Just north of Auckland, around a stretch of land known as Gibbs Farm, hills pronounced by endless gullies command a vast stretch of majestic coastal flatland. The landscape, known as the Kaipara Harbor, bears the mark of countless sojourns by past inhabitants, its steep, lolloping hills holding memories of sanguinary battles. In less troubled times, the Maori planted peaches, figs, and other crops, dug for Kauri gum, and settled peacefully along the banks of the Arapera stream. Hence, for good or ill, Maori peoples have a deep connection with the Kaipara coast that stretches back at least 300 years. In time, this land rich in legend and ancestral tradition passed to European farmers.
Alan Gibbs’s purchase of “The Farm,” in 1991, marked an investment that would see the land continually re-worked, transformed almost immediately by the commissioning of unique site-specific sculptures by key international and New Zealand artists.* Gibbs’s re-shaping of the Kaipara landscape, his desire, by means of sculptural patronage, to find a meaningful connection with the land, is not an original venture. In 18th-century England, great landscape gardeners like William Kent, Horace Walpole, and Lancelot “Capability” Brown created analogous idylls in the gardens and parks of the landed gentry, which Sir Joshua Reynolds would judiciously call in his Discourses, “Nature to advantage dressed.” English gardens manifested rolling lawns, serpentine paths, picturesque brooks, streams, and artful arrangements of trees that corresponded to Renaissance ideals of classical aspiration.
The trucks, diggers, and other equipment reforming Gibbs’s land to engineer Maya Lin’s Folding the Field or add new lakes, streams, and fountains are crafting a vision entirely synonymous with the tempiette, ruins, towers, and bridges adorned by nature.
Richard Serra’s Te Tuhirangi Contour (1999–2001), a vast weatherproof steel construction some 257 meters long and six meters high, and described by the artist as a device for “collecting and pooling the landscape,” bears direct, if somewhat capricious, comparison with the 18th-century invention of the ha-ha—a wall or fence deep in the ground designed to encircle or safeguard the garden without visibly separating it from the surrounding landscape. As a colossal contour winding its way through the rolling elevations of the landscape, Te Tuhirangi Contour (like Daniel Buren’s 3.2-kilometer Green and White Fence, 1999–2001) does extreme justice to William Kent’s famous gardening adage “nature abhors a straight line.”
In keeping with concepts of collecting, capturing, and framing the landscape, Richard Thompson’s Untitled (Red Square/ Black Square) (1994), an abstract structure that alternately promotes or hinders our view with every step, recalls traditional draftsman’s tools—framing squares and camera obscuras—and optical devices used in the service of the picturesque. Even Tony Oursler’s Mud Opera (2008), a morphing memento mori video installation projected onto the land; Eric Orr’s Electrum (for Len Lye) (1997), a massive Tesla coil shooting out artificial lightning; Bill Culbert’s Light Column/Cabbage Tree (1996); and Len Lye’s posthumous Wind Wand (2003) become lighthouse whimsies for the modern collector. Similarly, but to a greater degree, strange and eerie constructions such as Neil Dawson’s Horizons (1994), Kenneth Snelson’s Easy K (2005), Marijke de Goey’s The Mermaid (1999), and most crucially Zhan Wang’s Floating Mountain of Immortals (2005–06) echo 18th-century landscape mainstays—follies, ponds, fountains, arches, bridges, and ruins, re-imagining and re-inventing them for a new, playfully conceptual era.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find these antecedents re-fashioned at Gibbs Farm, an Elysian paragon that draws inspiration from the past while supporting new forms of vanguard sculpture. Small wonder that two land works situated on the rivulet mud flats just below the Gibbs house—the poetic Kaipara Waka (1996) by Otago-based Russell Moses and the majestic Arches (2005) by Andy Goldsworthy—tend to encompass ideas of ethereality, transience, time, and the perpetually changing aspects of the region. The former, based on the shape of a traditional Maori vessel (a waka) and placed below the burial site of chief Te Hemara Tauhia, testifies to the first peoples who traveled south on large ocean-bound canoes from Polynesia and settled in a place we now commonly call Aotearoa—“the land of the long white cloud.” Created from locally gathered stones, Kaipara Waka connects the burial plot to the abode of the spirits, beautifully symbolized by a structure that shimmers, appears, and vanishes according to the ebbing tides of the Kaipara bay. Meeting points of water, land, sky, and people are crucial to Moses’s sculpture, its stones becoming poetic markers symbolizing places of ideal happiness or the journeying cultures—Polynesian, European, and others—that have arrived and made points of contact on the shores of New Zealand.
