Art News New Zealand: Meditation on Living

Art News New Zealand: Meditation on Living

Ben Pearce lives elsewhere. The artist is based in Napier, Hawkes Bay, on the east coast of the North Island; but in truth he inhabits a slightly different, distinctly more magical realm. Pearce is fascinated by that miraculous divide that exists within us all — between our interior and exterior selves — that allows us to simultaneously inhabit two different worlds. Through his practice Pearce seeks out and elaborates upon the the odd and unlikely; transposing domestic objects and everyday experiences into works that capture the wonder and imaginative potency of childhood and the unreliable and transmutable nature of memory. Made from wood, metal, stone or found objects, his sculptures appear at once as naive structures or architectural experiments, mysterious objects or vestiges from some other time and place.

After graduating from the Quay School of Fine Arts in Whanganui, Pearce moved to Wellington, but when he couldn’t find a studio he relocated to Hastings, where he found a space and started working for design studio David Trubridge. More than a decade later, the practicalities of balancing the demands of a full-time job with a family while sustaining a busy art practice, means that like many artists much of his work is made after dark. “You get up in the morning, and it’s almost like it didn’t happen,” says Pearce. “I kind of love that. If I had a lot of time to make work during the day everything might take a different turn.” He speaks animatedly about the gap between the quotidian world and the one where his art is conceived and created. He clearly relishes time in his studio — snatched between work and family commitments — and the magic that happens in that space, often in the early hours of the morning, when the mind wanders and he follows to see where it will lead.

Pearce is about to lose his studio in Hastings; a dilapidated building destined for redevelopment from which he has sourced many recycled materials. This immediately conjures up an image of Pearce working away in the half-light of a studio that looks rather like the crumbling edifices of one of his own sculptures, removing pieces of wall or floor to attach to a work in progress in a gesture reminiscent of British artist Simon Starling. Pearce hopes to build himself a proper studio later this year, but in the meantime there is a small workshop tucked away inside the cottage where he lives with his wife Laura and their two young children Olive and Oscar.

It’s been a busy time for Pearce. As well as various other projects and exhibitions, he opened his solo exhibition Life Will Go On Long After Money at Hastings City Art Gallery late last year. Featuring a large sculptural installation and video projection, the project was inspired by a real event in which Pearce himself played a bizarre role. In 2013 a man named Paul Jepson constructed a refuge on the banks of Nelson inlet made from recycled wooden pallets and corrugated iron. A friend contacted Pearce asking if this was one of his projects. “At the time I was making work from little wooden weatherboards. I was looking at house structures —  the ‘home’ has always been a thread of an idea in my work —  and the way that he had built this out of pallets looked really similar to one of my sculptures.” Nelson District Council asked Jepson to cease construction and remove the illegal structure. Jepson refused. “He didn’t want attention. He was throwing rocks at photographers to try and keep them away,” says Pearce. Amid growing media attention, Jepson transformed the dwelling into a houseboat using old drums, and it was towed over the boulder bank to position it in full view of passing vehicles. The words from which Pearce’s exhibition takes its name — ‘Life Will Go On Long After Money’ — were spray-painted along one side of the structure. For Pearce, this gesture shifted Jepson’s original structure into the realm of art, and he decided to write an artist statement about the project as a response to issues around the growing housing crisis, homelessness, and climate change. “I thought it might buy him some time, because he was by that stage in a bit of trouble. I think the media is often about the way they present a story to the public, and I thought this might just change the reading of the whole thing.” Straight away the media contacted Pearce, and he played along for a while. “But as I became more and more closely tied to it all and to Paul Jepson’s own actions, I decided to distance myself.” Pearce and Jepson have never met, and the artist has no idea if Jepson is aware of his own project. “I found his name and number, and I almost called him. But I was so conscious of the strangeness of the whole experience … and how we influence other people’s lives.”

Hastings Art Gallery Director Toni MacKinnon notes that Pearce’s project has echoes of Michael Stevenson’s The Gift (from Argonauts of the Timor Sea 2004-06), where the artist created a replica of Australian artist Ian Fairweather’s raft, built from scavenged materials and used to sail from Darwin to East Timor in 1952. However, Pearce never intended to attempt an exact replica of Jepson’s structure, but rather to use the story as a starting point.

The exterior looks sort of similar — the corrugated iron and the outward structure — but  the interior is just a little bit more highly finished. For example it has wall lining, which I don’t imagine the original structure had. I think recreating it exactly would have become this obsession if I went that way … I didn’t really want it to be about a facsimile, about a recreation, I wanted it to be more about the idea rather than the duplicate itself. But I wanted it to be similar enough so that you could get a sense of what he’d done.

