Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, 2018
Title: Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water
Artist: John Reynolds
Materials: 1174 canvas tiles
1.) The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.
2.) A system of communication used by a particular country or community
Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water by John Reynolds is an installation of language. The art work is made up of 1,174 small black canvas tiles individually inscribed in metallic silver with a Māori word or phrase from the Dictionary of New Zealand English. The words are arranged alphabetically and are displayed to create a visual representation of the façade of a wharenui.
Although many of these words – like ‘warewhare’ (or the Warehouse) – aren’t explicitly Māori in a linguistic sense or in terms of tikanga Māori, they are familiar words that have become part of our everyday language and culture in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The canvases making up Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water, are small and would have been labour intensive for Reynolds to produce. Like the task of creating, the installation and packaging of this art work takes time, precision and care. The Collections Manager for the Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection, Sophie Thorn, explains, “With over a thousand small canvas parts Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water is one of the Art Collection’s more time-consuming works to install. It pays to dedicate an entire working week with two people unpacking and measuring up for installation”.
Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water, was last on display at the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi in 2017 for the exhibition Out of Site: Works from the Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection.
Based in Auckland, John Reynolds is predominantly recognised as a painter, however he likes to experiment with sculpture, publications, public art and temporary installations. He has work in both private and public collections throughout New Zealand.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts in 1978, Reynolds began his artistic career painting large abstract colour fields, and then slowly progressed into structural and text-based imagery. His works often employ words and text, and reference both the everyday and aspects of high culture.
Reynolds’ art has featured in exhibitions throughout the country and further afield. His practice is not limited to the world of galleries, however, and he has worked across a diverse range of scenes including architecture, fashion, music and television.
In 1997 the Dictionary of New Zealand English was published by Harry Orsman, a lexicographer and former English lecturer at Victoria University. This was the culmination of a forty-year project.
The dictionary, which exclusively records New Zealand words and dialect, documents an important part of our nation’s social history and heritage and explores the way that it shapes our identity through language.
Reynolds was intrigued by the dictionary and the scholarly work Orsman undertook to produce it, understanding the major role language plays in the process of nation-building.
Language is fluid, however, and another of the observations to be gained from the dictionary is that identity is constantly evolving in response to local and community needs. In the case of Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water, Reynolds demonstrates that New Zealand is a bicultural nation and that Maori culture is also changing.
Reynold’s work is a pair to and follows on from Cloud, a similar installation of canvas tiles that record all the ‘English’ header words in the dictionary. This is made up of 7,073 individual tiles. With gold lettering on a white background, this installation was first hung in the entrance hall of the Art Gallery of New South Wales for the Biennale of Sydney in 2006. Cloud is now owned by our national museum, Te Papa.
It is obvious that words and language can be used in ways that fuel emotion, tell stories, and illustrate messages. However, while we are used to reading words in poetry and other forms of literature, we are not so familiar with seeing words as visual art. This gives us an opportunity to think again about the role language plays in conveying meaning.