Feature Summer 2020

An observer of our time

Graham Bennett makes art in the round that speaks to themes of navigation and precarious truth. Increasingly, his speculative works in stone, wood and steel convey the artist’s anger about environmental degradation. Sally Blundell reports.

Sea, Sky, Stone, 1991, oxidised steel, reflective glass. Photo: Murray Hedwig.
All artworks by and courtesy of Graham Bennett

In the attic studio of a graceful Christchurch villa a round-bottomed boat hangs from the rafters. Based on Hieronymus Bosch’s Ship of Fools, it is a prototype for a new sculpture, a luckless crew confronting an environmental crisis looming like a Hokusai wave over a doomed coracle. In the hold, a ballast of granodiorite rock from Te Taero a Kereopa (or Te Tahuna a Tama-i-ea) – Boulder Bank.

Christchurch sculptor Graham Bennett has been this way before. He made his first boat as an adolescent, rowing from Cable Bay to Delaware Bay near Nelson. The 13-kilometre Boulder Bank, a long drift of ancient granodiorite boulders arcing down across Nelson’s foreshore, was visible from his childhood home. In 1991 he installed Sea/Sky/Stone, a 40-metre sequence of steel and glass frames, on the rocky spit. As art historian Robin Woodward writes in a new book on the artist’s work, Around Every Circle, “This is Bennett’s whenua, the place he identifies with.” 

Notions of place and identity have remained central to Bennett’s work. Over five decades he has developed a practice built on real and imagined systems of navigation, wayfaring, place-marking and the tenuous trajectory of personal and scientific endeavour. In doing so, writes Woodward, he has traversed vast territories, “exploring the connections between people and places, between cultural ideas, and the relationship of humankind with the ancient Earth itself… Bennett is an observer of our time, leaning increasingly towards questions of balance, measurement, environmental impact and cause and effect.”

Loss Adjustor, 2012–13, recovered items: music stand, rulers, window catch, plumb bob, springs, fittings. Photo: Maurice Lye

Taking its title from Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn” – Around Every Circle traces Bennett’s career from his early drawings and photography to a sculptural practice recognised throughout New Zealand and internationally, most notably in Japan. Its publication coincides with Seeking a Balance, a retrospective exhibition at Christchurch Art Gallery
Te Puna o Waiwhetū this summer. Bennett also exhibits at The Diversion Gallery in Picton this November–December and has another exhibition at Canterbury Museum next year, based on his ongoing interest in ancestral voyaging and cross-cultural discourse, and the meeting point between art and museum collections.

The development of Bennett’s ideas into three-dimensional form can be traced back to his early use of photographic and graphic sequences. In 1976, six years after graduating from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, he gave up a full-time teaching job to travel with his wife Paula through England and Europe for four years. He recalls attending an exhibition by British land artist Richard Long in London. “I realised that aspects of time, of sequencing, were what I was talking about. That is the essence of sculpture – movement in the round, progression, time.” At Avebury, in southwest England, he plotted the prehistoric Neolithic henge monument through a series of drawings, establishing a tension between the ancient heft of the stone and the fragility of scribbled gestures. On the Northern Line of the London Underground he used a basic form of stop-motion photography to plot the journey and the rapidly emptying carriages. In Barcelona he embarked on a series of paper and folded cardboard works, pushing his photography beyond planes and surfaces to explore new free-standing forms. 

Weight Out, Way Out, 2010, painted steel, brass, wood. Photo: Milford Galleries

On his return to New Zealand Bennett edged ever closer to the three-dimensional, working with cut-outs, ceramics, glass, timber, stone, aluminium, steel and plastics. Drawing on new laser and 3D technologies and age-old processes of drawing, modelling, casting and chiselling, he developed an aesthetic that is minimal, poised, refined. By the late 1990s, writes Woodward, Bennett’s work was “firmly anchored in the school of Brâncus˛i and his Japanese/American follower, Isamu Noguchi. There is a common concern with surface finish, meticulous attention to detail, issues of balance and repetition, and a delicacy of line and mass.”

In keeping with the strategies of these artists, Bennett draws on a series of recurring symbols and images: the simple ellipse of a pebble or a sea-going vessel; the motif of a circle within a square cut through by a diagonal; lines of longitude and latitude, of navigational charts and ancestral pathways; delicate forms that measure and weigh; punctured forms that balance void and mass. There are no answers here. Rather, Bennett invites the viewer to consider new questions about belonging, migration, human faith and scientific experimentation. As social theorist John Freeman-Moir writes in this book, conjecture and experiment “are as fundamental to the artist as they are to the scientist”. 

