Ask 40-year-old North Canterbury sculptor Phil Price to name a breakthrough in his career and he names Protoplasm, 2002, an eye-popping kinetic work with four green discs – like oversize Smarties – that have a mesmerising life of their own, rotating atop a tall, raked pedestal.
Protoplasm, which first marked Price out as an outstanding New Zealand sculptor, was installed in Wellington's Civic Square as part of The International Festival's Changing Spaces, an outdoor sculpture exhibition curated by Jenny Neligan, director of Bowen Galleries in Wellington.
"I don't know which work of mine Jenny Neligan saw and thought, 'I'll give this guy an opportunity,' but when she did I understood the opportunity for what it was and made Protoplasm and it was instantly a success."
Protoplasm takes its name from the biological structure of a cell, and its look-at-me colour and the hypnotic movement of its discs in response to wind and gravity instantly grab your attention, prompting the question, How does it work? Since the answer to that question is not obvious, the work arouses a childlike sense of wonder. Its four glossy pebbles rotate around each other and around a central axis, evoking orbiting planets or chains of DNA in constant fluid motion.
The genesis of this work was Price's discovery of the kinetic sculptures of American George Rickey (1907 – 2002). While visiting art patron Alan Gibbs' farm and sculpture park in Kaipara, Price saw the first of several Rickey works purchased by Gibbs.
"I was completely mesmerised by this thing – made up of four box-like elements joined one to the next and moving independently. Once I'd seen it there was no other sculpture to look at," says Price.
"Rickey has created moving sculptures that are far more elevated than almost all kinetic sculptures. I wasn't interested in kinetic sculpture but when I saw his work, it was so much better than anything else I've seen."
The challenge was to find out how the work moved and that took several years.
"At one stage I actually gave up trying to replicate Rickey's work because it was too hard."
In 2005, the quest took him to America where he met Rickey's engineer and visited the artist's rural home and sculpture park in New York, where there are 50 of his kinetic pieces. The visit also inspired Price to develop his own home, studio, workshop and one hectare sculpture park in Amberley.
With the spunky Protoplasm, Price had mastered Rickey's use of compound axes, a mechanism that allows an object to revolve and dip at the same time – though Protoplasm translates Rickey's sculpture as four discs rather than as boxes. In contrast to Rickey's hard edge Constructivist works, however, Price's are light-hearted, lyrical and playful, exploring softer organic forms that quote nature as well as referencing high-tech product design. They also resonate strongly with the uncompromising coastal environments for which they are often designed.
One such site is Waiheke Island's Connells Bay Sculpture Park, owned by John and Jo Gow who, impressed with Protoplasm, commissioned Price to build the gorgeous yellow Dancer, 2003. Like its predecessor, Dancer comprises discs that rotate around each other and around a central axis. Despite its monumental scale and sturdy pedestal, it appears to float, each disc moving mysteriously in response to the unseen forces of wind and weather.
The combination of a sturdy industrial-shaped pedestal, which is deeply rooted in the ground, with moving forms inspired by the organic shapes of nature – birds' wings, fish fins and insect stings – has become a definitive feature of Price's kinetic work. The sophisticated design of the pedestal, which not only anchors the kinetic elements so they will survive extreme weather events but also elevates them beyond viewers' reach for safety reasons, harks back to Brancusi – the first Modern sculptor to incorporate the plinth or pedestal as part of the work itself.
"He is a huge influence. I love his sense of simplicity and the balance of forms he achieves."
Though people tend to focus on the kinetic elements of Price's work, the dynamic forms of the pedestals are equally beautiful, reinforcing a sense of flight and movement. Rather than being stolid and earthbound, the pedestals are often raked, curved or feathered, cleverly blurring boundaries between earth and sky, pedestal and kinetic elements.
Not surprisingly, the ex-engineer and first kinetic sculptor Alexander Calder is also a favourite artist. Price quotes Calder's love of balance, form and strong primary colours. Calder's stated aim was to make Mondrians that move.
"I'm actually more besotted with the Modern masters than I am with contemporary artists," says Price.
"The only conceptual thought Calder ever had about his work was that it had to make him happy. He was such a child; you see pictures of him as an old man and he is still a child. It is really beautiful."
The Gows introduced Price to Waiheke's Sculpture on the Gulf, for which he made the ambitious Cytoplasm, 2003, one of the highlights of the island's spectacular coastal sculpture walk. It looked like a giant prop from the set of a futuristic sci-fi flick and borrowed heavily from the tradition of cartoon futurism seen in 1950s automotive design.
