Based in the city of Napier, award-winning New Zealand sculptor Ben Pearce mainly works with wood, stone, metal and found objects. Some of his pieces refer to natural building systems—accumulation and attrition, cavern and cocoon; others imitate man-made structures—tumuli, cairns, pyramids, a bed. A relationship to the human body, to physical and spiritual health, is often expressed through materials and forms that emphasise vulnerability: discomfort, anxiety, aging and loss.
Ben completed a BFA in 2003 at the Whanganui Quay School of Fine Arts and has been exhibiting regularly in New Zealand and Australia since then.
Here he discusses childhood and memory, mind and matter, Kiwi (and general human) ingenuity, the contemporary visual arts scene in New Zealand…and the hidden but potent “Gothic” character of his nation.
Firstly, a question on your location. How does it feel to be an artist in New Zealand, far, far away from centres like London and New York and Berlin and Los Angeles and Paris and Miami, where so much of commercial activity around art is based?
New Zealand is physically isolated yet the art output here is of an international standard and we do have a strong collector base including some large arts trusts and wealthy benefactors. Although most galleries across the country are tapping into this same pool of people/funds. The generosity and ongoing support of these charitable trusts supports artists directly. There are a number of projects overseas, which means there are fewer and fewer barriers.
I think the spin off of NZ based artists not being as privy to artworks commanding high prices is that New Zealanders end up operating in a fairly non-commercial capacity which means our practice operates at the conceptual cutting edge of art. I think the artists who are achieving very high prices in New Zealand are usually deserving of that and are older artists who have put in the hard yards.
Your portfolio is populated by strange figures, big soft toys that simultaneously seem scary and comic. They remind me of the Golliwog and characters from Where the Wild Things Are. Why do you love making personalities that embody a mixture of cuteness and brokenness?
I have always been drawn to that type of feeling and how life is simultaneously dark and joyful. I know that for most people we can divide our lives into those two main phases: Child- and Adulthood. And everything in between. I have sad/strange stories to tell like most people do. It is the hard times that round us off as people. Art that is somehow a little bit darker or ‘real’ attracts me. In my teenage years, I started to suffer from depression and panic attacks. Whilst it was one of the hardest periods of my life, I’m grateful for that time as a kind of enlightenment followed where I could see life in a more accepting open way. I think this is always informing my work somehow in a positive way too and making art keeps me in a good space.
At the heart of your practice is “childhood”, the state that you consider the “recent and common ancestor to us all”. As an artist, what do you find so exciting about childhood?
You have a piece “Miss Juliet” (walnut and wire, 2009), a female who is either a marionette or an automaton. Your description reads:
Twelve artists create works for a calendar exploring the notion of the pin-up. Juliet (my month was July) is manipulatable and mindless, with exaggerated features.
That’s quite profound. You communicate so much through this simple display. How did you get the idea?
When invited to be part of this project, I knew it was meant to be a fun one for exploration and some kitsch. But as I started working through my ideas I kept coming back to this hanging rock form as the woman or freeing her somehow of that calendar gaze. Usually in the workplaces where I make art, there are often the generic half-nude ladies starting out at you.
I want to reverse that glare…she stares out at us, blank, yet challenging. She is aware of her body, her emphasised breasts and limbs held in sitting position yet her brain is a cupped void not required for such a performance. I felt slightly out of my moral grounds commenting in such a way, but being a craftsperson I knew I could put some love into this object and make people think about it for a moment.
Another work that is very engaging is Curse (walnut, steel, nails, polymer clay, 2010). You have accumulated and arranged fragments of wood in the formation of a human brain and hoisted them on stilts. You write:
I’m interested in the idea of cursed objects, or objects that bring bad or good luck. This notion of an object consisting of more than the sum of its part is intriguing. My artistic philosophy is rooted in this notion also our ability as an artist is to release some of our spirit and a small volume of ourselves into each object we make, giving it power and equally releasing ourselves of power.
So the artist can, you mean, animate his art. Mind can penetrate matter. But by looking at Curse, I unravelled another side to the story. When I noticed the pieces of wood coming together to compose a brain, the sculpture felt like a statement reminding us that our cognitive identity is ultimately derived from earthy things. Matter is assembled and what we have then is mind. This brings me to the mind/matter, body/spirit dichotomies. What are your views on the relationship between these concepts? In a general sense, what comes first, is more fundamental, for you—mind/spirit or matter/body?
