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Exhibition reveals the fruits of Frances Hodgkins Fellowship


Monday 17 February 2014 3:25pm

The fruits of the 2013 Frances Hodgkins Fellowship are revealed in a new Hocken Library exhibition featuring five large tableau-like sculptures - and a suite of botanical-inspired water colour paintings.

zina swanson photoZina Swanson

The works, in the No Need for Water: Zina Swanson exhibition were created by Zina Swanson during her tenure as the University of Otago’s 2013 Frances Hodgkins Fellow.

Hocken Curator of Pictorial Collections Natalie Poland says Swanson’s art has always reflected her personal interest in botany and the mythology that surrounds certain plants and her fascination with the strange relationship between the human and plant worlds.

The title of the exhibition is based on the common misconception that the fascinating Air Plant (Tillandsias) does not require water.

“The roles humans designate to plants, plant names and their varying requirements and the domestic furnishings produced that imitate nature are some of the ideas that inform Swanson’s recent work,” she says.

“Her sculptures and paintings reveal the prevalence of anthropomorphy in human perceptions of nature and reveal the myriad of ways that humans have transformed or replicated nature for their decorative domestic purposes or to aid plant husbandry.”

The idea of anthropomorphy is explored in her sculptural installation Dracaena Screen that takes the 1960s pseudo-scientific experiments of Cleve Backster as its starting point.

Backster conducted lie-detection tests on pot-plants in an attempt to prove that plants are capable of human feelings. A terracotta bead curtain hung across the width of one of the galleries masks a Dracaena, a common household pot plant, which is presented on two upended marble pedestals. The shape of the terracotta balls that make up the screen replicates an absorbent ceramic pebble that is the basis of hydroponic horticulture and a watering aid for household plants that replaces the need to use soil.

Swanson’s Waterwalls incorporates two of the gallery’s walls which are freestanding and painted blue part-way up to suggest a waterline.

Propped up against one end of each wall is a long length of scientific glass tubing filled with Prussian Blue water that is being drawn up from a bottle at its base. This contraption evokes the rudimentary experimental methods of early alchemy.

Ms Poland says her use of the pipe as a siphon recalls the elaborate hydraulic engineering of the Romans who used siphons in their aqueducts to bring water to the gardens of magnificent villas. These glass devices also echo the form of the water level gauge, a gardening aid.

“This installation draws our attention to the often overlooked gallery walls, which Swanson wants us to perceive as sculptures in their own right,” she says.

Practices that occupy the fringes of scientific investigation are also examined in Swanson’s work through its references to Backster’s experimentation with plants, alchemy and hypnosis.

Hypnosis, like lie-detection tests, is a disputed area of the fringe of science. Swanson’s Can Anybody Hear Me?, commissioned in 2013, was a participatory work that involved a series of hypnotised subjects located at specific outdoor sites in Christchurch’s earthquake-ravaged central business district. All of the subjects took on assigned plant roles.

The titles of three of Swanson’s larger watercolours, exhibited in this show, use quotations drawn from the transcripts of the Can Anybody Hear Me? hypnosis sessions. Three stools used by the participants of this work have been repurposed in No Need For Water. Placed beneath this series of paintings the stools provide both a link to the previous participatory work and offer onlookers a chance to engage in a dialogue about human attitudes to plants and to contemplate their own stance on the legitimacy of hypnosis.

A further suite of watercolours, which resemble botanical drawings in their modest scale and detailed appearance, show strange, imaginary plant experiments that Swanson has dreamt up. Four Leaf Clover Rehydration shows a dried four leaf clover specimen receiving hydration treatment and Panadol Plant shows medicinal tablets grafted onto a Sensitive Plant (Mimosa Pudica), reiterating the human tendency to give plants human characteristics, in this case a human remedy is suggested as a cure for the plant’s ailment. The exhibition runs through to 15 April.

Zina Swanson: Zina graduated from the University of Canterbury, Ilam School of Fine Arts with a BFA in sculpture in 2003. In 2004 she was winner of the CoCA/Anthony Harper Award for Contemporary Art. Her solo exhibitions have included a self-titled show at the Physics Room, Christchurch in 2007 and The Risk of Falling Apart at the same venue in 2009; Symptoms of Incompatibility at the SOFA Gallery, Christchurch in 2010. In 2010 her work was shown in the group exhibition Ready to Roll at the City Gallery, Wellington. Her performance work Can Anybody Hear Me? was commissioned for SCAPE 2013 curated by Blair French.

After losing her studio and most of her early art production in the Christchurch earthquakes she lived in Auckland briefly before arriving in Dunedin in 2013 to take up her tenure as the University of Otago’s Frances Hodgkins Fellow. In April this year Swanson will travel to New York where she has been invited to be the Apexart New York Inbound Resident.

For further information, contact:

Natalie Poland
Curator of Pictorial Collections
Hocken Collections
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 5600

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