What is Landscape?

The following interviews with the artist for the film Questions for Mr Reynolds were conducted at these locations during July and August 2006.

‍Landscape is ultimately going to subsume us all, it’s the inevitable destination of all living things. So it is almost an irony that landscape is one of the expected subjects for painters. But anyone making art in New Zealand is likely to have some business with landscape. A lot of the jobs I had through high school were working with plants, native plants particularly. I got to understand the deep pleasure of having your hands in the ground when you are planting a kauri or a pohutakawa or a humble cabbage tree — freeing up roots, digging the hole, having to get down on your knees to put the thing in, stamping it down. There’s this twin meaning — you are burying it yet growing it. Planting, especially planting trees, is primal and atavistic. It’s a fantastic thing, dirt gets under your nails and you’re able to breathe in what the plant is, in much the same way that a painter can claim a particular tactile response to the smell and unctuousness of oil paint.

As well as a very strong personal sense of mission with regard to native species and landscape, I’m attracted in my landscape works to a number of formal ideas such as the idea of wilderness versus cultivation, or wilderness versus civilisation. I describe my works as an unnatural staging of the natural. There is also a contemplation of monumentality, in the sense that I make a lot of very small works but I’m also drawn to making something so big that it is part of the landscape, a sense of scale that is also a mechanics of play. And there’s a desire to make something that has a time component, a work that’s going to come to fruition when I am gone. These holidays I was up North at Tane Mahuta, and when you stand beneath that kauri tree, over 2000 years old, and you realise it was a little sapling when Christ was born, you get a sense of your little concertina-ed life with all its ambitions and fraught reachings compared to what a tree can pursue. There’s something very attractive about those rings of growth, that kind of drama.

Snow Tussock (Macraes)

Here we have over 800 snow tussocks and they are placed in a grid formation and they pretty much occupy the space between the cemetery and the church. Each one of these plants was essentially saved from destruction as part of on-going farm work further down past the township — they’ve have been given a reprieve, if you like. The snow tussock is a local species but it’s humble and I think you’d almost say malign. The success of agriculture and tractor technology has destroyed most of the tussock in this landscape. Yet they are gorgeously soft, luscious plants. In winter, or when there is a soft low cloud, the plants seem to open up like an anemone, they seem to be just catching the moisture in the air. It’s a nuanced and beautiful effect. Today, in the low winter light, the subtle greens come through the autumnal burnt colours. So this is a very soft work. It is un-organic play with organic material — a deliberate re-ordering of a natural phenomenon. It’s also a conversation about this particular location in the township — specifically, the dynamic between the church, the cemetery, the soft hill, and the characteristics of a local species.

It was important for me to launch my first Macraes project within the township, in a space that was close to the local community, but which used a medium — a local species — that was at the forefront of the modification of the environment, the agriculture and the mining. Whenever they wanted to open up another area, they’d clear the land of species such as tussock. So the work operates like a memorial, but in another sense the textual sensuality of the plant should amusingly reveal itself to you as you walk through it.

When I first visited Macraes, I had an opportunity to walk around the mine and the environs of the township. And this site appealed, though at that stage it was a rumpty old farm dump. There was a broken down old building and a power line going through the middle, but I liked the interplay between the township, the church, and the cemetery. When I mentioned it to the locals, they were very interested to see what an artist would do. But when I said I was going to do an artwork with tussock, the instant reply was: ‘Fucking tussock! We burn it off — in fact we burn it three times — and then plow the field.’ So they were very amused that an Auckland artist was going to do an artwork based on ‘fucking tussock’ in their township. I understood that it did seem a little rich to the locals, but we went through the jury proposal process, took care to explain what we were attempting to do, and made the initial ground works. Then the locals saw that this was — at the very least — going to mean an improvement to this part of the townscape. And so, on planting day, when we needed volunteers to help transplant the 800 or so tussocks, we were thrilled and touched that so many locals turned up to assist us. When we had a shout in the pub at the end of a very long day, they were still joking about how, once we’d left, they were going to have a burn-off. But I am thrilled to come back and see the tussock in beautiful condition. I understand there are bus tours that go past as an entertaining side-show (‘Come and see this artwork made out of tussock, for goodness sake!’), but increasingly I believe the locals are quite pleased with the work. That has also been a happy characteristic of our negotiations for Golden Spaniard.

Snow Tussock was deliberately sited on an old farm dump, poised between Macraes Presbyterian Church and the old disused cemetery further on. So the work animates that space between a church and a cemetery, and that’s the metaphysics of the work. What we experience as we do the walk is a slow incline. If I put on my parish hat, I’d say that is a soft metaphor for the curve of life itself. I can claim quite happily that our successful installation has encouraged the locals to finish landscaping the church and completing the pathway up through the old macrocarpa to Snow Tussock. And beyond that is the cemetery. What I hope is that Snow Tussock will function for the visitor as a kind of pause, a contemplative space, poised between the mechanics of the church and the beautiful little space of the cemetery — from birth to death, if that’s not too dramatic.

When we look back through the tussock we can appraise the whole environment, the town and its locality. It’s quiet up here, it’s a tremendous high space, and you get a sense of the windblown quality. The weather sweeps in, you can get clouds of snow, and everything just fires up from the south. So this space is empty but also very changeable and extremely dramatic — a dynamic site to be colluding with.

There are two great terms in the Orsman dictionary — ‘tussock happy’ and ‘tussock fever’ — that refer to the disorienting experience of being too long isolated in these sweeping hills, surrounded by plant material that is lower then you but extends as far as the eye can see. I have felt something similar with Snow Tussock in the middle of a snow storm. But generally I find in this landscape that I’m drawn out of myself and that’s an invigorating process. One of the best ways to experience tussock is to lie down among them, at their level. They’re real characters. They are moist and warm, and when you are down this low they provide great shelter from the prevailing winds, which are pretty fierce. I think this is why sheep like them — way out in the paddocks, they can just bundle up next to one of them. If you need an excuse to lie on the ground, try a little Central Otago Riesling!

