Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Miner’s Cook

Flying in, the sea is dark and demanding.

Our island appears like a jewel and grows

green until we circle to land,

then I see the red sore gouged at its centre

and my bile rises as the plane drops.

On the ground I am lost in the chaos

of unloading in a sudden dark that hides everything

beyond our beams. I’m looking for the bread,

fresh bread brought to last this first week

but by the time I’ve found it the loaves are gnawed to stale crusts

and I’m in despair with a hungry crew to feed.

I must push my fear and sorrow

out into the dark and be grateful when our neighbours,

the whalers, come over the hill with roast meat.

I stumble asleep among crates of food

and dream of home but when I wake up I’m still here

and a relentless dawn calls me to breakfast for thirty.

For days of sorting supplies and learning a new kitchen,

fuelling men between their shifts,

all I ever see is the grassy slopes sheltering our camp,

a wink of water behind us and a sky full of strange stars.

Finally there is time for a walk, up the hill:

I see again the bleeding gash I am feeding,

and vomit into the grass.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Editioning- The Movie

Editioning from Meliors Simms on Vimeo.

It's taken exactly 13 months to finish making my short film about making an edition of 100 books on commission. I wrote about the experience last year, and actually put a rough cut together straight away, then stalled on finding a soundtrack. Then I recently discovered The Serious Ukulele Ensemble, and their music is so perfect that I could finish the editing quite quickly.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Playing in the snow and mud

Almost Antarctica, except for the ski lift cables.

This week I went away for a little break, mostly because after spending so long with the idea of Antarctica I wanted to see at least a little snow made of frozen water instead of wool and cotton. The nearest place to see snow is the mountains in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand, about three hours drive from where I live. I persuaded my buddy Robin, who has a car, to take a few days holiday with me. I didn't have to twist her arm very hard at all.

I thought that once up on the mountain I'd be able to narrow my focus and squint a little and maybe be able to imagine myself in Antarctica. Unfortunately, wherever I looked there was always some bit of greenery, or if not greenery, some building, road or ski lift. But it didn't matter, because there was snow, and some of it was blowing into my face in a very cold wind, and that seemed pretty authentic. Also Robin brought along a blow up sled, and that was very fun!
Three seems to be the optimal number on the Twister sled

After Robin and I took a few hilarious uncontrolled slides down the slope, she wondered how many kids could fit on the sled. Playing on the edge of the sledding slope was a group of children from Ngaruawahia Primary School who didn't have sleds or skis or snowboards. Watching them play on Robin's sled was even more fun that sledding ourselves. After a couple of hours in the snow, in conditions that could be generously described as stormy, we retreated back down to the Chateau for port and hot chocolate by the open fire, eavesdropping on rich people's complaints about the poor skiing conditions.

Taking a stroll to the Falls

But it's a truism that the weather in the mountains is changeable: the snow clad golf course we stomped across on our first day was melted to a green swamp (dotted with snowmen) on the second. And while we were recovering in luxury from the blizzardish morning, the sky suddenly cleared giving us the rare sight of all three mountains cloud-free. Ngarahoe, aka Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings, is such a perfect volcanic cone that I had to take about a million cliched photos of it. I don't know why, since I've chosen Robin's photo of me to illustrate.

The best thing about our little break was the hot pools at the Oasis in Tokaanu. The Oasis is perfectly adequate budget accomodation that I've been visiting for at least a dozen years. Guests get unlimited use of the on-site hot mineral pools and there's nothing like a hot stinky soak to ensure a very good night's sleep. The volcanic mountains and the hot pools are all reminders that the earth's crust is very thin here, and the landscape rather volatile.

On the way home we visited the Craters of the Moon, a geothermal feature consisting mainly of steaming holes in the ground.

My favourite part was a really big crater with shapely Chinese-looking rocks thrusting out of bubbling mud pools and steam vents, covered in lush primordial greenery.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Amundsen’s Dogs

My Antarctica (Pancake Ice)

Amundsen's Dogs

In loose drift,
the bicycle wheel clogs
but Amundsen ices the runners
and the sledge, laden
like a steamer ship
follows the dogs smartly.

Happy dogs, running
fighting, resting in the snow
they like to burrow in,
let the drift cover them
like a comforter
and tuck their noses under their bushy tails.

"This land looks like a fairytale!"
Amundsen exclaims, and he builds
hundreds of cairns like ice queen castles
marking the route at intervals
to suit his dogs.

