Seeing the Landscape
Commissioning new works rather than buying from an exhibition has the satisfaction
of dealing with the artists; and Alan Gibbs comments, ‘they’re interesting
because they’re winners; tough, ambitious’.
When Alan Gibbs purchased his Kaipara property in 1991, he already had three
decades of significant art collecting behind him. Commissioning art works was
in the back of his mind ‘but not the major purpose’ of searching for a rural
retreat. Looking back, it is clear now that 1991 marked the beginning of a
whole new art-collecting adventure for Gibbs; and it is one where it has been
possible to be very, very ambitious. ‘We push the limits,’ Gibbs says. ‘No
sane person would do what we’re doing.’
The Gibbs Farm collection started out from Alan Gibbs and Jenny Gibbs’ history
of collecting mainly paintings which has spanned 30 years and has since further
extended what Gibbs admits is ‘a fairly developed taste for abstract minimalist
art’. Gibbs’ sensibility for abstract minimalism has certainly informed the
selection of artists for his rural New Zealand project, just an hour’s drive
north of Auckland, but the land itself has equally shaped the aesthetics of
the resulting sculptures, making them one of the most interesting collections
of site-specific minimalism.
Together with architect Noel Lane and a highly skilled team of engineers,
Gibbs has made a total commitment to an open-brief of commissioning and building
major site-specific works from key artists; and as a result, amassing a collection
of permanent outdoor sculptures of a scale rarely seen. As indicated here they
not only commission new works, but also end up building most of them. And the
relationship doesn’t always end there; for instance, Gibbs’ engineer has continued
to assist Anish Kapoor with his subsequent works in London. As such Gibbs and
Lane occupy that rare expanded role of collector-producer, a position which
increases the stimulation and satisfaction for them.
Gibbs acknowledges that ‘the challenge for the artists is the scale of the
landscape; it scares them initially’ and demands something more from them.
One result, though not intentionally, is that the artworks have tended to be
the largest the artists have ever done. In response to the demanding landscape,
the artists have pushed beyond what they have previously attempted or achieved.
‘Then we end up having to make the works,’ says Gibbs, ‘and we particularly
enjoy the challenge of making something that no one’s ever done before and
solving the engineering problems to get there.’ Nevertheless, while the art
is a major source of stimulation for Gibbs, it has to share a place with his
amphibian business, the land itself and his wanderlust, which has recently
taken him to 160 countries, most by helicopter; and the place occupied by the
art at any one time depends on Gibbs’ need for a stimulus and whether the proposals
under consideration are exciting enough.
After nearly twenty years Gibbs’ collection includes major works by Andy Goldsworthy,
Anish Kapoor, Bill Culbert, Chris Booth, Daniel Buren, Eric Orr, George Rickey,
Graham Bennett, Kenneth Snelson, Len Lye, Leon van den Eijkel, Marijke de Goey,
Neil Dawson, Peter Nicholls, Peter Roche, Ralph Hotere, Richard Serra, Richard
Thompson, Russell Moses, Sol LeWitt, Tony Oursler and Zhan Wang. Collected
at a rate of about one a year (though many take three to five years to develop),
most of the sculptures are unique and site specific. The scope, ambition and
artistic quality of the Gibbs Farm collection now rivals other major collections
and sculpture parks; and in many cases the works surpass major works by the
same artists elsewhere. For instance, the Goldsworthy exceeds the scale of
his Cairnhead arches; and each of the Serra, Buren and large Rickey are more
significant works than their counterparts at Storm King Art Center near New
York City. In the case of every commissioned work, the artists have extended
themselves rather than change direction, and they have had to do so in the
context of a challenging landscape and, in the face of some extraordinary and
inescapable competition from the works already commissioned over the years.
A striking characteristic of the whole collection is the tangibility of the
way the site itself – the flow of the land, the dominance of the wide flat
harbour and the varied assertiveness of the elements – has imposed itself on
the artists who have made work for the farm, and subsequently shapes every
visitor’s experience of each artwork.
The landscape rolls across ridges and gullies and extensive flatlands that
have been contoured over the years. But it is a landscape that is dominated
by the Kaipara Harbour, the largest harbour in the southern hemisphere; and
it is this body of water which greatly increases the property’s sense of scale.
The harbour is so vast it occupies the whole western horizon; and it is very
shallow, so when the tide goes out, the shallows are exposed for several kilometres
and the light shimmies and bounces off it. Equally, it is the forecourt to
the prevailing westerly that skims, sometimes vehemently, across the land.
Everything in the property flows towards and eventually into the sea; and every
work contends, in some way, with the slide seaward.
