The city of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest population base, sports four first-class sculpture parks within a 50-kilometer radius of its Central Business District. Of these, Connells Bay Sculpture Park is unique in presenting a microcosm of the country’s large-scale sculpture.1 Nestled into a private bay at the eastern end of Waiheke Island (a short ferry ride from downtown Auckland) within a landscape of native bush, Connells Bay Sculpture Park showcases New Zealand’s premier sculptors of the last two decades.
The park was established in 1998 by John and Jo Gow. Initially, they purchased sculpture to enhance the setting for three colonial-era cottages along the shoreline. However, the concept of a sculpture park developed, and the Gows have purchased and commissioned more than 26 large-scale permanent works and five temporary installations. In this evolution, Connells Bay has followed a typical pattern—while the collection began with purchased works, it continued to grow through commissioned pieces. This mature stage has brought with it some of the park’s most distinctive sculpture, since commissioned works tend to have a specific reference to place, space, or site.
In the strictest sense, “site-specific” refers to a work that belongs integrally to its site, a work that would be diminished or lose its meaning if placed elsewhere. But the term also identifies works commissioned or designed for a particular site. Tilted Arc is, without doubt, the most renowned example of a site-specific work. At Connells Bay, Fatu Feu’u’s Guardian of the Planting (1999) is unambiguously site-specific. Carved into the giant stump of an ancient macrocarpa tree that had been forked by lightning, Guardian of the Planting is rooted to the land in that specific spot; it simply cannot be placed anywhere else.
In addition to such site-specific sculpture, Connells Bay also features site-responsive works. These works do more than simply reference site or place; they have a complementary relationship to the land. For instance, in Chris Booth’s Slip (2003–04), five baskets of stones address soil erosion. In tandem with restorative planting of the hillside, Booth covered and nurtured the terrain by cloaking it in one of his “earth blankets.” Regan Gentry’s Skeleton Trees (2009) similarly addresses the needs of the environment. These art-trees, which Gentry created by manipulating No. 8 fencing wire (the basic material of old farm fences in New Zealand), use an ordinarily destructive intervention to restore vegetation.
Nic Moon’s temporary installation, Out of the Ashes (2007), responded to the same issue. To protect native seedlings, Moon provided each one with a shelter shaped as either a traditional Maori cloak or a colonial crinoline. Throughout New Zealand’s colonial history, the indigenous vegetation of Aotearoa has been systematically cleared to develop farmland. Moon’s dual-purpose work supplements John and Jo Gow’s program of planting native trees at Connells Bay. Her work also critiques the sculpture park’s development activities in which vegetation is cleared to make way for art. The Gows have embraced a variety of works that challenge the concept of a sculpture park and comment on their own activities at Connells Bay.
Multimedia artist Gaye Jurisich made another critique while providing a lively, colorful addition to the environment. Her temporary installation The Long Lei (2006) added a sculpture to the sculpture park and a flowerbed to the garden, and its artificiality commented on the practice of domestic and civic landscaping. As a temporary installation, The Long Lei celebrated the conservation movement; after an eight-month summer season, the work was removed, leaving no trace.
Characteristically, the sculpture at Connells Bay is informed by reference to place, relating to the geographical, social, and cultural history of the area. Peter Nicholls’s river of life, Tomo (2005), which threads its way through a stand of mature kanuka, is inscribed with the names of the four families that first claimed Connells Bay for Europe. Named for the pot or sink holes that characterize the geography of karst country, Tomo twists and turns, a red ribbon of timber that traces the patterns of the underground limestone landscape and its streams.
Some of the local references embodied in a sculpture can be fortuitous. For example, David McCracken’s 18 meters of weather-ripened Cor-ten steel, The Best Laid Plans Go West (2009), acquired additional meaning during its installation. The sculpture barrels out of the hillside on an east/west axis, its title quoting a line of McCracken’s poetry that plays on the alignment of the sculpture and alludes to the artist’s earlier, unsuccessful attempt to hydro-inflate a giant Cor-ten steel balloon for the sculpture park. The title became increasingly serendipitous as the piece went through a number of iterations. Plagued by delays caused by inclement weather and the complex logistics of shipping and trucking 10 tons of steel to the secluded site, time and again, the Gows and McCracken watched their best laid plans go west.
Jeff Thomson’s corrugated iron Three Cows Looking Out to Sea (1991/2001) recalls the agricultural and human history of Connells Bay. The first of the three individual pieces was purchased to graze at the Gows’ rural property north of Auckland. After moving to the more extensive pasture of Connells Bay, the solitary bovine looked lonely so the Gows commissioned a pair of companions. Thomson embedded the cows in their environment through his careful choice of site. On a hillside overlooking the bay, one of the heifers is resting, another is grazing, and the third looks up as if disturbed by activity down on the water. Historically, everything at Connells Bay, including livestock, arrived by sea.
