Matt Liggins (Ngāti Ruanui) is an architect, artist and teacher and, on October 13 as part of Urban Art Village during LATE NIGHT ART, five of Matt's University of Auckland's School of Architecture & Planning students will create one-day only pop-up architecture structures in the city. These will be part of Artweek Auckland 2020 where Matt is also creating a conceptual performance art piece called It's In The Box Auckland for Urban Art Village, October 13, 5 – 9PM at O'Connell St in the Heart of the City.
I grew up in Tokomaru on a farm that had been in our family for three generations. When I was a kid, I'd hang out on the river and go swimming and catch eels. We'd ride motorbikes and get the cows in. it was a really simple, idyllic childhood in nature. I also loved making huts with my mates. I hung out with a solid bunch of dudes and we had that primordial instinct to build things. We'd dig holes in round hay bales and pull out square bales to make huts in the hayshed, or turn an old water tank into a fort. When I was about 12, my parents built a new house and, because there wasn't much happening in Tokomaru, I'd bike down to the site and watch it going together.
I always excelled at art. Mum tells a story about a psychologist visiting my preschool to do visual insight and recollection tests on the kids. We were showed pictures of different images, and supposedly I smashed it. Another memory from when I was 5, I made a Mexican man out of clay. He was asleep on a fence, wearing a big sombrero and it went in the art competition at the A&P show. It was up against spud men and maquettes of various scenarios, and my clay man won first prize in everything. My parents thought 'holy f***, what's going on here?' But I just loved doing art and did well at it naturally. I didn't think much of it.
My parents sold the farm when I was 16 and we moved to Palmerston North where I went to Palmerston North Boys' High. In my seventh form year, Mr Docherty took my art class to Wellington. We stayed at that old Waterloo Hotel and visited Ian Athfield's house. It was the first time I'd ever seen a house that blew me away. It was that moment I thought, 'yeah man, architecture is definitely the one,' because it showed me the possibilities of architecture and art.
The architecture degree is incredibly challenging. It's five years and is an epic journey. Think what can be done in five years, that's Lord Of The Rings. But the degree is great. Yes I had my ups and downs, there were good years and not so good years, but if you've ever walked into the architecture school, the creative energy in the room is electric. Now that I teach there, I know how to motivate and support the students. I had such good teachers throughout my education, and I think that's why I love teaching, because now I can give something back.
House projects come on when they come on, and if the market goes quiet you're on the noodles diet, so teaching is my bread and butter on top of the houses. And the art. Maybe I'll sell a few paintings, but it's hard to make a living from that so teaching has given me the opportunity to work on slow-cook projects which are key for me. Teaching also gives me balance in what I do - and when you're commenting on students' work, you're also redefining your own work.
I only teach three days a week, I couldn't do full time, that would be gnarly and because I'm in practice by myself, I can be as political or as cutting edge as I want with my art. I can take risks and I love that. The limitations of modern architecture, of generic commercial firms, what's happening now doesn't say much anymore, so my art projects let me comment on things. Sometimes the work I do is an expression of frustration at those limitations. My art is also an attempt to find the truth, and there are no restrictions with art. Art isn't heavily constrained like architecture can be. Art is expression and pure and that's the beauty of it.
I graduated in 2001 and worked in Tauranga for a year. Then I moved to London and worked there for four years while I partied and travelled, but I missed the sun and the surf and, because I felt like I needed to work for a star architect, I moved to Sydney and found a job with Renato D'Ettorre. I love his work, his concrete fortress blew me away, and working for him I learned all about high-end projects. Working for Renato, I discovered I didn't want to make mega-mansions for mega-rich people. I also realised I didn't want to be stuck in front of a computer all day, stressed out, doing big hours with RSI in my wrists. Life's too short. That whole world that's based around affluence, luxury and elitism, that doesn't do it for me. I'm from Tokomaru and I'm pretty grounded. I'm more interested in projects the average Joe can relate to.
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When I was working for Renato in Sydney, one massive turning point was when the artist Michael Johnson moved in next door. My sister had bought me a book about the life of the artist Brett Whitely and, in that, I learned that Brett and Michael were best friends, which inspired me to talk to Michael. We became mates and seeing him in his studio, he'd be listening to Bob Dylan, smoking cigarettes, and just painting, no stress, I realised I wanted to pursue art. Michael and his wife Margot changed my trajectory and it was a real lightbulb moment. I was so stressed out trying to make big houses with no budgets for billionaires, when I realised, we've got choices where the world takes us. You can yes or no at the right, or the wrong, time, and change the path of your life with just one word.
Do you remember it's In The Bag with Selwyn Toogood? My project for Artweek this year is inspired by that and I'm going to be Matt Toogood with It's In The Box, a game show that's also a sustainable project. I've taken my budget and gone round op-shops buying small things for a few dollars. Then I'll use cardboard boxes I've found on the side of the road and arrange them into a ziggurat and number then 1-100. As the game show host I'll ask questions and, if you get a few right, you get to choose a prize. If anything is left over, I'll donate those things back to an op-shop, the cardboard boxes will be flat-packed down and recycled and people will get a memento of their night, hand-picked Kiwiana and nostalgia kitschy things that I think are cool. And if they don't like the prize they can wrap it back up and put it back because one person's junk is another person's joy.