This year, New Zealand artist Zac Langdon-Pole won the art award of a lifetime, the BMW Art Journey prize, on the strength of work exhibited at Art Basel Hong Kong.
Berlin-based, Langdon-Pole has just completed a residency on the remote Fogo Island in Newfoundland, Canada — part of winning the 2017/18 Ars Viva Prize in Germany, along with fellow New Zealand Oscar Enberg.
Langdon-Pole is now plotting exactly how he'll make the multiple art projects to be included in Sutures of the Sky, which will see him follow the flight paths of migrating birds that travel along the Earth's axis through Central Europe, Southern Africa and the Pacific Islands.
Yes, he'll be paid to go to those places as he tries to understand and create art about the links between culture, the science of celestial mapping, the birds and what it tells us about who we are and how we are situated in the world.
The international jury who picked Langdon-Pole as the BMW Art Journey winner seemed enchanted by his proposal: "The first artistic expressions of humanity, until the 19th century, had been largely inspired by the beauty, grandeur and spellbinding mysteries of nature," they said. "After the Enlightenment, this view of the wonders of the world became outdated. Zac Langdon-Pole's concept of an artist's journey brings this sense of wonder back to art …"
Weekend spoke with Langdon-Pole about the art journey he's about to undertake.
You're the next BMW Art Journey winner — what exactly does that mean?
The award affords me an all-expenses paid journey around the world, to undertake research and, in turn produce, an entirely new body of work. They say there are no budget limitations so as well as undertaking travel I'm intending to use the financial support they offer to produce a number of new projects on a scale, scope and level of ambition I haven't previously worked on.
It's an incredible opportunity and honour to receive the award, I'm totally thrilled. I'm also immensely grateful for those who supported me in reaching this point in particular Michael Lett and Andrew Thomas of Michael Lett Gallery, Creative New Zealand who helped fund the work I made for Art Basel Hong Kong, my partner Manon and my family and friends who are always so nurturing and supportive.
How did it come about?
It followed my participation in Art Basel Hong Kong where I was presenting a solo booth of new work in the Discoveries section with my New Zealand gallery, Michael Lett. That project involved hand-carving nine unique iron meteorites to fill the apertures of nine unique super fragile paper-nautilus shells. I was shortlisted along with two other artists; Gala Porras-Kim and Ali Kazim by an international jury of significant renown.
Being shortlisted meant the three of us each received a cash prize and the invitation to submit a proposal for our dream journey anywhere in the world to produce an entirely new body of work. During the course of a month, I developed the proposal and submitted it.
The journey may even extend to more places should it be necessary for the projects and further research I wish to undertake. Each location has been chosen for key interlocutors and collaborators in those places. I was wary of undertaking the journey as a purely solo exercise; people are after all what constitute culture.
Each stop has a particularly collaborative outcome in mind. In Samoa, for example, I'll work with Samoan/New Zealand artist/composer Michael Lee to trace the traditions of celestial navigation songs and to commission him to produce a composition in response to our field work there. The first stage begins in Europe — Germany and the UK — as soon as September. And the South African and Pacific stages of the journey I'm looking to undertake in November/December.
How do you think culture does intersect with the science of celestial mapping — and what are the connections to who we are and how we are situated in the world?
The answer to this question is manifold and potentially infinite — which is exactly what drew me to explore it. Identifying and naming constellations was perhaps the first form of story-telling, throughout human history cultures have used the stars to keep track of time, to create calendars and plot the seasons. This knowledge of the stars was (and still is) useful not only for agriculture and navigation but also ties people to place through creation stories that can vary from the religious to the mythological to the big bang theory.
The art and/or science of mapping the stars, in this regard underpins nearly every culture on the planet; from informing different conceptions and structures of time, to orienting us in space and in relation to our environment. What fascinates me is how constellations of the stars can appear the same to most parts of the planet and yet hold entirely different meanings and uses across different cultures.
I'm particularly interested in tracing the histories of celestial mapping and how they have changed and adapted following European colonisation in South Africa and the Pacific Islands. The journey itself charts a meeting of worlds and how these different conceptions of the stars relate and tie people to place in differing ways.
How long have you been interested in pathfinding and celestial navigation? Where did the interest come from?
Stargazing, astronomy and celestial mapping are activities so rich with wonder. From childhood to now I think I've always been particularly interested in them because they involve a certain kind of looking that can shift your perspective to a scale much greater than your own.
Recently and in context of the journey, I've been particularly inspired learning more about people like Mau Piailug who was a Micronesian navigator from the Marshall Islands. Piailug is perhaps best known as a teacher of traditional, non-western-instrument way-finding methods for open-ocean voyaging. As one of the last remaining palu, or master navigators, Piailug became a vital resource for celestial-mapping traditions that had been passed down orally during centuries.
Piailug passed on his knowledge to Nainoa Thompson who in turn founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii. The knowledge and work of these two figures among multiple others spurred what is known as the Hawaiian and Maori Renaissances of the 1970s and 80s. Their achievements were crucial in debunking the commonly held racist myths of white historians that Polynesians only settled on the islands throughout the Pacific by chance because their fishing vessels were blown off course by the weather.
How has being based in Berlin changed you — and the way you make art?
I've lived in Germany for nearly five years. Leaving NZ has been a generative charge for my thinking and way of working. I think that being at least partly disassociated from the environment I grew up in alerted me to a greater realisation of how histories, ideologies and people are interrelated across vast distances and cultures.