Walking the land is one of the best ways to experience how each artist has
come to terms with the gravitational pull that is exerted on everything, as
the mountains roll into hills, slide into gullies and slope down towards the
sweeping expanse of the Kaipara Harbour. There is Richard Serra’s Te Tuhirangi
Contour, collecting the volume of the land above and below it; the gravity-defying
‘floating compression’ of Kenneth Snelson’s Easy K; and Tony Oursler’s Mud
Opera grasping the final return of all matter to the primordial ooze. Linking
these forms is the classical formality of Daniel Buren’s Green and White Fence,
which runs both with and against the land; and the ridge-hugging Dismemberment,
Site 1 by Anish Kapoor, which extends a red eye-ear telescopically out to sea
and landward, bridging the inland and coastal aspects of the farm. Finally,
in the tidal zone itself, Russell Moses’ Kaipara Waka and Andy Goldsworthy’s
Arches both embrace the settling sand, rock and mud as well as some sense of
a beyond, somewhere else, whether a spirit path, a migratory pattern or the
drive to march in loping steps towards a distant horizon.
Other works appear to defy and slip sideways against this pull and flow seawards.
The scaled-up brooch-like form of The Mermaid by Marijke de Goey leaps playfully
across one of the lakes. The facets of Graham Bennett’s Sea / Sky Kaipara effect
disappearing acts in certain lights. The two kinetic works by George Rickey
achieve a kind of weightlessness and direct our attention to eddies and blasts
of air traversing the land. The works of Peter Roche, Eric Orr and Bill Culbert
also float free of gravity’s pull through colour, light and wonder.
Hovering somewhere between land and sea is Zhan Wang’s Floating Island of
Immortals. Though not one of the farm’s site-specific commissions it epitomises
the characteristics of aesthetic minimalism, material virtuosity, and site
responsiveness that run like a braided river through the whole collection.
Originally installed on the Belgian coastline at Knokke-Heist, Floating Island
of Immortals is one of Wang’s series of scholars’ rocks reproduced in stainless
steel. However, it is different from the artist’s earlier works in that the
stone that was copied for the sculpture was not large, but a small Lingbi rock,
sometimes referred to as a bonsai stone, which Wang has enlarged to create
a huge mountain. Lingbi rock is fine-grained, delicately textured ornately
shaped limestone which is found in mountain mud deposits in eastern China;
though after many years of mining, high-quality Lingbi are now quite rare.
Wang’s gesture of copying these rocks in stainless steel – the material that
is so ubiquitous in corporate and public sculptures – is to traverse two traditions,
as rocks have been to the Chinese garden what sculpture has been to the Western
park or plaza.
Though Floating Island of Immortals is enlarged from a small rock, others
in the series made from large stones are created by pounding, bending, heating
and moulding sections of stainless steel plate across the complex form of the
rock, entirely wrapping it in steel, before peeling the steel away in sections
and welding the whole piece together again without the rock inside. Thus reformed
as a hollow steel rock, it is polished to a flawless and sometimes mirror finish.
The rock comes to both embody the original scholars’ rock while at the same
time drifting as a disembodied form, as air, or even liquid, due to the play
of light across its highly reflective surface. Earth (rock) becomes metal (stainless
steel) becomes water (reflection). But the progression does not end there as
the work is placed in a pond; thereby the rock-mountain becomes a floating
island. Even though real floating islands are not unknown, occurring naturally
in places such as Lakes Titicaca, Chad and Loktak, and by inference in present-day
Venice; they are also the stuff of mythology, not least in Plato’s account
of the sinking of Atlantis, and are therefore destinations for the imagination
However, nothing much is left to the imagination when it comes to the challenge
of solving new engineering problems. Commenting that all of the artists have
artistically ‘extended themselves rather than change direction’, Gibbs could
equally be referring to the discoveries they have made in engineering something
that hasn’t been made before. Consequently, many of the works, as well as being
powerful artistic statements, are singular engineering feats.
Eric Orr’s Electrum (for Len Lye) is perhaps the collection’s iconic engineering
achievement and art-science collaboration, understated in its inert state;
yet visceral and elemental when switched on and generating three million volts
of electricity and hurling long snakes of lightning into the surrounding air.
