The Lady of Lake Wakatipu

This is a guest post by Bonnie Golightly.

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I am near Queenstown, New Zealand. An American golfer admires the view of the magnificent Lake Wakatipu. “I’m just all outa wows!” he says. The golf course is truly lakeside. It is very pretty. My game does not do the setting justice. By the fifth green, I am ready to give up. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that what I first thought was a weather-beaten tree stump is something much more interesting.

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I am drawn towards it and….. my O my…. how my heart thumps. Big metallic sister stuff!

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Mark Hill‘s 2015 untitled sculpture serves up a wonderful surprise in this setting. The feminine form is tall, imposing, defiant and very beautiful. I love her. In elegant gown and with hair streaming behind her, she stares out over the lake daring the elements to throw their worst at her.

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What I admire most is Hill’s technical mastery of his materials. He has used corten and stainless steels to create an astonishing impression of soft leather with bright hand-stitched piping. How he has designed, cut and put together those wind-blown locks is beyond me. This is a work of industry and passion.

I spend some minutes walking around the Lady of Lake Wakatipu. I even pose a question or two. Does she ever get cold? Does she get lonely? She ignores me of course. But encountering such a resilient woman lifts my spirits. With renewed determination, I make my way to the sixth tee.

Meeting Mike Howell

Tasman Golf Club, Nelson, New Zealand. It is pretty and quiet. I put $20 for my round in the “honesty box.” The sun is shining. I stand on the first tee. I am greeted by a fine view over the bay. All is well in the world. I hear a car pull up. Another golfer. “Fancy a round?” Friendly voice. Good bloke, I reckon. “Great idea!” I say.  “Mike Howell” he says. Firm handshake.

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By the first green, we have established the basics of the who, what, when and where of our respective lives. By the second, I have learnt that Mike is no ordinary golfer; he is also painter, sculpter, teacher, writer, illustrator, scientist, conservationist, fisherman, hunter, traveller, grandfather and the golf club’s Mr Fix-it. I tell him of my brief foray into painting and Talking Beautiful Stuff and how I don’t like the word art because I can’t define art and how I hate artspeak. His spine stiffens slightly; he turns to look at me anew. It’s like a gundog that’s caught a new scent. I see I have stepped into his professional domain.

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Mike’s entire home is his studio. It is hung about with beautiful stuff. I ask about what, at first sight, looks like a mixed-media collage of sticks and shells on a blue background. Some minutes later, I understand this is his tribute to the skills of the polynesian seafarers of yesteryear. For centuries, pacific islanders have paddled huge distances using for navigation aids only the night sky (the geographically arranged shells: note the two shells at the bottom doubling as New Zealand,) wave charts that record changes in the ocean swell thrown up by islands and reefs (the sticks) and the direction of flight of migratory birds such as godwits (the black twines.) These elements all come together in a pleasing and intriguing whole. I ask Mike about other paintings that could be described as “maori.” I realise that I have touched on what really floats his boat. He is professionally passionate about image-making as a means of education and keeping traditions alive among cultures that do not have a written history. He believes firmly that all children should be aware of the artistic heritage of their society and, as a means to bridge cultures, that of other societies as well. I am in awe of his clarity of thought together with his commitment to and eloquence on the subject. “But I have to show you my latest thing,” he enthuses. “It’s a tokotoko!” Right !

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A tokotoko is a stick that a wise maori elder might lean on whilst talking of generations past and accompanying myths and legends. Anyone else holding the tokotoko has the authority to speak. This tokotoko is an exceptionally beautiful piece of work. It would be fitting for the most respected of elders. It is a driftwood sapling with roots that mike has meticulously carved and adorned to produce images of some of New Zealands iconic, rare or even extinct fauna. It is a hand-crafted lesson in the unique ecology of this country.

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Prominent on the shaft is a Tuatara. In evolutionary terms it is a very very old beast. The name derives from maori meaning “peaks on the back”. I turn the tokotoko in my hands.

