Artist Carin Wilson draws on ancient Maori wisdom to take stock of the state of our world.

Some of Carin Wilson's fondest memories are of family trips to Whakatane, where he would visit his Ngati Awa relations. So fond, in fact, that in the early 80s the artist packed up and swapped his hometown of Christchurch for Auckland, in a move towards his roots.

This connection to his tribal history - as well as to ancient Maori wisdom and the natural environment as a whole - has now come together in the artist's new exhibition, Re-patterning. The collection is made up of more than 20 pieces, collectively a visual protest against a modern world gone astray.

"As an artist, you arrive at a point where you work out what you're trying to get across," Wilson says. "There are two conversations going on in my show: one is that there are established patterns in the universe that have been going for a very long time. Our civilisation and planet sit as a part of those patterns.

"The other is that there exist a whole lot of tensions generated by human behaviour."


These "tensions", namely the clash between contemporary life and the fragile natural environment, are translated by Wilson via his use of native timber, subtle carving, tightly bound wires and light-play. The pieces, which range from hand-size and airy to large, looming and solid, strike an accomplished balance between the regal and the organic.

At the heart of almost all of them is the (eponymous) subversion against customary patterns. In Manukanuka, a large piece made out of steel, wire and greenstone, Wilson has flipped a traditional floral design on its head by using the negative space formed by clusters of these traditional shapes.

"The reason I've called the exhibition Re-patterning," he says, "is to say: 'If we re-pattern our behaviour and really look carefully at how we've got to re-engage with the systems that are a part of us, then we'd have some different outcomes."'

It's a matter of "practise what you preach" filtering right down into the artistic process, thanks to his economical use of materials like native timber. The wood he scooped out of the upright concave structure, Hurihia, was then used to create the shield-like piece, No Protection.

"I had to waste a lot of the timber, and that's really hard," he says. "But you can build from what's left, so that's what I've tried to do here.

"All the native timbers I've used have been sawn up into little strips, which is the most economical way to utilise the timber; a very spare use of the material."

The result is a striking and delicate form that symbolises, as its name suggests, our lack of protection as a society.

"Because of what's going on, the protection's not available to us any longer," Wilson says, "and so it's very hard for us to insulate ourselves against what's going on.


"It's about the environment as it comes under attack; there are more emissions in the atmosphere, and we're dependent on more trees. The earth is in such a precarious balance right now.

"It's time we really took stock," he adds. "We've really got to look at our behaviour."

It's been five years since Wilson's last show. The sculptor, who also teaches at the Unitec School of Architecture, was busy with two projects: the new Maori TV studios and the conceptual redesign of Te Puhia in Rotorua (the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute).

He divides his time between Auckland and a house in the bush just beyond Mangawhai, where he built a studio that looks out on to the coast. It's here that the pieces from Re-patterning came into existence. Before they were crafted, however, Wilson built up a solid base of research that acted as a bottomless well of inspiration for the collection.

"As part of the research around the whole thing, I've been thinking about what ancient wisdom has to tell us," he says.

"We've got all the knowledge systems, everything we need now to access the very best knowledge - but what does ancient wisdom tell us, and what can we learn from that?"

Wilson, the offspring of a Maori father and Italian mother, looked carefully at material detailing pre-colonised New Zealand, and extracted lessons that were then infused into the concept of the show - which was exactly one year in the making.

"I've been reading the old moteatea that's been preserved and translated by Maori scholars," he explains. "They were like song-stories - or lullabies - through which Maori children learned about their history.

"Maori wisdom was created in a vacuum, because there was no interaction with explorers.

"So maybe there's something in what they learned about how to live within natural systems - maybe we should be looking at what we can learn from it."

* Re-patterning runs until Sun October 9, Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, Parnell, ph (09) 303 1090.