A bed of snow can be vibrant and fierce. It’s a tremendously bleak landscape at times because it’s high up. The wind sweeps across, and the tussock do their thing, clutching moisture from the air. This landscape is a classic tussock situation where you are the tallest thing in the landscape, and that does something to the top two inches of your head. There’s a curious sense of elevation or light-headedness — the ‘tussock fever’ or ‘tussock happy’ sensation.

Golden Spaniard

What we have planned is a distribution rate of about three per square metre. Once we have achieved that, we’ll look at the opportunity to plant much more randomly on the hilltop. These things will propagate in years to come, their seeds will be scattered right across here. But once they are over the fences they will have to fight the pigs and various pests, they will have to compete for space. But the guys in this area are safe, and as long as they can get established they will be fine. These ones have had to be propagated. Seeds were gathered from this area but it took some time to work out a way to produce enough plants. Nurseries just don’t grow them commercially on this scale. So it took us a year or two just to get that process up and running. And then the work up here had to fit in with the mine schedule, so it has taken a couple of years.

This circular layout I call a rondo — which is one of the oldest Spanish bull-rings. The circular nature is disorientating for the bull — he wanders round looking for a place to put his mark, and all that scratching in the sand is designed to say, ‘I will defend this area to the end.’ Meanwhile the picadors are going around stabbing him, and he is enraged, so he wanders round this disorientating ring trying to establish some kind of locus, some place to make his last stand.

And when you first come in here, because your back is to the entrance, you meet this wall that is entirely circular, so in a sense it is designed to force viewers to place themselves somewhere. It’s a flat rocky base with these terraced ranks of one species so it has a very intense colour, and it’s a kind of theatrical performance. Because the space is circular, people tend to walk around, then go up and down the walls, and their attention turns to the sky. So I regard it as a kind of metaphysical engagement. In the end you’re thrown back on yourself and you can hear your own breath and the blood pumping in your ears. Quite an experience.

Actually, this landscape is enough to make you weep — it’s a hard, bright, intense place, over-saturated in a way. In a sense what I am attempting here is to ask the very simple question, ‘What is landscape?’ If one considers this a cultivated wilderness, where does the wilderness end and the cultivation begin? In what sense is this intervention part of the wider process of the mine’s operation, or human intervention in the landscape generally? There’s wilderness right here where the rock meets the species we are celebrating, the Golden Spaniard. So I keep coming back to that question, ‘What is landscape?’ How can we animate that question? How can we understand what’s happened here — the various interventions, the various layers of signification?

What we have initiated is what I call a permanent work in progress. I will be long dead by the time the work reaches fruition, when the plants are mature enough to flower goldenly and magnificently. So what I think I can justifiably claim is that what we are working on is the slowest art work in New Zealand. Hopefully, I will be around for the next couple of decades to enjoy some of the slowness, some of the fruition. But one of the things I am reminded of when I stand in this fantastic chill is the great Pieter Brueghel painting [Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558] which shows a peasant tilling in the foreground, and off to one side is this small, tragic figure of Icarus with flailing arms plunging into the landscape. It is that kind of metaphysics which I think this location summons. This is big country, it has the Alps, and the human figure has a different significance here. Hopefully, in the years to come, those who visit this place will have a similar experience. They’ll not only discover a species like Golden Spaniard but connect with the sky above them and the severity of the temperature and the rigour of the landscape.


The fundamental difference between Snow Tussock and Golden Spaniard is that here the regimentation is a key component — en masse, they are a species — though they still have a maverick air individually. The Golden Spaniards are planted randomly but much more intensely. So we have treated the two species with a markedly different approach. But both works are cultivated wildernesses.

I’m thinking about the question, what is landscape? What I want to animate with these works, first and foremost, is the layering — using a local species and disporting it or celebrating it in such a way that obliquely we get a sense of how the history of man’s intervention over the last couple of hundred years has left a series of layers. So, by using something natural, we can point out the unnatural. The layers are very visible — not just the mining but the farming which has left even greater changes in the landscape. So, simply by looking at two species that are local, and intensifying the experience of each species for the viewer, I’m telling a story with regard to history. Still, I don’t want to insist on those narratives for the viewer. First and foremost I am presenting an aesthetic experience. You might walk right across Snow Tussock and not be drawn into any contemplation of history or community or mankind’s intervention in the landscape — rather, you might get a sense of the tactile nature of the plant.

When someone told me recently that these must be the largest artworks in New Zealand, my response was, ‘Well, actually I see them as the slowest artworks in New Zealand.’ While I don’t wish to ratchet up numbers with regard to the meaning of a work, that is one way we can contemplate this. It’s quite different from using bronze or oil-paint or video technology. This is part of the wilderness and it will find its fullest expression in 50, 60, 70, 80 years from now. It can be endlessly modified and replanted. So in that sense it is a soft intervention. Many years were involved in our conversation with the mine and the local community, in the installation of the work, and now of course in the growth of the plants themselves. So it’s a process we’re on, and I’m hoping to come here at least once a year to watch and enjoy the changes, and get some sense of how the surrounding environment impacts on the works and their effectiveness.

Artists are characterised by what they do, so there’s a possibility I might become known as ‘the tussock guy’. So by using Golden Spaniards and cabbage trees, at least I won’t get identified with one species, as the nutty guy who absolutely revels in the delights of tussock. Not that I am not up to be persuaded to do just that!