‘Wood a wonder material’

Primary Products:
John Johns, Jim Allen, Paratene Matchitt, Maddie Leach, Fiona Amundsen
Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University, Wellington
11 August – 7 October 2007

Ruminations upon ‘the forest’ in Aotearoa New Zealand tend toward recollections of mighty kauri trees, of tui gorging on nectar, or perhaps of woody tourist staples: souvenir bowls, knotty wall clocks and rulers compiled from slivers of native timbers. ‘Primary Products’, an exhibition of work by John Johns, Jim Allen, Paratene Matchitt, Maddie Leach and Fiona Amundsen turns its gaze to the less romanticised terrain of exotic (or introduced) timber cultivation and its social, economic and ecological impact.

This is the second exhibition curated by Christina Barton since taking up the mantle of Director of the Adam Art Gallery, and its premise is particularly pertinent given the current attention directed at New Zealand forestry as a potential source of carbon credits to offset other industries associated with high carbon emissions (such as dairy farming).

The exhibition includes work from 1956 to 2007, but begins with One Shining Gum (Savia Brillante) (2006-07) by Maddie Leach, a work made for ‘Transversa’, an exhibition and conference in Santiago, Chile as part of The South Project. Uneasy about generating a quick-fire site-responsive project, Leach instead sought to make an ‘openly redundant gesture’,2 shipping a felled pine tree from New Zealand to Chile—a country with its own abundant resources of pine. Stymied by strict bio-security guidelines vetoing any pine-based imports she sent a eucalypt (a permitted species) housed in a crate milled from the original pine tree she had secured. This ‘Trojan’ work made its way to Chile via Singapore and Hong Kong by ship, but arrived late and then sat at the port, refused entry by Chilean agriculture officers. The artist had to choose between the work being destroyed or returned to its point of origin, so it was duly dispatched back to Aotearoa. This is its first outing, complete with battered crate, accompanied by two video elements; one depicting the felling, the other the ship which transported the work to dock at Valparaiso Harbour, and a shipping document that Leach described as the tree’s ‘passport’. This well-travelled wood highlights the economic stakes driving such fierce protectionism.

An earlier recording of the journey from seedling to sawmill and beyond is seen in the twenty-five black and white photographs of John Johns. An employee of the New Zealand Forestry Service, Johns was a self-professed amateur photographer who documented the work of the Service (whose remit extended across both native and exotic Crown-owned holdings). His images are incredibly disciplined with a strong formalism, attention to detail, and highly considered qualities of light and composition. The works span the period from 1956 through to 1990 (five years after the disestablishment of the Forestry Service and its split into separate conservation and production departments). The more familiar of Johns’ works, aerial and grounded depictions of rows of exotic pine, birch, poplar and larch plantations, are well represented in the exhibition. Other compelling images include two of Cape Wrath, the vast ship carrying the first major consignment of exotic sawn timber to the United Kingdom in 1970, and an interior image of an alpine hut designed by architect Paul Pascoe. The hut’s woody ceiling, walls and floor demonstrate the properties of the larch grown locally on Mt Cook Station.

Opposite Johns’ works are five newly commissioned photographs by Fiona Amundsen. They document town centers in Rotorua, Kawerau and Murupara, all settlements developed around the huge Kaingaroa Forest in the central North Island, a major centre for the cultivation and production of both sawn timer and pulp and paper. Private corporations now lease the land from the Crown and local iwi—the regions’ heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s under the management of the Forestry Service. Amundsen’s images do not illustrate forestry and they resist narrative reading, rather, the devil is in the detail. Surveying visual evidence of the towns’ social, economic and cultural make-up, one feels as if the party is well and truly over.

In line with Amundsen’s practice, the images are devoid of people, intentionally shifting our attention to architecture, fixtures, fittings, signage, planting and occasional wildlife such as the ominous phalanx of waiting birds lining the apex of the Westpac bank in Rotorua. In the three images of Jellicoe Court, Kawerau, the names of the shops chart a forlorn present; Loan Zone, Secondhand City, Where Else Café and Restaurant, Modern Creations (Tattoos and Piercing), the increasingly rare Post Shop/Kiwi Bank and Geor’s Major Decorating (which in the vein of a ‘diversify and prosper’ rationale offers DIY decorating supplies, hardware, gifts, jewellery, watches, straps and batteries). A set of pudgy orange-grey clouds drifts above the town. As a local commented to Amundsen ‘Uncle Tasman is really smoking for you this morning’; ‘Uncle’ being the Tasman pulp and paper mill, and the clouds, pollution.

Two knock-out works are Jim Allen’s New Zealand Environment No. 5 (1969) and Paratene Matchitt’s Te Wepu (1986). Matchitt’s huge wooden pennant-shaped form, made from rough-sawn demolition timber, is named after the flag which Te Kooti, leader and prophet of the Ringatū Church, used as his fighting standard. The symbols draw on customary Māori, Christian and modernist abstract vocabularies; heart-shaped forms, six-pointed stars, a crescent moon, a cross, plus linear forms comprised of nails studding the length of the work. Here, as in the case of the original siting at the National Art Gallery, Wellington in 1986, the work is too large for the space, maintaining its own integrity and resisting co-option.

Jim Allen’s New Zealand Environment No. 5 also employs a cruciform, in this instance as its floorplan. A metal frame sheathed in Hessian demarcates a claustrophobic space, its interior bathed in the sickly green pallor of two standing neon forms. As you enter the central area nylon threads brush your face, immediately heightening your senses. One side of the compound’s floor is spread with wood chips, the other with sheep’s wool, allegorising two parallel primary industries: farming and forestry. Both areas are littered with barbed wire coils, evoking the harmful byproducts of these two bread and butter earners.

There is a strong resurgence of interest in the work of both Matchitt and Allen and ‘Primary Products’ is a welcome airing of two powerful works seldom seen outside the collections in which they are held. In fact the whole exhibition is a suite of subtle, resonant revelations. Work is accorded generous space and thoughtful consideration in the companion texts. Gentle juxtapositions draw fruitful but not overplayed connections between works. In an era of globalised economics when domestic primary production seems almost distantly romantic, the exhibition excavates back-stories of this most ordinary ‘exotic’ resource through half a century of economic and social change. 

notes: 

1. ‘Wood a wonder material’ is the title of the address delivered by Jim Anderton, Minister for Forestry, September 2007 at the Beehive, Wellington to launch a NZ Wood campaign ‘For a better world’; a highly optimistic speech celebrating the economic and ecological benefits of native and exotic timber. (Foot note 1 refers to the title of the work)

2. Artist’s talk, August 2007.