An art exhibition in Parnell is creating a unique opportunity to see in miniature a monument by a New Zealand artist to honour the 500-strong NZ Tunnelling Company who served in Arras, France during WWI.
Paris-based sculptor Marian Fountain spent 22 months designing, creating and overseeing production of The Earth Remembers. The 3.5m high bronze sculpture, with grass at its summit, was unveiled in April at Carriere Wellington, a war memorial and museum in northern France, to mark the centenary of the Battle of Arras.
Commissioned and funded by the NZ Lottery Grants Board and the City of Arras, it is dedicated to the memory of the NZ Tunnelling Company for its work in the underground quarries of Arras.
The company, comprised of men from mining towns across New Zealand, was the first NZ contingent onto the Western Front, and the last to leave, and its work played a vital role during World War I in capturing German lines and transporting injured Allied soldiers to safety.
While The Earth Remembers is regarded as an NZ monument, the tyranny of distance means many won't get to see it. Fountain, who learned bronze casting while studying at Elam School of Fine Arts in the 1970s and 80s, has produced a handful of miniature The Earth Remembers for the Medal Artists of New Zealand (MANZ) exhibition at ARTIS Gallery in Parnell.
Like the full-size monument, the miniatures feature the silhouette of an NZ tunneller in a lemon-squeezer hat. She says this cavity represents those who gave their lives during World War I and the gap it left in the lives of families and communities.
At Arras, visitors can walk into the space of this unknown soldier and see embedded into walls excerpts from letters the men wrote home, depictions of the men and words and phrases, like "kia ora", they engraved into tunnel walls as they worked.
Fountain says researching the men, their backgrounds and what became of them was a sobering experience.
"It was a big honour and responsibility to be commissioned to do this work and I wanted to get it right for everybody," she says. "I did not want to glorify war but remember the people who served. If you look at a lot of the war memorials in France, they tend to be of victorious soldiers or weeping women but I wanted to stick to what was left and for many people that was letters and photographs."
Fountain, based in Paris since 1991, returns to NZ regularly and always enjoys participating in MANZ shows because, she says, it's a chance to exhibit alongside artists working in a variety of mediums.
MANZ aims to nurture the medal art form within contemporary art in New Zealand; the form can include medallions, plaques and other small sculptures. Fountain, who also studied in Italy and France, has had work exhibited in museums around the world and sometimes makes more "conventional" medals including for the Commonwealth Games in 1990 and the America's Cup in 2003.
Fountain's work, and that of 31 other artists, can be seen in the Upheaval - Reconstruct exhibition at ARTIS Gallery until July 16.