The phenomenon that Gibbs asked Orr to aim for, namely a sculpture that would
throw 40-foot bolts of lightning, would take two decades to come to fruition;
and in the end would be the artist’s last major work. Composed of a sphere
of stainless steel hoops atop an elegant four-storey high column, its abstract
simplicity deliberately belies its engineering audacity as all of Orr’s works
seek to ‘background the technology’ so that the elemental effects are the only
things that show. To throw lightning bolts of the magnitude that Gibbs and
Orr desired needed the largest Tesla coil ever built, which required high-voltage
engineer Greg Leyh and a team of other specialists to achieve something for
which there was no precedent; and in the process they developed cutting-edge
Richard Serra’s work also arose from Gibbs’ ability to challenge an artist
to aim high. Serra recalls their first meeting when Alan ‘threw down the gauntlet’.
Remembering a visit to Storm King, where Gibbs saw Serra’s ‘fairly consequential’
Schunnemunk Fork 1990-91, he said to the artist, ‘I want a more significant
piece than that. I don’t want any wimpy piece in the landscape. If you’re going
to do something here I want your best effort.’
The engineering achievement inherent in Richard Serra’s Te Tuhirangi Contour
is obscured, as it should be, by its aesthetic presence and visceral power.
It is also a work that oscillates between two characters. Viewed from any of
the ground above it, the 257-metre steel wall has a delicate quality like a
dark ribbon curling, almost floating across the evergreen pastures. One of
the features that ensures this impression is the unbroken curving line formed
by the top edges of all of the steel plates which are perfectly butted together
and engineered so that the whole can expand and contract with sunlight and
nightfall without the slightest warp or buckling. The graceful ribbon-like
deception is beguiling until one walks nearby and underneath the six-metre-high
sculpture. Here the viewer is confounded by an altogether different experience.
From the downhill side Te Tuhirangi Contour has all the mass of a giant dam
filled with water. Each of the 56 steel plates leans out by 11 degrees from
the vertical, which is steeper angle than Serra had ever tried before, and
which was imposed by the site-specific concept itself: that the line should
run at the true perpendicular to the slope of the land. So, seen from below,
the materiality of mass and form impose themselves dramatically as something
more felt than seen. Serra said that he wanted to create a work that in some
way ‘collects the volume of the land’; and indeed he has.
Serra and Gibbs agree the work exceeds their anticipation. Gibbs says, ‘I’m
absolutely thrilled with it. I think it’s magic!’ Yet the project nearly foundered;
not once, but twice in the five years it took to achieve. First there was the
impasse. After several site visits and various concepts, the artist and collector
settled on one idea. They commenced building a full-scale mock-up in timber
and builders’ paper in situ. Initially they thought that if they were going
to work in steel they would be limited to five metres high. This was mocked
up but did not have enough drama; nor did five-and-a-half metres. It was only
at six metres high that the scale worked. ‘But Richard didn’t know of any steel
mill in the world that could form these steel plates six metres high,’ so Gibbs
suggested he make the work in concrete (as the artist had used concrete before).
However, Serra recalled, ‘I wanted to build it in steel or not build it at
all.’ Gibbs and Serra were in a bind. Later, ‘Serra found a steelworks in Germany
that could do it and he twisted my arm very hard and I decided, alright, it
was so exciting that we would do it.’
Then, there was a near disaster. ‘Nearly everything here is the biggest art
work the artist has ever done.’ Therefore, Gibbs shares the challenges inherent
in stretching artists beyond their experience: ‘We end up having to make the
works.’ Once made, Serra’s 56 computer-designed plates, each weighing 11 tons,
were handed over to Gibbs in Germany for shipping to the site and installing.
‘The work was designed to be stacked in the ship only ten plates high. In fact,
the captain of the ship ignored the instructions and stacked the plates 22
high at which point they fell over, nearly sunk the ship and damaged some of
the plates. Every plate had to be individually set up again and re-measured,
and most of the plates needed some reworking. Now that took a whole year.’
There is a discoloured band, about half a metre deep, all along the base of
Serra’s sculpture. This is where sheep have rubbed themselves against the warm
steel and left a distinctive patina. It is a high tide mark of the work’s sensuality;
its attractiveness. The smudge grounds the sculpture in something homely. It
is the earthy antithesis of abstract minimalism. Yet it is also perfectly in
tune with this place and with the growing collection. The project as a whole
encompasses a compelling collusion between the specifics of place, namely attachment
and tactility; and the abstractions and ambitions of an international art world,
namely mobility and ideas. ‘Your best effort’ always involves imagining somewhere
other than where you are, while paradoxically being acutely aware of where
Anish Kapoor’s Dismemberment, Site 1 is related to earlier, though temporary,
installations elsewhere: in the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and the
Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in the UK. But the Kaipara extension has become
an intensely different experience because it is conceived for a wild and unconfined
landscape. The previous works, Tarantanrara 1999 and Marsyas 2002, were made
to fill the box-like voids of exhibition halls. The expressive and technical
scale of the Gibbs Farm experience appears to have born fruit in more recent
projects by Kapoor, including the 110-metre long and 50-metre high Temenos,
the first of five huge projects, the Tees Valley Giants, by the artist and
his collaborator, structural designer Cecil Balmond, and in the artist’s truly
mammoth winning design for London’s 2012 Olympic Park, ArcelorMittal Orbit.
