C o n c r e t e D i r t P a r f a i t
Z i n a S w a n s o n
From a review by Brendan Jon Philip in Eye Contact...
Less a focused statement of installation as her previous major outings at the Hocken Library (at the end of the Hodgkins Fellowship in 2014) and at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery (from earlier this year), this collection retains an aesthetic and conceptual unity while presenting a steady progression of Swanson’s practice. Built upon a wry and delicate investigation of the intersection between the human and natural worlds her work probes softly, yet insistently, at the inherently drawn distinction between the two and what the negotiation of this distinction may actually mean.
With Concrete Dirt Parfait the organic presence of nature has begun to recede, becoming something epiphenomenal to its own interaction with ‘civilisation’. Plants which have reappeared throughout Swanson’s work as both pictorial subject and sculptural elements have all but disappeared here, replaced by pine veneer wrapped around wood-grain vinyl. While human impact on the natural environment is reported to us in more disastrous terms each day, Swanson avoids sounding a clarion of pessimism and despair through highly aesthetic works underscored with a soft humour.
The seven clean and minimal watercolours included in this exhibition probe at the methodologies by which nature has been sublimated through scientific quantification and cultural rituals of superstition and domesticity. Measuring Air, Measuring Nothing, for instance, depicts a square rule bracketing an amorphous light-grey blob of pigment. The rigidity of the tool is not matched the nuance required by the task and any measurement can only be an approximation.
In Luck references Swanson’s recent public gallery outing with the outline of a hand traced with lines of four-leafed clovers, concentrating in the fingertips. The association might be revelatory, the charms and invocations paying off through that most reliable vector of good fortune - hard work, and every artist makes their own luck by the labour of their hands. Here the negotiable vagaries of fate channelled through action are perhaps more reliable than the imprecisions of science.
Elements of nature are tentatively referenced in Birds and Rice Crackers and Tropical Shower but pushed from centre stage by the human world. In the former only part of a beak is present, leaning in from outside of the picture plane towards three crumbling and rather sad looking crackers. In the latter a pre-fabricated shower cubicle sits amidst lush, broad-leafed vegetation beaded with drops of moisture. The incongruity of this imagery is subtly unsettling, suggesting narratives of a dislocation in the inherent order of the world.
Completing the exhibition are three sculptural works for which the paintings serve as parentheses, bringing them together as an associative whole charting the trajectory of Swanson’s practice. Recycled from the 2014 show, No Need For Water, is The Ultimate Threat, a twisted length of terracotta enclosed fishing braid terminating in a red-headed safety match. Beads of terracotta are spaced along the line like or fishing floats crusted in mud left by receding floodwaters while the match evokes the easily accessed destructive totality of fire. It is a decorative object haunted with empty utility and underlying malice.
Its form echoing the shape of a matchstick, Log Wig realises in material form an illustrational work from the same 2014 show. A roll of wood-grain patterned linoleum is held in place by circlets of wood veneer and topped with a black synthetic wig. Here even the human is absent, replaced by an artificial signifier adrift in a world that is chic, clean, and wholly manufactured.
Finally, the most ambitious piece of this show is Waterfall, a series of brass taps connected by angular rods of hand-blown glass. This emblematic substitute for water flows from one tap to the next from a spot on the wall, tumbling across the floor through invisible pipes of tangled geometries. This x-ray view of an impossible plumbing infrastructure suggests a switch of conceptual scale where an apparently chaotic and dynamic system viewed from the appropriate distance assumes a pattern and regularity that denies all perception of movement.
The clean edged precision to Swanson’s work speaks to a deeper sense of order that exists behind the seeming chaos of nature that we human beings then attempt to map an imposed sense of order on top of, while ritual is employed the apprehensive negotiation between the two. Paradise must always be troubled lest it be lost. These are the things we must deal with and deal with them we must, but this does not mean that the experience cannot be without aesthetic pleasure. Swanson suggests that our world is already past a state of nature and it is what we do with what remains that counts most.
Brendan Jon Philip
Zina Swanson (b1981) received her BFA in Sculpture at the University of
Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
Swanson's work employs pre-existing scientific and natural histories in
order to interrogate our relationship to the environment.
In 2013 Swanson was the Frances Hodgkin Fellow in Dunedin, New
Zealand and in 2014 she was selected to undertake a one-month
residency in New York facilitated by Apexart, Tribecca.
Recent projects include For Luck, Dunedin Public Art Gallery; No Need For
Water; The Hocken Uare Taoka o Hakena, Dunedin; Can anybody hear
me? as part of SCAPE7 in Christchurch and Sensorium, Christchurch Art
Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu