Artist's Projects at the Auckland City Art Gallery

Chris Booth's Nga Tamariki a Tane


For three months, from November 1983 to January 1984, the Auckland City Art Gallery had a sculpture court in more than name. The two permanent works on display were joined by a sculpture called Nga Tamariki a Tane, by Chris Booth, a Kerikeri sculptor and former Frances Hodgkins Fellow. The sculpture comprised a collection of weathered tree-stumps and logs in the Gallery's Artists Projects programme. The timber remnants were doctored to varying degrees. Some were reinforced with bolted iron bars; three were fashioned to represent seabirds. They were arrayed on several levels in and around the sculpture-court fountain.

Chris Booth's
sculpture yard at Kerikeri

An accompanying leaflet issued by the gallery makes plain the implication of the title that the work is intended as a plea for conservation, specifically for the native forest and scrubland of North Auckland. For a number of years Chris Booth has eschewed, at least in his exhibited work, accepted sculptural materials for more identifiably indigenous ones. In the past lie has employed muka and manuka stakes to good effect. The determination to utilise available materials may have led him to an affinity, for the crafts of traditional Maori industry and the environmental concerns inseparable from it. Or, more philosophically, he may have gone about things the other way round. But worthy causes in art, are high-risk. The penalty of a near miss is to become twee. If marginally more successful, one can appear merely sanctimonious.

The worthiness and topicality of Booth's professed concerns are not the only framework in which Nga Tamariki a Tane should he seen. It is not to diminish the undoubted impact of these large, unruly items in their geometric setting to refer the viewer back to a tradition of dead trees in New Zealand art (though a tradition hitherto almost exclusively the preserve of painting). Michael Dunn has discussed the dead tree symbolism of Gordon Walters, Eric Lee-Johnson, Christopher Perkins and other New Zealand painters in relation to artists of the European, surrealist fringe, in an earlier issue of Art New Zealand.1 The convention in the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties was to invest gnarled, totemic trunks with the attitudes of human distress - the effect in the old world of the ravages of war, in ours of burn-offs. Chris Booth's hulks have themselves fallen. In at least two cases they were sawn or axed.

Nga Tamariki a Tane 1983
installation shot

The stumps become less symbols of survival than the unmistakeable monuments to a very lost cause. As such they hold out little hope for the deliverance of North Auckland from the pinus radiata mantle presently enveloping it. The stumps have some of the fascination of dinosaurs. The very age of these relics reduces further the sculpture's topicality. it should be remembered that these dramatic forms were themselves created by man's wanton disregard for the environment. The explanatory leaflet states that the plea is intended to embrace the protection of scrubland. The extent of that scrubland was vastly increased by the destruction of puriri in North Auckland.

The black stump survives in national affection as a symbol of the back-of-beyond, distant in time and place. When it is brought to town it is more likely to evoke nostalgia than alarm for the future. As with 'six o'clock closing', the myth is all very well: but it is nice to be relieved of the reality.

So much for stumps. If the shags and heron are intended to stand in for the heroic survivor of former iconography - the symbol of hope rising from the debris - one is entitled to ask what the relationship of these seabirds is to puriri, or indeed any, forest habitat. A fair element of chance would appear to have played a part in the choice of bird. The judicious accentuation of their features brings Nga Tamariki a Tane perilously close to the beach-bach in the 'sixties and coffee-shop collections of driftwood, which scale alone cannot dispel. There isn't a great deal of difference between whittling and varnishing the smaller specimens, and putting them on a mantel piece, and hafting beaks on to the larger ones and putting them in a sculpture court.

A discordant note is the metal bracing. In the early 'seventies there was a positive fetish for stopping sections of raw lumber into iron grills which imbued some of the pages of the current biennale catalogues with SM leather overtones. The indiscreet reinforcement in this case would no doubt be passed off as no-nonsense, farm-forge functionalism, yet it is hard to escape the notion that it is an unsympathetic and ill-considered ' stylistic borrowing. The two period flavours are uncomfortably mingled.

Nga Tamariki a Tane 1983
installation view

The grandeur of the title and over-extended 'message' cannot negate the effect of these picturesque relics in their civilised setting of terracotta tiles, against a backdrop of the near-pastoral corner of Albert Park. (Although whether their removal from such a site as the one shown in the leaflet will always be seen as strictly in accordance with good conservational practice remain to be seen. But if the logs do little for the wastelands of North Auckland, they at least do something for the Gallery. They are big and noticeable. If echoes of Michael Dunn's comment that '. . . the dead tree was synonymous with a dead end in New Zealand art'2 recur, any step by the Gallery outside its doors must be welcomed.

1. Michael Dunn, 'Frozen Flame and Slain Tree', Art New Zealand 13, pp. 40 - 45.
2. ibid., p. 45.