Louise Stevenson is an Tāmaki Makaurau based creative with an extensive history of travel. Part of Toipoto - a pilot programme of the MSD-funded Creative Career Service to help creatives build sustainable careers - Stevenson has been exhibiting her collection, 'Someplace Else: A Travel Archive' at Corbans Estate Art Centre (open until 3 April).
She explains how the Pandemic both brought a shuddering halt to her life between two places and magnified her artistic practice.
“I had just wanted to go—perhaps
like many other New Zealanders.
And anywhere, I wasn’t too fussed.
A pull to go ‘overseas’ ”.
(Someplace Else, 2021, limited edition artists publication)
Thirty years ago today, I was living in Budapest, Hungary on a year’s student exchange programme.
I couldn’t have imagined then that many years later, a global pandemic would stop travel and make visiting family and loved ones on the other side of the world virtually impossible for two years. News that the borders are re-opening offers a glimmer of hope to finally book those tickets.
New Zealanders desire for travel and going “someplace else” seems ingrained in our national psyche.
In Quandaries of Belonging: Notes on Home from abroad, published last year, New Zealand expatriate writer Michael Jackson, wrote that “one in six New Zealanders live abroad, making our diaspora the second highest in the developed world.” A statistic that no doubt contributes to many rich and complex stories of migration and trans-national relationships in New Zealand.
My own personal story is not unusual in this sense. I met my husband in Hungary, 1991 and life ‘in-between’ two places began, and now extends to our children.
My project Someplace Else: A Travel Archive started back then too, when I, like many others do, collected a folder of travel ephemera - maps, tickets, bus passes, museum entry tickets and event brochures, etc.
My habit of gathering the small, unnoticed items of daily (often touristic) life in subsequent trips to Europe became a developing project over the years as I responded to the impulse to make collage works on paper after our return back to Aotearoa.
Looking back on this body of work, accumulated over the years, now triggers a number of different emotions.
The first is disbelief that it’s been this long that we haven’t been able to travel; next comes recalling the feeling of shock at the suddenness in which everything changed; and then comes the painful uncertainty about travelling again to see family, not least because of COVID but now also because of a neighbouring war.
Exhibiting this project at Corbans Estate Arts Centre has been a humbling experience as I’ve listened to others share their own perspectives and experience on this disrupted travel situation.
For many, looking back on travel now brings on a real nostalgia; reminiscing and recalling vivid experiences. Typically photographs and video are the prompt for travel reverie - but I’m a terrible photographer, too impatient to experience things to be looking through a lens properly and frame an image.
Someplace Else Installation at Corbans Estate Art Centre.
This project has been pivotal in my career because it’s been a key moment when I’ve realised that something I had been privately working on in a personal and idiosyncratic way for years had something relevant to say right now in these particular times.
It consolidated thoughts that making artwork is to serve an audience (for want of a better way of putting it) and I think I recognised that this project articulated something that would resonate with people in a way that hadn’t existed prior to COVID and all the restrictions on travel.
While I’ve made work on and off for years, this moment has given me an opportunity to develop my career - experiencing how to curate and exhibit a body of work, and working with professionals who are skilled in that area and learning so much from their guidance.
I’ve realised that my process of making works sometime after, even years, can be about revisiting those places and times in another way. And, like looking closely at photographs, new things reveal themselves in the images I make.
It seems as if in creating new artwork, there’s a similar sense of exploration and discovery to that experienced when travelling.
Someplace Else: Wall Two, Return Fare 1999-2000 at Corbans Estate Art Centre.
I’ve enjoyed hearing that others have also dug out boxes or folders of similar travel ephemera and rediscovered and celebrated their own overseas experiences. The ability to travel, when it does open up, will not be taken for granted.
In retrospect, what will we understand about the impact of this hiatus on travel as New Zealanders? I hear of young people that delayed their OE’s, but are now booking tickets and preparing to board that aircraft to another destination.
“Now or never” seems to be the motto.
And possibly, they may end up in an “in-between” situation like myself and many others that have left Aotearoa in the past, negotiating a constant pull between here and there.
What I’m curious about now is what travel ephemera will look like and say. Here, my thoughts return to an uncanny work I made in 2005 with a plastic bag printed with the words: “Disinfected - for your Protection”.
Personally I know that I will be travelling again when we can, and that for me Someplace Else as an on-going creative project will have other iterations of those future travel experiences.
I’ll keep up my practice of collecting items and making works on my return. We just need for travel to open up again so that we can actually go!