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Sculpture and installation art

by Mark Stocker

Once overshadowed by painting, sculpture has high status as an art form in 21st-century New Zealand. Sculptures are displayed not just in galleries, but are often found outdoors, making them accessible to all.

Colonial origins

Māori and British traditions

Traditionally, wood, stone and bone carving were the main media used by Māori to make three-dimensional art. European colonists acquired Māori carvings for museum and private collections, but the impact of Māori carving on mainstream sculpture in New Zealand was for a long time limited. Although some were inspired by Māori subjects, the first Pākehā sculptors followed their own, largely British, sculptural traditions. As late as 1965 curator Peter Tomory claimed ‘our contemporary sculptors show no trace of Maori art in their work’.1

A masterpiece of Victorian realism

So lifelike is the statue of John Robert Godley that his friends claimed they would have recognised the likeness from the legs alone. Godley’s vivid yet dignified presence makes him look, one commentator enthused, ‘ready to move and speak’.2

The first public monument

Little significant sculpture was produced in New Zealand before the end of the 19th century. New Zealand’s first public monument, honouring the recently deceased Canterbury provincial coloniser John Robert Godley, was commissioned from the London sculptor Thomas Woolner and was shipped over to Christchurch. It was unveiled in 1867.

Statues of Queen Victoria

Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin each boast memorials to Queen Victoria signifying both civic and imperial pride. They date from the very late 19th century and early 20th century. Like the Godley statue, they were commissioned from prominent sculptors working in Britain.

Charles Kidson

The Christchurch statue of Queen Victoria was based on sketches by Charles Kidson, who taught modelling and woodwork at the Canterbury College School of Art. Kidson later carved a marble statue in Ashburton of runholder John Grigg (1905). The agriculturally themed reliefs on the pedestal relate the memorial to its regional context.

Frederick Gurnsey

Kidson’s successor at the Canterbury School of Art, Frederick Gurnsey, established himself as New Zealand’s most important carver of religious sculpture in a career that spanned the first half of the 20th century. His works combine Gothic spiritual qualities with a keen eye for indigenous flora and fauna.

    • Peter Tomory, ‘New Zealand sculpture’. Art and Australia 3, no. 2 (1965), p. 108. Back
    • Quoted in Mark Stocker, ed., Remembering Godley: a portrait of Canterbury’s founder. Christchurch: Hazard Press, 2001, p. 83. Back

Sculpture in the early 20th century

Memorials commemorating the South African War and the First World War provided new opportunities for New Zealand sculptors.

Carlo Bergamini

Italian immigrant Carlo Bergamini designed some accomplished South African War memorials in the South Island, at Palmerston, Waimate, Riverton, Ōamaru and Dunedin. In the spirit of the times, these incorporated both imperial iconography – lions and crowns – and New Zealand images, notably the female figure, Zealandia, who was a personification of the country.

Gross indecency?

Richard Gross’s bronze ‘Athlete’ (1936) by the gates of Auckland Domain created a public outcry. Although Gross aimed to convey classical beauty, the figure’s nudity was attacked by Christian evangelical groups, who unsuccessfully petitioned for the addition of a fig leaf or breeches.

Richard Gross

Richard Gross’s works include the moving Cambridge War Memorial (1923). Its central male figure, inspired by works of European sculptors Michelangelo and Auguste Rodin, was convincingly updated as an Anzac soldier in the searing Gallipoli heat. Among Gross’s other works is the prominently located equestrian Wellington Citizens’ War Memorial (1932), also known as the Wellington Cenotaph.

W. T. Trethewey

William Thomas Trethewey was the first sculptor born and trained in New Zealand to gain national prominence. His bronze Christchurch Citizens’ War Memorial (1933–37), a multi-figure art deco ensemble, proclaims a Christian pacifist message. Trethewey was later the leading sculptor involved with the 1940 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. His plaster ‘Kupe group’, made that year, was cast in bronze 60 years later. A spirited and dramatic landmark on Taranaki Wharf, Wellington, it illustrates the importance of Māori subject matter in New Zealand sculpture.

Francis Shurrock

In the 1920s and 1930s some of New Zealand’s most significant sculpture originated in the art schools, where British immigrant sculptors were recruited to teach. In Christchurch, Francis Shurrock demanded sound technical foundations, declaring ‘Art is skill’.1 He tried to change the belief that painting was the only important art form and that sculpture, a poor relation, was a mere craft. Though teaching took much of his time, he was noted for his vigorously modelled portrait busts, including one of the painter Christopher Perkins (1932–34).

R. N. Field

In Dunedin, Shurrock’s friend, compatriot and fellow teacher R. N. Field was a more radical artist. His ‘Wahine’ (1934) combined the massive limbs and simplified features of British sculptor Henry Moore’s figures, with references to indigenous greenstone hei-tiki carvings.

A national possession?

