition to be one of the first to taste a new Tim Tam flavour, and then promptly forgot about it, and moved house.

So when a large shiny red box turned up on the doorstep, slightly waterlogged from the rain, I had no idea what would be in it, not even with the Arnotts logo on the top as a huge clue. The box had gone to the old address and sat on the porch through days of rain until an old neighbour brought it round to our new address (my attempts to get NZPost to redirect our mail are proving completely unsuccessful- still!).

Opening up the red I found that I was one of the lucky 25 winners getting a taste preview of Tim Tam White. My answer to the skill question, why should I be one of the first tasters, had made extravagent promises about taste testing with my flatmates and then blogging about it to my many readers. So I did and I am.

After dinner, we made cups of tea all round and then ceremoniously reopened the box to admire the excessively beautiful packaging: a nest of straw and gold tissue nestling a single packet. Opening the packet itself, White Tim Tams are the expected creamy colour of all good white chocolate. All three of us having a strong preference for chocolate of varying shades of brown, we first aired our fears for this white chocolate experience: that it would be too sickly sweet.

We were most pleasantly surprised by the mild and delicious White Tim Tam.
"Better than I expected" said Matt.
"Not too overpowering" said Adrienne.

Adrienne bravely offered to test the Tim Tam's suitability for the contemporary dipping method. Biting off the chocolate sealing each end of the biscuit, she dipped one into her mug of tea and sucked up the beverage through the airholes in biscuit.
" 'smuch sweeter like this" she mumbled.
"What's sweeter? The Tim Tam or the tea?" we asked, but her Tim Tam was collapsing into slush in her fingers and I never found out the answer.

After eating two each, we all agreed it had been a lovely experience, but that the Caramel or Creme Brulee Tim Tams would still be our first choice.
"White chocolate has its place," mused Matt generously.
"Where would that be?"I wondered.
"At a chocolate biscuit party, with a selection of flavours available" suggested Adrienne.
We all thought that such a party would be a very good idea.

"Would you buy White Tim Tams again?" I asked the others.
"Every now and then" said Matt.
"Probably not," said Adrienne. "But I really appreciate the creativity of the flavour development, especially when I can try them for free!"
And I agree.