Bennett translates these speculations into an elegant, meticulously crafted catalogue of forms and devices: astrolabes, sextants, octants and chronometers; scales, calipers and trig stations. Bold in their science, hopeful in their exactitude, they are, he says, “a pretence of precision”, finely executed in painted steel, timber and brass but fragile, frail even, in their flawed functionality and the precarious certainty of early migration. He quotes from his great-great-grandmother’s diary charting her journey from Scotland to Nova Scotia then, with five young children, on to New Zealand. Her New Year entry in 1864: “I wonder what we are going to.”

Poles Apart , 2007, wood (to¯tara,
beech, rimu), brass, aluminium. Photo: Maurice Lye

In 2003 Bennett produced the monumental Reasons for Voyaging, a stand of seven towering stainless-steel and to¯tara poles installed in the forecourt of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu¯. Topped by large, elliptical, waka-like steel frames, they allude to the waves of voyaging that brought first Polynesian, then European, then new migrant settlers to these shores. “We’re a land of voyagers,” he says. “Everybody is a new arrival.” 

Increasingly Bennett has been putting these themes of ancestral, cultural and colonial exploration into the context of our failure as guardians of the natural environment. Small intricate devices, suggesting a scientific functionality way beyond their capability, measure tiny amounts of gold, earth, cow dung, shredded bank notes, diamonds, oil or water. “They are about what we measure and what we don’t measure,” the artist says. “Diamonds might be precious but they aren’t really – and there is human folly associated with their mining. The same with gold and all the other contents. In the end it is about us, not the materials – about our relationship to the resources, not the resources themselves.”

Bennett’s Tipping Point, commissioned for the Songchu Art Valley in Korea in 2012, gave rise to a related series of smaller works that present a splayed figure in laser-cut steel. Based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, this figure stares blindly at his own reflection as the planet moves closer toward environmental catastrophe. This is not man the masterpiece but an internet cut-out, presiding over his own unthinking activities. “The man of no substance, is what I call it. It is Trumpian in a way – super slick, shiny, blind.”

In a detailed illustrated chronology at the back of the book, Bennett asks, “What is the line between the arts and activism?” I don’t claim to provide answers, he replies, “but to say nothing, to present nothing will achieve nothing”.

“It’s a challenging balance,” he says now. “You feel some things need to be said and you want to say them but you don’t know how – the only thing I’ve got is, I can make stuff. I always hated the idea of the ‘environmental artist’ and all those sorts of labels but my work has kind of grown into that aspect. I wonder if it is just an age thing. The number of things that have become extinct or destroyed in my lifetime – forests, wetlands, insects, birds, lizards, lakes… We’ve wrecked the place.”

Connections and Differences , 1999, cast iron, rust, granodiorite stone. Photo: Graham Bennett

New Zealand in particular, he says, is marked by a history that is “recent, thin and destructive”. As the most recently discovered landmass we are also the most recently destructed, our short history powered by machinery that enabled us to decimate our forests and wetlands quicker than anyone in the past and render our waterways the most polluted in the OECD. And still it goes on. He points to the number of dairy cows on the Canterbury Plains, “each one shitting the equivalent of 11 people – and it is the next generation that will have to deal with this”.

Seeking a Balance at Christchurch Art Gallery will include Be It On Our Heads (2017), a work featuring 12 naked young women, based on figures from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490–1510), standing in a pond of water surrounded by a parched irrigation circle. “As I read more, as I find out more, I get angrier and angrier.”

Back in Bennett’s attic studio, 12 polymer figures await placement in the full-bellied boat, the Coracle of the Deceived. Each is based on a real person – young New Zealanders of different ethnicities were live-scanned in Wellington with 350 cameras, then their forms printed in three-dimensional polymer. Unlike the drunken fools in Bosch’s ship, rudderless in the ocean of their own ineptitude, these are young people caught in a world not of their making. 

“I wanted it to be of now, of real people in the community. I didn’t want them to be angry but I wanted them to feel a little bit lost. These are the vulnerable, the disillusioned, those who are left with nothing – how are they going to survive in this ship they have inherited? If Bosch’s figures are the fools, these are the fooled.” 

Graham Bennett: Seeking a Balance is at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū until 21 February 2021; On Watch at The Diversion Gallery, Picton, from 15 November to 19 December. Around Every Circle (Ron Sang Publications, $85) is in bookstores now.

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