Margaret Butler’s ‘Maori Madonna’ came about following a friendly challenge from Butler’s fellow Catholic, poet Eileen Duggan, who believed that ‘such a Madonna would be a national possession’.2

Margaret Butler

Margaret Butler was a distinguished New Zealand-born sculptor active at this time. During her 10-year stint in Europe she studied with the leading Parisian sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and received the highest praise from critics. Returning home in 1934, Butler sculpted two busts of Māori. ‘La Nouvelle Zélande’ (‘New Zealand’) (1938) was modelled on Miriama Heketa, a performer with the Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club. Heketa may also have sat for ‘Maori Madonna’ (around 1938). Typically, both sculptures are skilfully crafted and thoughtful in mood.

    • Quoted in Mark Stocker, Francis Shurrock: shaping New Zealand sculpture. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2000, p. 49. Back
    • Quoted in Mark Stocker, ‘Pakeha Praxiteles: the sculpture of Margaret Butler.’ Melbourne Art Journal, no. 6 (2003), p. 102. Back

Early modern sculpture

The 1950s witnessed the slow but unmistakable rise in the status of sculpture. In 1955 the Auckland City Art Gallery held the first major exhibition exclusively devoted to sculpture sourced entirely from New Zealand practitioners.

The Henry Moore exhibition

In 1956-57 a touring exhibition of Henry Moore’s sculpture, sponsored by the British Council, proved a watershed and wake-up call. It raised national awareness not only of sculpture but of modern art. It attracted massive press coverage and during the three weeks it was in Auckland 36,738 visitors saw it. Many sceptics were converted in the process.

The Henry Moore exhibition helped give sculptors throughout the country the courage and confidence to work in a modern way, departing from strict naturalism and exploring the challenges of their material and medium.

Explosive reaction

The intense feelings sometimes provoked by modern sculpture were illustrated when Molly Macalister’s sculpture ‘Little bull’ (1967) was erected in Hamilton Gardens. An outraged member of the public attempted to blow up the statue, and it still bears the scars from this incident.

Molly Macalister

Molly Macalister’s over-life-sized bronze ‘Maori warrior’ (1964–66) is an Auckland landmark that updates Auguste Rodin’s famous portrayal of French author Honoré de Balzac, and puts it in a New Zealand context. Macalister, a Pākehā artist who had trained under Francis Shurrock, won support from local Ngāti Whātua when she undertook the commission. Although some city councillors thought the pose should have been more warlike, at the unveiling Auckland Mayor R. G. McElroy declared: ‘Surely it is only right that since our two peoples have become one as New Zealanders, that the figure should be depicted in an attitude not of war but of peace.’1

Russell Clark

Russell Clark, a painter and illustrator as well as a sculptor, worked on a number of public and corporate sculpture projects from the late 1950s. These were strongly influenced by the work of English sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Typical of his style was ‘Anchor stones’ (1958–59) at Bledisloe Place in Auckland.

Paul Beadle

The Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland was at the forefront of sculptural experimentation from the early 1960s until the mid-1970s. Its liberal-minded head, Paul Beadle, made small-scale sculptures that eccentrically and wittily combine the influences of Halstatt culture (early iron age in central Europe), Ashanti (West African) bronzes and modern Auckland life. Beadle was also New Zealand’s foremost internationally recognised medal maker, a status inherited by his student Marian Fountain.

Greer Twiss

Beadle’s younger colleague Greer Twiss became a major force in figurative sculpture. Twiss’s bronzes of struggling athletes and anti-nuclear protesters link stylistically and psychologically with modern European sculpture but are distinctively ‘Kiwi’ in subject matter. His later sculptures employ truncated forms, found objects and abrupt scale dislocation to create disturbing, surrealistic effects.

    • Quoted in Alexa Johnston, Molly Macalister: a memorial exhibition. Auckland: Auckland City Art Gallery, 1982, p. 22. Back

Post-object art and alternatives

Jim Allen

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.

Marte Szirmay

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

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

Terry Stringer

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

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.

    • Priscilla Pitts, Contemporary New Zealand sculpture: themes and issues. Auckland: David Bateman, 1998, p. 50. Back

Local influences

Neil Dawson

The influence of large-scale abstract metal constructions by British artist Anthony Caro, together with American minimalism and its accompanying, often complex philosophy, was also powerful in the art schools. Canterbury fine arts graduate Neil Dawson became disenchanted, however, with this ‘self-indulgent and esoteric’ approach to art, which had ‘nothing to do with life’.1 His response was to make a series of small sculptures, ‘House alterations’ (1978), which became the blueprint for his subsequent career.

A sculpture survives

‘Chalice’ (2000), Neil Dawson’s hexagonal steel sculpture in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, was erected to celebrate the new millennium. It deliberately inverted the neighbouring Anglican cathedral’s Gothic revival spire. While ‘Chalice’ stands unscathed, the spire fell in the 22 February 2011 earthquake.

