After a notable career as a film-maker, director Vincent Ward has returned to his first love: painting. He tells Greg Dixon how he has made the transition and what it has to do with kickboxing and electric currents.
Vincent Ward is a mass of jittery, excited energy.
Within five minutes of meeting me at a small warehouse in the back streets of St Lukes, he has whisked me from the darkened work area where his helpers are toiling over computers, hurried me into a high-vaulted, freezing warehouse space where he is creating his new work, has pelted past work tables, swiftly pointed out the wooden shelf where he sometimes sleeps rough because he's so busy and has hastened past the forklift he sometimes uses on his new project.
We stop briefly to have a look at the heavy bag he uses for kickboxing before he trots me back out to the computers to look at a digital schematic and then rushes me into the warehouse's kitchenette to make tea.
Even after he takes a seat he seems to be in motion, with his words bumping
into each other, his thoughts started but sometimes left unfinished as his mind rushes from one idea to the next.
He is, you have to understand, in a bit of rush. The director of some of New Zealand most visually compelling, wilfully arty and sometimes bewildering films is just a few weeks away from two major local showings and just months away from an appearance at the Shanghai Biennale, one of China's most established arts festivals.
However, it is not another enigmatic work of cinema that is occupying nearly all his mind and nearly all of his waking hours. It is a multimedia project encompassing giant paintings, enormous photographs, moving images and a book. After making films nearly all his adult life, he has finally returned to where his creative life began: painting.
Long before his debut feature, Vigil; long before his flirtation with Hollywood and long before his stumble with the ill-starred River Queen and the critical triumph of his Rain of the Children; Ward was, in the mid-1970s, a long-haired fine arts student at Ilam in Christchurch.
"I've got an honours degree in fine arts. I always promised myself I would return to painting, it's just taken me a long time to get round to it."
He began working through ideas with a camera, brushes and paints about three and a half years ago, giving the result their first public airing in a solo show at New Plymouth's Govett-Brewster Art Gallery early this year. He has built on those images to extend them to two new bodies of work - "cinematic installations" called Inhale, and a series of prints and paintings called Exhale - which will this month open to the public.
As a corollary to these shows, but also something of an art work in itself, he has also published a 180-page, large-format book called Inhale/Exhale, featuring some of this new work. He has high hopes for it; his previous book, The Past Awaits, sold out.
As if that isn't enough to make the 56-year-old jittery but also excited - he was still completing some of the work for the Wallace exhibition when we met - he has accepted the rather flattering invitation to exhibit yet more work at the Shanghai Biennale in October.
This solo show, called Auckland Station: Destinies Lost and Found will be held at a small, historic cathedral in the Bund, formerly the city's European settlement, and will feature a multiscreen cinematic installation and enormous paintings. So a bit of work to do then.
And then there's the money. At the time we talked, he figured he needed to raise somewhere in the order of $100,000 to make his biennale show happen.
So a bit stressed then? "Yeah it's very stressful. The only way I can stop thinking about work is to kickbox. Even though I'm no good at it and I only do it in a friendly way ... you can't think about work in those moments ... the endorphins kick in."
By reputation, Ward is nothing if not a sucker for punishment, though sucker isn't the word; glutton might be a little closer.
His 30-plus year career as a film director is as notable for the hardship and sacrifices he has endured as for the extraordinary images that career has produced.
In the late 1970s, he lived for two years in the Urewera with an old Maori woman and her handicapped son, resulting in the documentary In Spring One Plants Alone. In his search for the scary, claustrophobic valley he used as the setting for 1984's Vigil, he reportedly clocked up some 30,000km of driving.
The idea for his second feature, The Navigator, came to him while trying to cross a German autobahn after a night of sleeping rough on the roadside.
His travails making River Queen on the Whanganui River in the early 2000s have become legend. Production delays (not of his making) meant filming took place in wet, cold winter conditions, with lead actress Samantha Morton falling sick and production shut down for six weeks. In the subsequent fallout - costs ballooned - Ward was sacked from the production, only to return after the principal photography was completed.
And then there was his 1993 film Map of the Human Heart. "There may be times when I've gone out and looked for adventure, like filming [parts of Map of the Human Heart] on an ice floe edge in the Canadian Arctic, 100-odd miles from the nearest anything. But I think I've kind of passed that phase. I had frostbite for six months. Not too bad, but my cheeks were black, but it wasn't deliberate."
It was what the film required?
"No, it was just a mistake on my part; it was a mistake, I [didn't have] my balaclava ..."
