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The City as a Garden

A Garden, Paul Cullen, Te Papa Sculpture Terrace.
Artists have a valuable role to play in suggesting different uses of urban space.


By Mark Amery

Think of the city’s public spaces as a garden. As well as a network of paths, our public spaces provide for contemplation, recreation, social interaction, and the congregation of smokers. They are the places we need to take breaks, recharge, and have fresh experiences in. And that need is only going to get greater.

We’re told the number of inner city residents in the next twenty years is likely to almost double. 

A recent use of urban commercial space which is an excellent example of thinking differently about public space, connects us to the city’s foundations - an exhibition area on the ground floor of a Taranaki Street apartment block showing remnants of Te Aro Pa. Nearby, council are calling for expressions of interest for the use of the historic underground toilet block on the corner of Taranaki and Courtenay. Let’s see more imaginative public use than yet another watering hole. 

Artists have a valuable role to play in suggesting different uses of urban space. I have to disclose an interest in this area. I’m a member of the Wellington City Council’s Public Art Panel, an advisory body on public art projects. I am also currently, with Sophie Jerram, co-curating a public art programme called Letting Space. It works with property developers to suggest different uses for vacant commercial space through art projects. The first, Dugal McKinnon’s Popular Archeology is currently running at 141 Willis Street, and in late May artist Kim Paton will run a free shop on the site of a future supermarket in Ghuznee Street, exploring how we value produce.

There are a number of other council supported projects currently operating. Next to those old toilets are a series of lightboxes that provide windows and doors for an outdoor living space. The scenery changes with a new series of artworks in these lightboxes every six months. Gabrielle McKone’s Three Stories Up, on until June, provides triple decked juxtapositions of caught-on-the-fly street photographs. McKone has a sharp eye for surreal, humorous and sometimes dark social interactions, and for the accidental music in the street of movement, shapes and colour. Three Stories Up emphasises both the light and dark sides of Wellington’s carnivalesque activities. 

More subversive is Brydee Rood’s work on the temporary billboard site outside the new Telecom Building being built in Willis Street. Repeating the words ‘Te Ra’ Rood plays with the handwritten style of the protest banne, in industrial building site colours. At night, commemorative decoration emerges as solar powered Christmas lights spell out the words ‘Black Hole’. Over time the work’s repetitive calls ask you to consider the temporary nature of our place on the planet.

An excellent example of an artist thinking about the urban garden is currently on in one of the best places for a bit of a break at Te Papa - the rooftop sculpture terrace. Unlike at New York’s MOMA, where a sculpture garden is at the museum’s heart, Te Papa’s is a bit of an afterthought. Now the news from Te Papa is that there’s no forward work programmed for the space after November due to “funding constraints”. This is rather feeble. The terrace’s use for art was already a late nod to the lack of non-white cube spaces for art elsewhere in the museum.

Paul Cullen’s A Garden asserts the contemporary artist’s role as a designer of spaces as well as objects. A variety of manmade props are positioned which talk to the existing architecture, the functions of gardens and their history. Cullen installs physical frameworks for potential garden activity as if they are in the process of being thought about - half constructed.Half dismantled benches, concrete block walls, scaffolding and even a park lamppost play smartly with the language of public outdoor furniture.

The work plays off a garden’s many functions. During the Italian Renaissance gardens were seen as places for learning, and later as sites for scientific observation. Cullen’s temporary observation deck could equally be the symbolic mountain you find in a Chinese garden, and large crystal-shaped coloured rocks are reminiscent of a Japanese Zen garden. Like a Japanese garden they encourage you to approach the work as an arrangement of space, guiding your movement around. The work takes you out of your familiar physical relationship with the museum object.

Cullen is a senior and under-rated New Zealand sculptor who has worked for many years in a distinctive way with typical domestic and industrial objects, playing with scientific processes and ideas of circulation in visually dynamic ways. Hoses here suggests the flow of water through a garden.

Yet, unlike previous gallery installations of Cullen’s I’ve seen, I felt this work lacked the strong binding circulation of energy through the disparate elements to make it into a cohesive whole. A Garden will leave many wondering what building site they’ve wandered onto.

A Garden, Paul Cullen, Te Papa Sculpture Terrace, until 7 November

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

29 Apr 2010

The Big Idea Editor