Notes on Collidescape
An interview with Breeze Robertson, Ara Institute of Canterbury
BR: What was your inspiration for creating this artwork? What insight would you like to give people for viewing the artwork (if any)?
CG: A play on the word kaleidoscope, ‘Collidescape’ is the fifth in an ongoing series of Vowel works.
I was first invited late 2014 to make a submission for a concrete wall space for Whareora, another in the several new Ara Campus buildings designed by Athfield Architects. Wayne Youle’s wonderful THE HOUSE OF WELLBEING ALL WELCOME was selected, and subsequently (and unexpectedly), I was offered a very different surface, glass, to develop my proposal for the new administration hub, Te Kei.
‘Collidescape’ is a visual rendition of the vowels, in this case, a collision of the vowels, a language (or sound) landscape. My intention was to use white reflective road-marking paint applied to the exterior surface of the glass, but the paint application voided the glazing warranty! Instead, a digital ceramic ink process will allow reflection to take a more prominent role, and add a layer of the unexpected into the reading of the work. The composition will be visible as a whole when viewed from the green grass space opposite, and in part from inside. A shift in pattern and shape can be made out from the graphic chaos of the forms — what could be road-markings (if imagined in plan) or the movement of poi and swing of piu piu (in elevation) ... or, whatever comes to mind — the work is open for interpretation by the viewer, just as the vowels (or variations of), essential to spoken language, belong to all people.
You have worked with architects before, but have you designed an artwork that is part of a building? Was it different to other projects and if so how?
My first significant commission was in 2003, for Ponatahi House designed by Architecture +. A large, private home, it comprises 120 glass panels, which form a skin around the upper level of exterior walls, windows and terraces, 27m x 10m x 3m! My proposal to the owners was “to wrap their house in literature”. They commissioned then poet laureate Jenny Bornholdt to write a poem which I then composed. Etched into the glass, the poem is able to be read in sequence from the personal spaces inside. From outside, the work is more abstract, textural, louder.
In 2009, I made the first work in the Vowel series (‘Collidescape’ is the 5th) for Cubana Apartments in Cuba Street, Wellington. ‘AEIOU’ is a typo/sound installation where the observer delivers the sound. Constructed of five vowels in steel, lightly stacked five metres high on a first level terrace in Wellington.
‘Fifth Movement’ (third in the series) was made in 2012 for Takapuna House designed by Athfield Architects. This work is a response to the initial problem of cracking in the concrete floors. It was Ath who suggested I become involved — I had recently completed a rather “whimsical” (as it was described) way-finding system on the hillside at Athfield Architects (‘A Hillside Intervention’), while living on site at the time. The cracking problem dissipated in the mind of the client, as the idea making another vowel work took hold. The abstract forms of ‘A-E-I-O-’ meander through the interior, replacing some of the cracks, leaving others, to an upright ‘U’ outside. A bronze pivot punctuates the reading of the work. As well as being sequential and a form of recitation, the musicality of this work — the abstracted notations, the tuning fork-like form of the ‘U’ — is referenced by the title. Quite by accident, I learned of the depth of love for and need of music in the family. Each element was a different material: stone, glass, brass, corten steel, and bronze.
So in a way, the works are quite different, yet somehow they are similar, whether it is a work with the words by a poet or writer, or in the case of the vowels, with the public — the vowels are essential to language, the sounds we make, in order to communicate and be understood. A fabulous piece of writing is Body, Mind, Somehow: The Text Art of Catherine Griffiths by Gregory O’Brien in (the hard copy) of Art New Zealand, May 2014, issue #150.
I see ‘Collidescape’ as different again, yet it comes out of a language that I have developed since the first in the series. If you look at ‘Sound Tracks’ which is not an architectural work but a large scale drawing that appeared at The Dowse, my attempt here was to draw the sound of the vowels, and again invite people to record. ‘Collidescape’ is a drawing too, it is possibly more disruptive aesthetically — a different reading from poi and piu piu, a collision of sounds, you could say.
extended, overlaid, underlying ‘dot’ grid from MuirMcNeil’s TwoPoint
Again, if/when the viewer realises the work, they are likely to mouth the vowels, speak them out loud, and that’s when it goes somewhere beyond the physical. I have quite a collection of sound recordings made in front of AEIOU, which became an integral part of another installation (Typojanchi 2015 Biennale) in Seoul, Korea, ‘Constructed/Projected’, but that’s another story!
The scope of the project has grown from a single area of the building to more or less wrapping around the whole thing – can you tell us what happened?
I’m not sure how it all happened! At some point I was asked if I would consider these spaces as a way to address privacy and safety, I think after I had made sketches for the main atrium. I was keen for the main work to remain independent and for the extended manifestation, as it was nick-named, to share a component of the pattern language rather than complete form, or other iterations of. In saying that, there are gestures to ‘Collidescape’ beyond through the lineal movement and shift around the building to the opposite side where the pattern simplifies.
You seem to blur the lines between typography/design and art – or perhaps the lines aren’t really there?
Right now, everything seems a blur! It is less a conscious act. The title of Gregory O’Brien’s article Body, Mind, Somehow: the text art of ... mentioned earlier, encapsulates some of this territory.
How important is it to have art in public spaces and as part of new buildings?
As a teenager in the late 70s, I vividly remember seeing the Drawbridge Mural, a circular “concertina of spines” in the Beehive and feeling a sense of awe, and the Expo 70 mural for Osaka (below) was equally extraordinary (John Drawbridge later taught me printing-making); standing small beneath Gordon Crook’s colourful graphic and uplifting banner series in the Michael Fowler Centre; wanting to stand forever in front of a Guy Ngan sculpture emerging out of the surface of a building; staring in wonderment at Clare and Ian Athfield’s whacko First Church of the Christian Scientist (below), defying the odds, from concept to the Gaudi-esque detail of pink ceramic petals.
When I think back to Athfield’s re-development of the Civic Square at the time — the new library, in concert with the City Gallery shift into the original library with Ralph Hotere and Bill Culbert’s sublime ‘Fault’, Mary-Louise Brown’s text works in the lawn, Para Matchitt’s City to Sea Bridge which takes us to the virtuosic Len Lye and his ‘Water Whirler’ — this snapshot of exceptional public art in one small city speaks for itself.
images: Alexander Turnbull Library via Te Ara / Tom Beard
END / August 2016