Lowdown
What: Perpetual Guardian Sculpture on the Gulf (SotG)
Where & when: Waiheke Island, Friday, March 1-Sunday, March 24

Virginia King has islands on her mind.

Actually to be precise, the renowned New Zealand sculptor has her mind on one island – Waiheke – and Venice, the almost mythical city of 118 small islands barely held together by canals and bridges.

King is in the throes of making work – mainly the large-scale, stainless steel sculptures for which she is known and loved – for shows in both places. First is the biennial Sculpture on the Gulf, the stunning Waiheke Island event where contemporary sculptures are installed along a 2km coastal walk to show off the equally breath-taking natural environment. Then, in May, she travels to Venice, having been invited by the European Cultural Centre to exhibit in a "collateral exhibition" which coincides with the Venice Biennale.

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As the summer cicadas thrum in the garden of the St Mary's Bay villa King shares with architect husband Mike, she seems remarkably composed given the labour involved in making art for two high-profile shows on opposite sides of the world.

The four-times winner of SotG's People's Choice Award, King admits that when she committed to Venice - after determining the invitation wasn't a hoax - there was a moment when she thought about withdrawing from Waiheke but dates changed and she was able to do both.

Nevertheless, despite the calm demeanour, King says it's been a lot of work spread across her home studio, the one she has at the family bach on Waiheke – "we bought years ago when no one wanted land on Waiheke Island" – and at rented premises in Newton.

"It's been huge. I work really hard anyway but there was a point where I did think, 'I hope I don't kill myself'."

King's also been taking commissions to help fund the trip to Venice where, despite being the only New Zealand artist invited to show in Personal Structures, she has to pay for gallery space and transporting by air four works and a video to the Palazzo Bembo on the Grand Canal.

"You can't say no to Venice; it's a huge responsibility," she says, adding that it's a chance not just to raise her own profile but also awareness of environmental issues and create more interest in New Zealand sculpture.

Virginia King's LookoutPacific Radiolaria, for Sculpture on the Gulf's 2011 season.
Virginia King's LookoutPacific Radiolaria, for Sculpture on the Gulf's 2011 season.

Concern about the environment has fuelled her practice since the late 1980s, when King learned about global warming and climate change long before the terms slipped into daily use: "I just could not get anybody to listen, so I thought, 'from now on, I will make work about life and survival'."

In 2013's SotG, King made a Hīnaki guardian sculpture to acknowledge the need to protect marine life in the upper Waitemata; in 2017, Phantom Fleet, suspended from the trees, implied rising seas and the need to address global warming.

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More than 30 years after becoming a full-time artist, she's still vigorously wielding power tools to make the timber, stainless steel, bronze and stone installations that can be seen throughout New Zealand and Australia.

Travel to Antarctica on an artist fellowship in 1999, and meeting the scientists researching the impact of global warming, was a seminal experience and, to go to Venice, a city scientists believe could be swallowed by the sea by 2100 if global warming does not slow, will resonate strongly.

This year's Hīnaki continues King's interest in traditional Māori fish-trap forms and represents the gathering of food and survival along with entrapment and loss. It's the first time she's made three tall forms – Tahi, Rua and Toru – where the public can walk, sit or slide.

Despite the themes, King says she doesn't want to be prescriptive about her art: "I don't want to tell people what to think; I think it's much better that people see them then make their own call on what they're about."

Sculptor Chris Bailey says Matiatia Bay is a place of contemplation for him.
Sculptor Chris Bailey says Matiatia Bay is a place of contemplation for him.

She is not the only artist at SotG whose work seeks to draw attention to the fragility of our environment and the urgent need for us to take more care of it.

Senior Māori sculptor and Waiheke resident Chris Bailey has long used stone, timber and flax to create work which draws on his heritage and brings the past and present together.

Several of his installations are permanent fixtures on Waiheke; his Seven Pou stand proud across Britomart's Sanctuary Garden and, last year, Auckland Public Art installed Bailey's Tauranga Waka – the resting place of canoes - in downtown Beach Rd.

For SotG, he's pushed himself by working in bronze for the first time and crafting the 3.3m tall – and unembellished with any of Bailey's characteristic surface carving – Te Werowero. To stand at Matiatia Wharf, arrival point for most visitors making the 35-minute ferry trip to Waiheke, it references traditional challenges – wero – made by local people to determine whether visitors are friend or foe.

For Bailey, that extends to asking visitors to be respectful of the island and its inhabitants and to examine their reasons for being there.

"On a cultural level, it's a traditional challenge in terms of greeting but it also lays down a challenge to think while you're here about nurturing the environment and the people who live here. When you live on an island, you see the constant challenges posed by nature and the environment – the battle of the gods, if you like."