So much energy contained in each rest:
men conferring, dogs alert and wagging
still tethered to the ship-shape sledge
skis, flags thrusting upwards
all straining the reach the South Pole

(c) Meliors Simms

I wrote Amundsen's Dogs a few months ago, while immersed in my big Antarctic project, when I was devouring all the Antarctic books I could lay my hands on. The poem was inspired by a book of Amundsen's photographs, mostly snapshots he took himself. Unlike the British expeditions, he didn't have a professional photographer in his party. His photos aren't as brilliant as Ponting's or Hurley's but they evoke the mood of his expedition quite well. It seems impossible to write about Amundsen without reference to Scott, and this poem is as much about Scott's second as it is about Amundsen's first.

BTW For those less obsessed with Antarctic history than me, in the days before GPS a bicycle wheel was attached to a sledge and measured the distance covered. Not very accurately, because if the snow was soft the wheel wouldn't turn.

I whipped up this little piece of Antarctic stitching very recently. Despite my enthusiasm for oil and mining, it seems I can't leave the ice completely behind. Pancake ice is so pretty and apparently there's more of it about these days. Unfortunately this is caused by warming polar seas and itself contributes to a feedback loop by allowing the seas to warm more quickly.

I made Pancake Ice as a small continuation of My Antarctica series. Ross Island is already earmarked for a buyer, and continental My Antarctica is probably out of the price range of most people who follow this blog, but Pancake Ice, mounted, is only 21 x 16cm, and priced accordingly. Email me if you are interested.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Punctuated Equilibrium

View from the stairs to the National Contemporary Art Award Gallery

You've read about the installation of my little solo show at the Waikato Museum, Punctuated Equilibrium. This post shows you around the Vitrine, and explains my ideas. I was inspired by the Vitrine’s associations with the cabinets of curiosities of Victorian naturalists. The confined space allowed me a manageable scale-representation of geological time and the glass windows are perfect for exhibiting delicate work which need to be seen but not touched.

Punctuated Equilibrium is a theory of evolution in which species stay stable for long periods with adaption and extinction happening relatively swiftly in response to environmental changes. Our Anthropocene age seems set to demonstrate this theory: the widespread species extinctions are well underway, although evidence of adaption will take a little longer to prove.

There are four elements to the exhibition: Deep Time paper scrolls, embossed fossils, embroidered fossils and the microfossil sketch book. The stories fossils tell about evolution, adaption, and the causes and consequences of extinction are particularly relevant today as we finally start to understand the long term environmental impacts of industrialisation, capitalism and consumerism.

Deep Time through glass reflecting the Museum foyer.

To understand these ideas you have to unfocus your eyes from the here and now and imagine the immensity of geological time, deep time. Last year, while artist in residence at Hamilton Girls High School I handpainted 570 metres of paper to represent the 570 million years of multi-cellular life on earth. I would love to represent the billions of years since the Big Bang, but settled for something that took only months instead of years for me to make. Deep Time is unfurled in the Vitrine as a rippling, layered cliff face evocative of both stratified rock formations and sea water.

Paper strata

Deep Time represents: millions of years when most of the world was covered in warm shallow seas populated by blobby things collectively creating our atmosphere. Millions of years of ferns and small and large creepy crawlies. Dinosaurs. Asteroids. Volcanoes and lots of tectonic plate shifting. Untold species that lived and died before mammals even thought about becoming primates, let alone humans.

Embossed fossils

I was fortunate to be able to take a print class at WSA last year, and despite Joan Travaglia's superlative teaching I became obsessed with blind embossing and never did anything more complicated after that. I made five woodcuts of different fossils and embossed hundreds of them onto heavy paper, then cut out each one by hand.

Stories Below Ground consists of 500 or so brown kraft paper fossils are spread across the floor of the Vitrine, like leaf litter (and in fact at first glance are easily mistaken for leaves). The same fossils embossed onto heavy cream paper are packaged as an artist book called Five Fossils which includes copy of my poem Punctuated Equilibrium and is for sale in the Museum's micro shop (as well as on Etsy). The five fossils are an ammonite, star fish, sea urchin, trilobite and Ediacaran jellyfish.

Framed embroideries

In the months between finishing last year's coral reefs and starting My Antarctica projects I stitched up a few small fossils for Punctuated Equilibrium. This was how I discovered the joys of embroidering onto blankets. I enjoyed playing around with a wider palette of stitches and colours with these projects. The fossils are from left to right: sea stars, crinoid, tessarolax and ammonite.

