Seismic, Louise Purvis

Story by Kirsty de Jong

Faculties of Law and Government and Victoria Business School, 2018

Wellington Roswell

Louise Purvis’s Seismic (2006) looks like four small UFOs have crash-landed between the Business and Law schools at the Pipitea Campus. Given they’re each almost two metres in diameter, ‘small’ is only nominal, depending on your expectations of how big a UFO should be. Despite the resemblance, however, Seismic is concerned with identifying the unidentifiable: the dramatic rendering of different seismic phenomena, particularly those that cannot be immediately seen.

Formidable Four

The first quadruplet crossed en route from the railway station is Topographical Map Section, perched like a half-eaten, hard-boiled egg. A deep groove perpendicularly bisects its jagged surface to depict the north-south and east-west axes. Contorting on its tail end and three paces behind is Seismic Shock, caught in the middle of a shockwave. Raised up on the flowerbed is Split, easily distinguishable by the gash rupturing its surface in imitation of clashing tectonic plates. Only Disrupt stands at its full height to display the five asymmetric concentric rings on its creamy underbelly; a subtle nod to an earthquake’s disorientating effects.

Environmental Adversary

The discs appear as if rolled like dice. This seemingly random placement is a deliberate choice of the artist to bring a sensation of seismic activity into our everyday lives. Through the work’s installation, Purvis herself has intentionally manipulated the landscape to her own effect; creating a passageway through one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares that projects a physical allegory of Wellington’s long and violent history with one of New Zealand’s most unpredictable aggressors: the natural environment.

Historic Images of the Area

  • <p><em>View of the Thorndon reclamation area, the new sea wall on the right and the Thorndon hills on the left</em>. Source: Evening Post, 21 August 1931. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Some rights reserved https://natlib.govt.nz/records/17041989</p>
  • <p><em>View of early Wellington showing the progress of made up to that time with the reclmation at the Thorndon end of the city. In the foreground is Hill Street, and on the right are the Government Buildings.</em> Source: Evening Post, 27 February 1932. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Some rights reserved https://natlib.govt.nz/records/17041989</p>

Trouble Underfoot

All elements of Seismic speak of the divisive nature of an earthquake; its ability to wreak havoc both on the mind and the environment. Tangible evidence of this can be seen in the Government Buildings themselves, which still bear brutal marks from the November 2016 earthquake. Victoria has become an international centre of earthquake expertise in fields such as geophysics and architecture, and unbeknownst to most of the 6,000 students studying at the Pipitea Campus is the fact that Topographical Map Section actually sits atop a branch of the Wellington Fault line. The Wellington Fault is one of New Zealand’s most active faults and resides within a wider collision belt resting twenty-five to thirty kilometres underneath Wellington city. Here two of the Earth’s major plates: the Australian Tectonic and Pacific plates are pushing against each other at an estimated 3.5 centimetres every year, as seen in Split.

Reclamation and the Wellington Fault

The danger of these factors is heightened by the fact that the Pipitea Campus, and most of Wellington’s government and business precinct is built on reclaimed land. The hills you can see directly behind the campus resourced a significant amount of this historic waterfront reclamation that began as early as 1850 and continued until the 1970s. As a result, Wellington has grown by over 155 hectares.

Bridging the Divide

Despite these ‘shaky foundations’, as they have come euphemistically to be known, Seismic’s presence is inexplicably calming. Perhaps it is the solidity and purity of form that has seen Italian Carrara marble universally deified in building and sculpture since Ancient Rome, or the palpable weightiness of the discs themselves—each of them weighs three and a half tonnes. These elements bring to bear a sense of stability on this vulnerable urban landscape and speak of the coalescent power of art not only to marry these two distinct schools and their manifestations in Wellington society, but also to communicate geographic and scientific processes in an emotionally pertinent way.

Where is Seismic?

Between the Victoria Business School and Government Buildings, Bunny St, Pipitea, Wellington 6011, New Zealand