8 February–16 March 2019
Tūrei 31 Tīhema
Tuesday 31 December
It’s sunny today, but cold. The sea is calm, or relatively so. From where I sit, I see waves barely breaking before they reach land, extending lazily up the beach. To the right of my view, Taputeranga Island, a rocky, green hill extending out of the ocean a few metres from the shore. Nearer to the left, Te Moana-o-Raukawa stretches out into the horizon, interrupted by Pencarrow Head and the hills behind it. On a clear day, if I squint, extend my neck into the corner of the window, tilt my head, Te Waipounamu is visible.
By the time I wake up tomorrow, the coastline will be different. Not perceivably so, at least not perceivable to my eyes, but changed no less. The tides, the wind and the rain will have altered the shape, texture and form of this island. Rocks a little more weathered. Debris scattered and rearranged.
When change makes itself known to me, it’s as an interruption to life's daily rhythms. The windowpane above my bed shaking in the wind, for instance, threatening to shatter. Gutters, filled with leaves, overflowing during heavy rain. Or a loose post on the balcony outside my bedroom, swaying in the wind, hanging onto the railing with the desperate strength of a single nail. Or the small earthquake that rocked Rebecca Steedman and I while we were installing her exhibition Finding Ground in the window of MEANWHILE (Te Whanganui-a-Tara) last November. It was hard to notice at first. The rumbling of the glass and the tiled floor, caused by the shifting of tectonic plates beneath us and far away, was difficult to distinguish from that caused by buses passing along Willis Street. The gentle rocking of a small pot, hanging from a table with fluorescent tow rope, gave it away.
The timing seemed too fitting for the tremors to be mere coincidence, but the earth moves without meaning. Steedman’s work seeks to give form to the geological composition of the ground beneath our feet, and the slow, violent processes of transformation taking place constantly. In some ways, Steedman’s exhibition Formations, held at Blue Oyster Art Project Space in Ōtepoti in February 2019, follows on from the material investigations of Finding Ground. Whereas in Finding Ground, Steedman’s material—lava flows, volcanic ash, iron—was sourced from Tāmaki Makaurau, where the artist lives, Formations, which was staged following a month-long residency at the Caselberg Trust Cottage, looks towards the landscape of Ōtepoti.
Noticing the movements of the earth demands a different quality of attention; it requires looking and thinking at a scale beyond the human. At times, it requires peering through or peeling back the scars of habitation, cultivation and industrial production. The harbour and hills around which Ōtepoti was settled were once the site of an active volcano. Now long extinct, over the past ten million years the volcano has been heavily eroded. Parts are now submerged in the harbour, other parts now barely register as small peaks and mounds.1 At Broad Bay, where the Caselberg Cottage is located, outcrops of volcanic clay and rocks are scattered on the beach.
Some of these rocks made their way into Steedman’s ceramic objects. Crushed and mixed with clay, water and other materials, they leave a speckled, earthy outer layer on the collection of forms which make up Formations. In these objects is a collapsing of multiple timelines. Steedman combines that which moves so slowly as to barely register with that which lives and dies before our eyes. Broad Bay’s volcanic rocks are young compared to quartz found at Taieri River Mouth—which began its life as sediment that gathered off the coast of Gondwanaland over 100 million years ago, before being compressed by pressure and heat, and lifted from beneath the sea as the landmass of Aotearoa took its shape.2 Organic matter is mixed in, as well: ash from seaweed near Broad Bay, and flowers left at the cottage as a housewarming gift.
Steedman calls them “glazed experiments”. 3 Experimentation is a suspension of agency. A hypothesis, based upon known quantities, previous outcomes, what can be surmised about the behaviour of material, but no guarantee of the anticipated result. Steedman’s experiments almost look like pots or bowls, but not quite. They fail at domesticity and, in failing, become something else. Preformed into arrangements that might serve human requirements, the unfired clay objects were then wrapped in plastic and left by Steedman in bodies of water—Broad Bay, Taieri River, Clutha River—and allowed to take whatever shape the tides and flows of water, which have no use for vessels to hold flowers or soup, willed at the time. And then there’s the firing, of course, and with it an acquiescence to the possibility that materials might not behave in the way the artist needs them to; things might crack, air bubbles or foreign matter might have found their way into the glaze or the clay.
Sometimes, the watery composition of these forms is fortuitous. This is the case for two squat, crushed vases—one adorned with a hurried stroke of volcanic glaze, the other with a commercially sourced shade of blue. One hugs the other; a narrow groove on the side of one fits perfectly into the long edge of the other. Elsewhere, a squeezed form drapes over two neatly shaped bowls. Things fit accidentally.
It seems not quite right to read the objects as some kind of ecological allegory. Here, the earth is not victim to the destructive forces of capitalist expansion, but appears as indifferent to humans and their abuses. Tides will swell, winds will blow, rocks will break apart and reform whether the planet can support life or not. Steedman dwells within these processes of transformation only briefly, making the present a messy coalescence of histories of movement, change, attrition. She takes from the earth not to master it, but to notice it, to find herself, and us, as small players in a geological drama that started long before we arrived, and will continue long after we’re gone.
1. See Nick Mortimer, ‘Formations of Rock’, in this volume; Peter Ballance, New Zealand Geology: An Illustrated Guide (Wellington: Geological Society of New Zealand, 2009).
2. Mortimer, ‘Formations of Rock’.
3. Rebecca Steedman, phone conversation with the author, 15 April 2019.