"I made Cytoplasm as a permanent work with no expectation it would stay on Waiheke and now, through the generosity of Adrian Burr, Peter Tatham and Sue Fisher and the vision of the Auckland City Sculpture Trust, it has been relocated to The Viaduct."
Commenting on the way his work conflates high-tech industrial design with organic forms inspired by nature and further underlined by psuedo-scientific titles like Disco Dinornis and Dinornis Maximus – Price says, "That is me; I'm quite a designer; I like good design and good engineering. One of the great things about making kinetic work is taking it away from being really mechanical. I've seen a lot of kinetic work where you can see all the machines going round and round or in and out – they are all square edges and look as if an engineer has made them. In my work I try to transcend all of that."
That said, when Price was in Tom Taylor's sculpture department at Ilam, he spent a lot of time building motors and indulging his passion for racing vintage motorcycles – he has his own collection.
"At uni I spent most of my time making motors and even then it wasn't clear why, but it makes sense because now I'm making all the mechanical things for the sculptures. I suppose that's where I get all the knowledge from."
After graduating from art school in 1989, he designed and built stage sets and ran a small backyard company manufacturing composite sports products, including helicopter blades for Japanese remote-controlled helicopters. It was then he learned to use carbon fibre, which he says is an extraordinary material because of its strength and plasticity. He still works with it today.
"I was really taken with the performance of carbon. You can make any shape with it and it's one of the lightest and strongest materials known."
Carbon can withstand extreme weather and Price's 33-metre-high Zephryometer, 2004 – which gyrates madly like the orange speedometer gauge in a boy racer's car – proves that. Price won the Meridian Energy Great Wellington Wind Sculpture Project, which enabled him to build the Cobham Drive work.
Despite his formidable technical and spatial skills, Price has an old fashioned hands-on approach, drawing and then making models for works. These are placed outside to bear the brunt of the boisterous North Canterbury elements.
"It takes a while to try things and find out how different arrangements of the forms and points of axis will behave with the wind," he says.
Surprisingly, for such complex and monumental forms, the sculptures are mostly built at home in Price's Amberley workshop. Nowadays, Phil Price and outdoor kinetic sculpture are synonymous. Protoplasm launched a dream career that has been as unpredictable and exciting as the gyrations of Zephyrometer in a Southerly gale.
Rather than signing up with a dealer and then slowly building a career through gallery-based shows, Price has leap-frogged a few conventional steps.
"I've done a fairly odd thing; I've built a career around doing larger projects."
Outdoor sculpture festivals featuring ambitious works by top-flight sculptors were almost non-existent 10 years ago. Participating in events like Wellington's Changing Spaces, Waiheke's Sculpture on the Gulf, Art & Industry's SCAPE in Christchurch and Sydney's Sculpture by the Sea has kick-started Price's career. In some ways his success – private commissions in New Zealand and Australia now take up most of his time – is indicative of New Zealand sculpture's robust health.
He now has more than a dozen large public and private kinetic works in Australia and New Zealand and there are more commissions in the pipeline. With the creation of smaller multiple works that can be exhibited in a gallery space, Price plans to expand his practice to England and America.
"It took three to four years to get a body of kinetic work together. We now use the same materials and designs for all the bearing stuff; the same paints. That helps create unity. One of my strengths is that I'm happy with scale – nothing is a problem with scale. It comes down to budget and practicalities."
He is currently working on a private commission, which will be his largest outdoor kinetic work so far, for a property in Lake Hayes, Central Otago.
"I love being given the opportunity to do extraordinary things – so few people get to have a go at it – and I think I can open up doors for sculpture that haven't been opened. That's what really drives me. I'm interested in showing people things they've never seen before. I might have seen them in my mind's eye but I actually want to make them."
"I enjoy working with private clients best because there's no bureaucracy involved. Most people have really good ideas about what to do and where to put things. They also love the land and so really enjoy the process as well. That is one of the reasons why the gallery network has largely missed the boat with sculpture. Because that whole interaction between sculptor, client and site is not something that can be done easily over the telephone from a white room."
Commenting on the irony of his situation and the Kiwi tradition of DIY, Price remarks, "Here is this guy making these extraordinarily complex and sophisticated objects, which look as if they are generated by a cutting-edge design studio with a team of technicians. I definitely have help but the reality is that these works are largely made by a guy working in his backyard studio."