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Top right I find a huia. It is now extinct. It was the largest of the New Zealand wattlebird species. It was a striking black songbird. Female and male huia had dramatically different bill sizes and shapes; this is thought to be the most extreme sexual bill dimorphism of any bird species. Underneath the huia there is a South Island kokako that is also believed to be extinct. However, occasional snippets of song and possible glimpses of the “Grey Ghost” continue to tantalise ornithologists. Lower on the shaft of Mike’s tokotoko there is a representation of one of the native giant kauri snails. These molluscs are carnivorous, cannabilistic and may live for up to twenty years. Some species are also declining in numbers. Nestling right next to the snail is the increasingly endangered lesser short-tailed bat (pekapeka-tou-poto.) It is, unusually, a terrestrial bat that forages on the forest floor. Top left is a long fin eel (tuna kuwharuwharu;) one of the largest eels in the world. Its potential lifespan is about one hundred years and is found only in the rivers and lakes here. It was an important food source for the maori.

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The last feature of the tokotoko that Mike draws my attention to is a small brown godwit in flight. This brings our conversation full circle back to navigation. Each year about 80,000 of New Zealand’s godwits fly to the Yellow Sea (between China and North Korea), then on to Alaska, and back again. Precisely how they achieve this extraordinary feat is not entirely understood but it is certain that phases of the moon and the positions of stars (also incorporated on the tokotoko) guide these extraordinary birds on their epic journey.

I struggle to digest the aesthetic and intellectual span of Mike’s work. He very successfully makes manifest his eclectic interests and passions via a wide variety of image-making techniques. I take my hat off to him. He is committed to promoting humanity’s capacity to create beautiful stuff for the benefit of cultural future of generations to come. Meeting him is an enriching experience. And to think that when I first met him, I reckoned he was just a good bloke!

Art Geneva 2018 by the Lakeside

Art Geneva 2018 has come and gone. What remains is a series of sculptures selected for the lakeside extension of this ever-growing art fare. I think this is the best part of the whole show. I love it. Big, bold public sculpture in an ideal setting. There’s just one problem. It’s minus 6 degrees by the lake today. The wind barrelling down from Lausanne makes it colder still. Wave-made icicles hang off “no swimming” signs (!) and mooring ropes. Only a few hardy dog-walkers and I are out and about. Somehow, the sculptures stand immune to and united against the blistering cold.

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Gonzalo Lebrija “Cubo Torcido” Polyurethane paint on steel, 2017

Gonzalo Lebrija’s twisted cube sits on a neat and clean base. It is itself a neat and clean structure. The smooth worked steel makes for blade-like lines. I run my numb thumb down it’s frozen edges. The proportions and feel are pleasing.

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Anthony Gormley “Big Take” Forged iron, 2014

O frabjous day! An Anthony Gormley. Somehow, someone from Art Geneva has managed to snag from somewhere and install here a work by the master of forged iron big public sculpture. I walk around it. No clean base this time but some carefully laid turf. Were it not for the temperature, I would sit by it for an hour or so and simply admire its balanced cuboid proportions. It makes me happy.

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Barry Flanagan “Large monument” Bronze, 1996

My third choice is Barry Flanagan’s “Large monument”. The name doesn’t help understand what passed through the sculpter’s mind in the creative process. Maybe this builds on the intrigue. I am sure there is a reference to some otherworld fantasy. (It reminds me of Paul Dibbles very real-world “Calici scythe“) Three happy rabbitoid figures prance and dance atop a tall, rough, solidly-sitting throne-like thingummyjig. A fourth figure sits pensively as though he/she/it is bored with the prance-dance. The reason I admire it is that whilst it is certainly a “large monument,” I can’t see Mr Flanagan taking the necessary work terribly seriously. I think he just had fun.

If you can’t brave the cold now wait a week or so for a slightly warmer Geneva lakeside to take in these sculptures. Individually and collectively, they are immensely gratifying.