Bailey says the figure also stands as a guardian for the many kōiwi (Māori burials) on the edge of the bay which, as home to his hapū, is a special place for him that he's happy to share with respectful visitors.

"Come check it out, bring some sun cream and water and get involved; it's about interacting with the people and it's a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the community and see art and nature in new ways."

David McCracken says Sculpture on the Gulf offers the chance to put work into the sea. His Drop in the Ocean, from 2007 is pictured here.
David McCracken says Sculpture on the Gulf offers the chance to put work into the sea. His Drop in the Ocean, from 2007 is pictured here.

It's also an incredible place for artists to work, says fellow sculptor David McCracken, who's fabricated stainless steel and missile-shaped rocket, Toward a Better World, will be anchored in the sea alongside pleasure boats.

"Sculpture on the Gulf is one of the few places that you can put a work in the sea," he says. "That involves a lot of challenges because although it's a short-term work, it needs to endure marine conditions and the sheer relentlessness of the waves, but you can turn that into a positive because it's an energising force and, today, there's a lot of technology to draw upon from the maritime industry. You've got to be willing to take a risk, make everything robust and hope like hell that it all works out."

Like King and Bailey, McCracken says he always enjoys seeing what other artists have made – the depth and breadth of their respective imaginations as well as the technical skill.

"It's an incredible place and there's always something that will catch your eye; even if you hate every single piece, there will be something that's really surprising or odd or intriguing and, if nothing else, it's a beautiful walk."

Our leading kinetic sculptor Phil Price returns to Waiheke Island for SotG but, like Virginia King, he's also working on an international project.

Price, who makes large wind-activated moving sculptures, will exhibit for the first time at Sculpture by the Sea in Cottesloe, near Perth, as the Tourism Western Australia Invited International Artist.

Phil Price's Forbidden Tree, from 2017 SotG, was like no tree in the natural world, as it moved with the wind, created shade but dropped no leaves.
Phil Price's Forbidden Tree, from 2017 SotG, was like no tree in the natural world, as it moved with the wind, created shade but dropped no leaves.

He's making a 7m-high work called Ipomoea for this show and, for SotG, Candelabra, which incorporates carbon fibre and epoxy, industrial urethane (it's a high-gloss coating), stainless steel and precision bearings.

Like all his work, the sculptures started as Price's drawings before becoming computer-generated digital images and animations and then fully realised sculptures made in his studio. Keeping everything in-house allows Price to ensure "absolute quality control" and that the sculptures can withstand the sometimes harsh conditions in which they're placed.

Apart from travelling to Waiheke for SotG, you can see Price's work around the world including in the Transfield Collection in Aarhus, Denmark, the McClelland Gallery Victoria, Australia, Canberra International Airport and in the Waitemata Plaza in Auckland's Viaduct Harbour.

Price says SotG is a must-see, likening it in importance to Waiheke – and New Zealand art lovers – as the Grand Prix is to Monaco.

Angus Muir and Alexandra Heaney, Field Apart, from Sculpture on the Gulf 2017.
Angus Muir and Alexandra Heaney, Field Apart, from Sculpture on the Gulf 2017.

Tips for making the most of Sculpture on the Gulf:

•If you're car-less on Waiheke, you'll need to take a shuttle bus to the Perpetual Guardian Sculpture on the Gulf coastal walk. These depart from and return to the Information Centre close to the main Matiatia Ferry Terminal and it's $5 for adults, with children 15 and under free. There is very limited parking at the start and you're encouraged to take the shuttle bus. There is limited food and beverages at the Information Centre but Oneroa has a number of options.

• The 2km coastal walk is challenging and includes walkways, stairs and is hilly in places with unsealed and narrow patches. This means there is minimal wheelchair and pushchair access while seating and shade is also limited. It can take about 1.5-2.5 hours to take in the views and the sculptures.

•The walk is busy on weekends; if you want to miss the crowds then visit midweek. It's open 8am to 5pm.

•The Waiheke Community Art Gallery has on display and for sale a selection of small sculptures including works and maquette (small preliminary models or sketches) from this year's SotG. Chris Bailey has been commissioned to produce the 2019 Limited Edition of 20 works, the bronze Tu Waka.

•Bring sunscreen and water; wear weather-appropriate clothing, including hats and walking shoes. Waiheke Island is free of Kauri Dieback Disease so please ensure you clean your shoes at the stations provided and respect the Kauri Dieback ambassadors, who are there to help you.

•Although it is a community event, a suggested donation of $10 per adult with children 15 and under free.

•SotG aims to be a zero-waste event. There are no rubbish bins on the walk so please take your rubbish with you, or dispose of it at the waste station at the Information Centre.