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May 2, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Bricks with Butterfly Wings

If you’re ever in Narnia, look for the meaning of the term ‘artistic design’ and bring it back. ’Cause it sure as hell isn’t in this world.

In the glitzy world of aesthetics, art and design are two aspects that complement each other like rock stars and clean living. When the two are together, it’s a damn good thing, but how often do you see Mick Jagger snorting MSG off the tits of Martha Stewart? Precisely. It’s a very rare thing to see the doctrines of art and design ever play nice with each other, and when it happens, angels sing out in immaculate chorus. So why it never seems to factor high on the to-do list is beyond me.

Wellington’s civic artwork is a prime example. For want of a better analogy, our desk is cluttered with shit. We need to see where we’ve gone wrong to know what we can do right: who’s building because they have the money, and who’s dropping their artsy spunk bubbles willy-nilly. And where better to look than the very pinnacle of aesthetics in this city, the battlefront in the war between sculpture and architecture: the waterfront.

For the sake of argument, something that’s been designed has some sort of function, and something artsy is purely aesthetic. For the most part, Wellington’s waterfront artwork falls on the more colourful side of the bench. Which is fair enough. I mean, come on—who doesn’t want to stare at giant, glowing metal testicles instead of the beautiful harbour views?

But, more than any other ‘landscape feature’ on the waterfront, Te Wharewaka O Poneke exemplifies the rivalry between art and design. The idea was to house two bona-fide waka, Te Raukura and Te Aniwaniwa, in a contemporary blend of the old and new, with traditional Maori design, blah de blah de blah. They fell at the first hurdle by not having Te Raukura present at the opening event. Or, in fact, ever. On top of that, the replacement is alleged to be plastic. Flip it, and it’ll say “Made in Taiwan”. And the best part? The waka that did get there doesn’t even fit in the goddamn building.

So, having failed everything else, Te Wharewaka O Poneke is a building with no other purpose than to look good—and it fails to manage even that. It looks like someone dry-retched pieces of burnt toast onto a Lego brick. It’s as though this structure committed a murder-suicide, and Wellington’s got the ensuing mess on display. This sole building prompts the question: why do we prioritise artistic endeavour over purpose and function?

I don’t even want to go into the wood garden in Te Wharewaka’s backyard. It’s simply an extension of how pointless the construction is, built from the wood leftover from the construction of round one. It also shows how blatantly circular the artistic reasoning behind such things often is. I won’t bother you with the explanation given for the ‘forest’; it would be an insult to your intelligence and mine. But civic artwork needs to be accessible to the people that most frequent that environment, and I have a suspicious that an army of wooden phalluses doesn’t fit this criteria.

In a perfect world, form and function would be intrinisc to one another. Len Lye’s Water Whirler is a fantastic example of something arsty that is designed to do something cool and beneficial, and it shows that a synthesis of purpose and aesthetic is, logically, the best way to go. But we know this won’t happen, because one will always take priority over the other, and the concept will always be skewed in that direction. It takes a rare and exceptional artist to meet function and aesthetics half-way.

But we don’t even have to do that: the waterfront’s location was aesthetic to begin with; the purity of the landscape should be doing all the talking. It’s counter-intuitive to try to shove it further in that direction with a selection of poorly-designed artworks that we just happened to pay for—like the $12.5m we spent on the canoe-house. Because that scenario could have only ended well.

We have the people, the resources, and the money to make something that performs a task and looks good doing it. Hell, Ikea’s been doing it for years, and now has enough money to buy Fiji. Alas, art and design are, more often than not, diametrically opposed in Wellington. Maybe it’s because we’re still working on our filing systems; maybe we just lost the road map of where we’re headed as a city. But whatever we’ve got on offer, as far as design and artistry go, is not playing nice.

To conclude, I want to make my stance granite. I’m an artist, of sorts. I can see that art has a function in society, and if it doesn’t, what it contributes to the world is so much spittle at the bottom of the jar. Art is design, in a sense, and design is art. They just need to learn to love each other and become one—instead of art sleeping around on the waterfront and design hitting the pub, getting drunk and knocking someone’s teeth out.
And if all else fails, get them a prenup. It’s worked with worse relationships, trust me.


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  1. Electrum Stardust says:

    ‘ “I think he was a silly little man,” said Councillor Tompkins. “Worthless, in fact; no use to Society at all.”

    “Oh, I don’t know,” said Atkins, who was nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster. “I am not so sure: it depends on what you mean by use.”

    “No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I would put them away. I should have put him away long ago.”

    “Put him away? You mean you’d have made him start on the journey before his time?”

    “Yes, if you must use that meaningless old expression. Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap: that’s what I mean.”

    “Then you don’t think painting is worth anything, not worth preserving, or improving, or even making use of?”

    “Of course, painting has uses,” said Tompkins. “But you couldn’t make use of his painting. There is plenty of scope for bold young men not afraid of new ideas and new methods. None for this old-fashioned stuff. Private day-dreaming. He could not have designed a telling poster to save his life. Always fiddling with leaves and flowers. I asked him why, once. He said he thought they were pretty! Can you believe it? He said pretty! ‘What, digestive and genital organs of plants?’ I said to him; and he had nothing to answer. Silly footler.”

    “Footler,” sighed Atkins. “Yes, poor little man, he never finished anything […] ‘

  2. smackdown says:

    the mysterious life of electrum stardust

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