Roundabouts in Martigny

I am in Martigny, le Valais, Switzerland. The small town sits comfortably in the Rhone valley surrounded by precipitous mountains. Travelling to ski in Zermatt, Verbier or Crans-Montana, you are likely to pass through here. Historically, it is a gateway to the high passes that access southern Europe. There are the remains of an old Roman fort. It is the hub of a centuries-old wine growing tradition. It is also a surprisingly rich centre for “modern art” (whatever the phrase means) and is home to the Gianadda Foundation.

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Rudolf Blattler

My first impression is that of a clean and quiet town. It seems that the inhabitants of Martigny go about their business quietly and in an orderly fashion. Careful drivers of German cars respect the speed limits, each other and those on foot. The first impression lasts. A stroll around the streets instills a feeling of calm. For a moment, I thought I had come across the Big Luggage People from Amsterdam!

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André Ramseyer

The major difference between this Swiss town and others is the roundabouts. In Martigny, each is a carefully maintained grassy dome on top of which sits an intriguing if not beautiful contemporary sculpture.

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Josef Staub

Josef Staub’s massive ribbon of twisted stainless steel catches my eye. It reminds me of Gayle Hermick’s “Wandering the immeaasurable.”

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Hans Erni

The streets provide a unique big sculpture exhibition that’s worth a visit. You can find this work by Hans Erni only fifty metres from the railway station.

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Yves Dana

More gratifying than finding these wonders so well presented in the streets of such a town is that the brave sculptors who have allowed their souls to be bared are adequately acknowledged with handsome little signs bearing their names. These signs face the traffic coming into each roundabout; I imagine this is so the names can be read by drivers and pedestrians alike. Fantastic! Such thoughtful practice is rare in the domain of big public sculpture. Bravo, Martigny!

It’s her day!

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Andy Denzler “Liquid Walking Woman” 2016 Bronze

I stroll through down-town Geneva. It is hot. Very hot. Every-language tourists swarm the luxury shrines to chocolate and watches. A stunning new bronze sculpture in Place de Longemalle stops me in my tracks. It is a young woman in hoody, cut-off denim shorts and trainers walking with confidence. She holds a smartphone. Like her living counterparts, she seems unaware of her allure or the conveniences brought by smartphone culture. She is constructed of horizontal segments re-stacked. The texture contrasts effectively with the smooth skin of the presumed model. Somehow, this sculpture captures the young woman of today. It is very beautiful and very gratifying.

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Andy Denzler “Selfie” 2016 Bronze

I look around for the plaque that names the genius behind this work. Instead, I spot the same young woman only forty metres away. She has both feet firmly planted and her smartphone held up towards her other self striding to meet her. She has that small-screen look of concentration. Is she photographing her twin, taking a selfie, recording the street scene or checking her make-up? I am captivated by these works individually and as a pair. Finding them makes my day. I wander round them admiring the poise, youth and statement that the sculptor has accomplished here. Eventually, I find a little sign that tells me these are recent works of Andy Denzler from Zurich. They are presented by and just outside the Opera Gallery.

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Andy Denzler “Selfie” 2016 Bronze (detail)

I did not grow up in the internet era nor even with a mobile phone. Denzler’s subject cannot possibly know existence without a smartphone. It is also her camera, her street map, her address book, her pen and paper, her mirror, her compass, her library, her photo album, her stereo, her shopping mall, her magazines, her cinema and much more besides. Her friends and friends’ friends, real and virtual, are connected, categorized and communicated with by Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Whatsapp and Instagram. As for all of my generation, what mobile technologies bring to humanity is both fascinating and intimidating. Were I to find myself in conversation with Denzler’s young woman, I’d be interested to know whether she could conceive of life before smartphones. And if I said something stupid like “Well, in my day, we didn’t have such technology.” I am certain she would simply look up from the screen for a second or two, look my squarely in the eye and say politely “But it’s not your day!”