When Joseph Michael became an artist nearly two decades ago, the tools of his trade included paper, ink and screens for printmaking; today, he's more likely to use ground-penetrating radar, drones and immersive augmented reality.

Michael is on the cutting edge of art and science, perhaps best known for his 2017 full-scale 360֯ projection Antarctica: While you were sleeping which enveloped the outside of Auckland War Memorial Museum with images of icebergs complete with surround sound of the loud noises that they make.

Auckland War Memorial Museum was the canvas for Joseph Michael's Antarctica: While you were sleeping in 2017.
Auckland War Memorial Museum was the canvas for Joseph Michael's Antarctica: While you were sleeping in 2017.

Time spent working films like The Hobbit honed his skill for combining art, science and technology. Now he is set to dazzle crowds at Auckland's new light festival, Tūrama starting on Thursday.

The current AUT artist in residence, he and a team have created Hōpara, which could well be the most immersive walk in the woods many of us take. Filmed at Waipoua Forest in Northland, it is the first life-sized digital reconstruction of New Zealand's largest-known living kauri tree, Tāne Mahuta, and other significant kauri in the area.

Advertisement

A dual screen sequence allows audiences to explore the hidden depths of the trees by using point cloud scan data imagery from them to create art works that are then illuminated with swathes of colour and light.

"I use the technology which is available to serve an idea," says Michael, adding that print-making tuition served him well in teaching him how to layer colour. "I still think about that as well as, when I was a teenager, visiting the Waipoua Forest and being stunned by the size and magnificence of the trees. That's where the seeds of this project were sown."

Joseph Michael at work in the Waipoua Forest in Northland.
Joseph Michael at work in the Waipoua Forest in Northland.

Michael is working with AUT associate professor Barbara Bollard, from the School of Applied Science, Te Roroa iwi, the Department of Conservation, Radio NZ and Creative NZ on the ambitious project.

It may eventually involve using ground-penetrating radar to explore the trees' root systems because, as Michael says, what's above the ground is only one part of the trees. The boundary-pushing work will also provide a digital archive of the significant cultural and historical heritage sites.

"It's an exciting opportunity to expand our knowledge of one of NZ's most treasured species. We need to think deeper and understand the consequences of our actions towards the natural environment," says Michael, who hopes seeing the trees as art will draw more attention to the threats they face from kauri dieback disease and climate change.

As well as preparing for Tūrama, Michael has also spent time at the United Nations Building in New York. On the eve of September's Climate Action Summit, his large-scale projections of an iceberg will cover the exterior of the building complemented by a soundtrack featuring traditional Māori instruments (taonga pūoro).

•Tūrama is at Albert Park, from Thursday–Sunday. A free festival, it features light installations, stories told through projection, interactive sculptures and performances. Joseph Michael also gives a public lecture about his work at AUT on Tuesday, August 6.