Micro fossil micro sketch book

By far the most common fossils in the world are the microscopically small ones, the planktons, pollens and other tiny life forms which have always been the basis of the whole food chain, the balance of gases in our atmosphere and nutrients in soils and the sea. Zoom in on images of these micro fossils and you will see an incredible variety of different shapes and textures. I sketched a selection to make into a tiny hand made book, a micro fossil sketch book.

Micro fossil sketch book on its own plinth (I love the plinth!) and groovy graphics by the Museum designers

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Craft, process, materials

My Ross Island. The only finalist in the NCAA that I have permission to reproduce.

I'm sure that this year's Bold Horizon National Contemporary Art Award won't cause nearly the stir that last year's did (the pile of rubbish scandal of 2009). Congratulations to Locust Jones for his papier mache orbs (swiss -ball sized, one with text the others mostly painted/drawn images) that won the Award. It's an interesting, challenging piece that will stir conversation but probably not national controversy.

The 32 finalists (selected from 280 entries) included lots of craft-based work as well as paintings and photographs. Not to mention a sound-vent almost too subtle to comprehend, certainly among a chattering crowd. And a tiny cast of an actual ant in its own little vitrine.
I loved that there was an artist's book, a woven paper print, a french knitted rosary curtain and hand spun wool bouquet. I felt the diversity of selection was a real affirmation for all of us who are crafting in contemporary art contexts.

There were so many pieces which will reward sustained attention that I look forward to going back again when it's quiet to look (and listen) long and hard, especially at some intriguing videos, contemplative paintings, and my favourite, a mountainous intricate cardboard installation by Ruth Thomas-Edmond called Heap.

The judge, Rachel Kent, of Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art was very good at explaining her criteria for selection and I was thrilled to hear her articulate appreciation of craft, process and materiality. She likes to see evidence of hours of work, craft and skill in exectution. And although some of the finalist's work is very slick in presentation, none of it seems glib or quick or superficial.

Rachel also talked a lot about the materials, and the inherent sensuality of many surfaces, as well as the surprising transformation of mundane materials eg cardboard, rubber bands or wool blankets into evocative objects. So many of the pieces seem to invite touch and it's hard to resist the desire to stroke mauve cardboard cliffs, plunge your fingers into a pile of twisted rubber bands, brush your cheek against fluffy blooms, squeeze woollen beads, skim the shiny painted surface of the globes, stack slipcast logs or lean against the topless table legs.

It is a remarkably coherent exhibition considering the diversity of styles. The curation is exquisite, so that you are led from piece to piece in a journey that explicates many of the conversations in contemporary art. For example, you can follow a path from the tiny ant cast in paint, to a row of hanging paint spills, to a photo of sculptured paint, to the great cardboard mountain sculpture, to my small woolen volcanic island, and they all make sense together.

A number of themes, many dear to my heart, are evident including landscape, environmental concerns, repurposing used and mundane materials and domestic life and intimacy. There's lots that is also beautiful, not something to be taken for granted at all in this context. And these works are not just beautiful but also intelligent, complex and often funny as well.

In every medium there are playful pieces, so that the whole gallery has a ripple of laughter about it. Unlike the one harsh in-joke of last year's winner, this exhibition's puns and delicate surprises allow everyone in on the fun.

PS Much as I would like to post photos of the works I've talked about, they aren't my images to share. The best view of course is in real life at the Waikato Museum between now and January. But if you can't make it to the Tron, you can look at the catalogue online, and I recommend you do.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Poetry Day Winners!

Friday was National Poetry Day in New Zealand and it was great. This year I wasn't even envious of my poet-blogger friends reporting events in other cities because Hamilton had a full programme to enjoy.

Having finished installing Punctuated Equilibrium (complete with eponymous poem as the artist's statement) at the Waikato Museum I biked up to Garden Place for the launch of the Phantom Posters poetry poster project. The poster poems were all by various well-known New Zealand and international poets and each poem was read by a local politician or 'personality' before being ceremoniously pasted onto the poster bollard outside the Public Library.