Dawson’s sculpture has been described as three-dimensional drawing. Using media including wire mesh, cord and crumpled foil, he ‘draws’ architectural motifs, feathers and ripples of water. His 15-metre mixed media ‘Globe’ (1989) captured international attention when it was suspended over the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1999.

Don Driver

Dawson’s visual elegance graphically contrasts with the work of the largely self-taught Don Driver. Prolific, inventive and eclectic, Driver responded to major overseas artists yet gave his sculpture a Kiwi inflection. His works from the 1970s onwards incorporated barrel lids, fertiliser sacks, pitchforks and fluffy nylon bathmats, creating powerful, beautiful and sometimes sinister effects, such as his assemblage ‘Ritual’ (1982).

Jeff Thomson

Jeff Thomson’s sculpture also speaks a New Zealand vernacular. He inventively uses corrugated iron, which makes his work immediately recognisable and popular with a broad audience. His reconstructed (and street-legal) station wagon, ‘Holden HQ’ (1991), has been a central piece at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

Andrew Drummond

The New Zealand environment figures prominently in the work of several leading sculptors. The themes and materials of Andrew Drummond’s sculpture moved from performance art in the late 1970s to carefully crafted works such as ‘Listening and viewing device’ (1994), set on a hilltop in the Wellington Botanic Garden. It comprises a copper cone suspended in a columned frame. The cone responds to the elements by magnifying sound and funnelling vision, while the frame lends the work a shrine-like quality.

Chris Booth

Chris Booth is more actively conservationist in outlook. His sculpture consists of assemblages made from stones, boulders and wood, often set in their landscape of origin. It has won warm praise from Māori for its integrity and understanding of the land.

    • Quoted in William McAloon, ed, Art at Te Papa. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2009, p. 325. Back

Māori sculptors

In the 2000s the work of Māori sculptors receives considerable attention. It is inaccurate, though, to refer to ‘Māori sculpture’. Like the sculptors of European origin, Māori practitioners do not form a coherent movement – still less a style. They are diverse individuals, taking as much or as little of their ancestral culture as they see fit.

Arnold Manaaki Wilson

Arnold Manaaki Wilson, who died in 2012, devoted much of his life to art teaching and education. He was one of the first Māori to graduate from an art school – Elam, in 1953. His work drew extensively on Māori woodcarving traditions in its materials, notching, verticality and, in later instances, colour, but he also responded intensely to modern sculpture. This interplay between traditional carving and western modernism was also evident in the work of his near contemporaries, notably Fred Graham, Paratene Matchitt and Cliff Whiting. Wilson’s ‘He tangata, he tangata’ (1956) is evocative of pedestal carvings by early 20th-century Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi, but applied to a very different context and place.

Jacqueline Fraser

The next generation of Māori artists, born in the 1950s and 1960s, interpreted cultural traditions with still greater latitude. Jacqueline Fraser, like Neil Dawson, used wire and plastic, but there the similarity ended. The delicate spirals and curves of her late-20th-century work subtly evoke Māori tiki motifs, and her materials suggest traditional fibres and threads. Yet Fraser’s work looks more at home in the contemporary gallery space than on the marae. Fraser was selected as an official representative of New Zealand at the Venice Biennale of 2001.

Brett Graham

Brett Graham’s sculpture draws on a diversity of Māori, Pākehā and wider Pacific (including Japanese) sources, using predominantly traditional wood and stone materials. His figure- and disk-like forms have a monolithic quality. Prominent public art works include ‘Manu tawhiowhio’ (1996) at the Auckland University of Technology and ‘Kaiwhakatere – the navigator’ (2000) in Bowen Street, Wellington.

Michael Parekowhai

Like most contemporary art, the work of Māori artist Michael Parekowhai is primarily intended for the gallery or installation space. His objects and installations are meticulously crafted according to his specifications and range from ‘Ten guitars’ (1999) to a restored 1962 VW Kombi in the middle of a synthetic pine plantation for ‘The big OE’ (2006). The works reference words, ideas, jokes, art history and critical theory, as well as Māori and Pacific location and identity. Their glossy visual beauty and recognisability give Parekowhai’s works popular appeal.

Parekowhai pays tribute to, but also teases, New Zealand art ‘greats’, notably Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters. He also responds to the pioneering conceptual and ‘readymade’ art of French artist Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century. Parekowhai enjoys considerable kudos in the contemporary art world and is the New Zealand equivalent of English artist Damien Hirst (if lacking the latter’s shock value). This was shown not only in his selection as New Zealand’s official representative at the 2011 Venice Biennale but in Te Papa’s subsequent acquisition of a carved grand piano, ‘He kōrero pūrākau mo te awanui o te motu: story of a New Zealand river’, which had been part of his exhibit ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’.

The public impact of sculpture

Len Lye

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Stocker, 'Sculpture and installation art', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Mark Stocker, published 22 October 2014