Importance of Site

Posted by Helen Lloyd, Senior Educator, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

My first introduction to Bill Culbert’s work at the Biennale was deeply moving. It was the official blessing, led by Creative New Zealand’s Manager, Māori Arts Funding, Haniko Te Kurapa. As we walked through the exhibition, his prayers reverberated around the space, almost seeping into the works and the surrounding walls, forming invisible bonds between them, and settling the works into their new home.

The blessing brought into sharp focus the importance of the site and the connections that Culbert’s art works make to its spaces. New Zealand is in the fortunate position of having a different location each Biennale, unlike countries that have to contest with the same idiosyncratic architecture associated with the permanent national pavilions.

Bill carefully selected the venue, saying: “It was perfect... I wouldn’t want to make any changes to the building. No white walls, no alterations. I’m keeping the space as it is and letting the work make what it can.” By respecting the unique characteristics of the site from the outset, Bill has created works that build dialogues with their surroundings.

One thing I had forgotten about Venetian life from previous visits was the curious condition of ‘vaporetto sway’; the prolonged feeling of swaying to and fro after frequent journeys on the city’s water buses (vaporettos). It seemed to me that Bill’s works were acting in tune with this condition, each suggesting some kind of movement of its own. The suspended, tangled clusters of light-pierced, Formica chairs and tables: Drop and Bebop, seemed to tumble and dance along the high ceiling of the entrance to the New Zealand Pavilion, echoing the musical notes once played there by Vivaldi’s students. Their upended forms were a reminder that I was on the other side of the world.

Out back, it felt as though the heavy, light-pierced wardrobes Walk Blue and Walk Reflection were lumbering through the garden, momentarily capturing my reflection within the surrounding vegetation. In the next room, the pool of light and plastic, Daylight Flotsam Venice, appeared to seep across the floor towards me as though it had washed up in a flood from the adjacent canal. Suspended above the canal, I could see Level – a series of bell jars half filled with water– lolling on their sides at jaunty angles. It seemed to describe perfectly my ‘vaporetto sway’. By capturing the light of its surroundings, I felt this piece poignantly reflected the precarious balancing act Venice plays with its watery foundations.

The clean lines of the open frame of HUT, made in Christchurch, which takes residence in the adjoining courtyard, appeared to be firm-footed, strong and still; a stark contrast to the ancient uneven surrounding walls which looked as though they have slowly slumped and shifted over time. When I found myself caught standing near this sculpture during a heavy downpour on the opening evening, it provided a potent reminder of the fragility of the structures we construct to provide shelter. Sparking a momentary pang of homesickness, this sculpture seemed to beautifully resonate between two contexts, that of Venice and New Zealand.