Making Inhale/Exhale was, in parts, arduous too. While some of the painted work draws on his visions and images from his film What Dreams May Come and Rain of the Children, some of the most visually intriguing images are of naked women inside a giant plastic bag in what might be a black-green ocean. These series of haunting, claustrophobic - there's that word again - and eerie images took the photographer nine hours in a tank at Auckland's Kelly Tarlton's to shoot. That photographer was Vincent Ward.
"It was actually, I think, the hardest directing job I've ever done. The communication was really difficult because you're underwater; you've got three other cameramen - video cameraman, plus we were being filmed by a Close Up crew outside the glass. We had, I think, four safety divers.
"We had walkie-talkies ... it was sort of like doing a film. It was really complicated because the director - me - was actually under water ... plus the stakes were really high and you're worried about plastic in the tank and all their filtering systems working; and you're obviously worried about the performance from the six performers; one guy and four women."
These photographic works are, in the book, entitled "When I was 13 I almost drowned" - a reference to Ward's own experience. When I look at the images in the book I see drowning, falling, horror, fear, skies that seemed to be bruised by fire, lost souls in what might be hell and, well, death. In the words accompanying the images there are references to "sea wyfs", the death by suicide of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, flying a bomber over Germany and children who had been found living with animals. Academic and writer Roger Horrocks, in an essay at the back, draws parallels between Ward's work and that of 20th century British painter Francis Bacon.
However, when I ask Ward what, thematically, his Inhale/Exhale shows are all about he's, well, a bit reluctant to translate.
"I think there's a different range of ways to describe it. I'm a bit loathe to describe it in too many different ways ... The work is always about the psyche ... [it is] about paint and movement, or sometimes stillness and movement, and it's about sequences of images often, or sequences for things to do with what people experience.
"So I'm interested in people. All my films are about some form of, obviously, human experience and that is transformed into this sort of range of different media. Too long-winded?"
The director of the Govett-Brewster gallery, Rhana Devenport, puts it this way: "Ward's ongoing concerns with metamorphosis, falling, light, fear, memory, darkness and the transformative moment have led him to create a series of vast, physically imposing works that delve into other-worldly landscapes and transcendent states, to evocations of loss, redemption and unconscious realms."
Ward's artistic life began with his father's hands. He was born on an isolated Wairarapa farm to a father and mother - she a German Jew - who had both fought in World War II.
"I'd just draw and draw my father all the time. His hands were really damaged from the war, he had two-thirds to three-quarters of his body burnt and because he'd had these ambitions to be a lawyer, to be a writer, to be a detective, things that would use his mind and he was a very good story-teller and writer, his hands seemed to carry his dreams that he hadn't been able to realise, the scarred hands. So whenever I drew them they reflected the farm we lived on. In my mind his hands were like the scarred, burnt farm that he'd ... tried to make this perfect, beautiful farm."
At school Ward was very sports-focused but, after being concussed six times - he boxed, wrestled and played rugby - he moved his focus to the art room.
"I think what's kind of interesting is misfortune can actually lead you in positive directions sometimes and I also think that, I've noticed this with a number of writers ... that sometimes they've had serious accidents that mean they've ended up in hospital and they've had a lot of time to ruminate in their imaginations or they've had some other circumstance that's allowed them the space to set their imaginations free."
His own imagination was set free at Ilam, only to be frustrated by one tutor in particular, so he sought another space to play: film.
I wonder why, after three decades, he's decided to put film more or less to one side - for the moment - to concentrate on painting. "I've always been a bit of a frustrated painter I suppose, if you want to call it that. [I wanted to paint again] while I've got the energy. I feel that the film industry generally - internationally, not only here - is in some sort of ... it hasn't quite sorted out what it's doing. I want to ultimately keep making films and keep making art, and triangulate the two careers. I've been making films since I was 18, continuously, and never stopped; and I wanted time to rethink it and I wanted time to do this thing that has always been something I've had a passion for."
He has, he says, created a place to experiment and some of the experiments so far have been more interesting than others.
"I don't think it [art] is something that arrives somewhere, it's something that's on a continuum, it's sort of like you're exploring an area and it's like an electric current, it goes backwards and forwards between various points. It doesn't matter whether you end up in the negative or the positive, what matters is that it's alive, that the current's live and takes in a fresh experiment. It may be good or it may be bad - as long as it's alive and investigating something."
* Vincent Ward's Inhale exhibition is at Auckland's Gus Fisher Gallery from July 6 to August 25 and Exhale is at the Wallace Arts Centre at Pah Homestead, Hillsborough, from July 2 to September 2. Ward's Inhale/Exhale (Ron Sang, $150) is in stores from July 10. To help Ward get to the Shanghai Biennale, go to vincentwardfilm.com.