In September 2012 New Plymouth District Council confirmed the construction of the $10 million Len Lye Centre, which will operate in combination with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. This tangible tribute to a locally born sculptor who made his name overseas is just one indication of the high status of sculpture in 21st century New Zealand.
Len Lye is an isolated genius in New Zealand sculpture. Paradoxically, he cannot be called a ‘New Zealand sculptor’. He was born and grew up in New Zealand, but spent his entire working life overseas, first in England and then in the United States, where in the 1950s he became a major practitioner of kinetic (mechanically moving) sculpture. His work was not seen in New Zealand until shortly before his death in 1980.
Lye bequeathed his archive and works to the Len Lye Foundation, in New Plymouth, which supervises their posthumous and sometimes controversial fabrication. An example is the 45-metre-high ‘Wind wand’, erected on the New Plymouth waterfront to mark the millennium. Lye aimed to convey the energy that he regarded as the fundamental force of nature.
Sculpture parks and spaces
The 21st century has witnessed an upsurge both in temporary events and in publicly accessible sculpture parks and spaces. The ‘Scape’ biennale in Christchurch, the Wellington biennale ‘Shapeshifter’ and the Auckland Triennial are regular events. Permanent sculpture spaces include Connells Bay Sculpture Park on Waiheke Island, and Brick Bay Sculpture Trail and Zealandia Sculpture Garden, both near Warkworth.
The Wellington Sculpture Trust, founded in 1982, had commissioned 24 sculptures for public places by 2013, and in 2007 it supported the publication of the book, Wellington: a city for sculpture – the title of which declares the trust’s aim.
In the conventional art gallery context, such venues as the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth and Artspace in Auckland have provided arenas for contemporary practice.
A talking point
An installation, ‘The fundamental practice’ by et al. (the pseudonym for a large cast of pseudonyms used by artist Merylyn Tweedie), generated controversy when it was selected to represent New Zealand in the 2005 Venice Biennale. Consisting of five two-hour-long recordings from a diverse range of sources, housed within metal structures on what looked like a construction site, the work baffled many New Zealanders. However, it impressed Australasian critics and attracted hundreds of visitors during the first few days of the biennale.
The challenge of sculpture
None of this would have happened if sculpture itself had not become an exciting and provocative art form, challenging preconceived ideas about materials and media, and accommodating many different practices and philosophies. Its status has undergone a revolutionary transformation since the mid-20th century, threatening to eclipse that of its long-dominant sister art, painting. This is reflected in the already numerous sculptors and installation artists who have officially represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale. They comprise the New Zealand-born and trained Boyd Webb (1986, representing Britain), Jacqueline Fraser (2001), Michael Stevenson (2003), et al. (2005), Francis Upritchard (2009) and Michael Parekowhai (2011). In 2013 Bill Culbert, a light installation artist, represented New Zealand. These artists are predominantly middle-aged – and in Culbert’s case a respected veteran. That there is no shortage of rising sculptural talent can be seen in the work of such diverse artists as Regan Gentry, Seung Yul Oh, Sam Harrison and Megan Hansen-Knarhoi.