Gimblett installation honours war fallen, writes Adam Gifford

For the next three months St David's Presbyterian Church on Khyber Pass will glimmer like a medieval knight. And like a crusader, it hopes the cross will bring new life and treasure.

For St David's has always been a soldier's church, and its new metal coat is the cladding for a campaign not only of personal restoration but to keep the faith of honouring the memories of those who fought in New Zealand's wars.

The mobilisation came suddenly, just six weeks ago, after a conversation between art consultant Paul Baragwanath and artist Max Gimblett.

Baragwanath is a member of a trust trying to restore the church, which closed its doors in December after falling below the synod's minimum for earthquake readiness.

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New York-based Gimblett, now a Buddhist monk, attended the Grafton church seven decades ago.

"For him it is like a spiritual home, so he said if there is anything he can do to support its restoration, just say the word," Baragwanath says.

That word came a few days later, when a cousin gave Baragwanath one of the 888,000 ceramic poppies produced for an installation at the Tower of London to commemorate the British Commonwealth's World War I dead.

"I thought 'what an incredible idea' and then I realised St David's foundation stone was laid on Anzac Day 1927 as a soldiers' memorial church. It has been home to the Royal New Zealand Engineers, and this would have been the first Anzac Day since 1927 when there would not have been a service, so how could we celebrate the building and continue to fill the role of commemorating those who lost their lives."

After discussions with the artist, the idea emerged of covering the church with 7000 brass quatrefoils, a shape Gimblett uses extensively in his painting. Each piece would be about the size of a soldier's hand.

"It's a cross, it's a lotus, a symbol of peace, in this context it becomes a poppy, so we feel it has become the Pacific poppy - turn the quatrefoil 45 degrees and it suddenly becomes familiar from Pacific iconography," Baragwanath says.

"The quatrefoil is at the heart of Max's practice. That's the work he is represented in the Guggenheim with."

Silkscreened on each piece is one of seven designs Gimblett produced in a frenzied session of ink painting in his signature style of abstract expressionism meets Eastern calligraphy.

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Once the basic concept was agreed, Baragwanath worked his contacts, pulling together a team of 400 volunteers and pro bono professionals to mount a major art project at short notice.

It has required fulltime commitment from project manager Xigo and architect Warren and Mahoney, working out the systems needed to attach the quatrefoils to the walls in such a way they looked random and unforced.

Hirepool thought it was lending cranes for a four-day installation, but it took 12 days.

Each piece was laser cut from a sheet of pure brass, lacquered, baked, silkscreened, and connectors and stabilisers added to the back.

The art department at Gimblett's old school, Auckland Grammar, was taken over for the project.

The process of baking, screening and weathering means each piece is unique.

Baragwanath says the marks introduce a human element.

"As you approach you see all the works have their own personality. That works for a project that is meant to represent all those who served in World War 1, not just the soldiers but the nurses and others," Baragwanath says.

"The marks are the spirit of those people. It might be blood, it might be dirt, but it is very much a human presence."

A soundtrack has been generated from recordings solicited on the project website rememberthem.nz.

Speaking from New York, Gimblett says he was driven by a conviction St David's should not be pulled down.

"It was my childhood church, I went to it when I was 5 and I still have my Bible I received in Sunday school when I was 7. [Minister] Owen Baragwanath, Paul's grandfather, was a big factor in my upbringing, in many ways he was my moral centre," he says.

"The quatrefoil, which I started painting in 1983, was present in St David's in the windows and in the pews and up around the encasements. I went on to discover it is a sacred symbol in Christianity since the early Middle Ages; it is featured in most church architecture. It came to me in a dream. The quatrefoil spoke. It said 'paint me and I will heal you'. And I woke and realised it was a mandala. And a mandala is something that when you see it in a dream is an image of wholeness, of completeness.

"It's a feminine cruciform. It's Jesus in his feminine form. It's a world clock, a Japanese sword guard, an Irish four-leaf clover and it is especially the Jungian four functions, thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition."

The quatrefoils can be bought for $100 each. Baragwanath says if sales take off, more than 7000 can be produced.

It will take a lot of brass to reopen the church, which the Friends of St David's Trust sees as being a civic asset for a community which is swelling as surrounding sites are filled with apartments.

The work changes constantly as the sun moves across the sky. At sunrise and sunset it glows and creates a zone of peace.

"This work has soul and depth and meaning and resonance," Baragwanath says. "It's an artwork of peace, hope and new beginnings. It's a gift for Auckland to connect people and inspire them."

Some of that inspiration is immediately apparent. The windows of the play centre beside the church are now decorated with red paper poppies in the shape of a quatrefoil as big as a soldier's hand.

What and who: The Art of Remembrance by Max Gimblett
Where and when: St David's, Khyber Pass, until July 24