Virginia King is a sculptor, born in the far north of New Zealand. She uses a wide range of materials in her work, although over recent years there has been a developing contrast, between her temporary and permanent artworks. Her sculptures bring a continuing attention to environmental issues. Virginia spoke to Stuart Russell B.E.M in February 2014.
Your work has beautiful, natural forms. Is nature a big influence? I am intrigued by the intricacy, beauty and geometry of plant and animal forms; bird skeletons, fish bones, shell and seed pods, items that I collect along with rocks and fossils. I feel fortunate to have been born in the South Pacific, to have spent my childhood in the Bay of Islands; where I played among rock formations in the paddocks at Ohaeawai, swam and fished for koura and eel, and explored rock pools at Paihia beach.
What is it about sculpture that captivates your interest? With site specific sculpture itâ€™s the research of previous history, before I begin to connect with the space. I need to walk over the land, to see where the sun will rise and how it will move across the work, so the works become informed by the site and can be integrated into that environment. It is a huge responsibility to be asked to change a space or the form of the land, by introducing new possibilities for that space. My commissioned bridges have changed the way outdoor spaces are used.
Does the New Zealand landscape have an effect on your outdoor work? In comparison to other countries where there is evidence of previous civilisations, our New Zealand landscape seems to have been only lightly touched,
‘ under groomed’ and uncluttered. I aspire to have my work stand in harmony with the varying landscapes in which they are sited not compete with it, whether the drama of the Southern Alpine region or the coast.
What materials do you enjoy working with and why? Wood is the material I enjoy most. It offers so many possibilities; its light and manageable, able to be drilled, cut and joined, stained and burnt, easily suspended, and it will float! I use either salvaged or recycled timbers. I’ve completed many large scale public commissions over the past few years, using stainless steel for the required permanence, durability and resistance to vandalism. One of my challenges is ‘humanising the steel; pressing and forming the material to appear soft and malleable- letting the light through and manipulating the form. I also love the way steel reflects its surroundings.
Some sculptors like permanence in their work while others like their work to fade through time. Where would you say your work lies? I try to balance my life between these two approaches; lightweight ephemeral artwork and my commissioned sculpture, although I don’t always manage the balance. Movement is important in ephemeral artwork and I usually video and photograph the work, then remove it and leave the space empty and ‘missing’ the artwork. An artwork breaking down can leave behind a beautiful echo of its form but I‘m also concerned that material should not litter the landscape.
I created a 30 metre spiral in sand at Piha on Auckland’s west coast, in 1994, the form based on tiny white squid shells frequently found there. Over the following two weeks, visitors and the tide flowed through the work and
the sea continued to wash around the trough outside the spiral, while the form became more mysterious before finally washing away.
Your floating sculptures are very interesting, tell me more about these? My first sculpture was created to float during an Artist’s Residency at Taradale Polytechnic, in Napier in 1994 (20 years ago.) I’d been working with the positive and negative spaces in sculpture and as I jig- sawed shapes from a circular work, Stem. I collected all the pieces, drilled and connected these to make Heartwood. Students helped carry the work to a local stream where in the water, the work became weightless and moved easily. The sculpture became alive- It seemed magical and unpredictable and was wonderful to watch as air and water currents transformed the work, moving and tugging its strings, rather like flying a kite only in water.
I’ve made many floating sculptures since then and each has its specific way of moving. Because my floating works have been videoed it feels like these works have had several different lives. In 2011, during an Artist Residency on Big Island, Hawaii, I made two floating ‘blankets’ four metres in length to reference the current state of coral reefs and the threat of environment pollution to these life forms. These works were filmed by an underwater photographer in the lagoon at Keauhou Bay; the dangling strings from the animated artworks appeared to dance below the waves.
Why is water and the idea of floating such a prevalent feature in these works? The concept of water and floating artwork is completely liberating. In water everything changes and is transformed. The works are also enhanced by changing natural light and as they move are reflected in the water. It’s the unpredictable, the random possibilities that I treasure. Depending on the way each work has been joined, the works sometimes create sounds as they move in the water.
With ‘Piano Raft,’ made from cedar piano keys, each key had a differing note. The black glass spheres of ‘Pacific Star,’ in New Caledonia clinked as they floated into the bay at the opening of the Jean Marie Tjibaou, Cultural Centre. ‘Missionary Zeal’ printers’ blocks were connected with threads that shrank, even though they’d been previously sealed with wax. The shrinking threads caused the printer’s blocks to tumble over each other, as if they were leaping from the water. Once an artwork is floating you become extremely aware of its physical environment, noticing every cloud, wind change, each patch of sunlight and rain drop and wonder how the work will survive a storm.
You have received numerous awards for your work, what do they mean to you? It’s great to be acknowledged but my passion is to make sculpture of beauty and integrity and use the work to convey an environmental message. I don’t make work to win awards but that recognition helps publicise the message. I don’t believe art should be competitive. I’ve learnt a lot from the knocks that have made me more focussed and allowed me to experiment in my work- to push boundaries and try new materials. They’ve tempered the steel!
Do awards change how you view your own work, do they encourage you to continue? Awards don’t alter how I view my work, but my Antarctic Artist Fellowship Award did change my life. It gave me a glimpse into another world and opened up new areas and most especially I was able to have informed access to the microsphere. It was a hugely significant event as it meant that not only was I accepted by scientists doing their research in Antarctica, but they also collaborated by providing access to their research and sent electron microscope images I used to inform my diatom sculptures. I layered and animated the images with footage I’d filmed in Antarctica and included them in my Antarctic Heart video. As for ‘encouragement to continue’, there is no way I will ever not create art.
What would you say to inspire young, aspiring sculptors? I believe in the importance of play as the only real creative freedom; it’s the way to find your own ‘voice,’ your creative spirit. As I notice fashion and clichés appearing in many artists’ imagery, I’m aware that you can’t make what you think you like, because you’ll make work that someone else has done already. Be true to yourself; draw every day; read everything; read poetry because it’s the ‘other’ voice; do research about land where you might want to work; love diagrams and challenges; never say you can’t do it; be wary of art reviews.
Part of a series of interviews created by Stuart Russell on behalf of Urban Times.