Plastic flowers wired to the end of knitting needles are pretty at first glance and somewhat bizarre, but beneath them is a sinister reality. Rooted in darkness, the work of artist Susan Jowsey at Lopdell House Gallery in Titirangi delivers a strong message about colonisation.

Entitled The Pleasure Hunters, this collaborative exhibition sees Jowsey join two other female artists, Leanne Williams and Fiona Lascelles, who use the garden to pose questions about control and ownership.

Known for her grungy presentation of powerful issues - the mentally ill, the homeless, the insane - Jowsey, winner of the 1996 Visa Gold Award, says the dark themes that often underpin her work are more obvious this time. "I was keen to do something outside of what I normally do."


And she has. On the surface, the garden installation is pretty. Pinks and reds, along with flowers and butterflies, provide a playful contrast to her challenging Untitled work which won her the Visa award in 1996 - 12 pieces of stained blanket each embroidered with a red cross.

But beyond the decorative beauty of this new work is a menacing undercurrent. Sets of teeth, stray tongues, a pair of eyelashes and bunches of long dark hair sit detached from the human body, referencing the obsessions of the early plant hunters.

Trapped, contained, exploited, raped and pillaged are words that spring to mind when looking at this deeply researched history of those hunters. Using bright colours and domestic warmth, Jowsey cleverly captures their dogged desires to categorise and colonise at the expense of nature.

Jowsey has created this work from the perspective of a Victorian plant hunting character - enduring hostile places for years at a time, collecting plants and killing animals, tagging and naming them.

The installation, a year-long project, is the plant hunter's camp, a metaphor for colonial exploitation. The English garden gate for example, erected to forbid entry to others, has a hybrid collection of "shrunken heads" on its stakes.

Inside the camp a pair of bunny ears poke out of an old leather handbag that has been painstakingly taped together, symbolising the hunter's mission to collect and stuff the rarest of species.

Suspended inside a windowed box on top of a tea trolley are dozens of glittery butterfly stickers. On second glance, though, this beautiful glasshouse imagery simply portrays the entrapment of nature amid the desire to capture and claim.

Cast your eye towards an old suitcase and your mind wonders what the twisted and bound fury object is inside. The plant collector, in her desire to get it right, has catalogued it not once, but a dozen times.

"One tag wouldn't be enough, nor would a sample," says Jowsey. "There is an obsession to own at all costs."

If anything, Jowsey's work reflects the pressure of Victorian times - the need to keep up appearances and maintain etiquette, despite extreme and hostile conditions. "What would it be like to maintain an appearance in the bush?" Jowsey asks.

From the black velvet gloves stuffed with a greedy amount of elegant feathers to the hair rollers and bobby clips, this pleasure hunter is preposterously desperate to keep chaos at bay.

Diary entries detailing the hunter's journey reveal plants she has collected, animals she has seen and the record of her own demise. Written in small print on a pink sleeping bag we read, "Run out of tea and soap" and "How does one begin to understand nature?"

Like her pleasure hunter character, Jowsey is fascinated with collecting. It was during her residency at the Sarjeant Gallery in Wanganui three years ago, that she organised a museum exhibition and met Lascelles and Williams. Now good friends, the women looked at the idea of colonisation and came up with The Pleasure Hunters. All three have created unique works, yet they pose the same questions.

Lascelles imagines outer space as a new frontier. Her futuristic work comprising moon-buggies and gardens displays the dreams and desires of the Pleasure Hunters to transform and manipulate a foreign territory. The lined, dotted and crossed floor sends a chilling message about our needs to map out and claim what we can.

At the other end of the gallery, Williams has cultivated a garden paradise of sugar icing - enough to decorate a dozen multitiered wedding cakes. Covering an entire wall, the floral glade of red roses, gel flowers and silver-green cake ribbon is lush with forbidden pleasures.

The strength required to resist picking one of these icing flowers only emphasises such a fascinating human trait - the desire to have and to own at all costs.

* Lopdell House Gallery, 418 Titirangi Rd, to August 29