Neil Dawson’s Other People’s Houses (2004) makes a formal statement about the colonial history of New Zealand and the local settlement at Connells Bay. The 7.9-meter-high tower of higgledy-piggledy steel-frame house outlines is painted in red and white, the traditional colors of New Zealand’s corrugated iron and weatherboard homes. The work specifically references the three 19th-century cottages tucked away along the water’s edge at Connells Bay.2 Dawson’s work emphasizes that these houses are interventions in the natural environment (and it is always “other people’s houses” that blight the landscape.
Social history also informs two important kinetic works, Phil Price’s Dancer (2003) and Graham Bennett’s Reasons to Return (2006). The leisurely, almost languid Dancer adopts the yellow of the daffodil fields planted around the farm’s cowshed in the 19th century. The three open-mesh radar dishes that slowly swirl and twirl with the air currents in Bennett’s Reasons to Return are rather like latitudinal and longitudinal navigational devices. More than just a generic reference to the universal call of home, the work alludes to the extreme measures taken by early European settlers living at Connells Bay—at the end of a day’s work, they are known to have rowed some 25 kilometers to the Coromandel Peninsula for an evening of companionship, rowing home at daybreak for the morning’s milking.
While Reasons to Return may have the appearance of a constantly active signaling system, it is an artistic interpretation of a functional device. Other works at Connells Bay, however, retain a utilitarian purpose. Crossing over wetlands, Virginia King’s Oioi Bridge (2002) links two distinct areas of the sculpture park, low-lying coastal land and grassy hill-country.3 Built of flexible ribs and planks, this kinetic art-bridge rattles and rolls as visitors walk over it, generating a stream of vibrations and clatterings.4
With water trickling down through overflow channels, Cathryn Monro’s Rise (2001) appears to be a dam, a functional piece of environmental engineering. At the top is a small lake, which explains the purpose of the dam. Or does it? Monro clearly references the artificial lake, but she did not build a dam. Instead, her work critiques this intervention in the landscape, one necessitated by the creation of the sculpture park. The landscaped lake also serves as a site for sculpture—David McCracken’s Reeds (2001), which has since been removed for restoration, was the earliest example. Julia Oram’s Bung (2007) also takes to the water. A giant bath plug apparently floating in the ocean, Bung resonates with the rising tide of concern about climate change, while adding a touch of whimsy to the Connells Bay collection.
The Gows continue to be personally involved with the sculpture park. In addition to working closely with artists, John and Jo Gow personally accompany visitors on tours of the park. Enjoying financial security through assured patronage, consistency in management, and a continuity of vision, their initiative affords great opportunities for fine-tuning. Thus, the collection at Connells Bay has evolved in a nuanced relationship to its location, while exemplifying the diverse themes, forms, materials, and techniques that characterize large-scale sculpture in New Zealand.
The land, its cultivation and conservation, has long been at the heart of New Zealand art. At Connells Bay, such themes abound, interpreted through works that range from artificial flowers and living plants to cast, figurative sculpture and abstract steel works. Materials are equally diverse. The corrugated iron of Thomson’s cows and the No. 8 fencing wire of Gentry’s Skeleton Trees are the building blocks of rural communities throughout the country. The concrete and steel of the construction industry give form to the work of Monro and Bennett. Jurisich threads mass-produced plastic flowers in The Long Lei, contrasting with Price’s use of high-tech carbon fiber in Dancer and Angel (2004). Fatu Feu’u uses timber; Booth, local stone; Bob Stewart encourages visitors to stroke and polish the surface of his precious pounamu The Dark One (2002).5
Connells Bay Sculpture Park boasts a veritable history of modern New Zealand sculpture, nestled in an idyllic seaside setting of coastal lowlands and rolling hillsides clothed in native flora. Traditionally, the Maori regard foliage as the cloak of the land. At Connells Bay, the cloak is adorned with contemporary sculptures that respond to the environment and reference the geographical, social, and cultural history of the place.
1 Auckland also hosts the boutique “sculptor’s sculpture park” Zealandia, the home and studio of Terry Stringer, one of New Zealand’s finest creators of figurative bronze works. Nearby, Brick Bay Sculpture Trail is the country’s most extensive commercial outdoor gallery of large-scale sculpture. Further to the west, in Kaipara, The Farm has gained world-wide recognition for its collection of work by local and international artists.
2 Of the three houses, one is home to the Gows, another provides a residence for artists. The third is available as accommodation for visitors who wish to stay at the sculpture park.
3 Oioi grass is a coastal, swamp grass that grows in the low-lying wetlands of Connells Bay.
4 There are three acoustic works at Connells Bay, King’s Oioi Bridge, Phil Dadson’s Tenantennae (2005), and Konstantin Dimopoulos’s Kete (2004), which whistles in the wind.
5 Pounamu, also known as greenstone, is a nephrite jade found on the South Island.