Oh yes, that is ultimately life’s hardest question to answer: The mind/matter/body/spirit problem. I have a strong feeling we are not living as we are supposed to, or should be. Our individualistic society makes advances in a linear direction developing in many amazing ways. Which is fantastic. But it is easy to find oneself feeling very lost, sad, unconnected and apathetic, striving for real experiences and feelings. When I made ‘Curse’ I was thinking about making the mind a place, a landscape. I’m fascinated by the movie The Cell (2000) which goes inside a man’s mind. It is very unnerving but explores the notion of our reality being a chemical and internal one, produced by our senses.
The Biblical story of Lot’s wife turning to a pillar of salt as she turned toward Sodom is burnt in my memory growing up in a Christian family. That had something to do with this work. I’ve recently left any kind of faith, but have explored spiritualism. I’ve witnessed some very compelling visits from the other side showing me how these worlds might work in unison. I think there is a fundamental knowledge we are still missing in our lives right now. Maybe that is it?
I think you are the most “natural” artist I have ever encountered, which is to say that so many of your sculptures—Muzzle, Dusk Stalls, Mergar—don’t even look like deliberately designed human creations. Are there any particular artists/art movements that have influenced your style? Also, is the geography of New Zealand an inspiration?
Thank you! I draw a lot when I’m making, not detailed plan drawings…just rough indications of shape/composition and energy. I don’t like thinking I’m making to a plan, rather a guide and I let intuition do the rest. Most of my work is additive. I’m very inspired by Francis Bacon, Iman Issa, Louise Bourgeois and Gabriel Orozco. Closer to home and current I love the work of Ricky Swallow and Francis Upritchard and NZ artists like Kate Newby and Richard Lewer.
I also like the Dada and Fluxus movements for how they challenged art and made it more everyday. Then in New Zealand, we speak of ‘The New Zealand Gothic’ that is underpinned by the idea of a brooding scraggy country, recent turbulent colonialism, often dark forests that are sites of horrific murders. It’s clean green at the outset but has a rather dark underbelly—watch the films Utu (1983) and The Piano (1993) and you’ll know what I mean, or read some of our poetry from James K. Baxter. Furthermore, even though we do not have any wildlife that would/could kill a person, many of our most famous creatures such as the Tuatara and the Kiwi tend to be nocturnal.
I really liked 24 Snowden Avenue (timber, 2010), which is so many things, a floating warehouse or vessel or laboratory. You say:
I lost count at 214 blocks of wood, I’d glue 10 or so on each morning and another 20 at night. 24 Snowden Avenue was the first house I lived in, each block represents a memory made there.
I love how you collect your experiences and try to construct something with them, make an attempt to arrive at some bigger picture. What other works of yours are specifically related to memory?
There were two major works from art school with which I did this too. The first was a ‘chance based memory situational experiment’: Step 1, Bounce a pen on a map to find 50 sites at random in Whanganui. Step 2, Travel to these pin-point sites on the map at take one photo, one teaspoon of dirt and not sounds/happenings. Step 3, Create a book from the images, hang all 50 bags of dirt on a wall.
The other was to create a wearable costume of a bear like character that represented a melding of all my memories of soft toys I’d owned. I put hundreds of hours into making this and taught myself how to do it all. I wore the costume and posed for photographs in sites of memory from my childhood. These included: my old school as seen from my old kindergarten, my first home as seen from my old street, old industrial sites from childhood memories.
Both of these tried to document memory for a visitor to experience, if that was possible somehow. Like the movie The Cell, it took them into my mind through another sensory experience. And took them back to places of their own.
Today I learnt something new—the Number 8 Wire. According to Wikipedia:
Number 8 wire was the preferred wire gauge for sheep fencing, so remote farms often had rolls of it on hand, and the wire would often be used inventively to solve mechanical or structural problems. Accordingly, the term “number 8 wire” came to represent the ingenuity and resourcefulness of New Zealanders, and the phrase “a number 8 wire mentality” evolved to denote an ability to create or repair machinery using whatever scrap materials are available on hand.