I cheekily took a seat in the front row (no doubt displacing some celebrity) and invited my friend and fellow blogger Joan to join me. I took out my stitching to do as I enjoyed the sunshine and the poems. You can see a photo of me here, stitching as I listened, on her blog, Sempiterna Me... (if you scroll down you'll see she's written another poem about my stitching)

After that I went home for a long nap, in preparation for the next scheduled poetry event, an open mic at the library. I was a 'guest poet' and got to read second in the lineup- I seem to have been promoted in the local poetry hierarchy thanks to publicity about Two Kinds of Time being a finalist in the Rhysling Awards. There was a good turnout of local poets and our supporters.

The highlight of my evening was being awarded first prize ($300 of book vouchers!) in the Wintec Open Poetry Competition. I'd entered my poem, Ponting's Genius, which is now published online here. Richard Swainson, Hamilton's best MC, came up to me afterwards and remonstrated me for appearing to venerate an Australian cricket captain, though of course the poem is actually about Scott's Antarctic photographer.

There is another winner to announce for Bibliophilia's own National Poetry Day competition. Sue, from Wellington was the name drawn completely at random from my fruit bowl! Congratulations Sue, I'm putting your signed book in the post tomorrow.

If you missed out on the giveaway and you would like to buy your own copy of Voyagers, you can buy it through Amazon.com or other online book sellers.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Getting inside a glass triangle

Arranging paper strata inside the Vitrine

I have had a crush on the Vitrine at the Waikato Museum since I first started making artist's books, which are so awkward to exhibit in conventional gallery settings. That beautiful big glass cabinet, in its prominent foyer location just looked to me like the perfect place to show my books. So about a year ago I was delighted to be invited to submit a proposal for a Vitrine Exhibition.

I put forward a proposal called 'Punctuated Equilibrium', a site-specific installation of both books and textiles and then completed almost all the pieces during my time as Writer/Artist in Residence at Hamilton Girls High School last spring and summer. I'll write more about the content of the exhibition in another post, but for now I want to tell you about the installation. It was wonderful to be working with the professionals at the Museum who made it a much easier process that other installations I have struggled though with the help of good friends but relatively few resources.

Dowel supports for paper scrolls

By far the biggest challenge of the installation was my Deep Time Scrolls: 570 metres of painted paper which I wanted to be laid out like rock strata up the back wall. Stu designed and built an structure to support the paper, and on Thursday morning Emily and I squeezed into the Vitrine to begin unrolling the scrolls. The tight, freshly painted, space was hot and stuffy and the arrangement of the paper full of awkwardness and uncertainty which made a very slow process.

Paper scrolls before installation

We were constantly interrupted, first and most significantly by the Prime Minister, John Key, who was visiting the Museum with security and ceremonial requirements that saw Em and I expelled from our install for an hour or more. (Naturally this did little drama did nothing to reverse my poor opinion of our smarmy leader). Throughout the day Emily was called away to assist other artists install their complicated entries in the NCAA. And I was also called away in the middle of the day in a futile attempt to transport My Antarctica to be photographed (a task finally completed on Sunday).

Emily, being tinier than me, bravely occupied the narrow end of the triangle for most of the day

With all these distractions and the labouriously slow paper work, it seemed criminal for me to decide in the middle that I needed to change the order of the colours on the wall. Rolling two scrolls back up and then laying them out again added another hour, though I have no regrets about that decision. It was near five by the time the back wall was finished to my satisfaction. Poor Emily called her partner to say she would be late home and spent another hour hanging four framed embroideries, a process involving some back tracking again as my original plan turned out not to be at all suitable.

Not long before I decided to rearrange the colour scheme

The pressure was on us to finish on Thursday because all the Museum staff would be away on Friday at a Treaty of Waitangi workshop. But that just wasn't possible so I came back and completed the installation alone. Well, I had the front of house staff for company, and was under the scrutiny of Museum visitors, who while less illustrious than the previous day, were more interested and outspoken. A group of pre-schoolers seemed quite amazed that there could be "a person in there".

All the kneeling, crawling and contorting of the previous day inside the glass triangle meant that on Friday, every movement was agony. My final step of the install was to place hundreds of embossed paper fossils to completely cover the floor. Unfortunately, having done that I stepped outside to admire the finished exhibition and immediately saw that the lighting needed to be adjusted. Once again I had to retrace my steps, moving all the embossed fossils off the floor, sorting out the lights and then carefully arranging the fossils again.

Then, finally, really, I was finished. By the time I'd spent time looking at the Vitrine from every angle, deciding I was quite pleased and taking plenty of photos, it was noon, and time for the Hamilton launch of National Poetry Day, so I took myself along to that, which will I will write about in my next post.

The finished wall and floor