On Gibbs Farm there is no prescribed space to work within. Rather, there is
an undulating plane, far horizons and a wide sky. In response, Kapoor has nestled
the work in a cleft cut into a high ridgeline. With views of the harbour to
the west and mountains to the east, it is as if he wanted to channel the forces
of water, air and rock; and to link the width of the harbour with the height
of the hills. The site elevates Kapoor’s work into view, but also makes it
impossible to be seen entirely from any one position (other than the air).
As its title suggests, Dismemberment, Site 1 can only be seen in parts, and
thus has the effect of parsing the viewer from any expectation that they might
be able to contemplate sculpture in the round, as a whole. Composed of a vast
PVC membrane stretched between two giant steel ellipses, it has a decidedly
fleshy quality. The way the titles and the red membrane of this, and the BALTIC
and Tate versions, are a nod in the direction of Greek satyr Marsyas’ flayed
body, is also suggestive that some things can be conceived, but not seen as
a whole. Even climbing to the ridgeline close above it, the sculpture can’t
be taken in without turning one’s head from side to side. Seen from a distance,
the landscape gives it a nudge, playing tricks on one’s ability to judge size
and proportion. But standing close to the eight-storey-high work, it’s gigantic,
mesmerising character kicks in. During any of the site’s frequent westerly
winds it takes on a life beyond what Kapoor could ever achieve indoors. One
can sense the wind, as one feels the breathing of someone lying nearby. Entering
from the west, it doubles in force and its materiality is amplified, as it
passes through the narrow waist and out the wide horizontal mouth of the leeward
end. The sculpture breathes: expanding and contracting with each gust. Here
Kapoor has realised something transcendent within a large sculptural object.
It is architectural in scale yet mysteriously visceral and immediate in character.
As discussed with the works by Serra and Kapoor, Gibbs Farm is the perfect
environment for what can only be described as a double experience of many of
the artworks. On the one hand they can mostly be seen from a distance and their
true scale is deceptively disguised by the drama and scale of the surrounding
landscape which often out-muscles them. But by walking the landscape and coming
into close quarters with each artwork, one after the other, their own scale
and particular character unfolds, until one at a time, each artwork fills your
viewing horizon and imagination.
There is one exception: one work exceeds even these viewing possibilities,
as there is no vantage point from which to see most of the work, let alone
the whole. Daniel Buren worked directly on the first 544 metres of Green and
White Fence along a single ridgeline and since then the artist’s theme has
grown to a length of 3.2 kilometres; over time it will become the only form
of fence on the property.
Buren has insisted that future fence posts be installed on the true vertical,
rather than, as is usual farm fencing practice, perpendicular to the slope
of the land. The artist’s regime subtly asserts itself on the farm’s slopes,
making the fall and rise of the land more geometrically apparent to the observant
eye. Yet viewers could also overlook the way the fence articulates the actual
angles of the land to the perpendicular along the fence line. Additionally,
while the fence form may be extended across the farm as and where required,
the artist has also stipulated that the stripe motif is oriented consistently
in its north-south direction. Both of these requirements transform the functional
form of the New Zealand farm fence into something far more classical and formal;
and this approach has led to the creation of one of Buren’s most distinctive
works; it stands to unify the undulating terrain of the property.
It is fitting that the one installation that pays homage to the tidal flats
is invisible at times too. Unlike Russell Moses’ Waka, which slips under the
incoming tide, Tony Oursler’s Mud Opera projections are ‘like a vampire; it
only comes out at night’. This was Oursler’s largest outdoor work at the time
and it took him some while to find the optical properties necessary for the
video projections to work on the trees and tidal mud of the farm’s coastal
edges. Finally he did, experimenting with a nest of rubber snakes under a very
harsh light which made them pop ‘into the air in some funny way and look almost
holographic’. While the media chiaroscuro has the forms popping into the air,
the motifs are suggestive of evolutionary ebbs and flows, which becomes in
Oursler’s words ‘a metaphor for the unknown and known’.
Like Oursler’s projections in the dark on the margins of the land and sea,
for viewers walking across Gibbs Farm to experience the growing collection
there is ‘the feeling that there’s always something there on the margin of
what you’re seeing’.