23 June 2018 By Rosheen FitzGerald
On a crisp, brilliantly lit winters morning a respectable group – twenty odd and a dog – gather outside Hastings City Art Gallery in buttoned-up overcoats and robust walking shoes, eager to lift the veil on the public art that elevates the urban landscape above the functional. Our guide is a soft-spoken English lady, rustling reams of notations, crowd-sourced Te Reo pronunciation eliciting winces from the group. Her benign demeanour, and understanding she’s a volunteer subbed on from the back benches for the occasion, forbear judgment, although there are multiple instances of the audience filling the blanks of her knowledge.
First stop is the Hall of Memories at Hastings War Memorial Library – a stories-high, Vaseline-lensed depiction of troops in various stages of health on a nameless beach. Our guide mumbles something about Gallipoli, but the monoplane aircraft in the background, and the fact that it was painted by New Zealand’s official World War II artist, Peter McIntyre points more in the direction of D-Day, Dunkirk and that infamous Churchill speech. It’s a piece designed to impose, forcing the viewer to crane upwards as space does not allow viewing at distance. Presumably this was in McIntyre’s mind when he conceived the sandblasted windows whose opacity shields his work from a more comfortable view outside. But war is an uncomfortable business, one not to enter into lightly.
McIntyre’s depiction feels more authentic than Margriet Windhausen’s statue of Sir Andrew Russell, across the lawn. The Dutch sculptor was commissioned by the Russell family, ostensibly to memorialise the fruitless and senseless orgy of death that was Gallipoli, with which a certain cohort of this country is inexplicably obsessed. He’s a sturdy figure, impressively wrought in double-breasted greatcoat, plus-fours, gaiters, cap and cane, a real fake poppy in his breast pocket. Attention is drawn to his ‘sense of kindliness’. The statue – produced by a sculptor who never knew war, in the pay of the subject’s family, whose erection caused the street to be renamed in their honour – certainly has a sense of bonhomie. But this rings false, and I can’t help but think he was kind enough to travel half way across the world to implore our brown boys to shoot other brown boys in the mud, in the name of a king who thought of us not at all.
The Russell family is also responsible for the stunning Karl Parsons stained glass windows in St Matthews’ Lady Chapel – so-called because of its devotion to Mother Mary, not for any puritanical gender-segregated system of worship. Parsons, part of the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement, designed church windows across the Commonwealth. Leadlight creates broad strokes of form with incredible attention – notably spangled stars and candle flames that flicker in the wind. Painting and etching techniques add detail, evoking expression of face, roundness of limb. Floral components trail the edges of overtly religious subjects, belying Parsons’ Arts and Crafts roots.
In general, public art falls into two main categories. Traditional – provided by the largess of the movers and shakers of yesteryear – Russell, Williams, Nelson – undoubtedly ‘giving back’ to the community, but also cementing their place at the top of the social and cultural food chain. The contemporary is funded by the state, bringing artists and whenua, rather than patrons, to the fore.
Of these, Jacob Scott is featured again and again. His Kaitiaki – The Guardians of Freedom at the corner of the courthouse, is one of several pieces of laser-cut metal, rendered in two dimensions, manipulated to create three dimensional constructions. Its sharp angles and black and white faces represent the crossroads at which those entering the courthouse find themselves, with blossoms in bold colours between them symbolising the hope of reformation. An inscription proclaiming Te Mauri Tu, Te Mauri Ora roughly translates, The Alert Life Force Begets Life, which is also the name of an intervention programme for young offenders, into which some of those that pass under the watchful eye of the Kaitiaki may find themselves delivered.
Haukunui – Scott’s collaboration with Ricks Terstappen and William Jamieson, is cut from the same cloth. The name refers to the fog that hangs over the Heretaunga plains, symbolising abundance. It blends Maori and Polynesian images over a great, bowl-like structure, whose waters should harken to the aquifer beneath. Tellingly, it has run dry, perhaps an augury of where exploitation of our natural resources will lead.
Virginia King’s Nikau Vessel has also ceased to flow, worrying too, as it symbolises the bounty of produce of the region, wrought two dimensionally on the perforated steel that spans its trunks. On the main pedestrian thoroughfare, David Trubridge’s Leaf Lights don’t warrant mention from the guide, though enthusiastic members of the group point them out to one another. Nor do Gary Hebley’s popular Chloe & Friends,who have been clambered over by generations of Hawke’s Bay children…and immortalised in a rash of compromising photographs by the intoxicated and indecorous. But above, Neil Dawson’s Suntrap gets a look in – its interlocking parasols symbolising the life-giving Hawke’s Bay sun, the negative space indicating the plant life that sustains the region.
To either side of the City Square are the most idiosyncratic pieces of the tour, and those which elicit murmurs of “I’ve never noticed that before, Shirley, and I must walk past here every day!” Ricks Terstappen’s Pillars are a whimsical collection of totemic pou made from found objects that intimately reflect Hawke’s Bay industry with lightness and humour. They are joyfully received by the group who delight in naming parts of telephone pole and machinery, as well as searching for meaning in the forms. Less celebrated, on the other side of the square, are Liz Earth’s Elements. A quartet of ergonomic forms studded with a mosaic of glazed tiles, tangentially connect to aspects of the environment. Cherubic faces peep out mutely, surrounded by flowers, moons, stars, hearts and shells, reminiscent of a prepubescent girl’s trinket box. It’s all a bit too touchy feely for the crowd, although a few dissenters, myself included, quietly express our affinity for the work.
Back at the library, Martin Selman’s Millenium Sculpture renders the Hawke’s Bay hills in flowing marble that is at once soft and solid. But the crowning glory of Hastings’ public art is in Civic Square – Nga Pou o Heretaunga – a field of 18 pou, each rendering a tīpuna and the whakapapa of a local marae carved into vast totara logs. Their quiet dignity imparts a sense of mana to the surrounds, the iho of authenticity from which all others flow.
Image courtesy of Hawke's Bay Tourism