You used the Number 8 Wire in your 2015 work Stone Age Eight Gauge. Tell us more about the connection you make between this item from the cultural lexicon of New Zealand and the Stone Age…
The number eight wire mentality has become part of what most New Zealanders associate with, although it is a term likely to reflect life 50 or even 60 years ago. There are, however, some amazing companies in New Zealand who think outside the box, like GOODNATURE which redesigned the pest trap in a way that virtually needs no human operation or resetting. This work ‘Stone Age Eight Gauge’ was entered into an award in NZ where you have to use Number 8 wire, nothing else.
The innate human deftness of manipulating material to perform tasks or repairs originated in the Stone Age. Humankind has evolved and culture has changed. We have been able to find new ways to use what lies around us—be it stones or lengths of common fencing wire. I wanted to show that within the number eight wire lies the same ingenuity our ancestors had.
Your latest project ‘Life Will Go On Long After Money’ at Hastings City Art Gallery is described online as: “Based on the true story of a man who built himself a get-away off the boulder bank of Nelson’s inlet, Pearce’s sculpture is a fascinating revisit of the event in which Ben himself played a surprising role.” I also read that it raises “real New Zealand issues of land ownership, homelessness and housing shortage”. So what really happened?
The impetus for this project came from a moment where I was ‘tagged’ into a comment on social media questioning my involvement in a shared news item from stuff.co.nz. A friend questioned me to see if I was behind a ramshackle hut being constructed from old pallets illegally on the shores of the boulder bank inlet in Nelson. I replied saying yes:
Hey Carolyn. You are right, I’ve been working on this project in Nelson. With this housing crisis going on and people living in their cars I decided to comment via this act. It references rising sea levels and survivalism. It’s shaping up ok but I don’t like all this attention.
TV3 noticed this statement I was brought into the story on the evening news. Confusion ensued and they contacted me for comment. Much of my work has revolved around the psychological embodiment or manifestation of internal mind states. I’ve made decaying sculptures reminiscent of tree huts and lighthouses. I can see how a friend thought this was mine. The real-life situation is much sadder than art could ever be, and I was drawn to looking into the project more, following the public unfolding of someone’s unravelling life.
This exhibition is a recreation of his hut. The installation works as two parts, both complementing each other. The video offers another view into the interior world of the subject, prompting some confusion for the viewer. Are the two dwellers the same person? pre- or post-floating hut? Or is the video the real object and the hut an escapist fantasy? There are objects in the video which feature in real life inside the hut…adding to this theory. The video starts with long slow intimate pan around the caravan, we are forced to find narrative in the surfaces. We watch a sleeping man wake, urinate out the doorway, then fumble making a cup of tea before a rather intrusive viewer. The man never leaves the caravan. Is he a recluse or suffering from an agoraphobic situation?
I know very little about the art scene in New Zealand. Lately, I have heard about a few NZ writers—Eleanor Catton, Craig Cliff—but no painters or sculptors. Who are some of the big names at work in the visual arts?
It’s actually very hard to list them all, but here goes (keeping this to living ones) Michael Parakowhai, Michael Stevenson, Francis Upritchard, Oscar Enberg, Liz Maw, Andrew Mcleod, Ronnie Van Hout, Peter Madden, Kushanna Bush, Richard Lewer, Kate Newby, Simon Denny, Fiona Pardington, Peter Robinson, Shane Cotton, Judy Millar, John Ward-Knox, Suji Park, Dan Arps, Steve Carr, Marie Le Liver, Roger Mortimer, Bill Hammond.
What would you be experimenting with or exploring in the near future?
I’m about to start on a project for the Auckland Art Fair. I’ve started to make monolithic monumental works which still have a sense of plurality. They are massive yet feel unbalanced and pieced together. Making very large works is very different for me, I’ve just made one that is over 3600 mm high and over a ton. The same week I was making a tiny work you could keep in your pocket. I love how sculpture can do that!
Find Ben on his website (benpearce.nz) and Instagram (www.instagram.com/ben.c.pearce). He is represented by Parlour Projects in Hastings, NZ (parlourprojects.com) and Paul Nache Gallery in Gisborne, NZ (www.paulnache.com).