The structure is tethered to the wall by a rope, as if it might at any moment float away. Slightly elevated above the ground, visitors enter by walking up long scaffolding planks similar to those used to board a boat. Built at approximately three-quarter scale to the original, inside the space is small, intimate; evocative of a childhood playhouse or hutt. Yet the interior is surprisingly sophisticated. This could be a readymade post-apocalyptic bolthole. There is a system for collecting rainwater, a handmade pot-belly stove and chimney, a bunk, desk, kitchen bench, a lamp, a lidded pot, an assortment of ephemera including old maps and publications, and a Philips radio quietly playing Radio Kidnappers.

Projected on a wall to the side of the structure, and visible through the window of the houseboat, is a video of another interior space. Bedroom (2017) is somewhat of an ode to French filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s La Chambre (1972), which consists of a slow pan around the interior of an apartment. The film offers a portrait of a life that is at once intimate and obscure. Pearce says he discovered Akerman quite by accident, but was immediately enthralled by the way she imbues everyday rituals and domestic objects with new significance. In Pearce’s film the camera slowly reveals the inside of a caravan: wooden panelling and cabinetry, frayed and faded furnishings, curtains to which cling delicate spider webs. Our eye lingers on familiar objects. We hear bird song and watch as a figure stirs in rumpled bed sheets. The man relieves himself out the door of the caravan before making a cup of tea on the small stove. He sits down to drink on the step, his bare feet resting on a carpet of pine needles. We do not see his face. We are left to imagine who he might be and what has led him here, alone, to this caravan in the bush. We wonder if this is the same person who built himself a floating refuge from the world, and whether we are now watching him in the past, present or future.

Pearce’s practice is made up of a series of experiments of one kind or another; investigations into materials, construction, memory, or imagination. Here, Pearce presents us with a kind of experiment or meditation on living. Life Will Go On Long After Money is not only larger in scale but also more outward looking, more ideologically driven than many of his previous projects, which often emerge from Pearce’s own personal memories and experiences. This exhibition considers notions of home and the domestic space, and situates Jepson’s project within the framework of some kind of alternative, anti-capitalist future. Pearce says, “I think the longer you’re an artist the less it becomes about you. As your ideas develop it becomes more about ideas that other people can relate to.”

A fascination with the duality of objects informs many of the artist’s works. “I really like Donald Judd’s furniture work. It’s not really furniture, it’s not really art. It occupies and acts within a strange place.” In his exhibition Everything Remote Intermingles at Pearce’s Hastings gallery Parlour Projects last year, works such as Affix on a Cupboard Drawer played with the divide between the functional and decorative to create a perfect tension between the utilitarian object and its status as an artwork. Pearce transformed the surfaces of a series of found objects to evoke miniature lunar landscapes. He references the phenomenon of hypnagogic hallucinations that can occur in that transitional state between consciousness and sleep; where familiar people, places and things can become alien, even threatening.

I’m conscious of being in one place and thinking about another. Or how you can physically be inside a home with your family and feel protected or sheltered, but psychologically you can be somewhere else or be feeling quite stressed. I’m interested in the charged nature of the domestic space — as both comforting and hostile — and the idea of domestic escapism.

Pearce’ sculptural works examine our relationship with and emotional attachment to objects; triggering particular associations, anxieties, or memories. This idea is epitomised in the work Tell this your fears (2017), where audience members were invited to inscribe their fears on a piece of copper with a cratered pencil in an act of catharsis or spiritual exorcism. “Copper is a foundation element on the periodic table, and I like the idea that certain materials might have a certain power about them,” says Pearce. “Or the idea of writing things down and burning them … or that when we pass away our spirit might become trapped in an object. I like thinking about how we might make sculpture more active.”

February sees Pearce included in a group show at Milford Galleries in Dunedin, and in another solo show at Parlour Projects. “My upcoming show revolves around systems of communication, particularly the divine or cosmic. A myriad of inscribed human communications are explored including morse code, glyphs, shorthand and deconstructed letter forms.” Tranquility Base takes its name from the site where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed and walked on the moon in 1969, and the exhibition sees Pearce returning to the surface of the lunar landscape. “Brass extruded worlds take us on a journey in macro form, but make us think of a larger system of human communication which has extended the race in the profound, trivial and spiritual.”