Thu, 30 Aug 12 - Wed, 19 Sep 12
Masterworks Gallery Ponsonby
Masterworks Gallery, 30 August - 19 September 2012
Preview Wednesday 29 August from 5.30pm
From a contemporary perspective, the actions and achievements of 19th century ornithologist Walter Buller present a complex proposition. A New Zealand-born 'gentleman of science', Buller is best known for his feted book A History of the Birds of New Zealand. First published in England in 1872-73 and illustrated with lithographs by JG Keulemans, Buller's 'Book of Birds' was the first comprehensive account of the birds of New Zealand.
Buller was an active collector, amassing, amoung other things, an important collection of native bird specimens that informed his writing on the subject. As a collector Buller was impassioned - some might say ruthless - driven to possess his own examples of the often vulnerable species he strove to record. As his biographer Ross Galbreath has written, 'Buller held the prevailing view that the native plants, birds and people of New Zealand would inevitably be displaced by the more vigorous European immigrants.'1 However misguided this might seem from a 21st century viewpoint, the urgency of Buller's collecting was most certainly motivated by a desire to create an enduring record before the opportunity slipped away. However his activity made a direct contribution to pushing these endangered species to the brink of extinction.
It was Buller's 'Book of Birds' that initially introduced Mike Crawford to the work of Walter Buller; the iconic illustrations inform the series of paired sculptural 'bird' forms that Crawford has been developing over recent years. However it was the complexities of Buller's wider story - his activities as a lawyer, scientist and collector; his relationship with Tangata Whenua; his attitude towards the native flora and fauna of his country of birth; his preoccupation with social class and with England - that drew Crawford into a deeper interest in this celebrated figure.
Central to the work in this exhibition is Crawford's response to the notion of collecting. While on one hand his paired 'birds' celebrate natural forms, they also reference the specimen or 'trophy' object, selected and removed from its natural environment. The birds Crawford has selected are either extinct or endangered - species that have born the brunt of human intervention. Crawford's palette intentionally references this, with deliberately muted opaques and dark colours reflecting the traditional tones of vanitas or memento mori artworks, or the delicate jet and hair constructions of 19th century mourning jewellery.
In this exhibition Crawford introduces his interpretation of a traditional waka huia. This form, traditionally a casket used by Maori to hold treasured objects, is a reference to his interest in value. As well as traditionally holding treasures, In 19th century New Zealand, waka huia were prized collectors items - gifted as objects of mana as well as being sought after as examples of decorative carving. In his series of waka huia, Crawford draws on the traditional associations of this object and its high value in both Maori and Pakeha culture (both then and now).
The final shift in this body of work takes us from the tabletop to the mantelpiece - a site that Crawford regularly draws upon to confer value onto the objects he chooses to place there. In this latest Mantel Urn - Walter Buller, Crawford elevates what have become his enduring images of Buller onto the mantel, reflecting on the life and times of this important and complex figure from New Zealand's past.
1 Ross Galbreath. 'Buller, Walter Lawry - Biography', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Sep-10
Lucy Hammonds is the Curator of Design Collections at Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery, specialising in New Zealand design and applied arts. She is married to Mike Crawford.
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