In the late 1960s W. R. (Jim) Allen made an even more radical contribution to sculpture than his innovative Elam colleagues Paul Beadle and Greer Twiss. Other sculptors had always emphasised the crafted object, however abstract. Allen, in contrast, was New Zealand’s first ‘post-object’ artist.
He championed installation, in which the concept and process took priority over product. This art form used banal materials such as wire and polythene, as well as sound, light, text and movement, all of which were ‘installed’ to create maximum impact in a designated gallery space or site.
The intention was as much psychological as spatial. The viewer had to do the hard work, looking at, thinking about and moving through the installation. Allen’s installations did not aim to be aesthetically pleasing. Because of their deliberately ephemeral, non-commercial nature, few have survived.
Allen’s encouragement of diverse media such as video, kinetic, performance and environmental art impressed younger artists, for example Bruce Barber, Philip Dadson and Peter Roche. More than 40 years after Allen’s installations, Kate Newby, a finalist in the 2012 Walters Prize for contemporary art, cited him as an inspiration.
Not all Elam-trained sculptors followed Allen’s direction. Marte Szirmay’s aluminium ‘Smirnoff sculpture’ (1969) in Newmarket, Auckland, was a finished, crafted and aesthetically powerful object. Its uncompromising abstraction represented a turning point in New Zealand public sculpture.
Christine Hellyar’s more intimately scaled cupboard installations of found objects and casts of leaf forms were a subtly feminist reproach to the sometimes pretentious experimentation of the period. In her ‘Country clothesline’ (1972), Hellyar dipped everyday clothing items into rubber latex in colours reflecting the landscape and hung them on a low-tech washing line. Curator Priscilla Pitts described this as ‘the housewife’s attempts to express her own creative impulses, often through seemingly trivial gestures’.1
From the 1970s another Elam graduate, Terry Stringer, produced delicately cast bronze figurative works, often domestic in scale. Pleasurable objects on the one hand, they also amuse, surprise and even disturb in their deployment of split viewpoints. In 2013 Stringer’s home and estate ‘Zealandia’, near Warkworth, was one of a number of sculpture parks that constituted a major trend towards accessibility, a phenomenon of public art in the new millennium.
More than a war memorial
The New Zealand Memorial in London comprises 16 bronze standards that make a determined advance down the grass slope of the site. The larger ones in front carry reliefs that illustrate themes relating to New Zealand life, history, flora and fauna, while the four rear standards form a Southern Cross shape. Although primarily a war memorial, it is also an expression of New Zealand’s unique national identity.
Paul Dibble, Stringer’s near contemporary who also works in bronze, was awarded a prestigious public sculpture commission in the New Zealand Memorial, at Hyde Park Corner, London (unveiled in 2006). This major memorial to New Zealand’s contribution to the allied cause in two world wars originated in a competition organised by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in conjunction with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Dibble Art Company’s winning entry was produced in collaboration with Athfield Architects.