My mate Pete and I had just left our Saturday morning coffee gathering when we noticed a tremble of dark feathers in the street. A female blackbird (which in fact is brown) was not doing well. Unable to fly, she had struggled through the grass and stumbled down the curb into the road. I picked her up and placed her under a tree; but this only saved her from cars or bikes. So what to do? Abandoning her to nature seemed logical but heartless. I found a cardboard box, and Pete got his car.
I wasn’t the wee bird’s only witness: a couple of locals approached when they saw what we were up to. They sympathetically pointed out her mate fretting in the distance. What had happened? I suspected she had had a run-in with a tourist bus; but someone else suggested she had been accidentally poisoned by eating from the recently sprayed trees. “You could take her to the SPCA,” he added, “but I’m not sure they’ll appreciate it. Those birds are pests.” I must have looked confused; he added, “They’re not natives.”
Pests (He probably said “pists,” but that’s another story). As Pete drove us to the SPCA, my heart sank at the man’s words. Because I sympathised with his feelings. After nine years in New Zealand, I’ve absorbed the propaganda: when it comes to plants and creatures, we support the local. Non-natives need to be “eradicated.”
Of course, there are good reasons for such propaganda. New Zealand’s geographical isolation means that most of its species are found nowhere else. Humans introduced the ferrets, stoats, cats, dogs, and humans that are wiping out our kiwis, penguins, and other flightless birds; they also introduced the pines, poplars, and other trees that have widely replaced their native predecessors. I’m glad some of my tax dollars go to national forests and bird sanctuaries, and I don’t lose sleep over possum or stoat eradication. But as I peered at the little brown blackbird in her cardboard box, I felt less certain. True, some things in nature just can’t coexist, and maybe 1080 drops are a necessary evil. But maybe we can approach the problem in more creative ways.
Art helps us think beyond life’s cardboard box, and as I reflected on my blackbird encounter, the work of Peter Nicholls came to mind. Nicholls’s large sculptures are found in every major New Zealand collection. Bringing together disparate materials, his works are all about movement and encounters: set firmly in place, they encourage the participant (not simply a viewer) to make a journey. One must walk beside or pass through his large works to fully engage with them. His 2008 retrospective at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery was appropriately titled Journeywork, and it included long, stream-like sculptures in wood and metal that seem to flow along the floor. While his works show fine craftsmanship, they are not illusionary; they do not hide the effort that went into them. Nor do they suggest a simple return to nature: those elongated works might suggest a highway as much as a bloodstream or river. Even his most photographed work, Tomo (2005, Connells Bay Sculpture Park), is complex: is it the visualisation of a forest’s lifeblood, or a human imposition on nature? A sinewy marriage of art and nature, or a Formula 1 racetrack through an idyllic landscape?
An exhibition earlier this year at the Eastern Southland Gallery, “As It Is On Earth,” emphasised the ecological turn in Nicholls’s recent work. The theme of national journey is still evident in these new works, though the interplay of landscape and memory is subtle: it’s most apparent in the materials. The exhibition included a striking series of small sculptures created in 2010 that bring together two kinds of wood, swamp kauri and gorse, that have iconic status in contemporary New Zealand, though for different reasons. Kauri forests once blanketed the North Island. A century of logging meant that, by the early twentieth century, only a few forests were left. Today the remaining forests are protected, so the search has gone underground. Swamp kauri dates from prehistoric time; buried in North Island peat thousands of years ago, it is now excavated and used for furniture or art.
If kauri stands as New Zealand’s quintessential ancient and indigenous timber, gorse is the quintessential invader. Native to Europe, it was brought by settlers to act as a hedge, but the climate caused its growth to explode. Its sharp spines and long-lived seeds make it almost impossible to eradicate. Millions of dollars have been spent ridding the landscape of it, but its removal is about as likely as, well, the removal of the people who brought it here.
By combining these two timbers in his sculptures, Nicholls nods towards Aotearoa New Zealand’s troubled immigrant history: the British and other European settlers who rapidly and sometimes violently displaced the long-established Maori, just as the upstart gorse has displaced ancient kauri. Indeed, the potential for a one-dimensional aesthetic response is obvious. It’s in the names—the harsh, Middle English gutteral beside the Maori complex vowel—as well as each timber’s look and feel—the beautiful stratifications of the native wood beside the dull, scraggly settler branch.
But it’s more complex than that, both in nature and in Nicholls’s art. Conservationists know that thick fields of gorse can actually play a useful role in aiding new-growth forests. After hard rains, it holds the earth secure, keeping newly-planted trees in place. As those trees grow and spread their leaves, gorse loses the sunlight and dies off. The process takes years, but it works.
Nicholls picks up on this paradox in his work. Gorse’s role as an aid to natives is well represented in the beautiful Sustain (2010, private collection), where the hard, trembling lines of the withered gorse branch form the aorta to the smooth, marbled sheen of the kauri heart. The materials have a sensual beauty in their variety, and there is surely the suggestion of sexuality in the work. But this isn’t a colonial fantasy. The connection between the kauri and gorse is not natural: it’s been forced, and the evidence of that brutality is the charcoal burn Nicholls leaves at the point of union. If the charcoal specifically brings to mind the vast indigenous forests burned by Europeans to clear space for new settlements, it more generally suggests the violence of encounter. Two elements, naturally disparate, are sutured together to make something new. The result is original, but not easy.
In a related work, Dream (2010, private collection), a piece of kauri, smooth, overtly worked, balances precariously upon a rough, seemingly unworked gorse branch. The sculpted kauri has an angular quality that encourages various readings. When I first encountered Dream it brought to my mind a boat grounded on a shore. Viewed from another angle, it suggested a bird on a branch, about to take flight. Both representations are fitting. One conjures the long boats that carried Maori to Aotearoa nine hundred years ago, and the sailing vessels that carried Europeans to New Zealand five hundred years later. The other suggests the rich bird life that developed on these islands over millennia, as well as more recent arrivals, like sparrows, thrushes, and yes, blackbirds, brought over by nineteenth-century Britons nostalgic for the sounds of home. A seemingly simple work, Dream evinces the motifs of nation, migration, and ecology evident in so many of Nicholls’s best works.
In a world where multicultural encounter and existence is inevitable, Peter Nicholls’s sculptures offer an imaginative way forward. His works weld materials that hardly seem to belong together, and yet the combination makes something new and complete. Admittedly, there’s something vaguely utopian about his work. Look around: it’s sadly evident that most introduced species don’t play well with the locals. I imagine that, viewed from some distant planet, humans haven’t done much better. There’s a difference, of course: flora and fauna have limited control in their migration patterns, while at least some humans make a conscious decision to disrupt other communities. More to the point, we can choose to talk to our immigrant neighbors, or choose not to support a government that invades other nations. But are we so different from gorse or blackbirds? I think the jury’s still out.
Meanwhile, my “pest” was shuffling around in her cardboard box, confused and exhausted. The good people at the SPCA gave her a quick look: her leg was broke, and her body was bloated from eating unripe berries. They promised to keep an eye on her before deciding what to do. I thanked them and left a donation; but I had stopped listening. I was imagining her healed, and released, her mate still waiting.
You can read more in Tom’s New Zealand series here.