The pillars of Goldsworthy’s Arches (the Scottish stone quarried from a place close to Gibbs’s family origins) sink deep into the sand, evidencing past, present, and future artistic heritage, as well as elements and structures traditionally situated, or acting on, the land. When the tide recedes, dry mud at the base of the arches reveals cracked rivulets recalling braided rivers or streams; when wet, the forms reflect, in silvery ebbing waters, magical circles, suns, or moons, visualizing all kinds of ideas associated with the cyclical movement or union of the celestial bodies. In doing so, Arches intimates natural occurrences: tides, streams, and weather systems. Circles in the rising and falling waters further attest to the planetary movements influencing, or thought to preside over, bodily cycles (madness, menstruation, pregnancy, and birth) or, in ancient Western and Maori mythologies, symbolic of moon divinities—Diana and Rona—who control cosmic and tidal activity. Suggestive of the basic principles that tie us to the earth—the clocks by which we live and die—Arches conveys the concept that art, like dwellings and dwellers on the land, is only ever temporary, fleeting and subject to the laws of nature.
Chris Booth and Peter Nicholls continue this theme in sculptures that strongly critique modern relationships with the land in which individuals are divorced from nature, magical thinking, ritual and, most importantly, a sense of oneness with the natural world. The braided forms (and title) of Nicholls’s Rakaia (1996–97) touch on the subject of streams, paths, gorges, and groves running through Gibbs Farm, while its locally sourced eucalyptus wood indicates an ecological consciousness. Rakaia appears in a deep furrow in the landscape. Covered in red acrylic paint, it alludes to human veins, arteries, and water as lifeblood, raising awareness of natural cycles, the flow and channeling of elements through the landscape. Booth’s Kaipara Strata (1992) also funnels the land’s primordial energies by using elements drawn from the natural environment and, in the process, awakening ancient “sleeping” geology. His prehistoric-looking formations, erected from sandstone slabs and river boulders, stand like enigmatic monuments, lost sites of tribal and early societies, not unlike Sol LeWitt’s Pyramid (1997).
George Rickey’s Two Rectangles Vertical Gyratory Up (V) (1987) and Column of Four Squares Eccentric Gyratory (III) (1990–95), Len Lye’s Wind Wand, and Peter Roche’s Saddleblaze (2008) associate performance with sculpture, moving like trees in response to wind and weather. Here, sculpture is presented as ritual and a comment on the recalcitrance of nature: wildness, wildfires (natural or manmade), and the once untameable growth of our unchaste frontiers.
Anish Kapoor’s Dismemberment, Site 1 (2009) likewise evokes forms that speak of magical and sacred realms. Created from blood-red PVC sheeting stretched between two giant metal rings, the sculpture encompasses a myriad of visual sensations and meanings. At first sight, it appears as a huge swollen ear whose purpose is to listen to the land and sea; but with every circuitous step, it transforms into a gigantic, outward-extending trumpet—calling/signaling seafarers, faraway travelers, and distant lands—a mythological object that echoes the trumpet that “Joshua sent to spy Jericho.” Other readings imply a huge vulva, the stem/ head of a bright red flower, or a bloody tumescent entity emerging out of the ground. Given that Kapoor’s piece stretches right across and through a large gully, it suggests a maternal creature born from the all-bearing earth, a protective, but sexually alluring mother. “She” is also flesh or flayed skin, a membrane, a dismembered bone or bleeding artery, possibly given as an offering to feed/rejuvenate the soil. From within, the sculpture becomes a secret, intimate place: a womb inside the landscape that eventually emerges, hematic, onto the fragile earth.
With respect to landscape design, art, and the quality of spectacle, the picturesque 1,000 acres of Gibbs Farm afford one of the most intriguing, tastefully presented, and well-thought-out private collections of site-specific sculpture of the modern era. In the final analysis, though good sculpture—the kind of sculpture that Gibbs can afford to purchase—is expensive, it is most successful when sculptors, collectors, and other collaborators adopt a considered attitude and approach to the site and environment, which is something the Gibbs project undoubtedly achieves. Perhaps the most grievous sin in making and installing sculpture is to create work and just put it anywhere in the environment, to make a work that has nothing to do with the site. As many of the works at Gibbs Farm demonstrate, sculpture has to function in and with its surroundings. In order to make the claim of being a successful sculpture, a work must tell us something about the place in which it is situated as opposed to purely informing us that it is art, which, unfortunately, a fair amount of public and private sculpture does today. When all is said and done, to conceive of the land around Gibbs Farm as a sculptural garden is to acknowledge the time-honored concept of “nature to advantaged dressed” and, as Alexander Pope so aptly remarked, “Treat the Goddess [nature] like a modest Fair/Nor overdress or leave her wholly bare.” In the 19th century, Rudyard Kipling coined a poetic description of Auckland, which is just as apt for Gibbs Farm: the “last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite.” This spectacular place on the Kaipara Harbor, and the sculptures within, is, sadly, perhaps the last of its classical and romantic kind.
Note * I would like to thank Alan Gibbs and his family for their kindness, helpfulness, and generosity during the preparation and writing of this article. I also thank David Hartley for his kind assistance with photographs and other information.