T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: A metaphor for magic

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Stimulating installations on large scale stretch the imagination

Michael Stevenson installation at Michael Lett. Photo / Chris Gorman
Michael Stevenson installation at Michael Lett. Photo / Chris Gorman

This week in Auckland we have two really gutsy, large works of sculpture in the form of installations. They grapple with large themes, although one is approachable and clear while the other is dark and obscure.

The work of Gregor Kregar fills the entire space of the Gow Langsford Gallery. It is in a direct line from the much admired Dream House Project which stepped its way, cathedral-like, through the foyer of Te Tuhi in Pakuranga. Like that work, it is made from tonnes of scrap timber used in a gigantic constructional improvisation.

Humble materials take on substantial architectural forms. Short lengths of found, discarded waste timber of all sizes, including framing and decking, are built up in improvised triangulations so that from small bases a series of arches rise. These join together and support an overarching canopy. The fastening is with ordinary galvanised nails.

The ingenuity in building up the shape while improvising support structures with a huge variety of sizes and lengths of timber is extraordinary.

In the work at Te Tuhi the timber was left as it came. Here, it has been roughly whitewashed, which gives a unity and also makes a setting for the other found material Kregar has used - lengths of neon signage tubing in a variety of colours and shapes. The tubes are woven into the structure in straight lengths and loops that sometimes are letters although no message is spelled out. The structure is magical. The lighting adorns it splendidly. It is a metaphor for the basic human need for shelter and light.

It is also an implied critique of the way thousands of tonnes of material from earthquake damage and leaky buildings were used as landfill. There are additional references to utopian schemes and to new methods of recycled building materials. The viewer might also think of nests and the needs that drive the poor of many cities to improvise shantytowns.

While it carries all these implications it is also a captivating visual delight as the eye moves around the artist's improvisations. It also takes special warmth of human pleasure from the simple swing at its centre that emphasises the structural strength of the canopy.

Much more solemn in the cavernous space of the Michael Lett Gallery is the work by Michael Stevenson. His Proof of the Devil is made of steel sections. These are used to frame and brace four doors set in an open square. Double doors are on two sides, single on the others. The doors themselves are plain brown and taken, it seems from the notices on them, from a science laboratory. They have the usual PUSH or PULL notices on them.

The doors are so heavily supported that they have something of a Stonehenge quality. Hardly noticeable are the mechanisms on top of the doors. These are linked to a programme that decides which way the doors will open. This is often in defiance of the notices and totally unpredictable.

This demonstration of apparent randomness, we are told, springs from the work of a mathematician at the University of Panama who observed that his colleagues, though academics of the highest order, often pushed when they should pull and vice versa. His work on probability stemmed from this, which is not as esoteric as it may seem because probability and the associated calculation of risk govern all aspects of life in society, business and politics and, obviously, in gambling.

The implications and complexity of probability symbolised by the doors are further illustrated by a film that is part of the installation. This arises from the life of mathematician Jose de Jesus Martinez, who researched the decisions about the door. He had been a pilot and a security guard and worked on a resort island in Panama. He does not appear but the permutations of shuffled cards, the politics of Panama and the important international decision-makers who took refuge all get mentioned. The work reminds us of the innumerable decisions we make every day from, "Is it going to rain?" to "Am I likely have a heart attack?"

This massively made demonstration is intimidating but does deal, though in an oblique way, with the basic problems of existence, from personal to politics.

Also involved with construction, whether with Meccano or toy railway lines, is the work of John Lyall at Whitespace. The outline of a moa is readily identifiable and this show uses it as the predominant motif. The moa is shown as a tattoo carved on a leg and drawn in different ways against blue and gold backgrounds in photographic prints.

The show includes a straight photograph of labelled moa bones in a museum. They appear to look at each other in a cibachrome print called Two Moa gaze upon their demise. A photo on canvas called Bird Hall is particularly impressive in its composition and vivid colour.

It all makes an exhibition full of invention and visual wit that also hints at the fragility of existence.


At the galleries

What: New Structures by Gregor Kregar
Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St, to September 28
TJ says: An astonishing structure made with great skill entirely from discarded timber and neon tubing that fills the gallery with visual surprises and stimulates thought on many levels.

What: Proof of the Devil by Michael Stevenson
Where and when: Michael Lett Gallery, 2/285 Great North Rd, to September 28
TJ says: Meditation on the mathematics of probability applied to which way doors open produces a solemn sculptural structure but one with meaning dependent on commentary.

What: Moa, Moa, Moa by John Lyall
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to September 28
TJ says: Colourful, inventive display of the moa shape in a variety of media from tattoo through photography to toy train rails and Meccano.

- NZ Herald

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