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Teetering Towers

Baltic Wanderer cropped, 2011, Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago
Baltic Wanderer, 2011, Hocken Collections Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago
Honey in the Rock, 2011, detail, courtesy of the artist and Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch
Honey in the Rock, 2011, detail, courtesy of the artist and Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch
Passing Night, 2008, courtesy of the artist and Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch
The Beautiful and the Damned, 2008, courtesy of the artist and Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch
The Wanderers, 2005, detail 1, courtesy of the artist and Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch
The Wanderers, 2005, detail 2, courtesy of the artist and Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch.
The Wanderers, 2005, detail, courtesy of the artist and Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch.
Up from the Plainlands, 2009, courtesy of the artist and Jonathan Smart Gallery
Inspired by the landscape and art around her, and the small world structures she and we built as children, Joanna Langford makes the sublime romantic landscape of dreams tangible and human.

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By Mark Amery

In sculptor Joanna Langford’s work the real and imaginary together twist and swirl upwards. Up into our shared dream space, from our place rooted here on the ground. Her large temporary installations highlight dynamically the power of the individual imagination to enact change.

Teetering towers and stairs of recycled sticks, rods and computer keys, billowing clouds of plastic bags, twinkling trains of LED lights and treacly trickles of glue and plastics. All fill the air of the Pataka galleries in this first survey of her work. Inspired by the landscape and art around her, and the small world structures she and we built as children, Langford makes the sublime romantic landscape of dreams tangible and human - downright ordinary even.

Filling Pataka to the point that the work grows up past the lighting tracks, Langford’s constructions seem to be traversing enormous, volatile invisible landmasses, such as own Shaky Isles. They make the fragility of our environment and our place in it graspable. Within her works she leaves behind the evidence of an individual undertaking a precarious process of construction, messily throwing up ladders and stairs to climb, one stick after another, with light throwaway materials to hand. Landscape, engineering and architecture are made at once both fantastic and accessible.

Joanna Langford has had a short but rather spectacular career since graduating with a Masters from Canterbury University seven years ago. Such is her work’s broad appeal, to contemporary art-lovers and newcomers alike, those years have been filled with major temporary commissions from major public galleries. The dealer gallery shows I’ve seen in Christchurch and Wellington have for me been less successful. She creates atmosphere and complexity best working on a large scale, and this survey mainly sticks to gathering together in one place a number of her major installations. Given the geographic spread of her previous installations, for most of us this is the first chance to appreciate the development of Langford’s work, and provides her the valuable opportunity to reconstruct and rework.

A couple of years ago, after seeing a few too many riffs on the same idea, I worried Langford’s work might be getting stuck in a rut. I needn’t have worried. Some works are stronger iterations of ideas than others, but this survey illustrates how thoroughly yet fluidly Langford has worked through ideas and materials over time. Working temporarily as a sculptor there’s arguably a need for her to rework similar ideas for a while, extending her skills and materials and finding new permutations in her own distinctive, spindly three-dimensional world.

Take new work ‘Baltic Wanderer’, one of the best in the show. It’s an extension of work completed several years ago on a residency in Iceland. Now though Langford is boldly and subtly combining sculpture and large scale video projection, playing with the shadows cast on the screen by looping metal power lines and lights. The darkened gallery space itself feels enveloped by shadows and fog (helped by a soft sonorous soundscape by Mark Williams). The power lines leads us to a grey seascape upon whose horizon line a landform of grubby icy tiers sits above the sea on long stilts. Slowly merging and then disappearing creepily in the fog, it is like some abstract mirage premonition of a cold cruel city of the future on a volcanic remnant, after the life of the land has been drained away.

The other new work here comes out of Langford’s year as the 2010 Frances Hodgkins Fellow in Dunedin. ‘Honey in the Rock’ was inspired by Otago’s Mount Cargill and the sweet suggestive poetry of the title. Orange coated beanbag balls cascade in gloopy sticky flows, like artificial volcanic lava, across a towering stick bed. It is tied to a flotilla of plastic bags floating high above.

The work is let down here by its placement - the viewer not having enough distance from it on first encounter. Initially I found it awkward and lifeless, with no pathways in. It turned out to have far more power as a form first seen at a distance, casting strong shadows. The luxurious yet scrappy form (made out of such tawdry materials) appears like a languorous reclining nude holding a balloon.

Langford’s work are at their best as environments rather than just objects, playing sensitively with negative and positive space, the play of light and dark, and movement of both audience and the material in the room.

Less impressive are Langford’s early works, which are given their own exhibition space. Featuring towers of icecream cones, fantastical giant zebra on stilts with tiny human passengers, and a castle made of hundreds and thousands biscuits they’re interesting for demonstrating the consistency of some of Langford’s ideas but they lack the complexity of later works. Then again a friend I bumped into in the gallery completely disagreed. Viva la difference!  

The word sculpture usually suggests permanence, but Langford’s works are crumbly and tenuous, almost as changeable as the weather. They are like threads of imagination, forever in movement, full of ladders that go nowhere yet take us to platforms that provide new views.

Like the act of training creepers up a wall, there is in these works the sense of the living, constant business of trying to support both the natural and human progress of things, as they take on a life of their own ever on the point of falling and failing. They feel very much like works for our time.

Beyond Nowhere, Joanna Langford, Pataka, Porirua, until 31 July

Written by

Mark Amery

9 Jun 2011

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.