24 NOVEMBER 2023

Melissa Macleod: stones, soil, silt and bones

Melissa Macleod: stones, soil, silt and bones

An essay on Melissa Macleod's exhibition and practice written by Gwynneth Porter. Melissa Macleod: stones, soil, sand, silt and bones is on display in WHAKAARI from 23 November 2023 - 22 January 2024.

stones, soil, sand, silt and bones is made by an artist who works with different materials each time – but with a common thread that runs throughout the sculptures in her practice. One way or another, Melissa Macleod’s work in the last decade can be seen to conjure the elements. They are grounded in places, but not directly – not in an intellectual, teacherly, illustrative, or even conscious way, but like the sites dreamed them.

Macleod’s works are all sculptural in a variety of forms: large-scale public sculptures, discrete artworks shown in galleries, installations that make spaces inside buildings, photography of human intervention in the landscape, and moving-image documentations of processes. They show us what happens when elements combine and produce outcomes, and how this is met by human desire. Things move, change, adapt, succeed, and fail – in our terms, and on theirs.  

We see a slice of time, and how elemental materials – earth, air, wind, fire – become animated to take new form. Life springs forth from the ground, from the very earth, one of the elements that has been a constant in her work since the earthquakes. Often it appears in the form of sand, something stemming from the artist being a long-term resident of the Ōtautahi beach suburb of New Brighton.

Salt of the Earth (2017) was a huge wedge-shaped sculpture made from rammed wet sand set on an empty corner section on the main road from the central city to the east and Brighton, on roughly the point where the sandier soil starts. Another work, The Fall (2021), involved different coloured and textured sands collected from 24 erosion-prone beaches and applied to long hanging threads.

Salt of the Earth (Linwood) (2017), public installation – sand, 2400 x 8400 x 2400mm, Linwood Avenue– Avonside Drive – Woodham Road intersection (LINZ Red-zone site), commissioned by  
The Physics Room, Ōtautahi Christchurch

The Fall (#2) (detail) (2019–20), sand (24 samples from erosion-prone New Zealand coasts), nylon, aluminium runners, 400 x 800 x 3000mm.  
Exhibited in Te Wheke, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū

There was also Pig’s Face, Hare’s Tail and A New Day (2022), a film about seed-collecting the artist carried out from earth-binding species in local sand-dunes towards future works. One of these is a proposed public sculpture (or land work) for Brighton where wild yellow gazanias (the ‘new day’ flowers that grow in lawns and dunes out east) would cover a mound of waste soil in a vacant lot – to mimic a dune and provide an escape, or room to breathe the sea air.

Pig's Face, Hare’s Tail, and the New Day (2022), multi-screen projection – moving image, seven screens and projectors, sounds of coastal environment, glass jars. SOFA Gallery, Ilam School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury, Ōtautahi Christchurch

Water, as an element, comes into her work via the plants that she cultivates and uses as material – they need water to grow. It is also there in Dead Wood (2018), an installation work that was made up of large black flood socks stacked into a fort-like structure to keep back an invisible flood. The name says something about economic flows, acceptable losses, human resources and restructuring, all liquid sculptural operations of sorts involving the filtering of people and resources (where we are told the aim is to stay liquid).

Dead Wood (2018), installation – flood socks (filled with chip from drowned pine trees from Brighton estuary, mixed wood chip, and Envirocore filtering felt), plastic ties, ground staples,
1200 x 1500 x 8000mm. Exhibited in Overlay, Jonathan Smart Gallery, Ōtautahi Christchurch

Sea water – that inundates – has had a big part to play in Macleod’s work. The filler used in Dead Wood came from pines that drowned on the Brighton spit as the waters rose, their chipped remains quietly collected and carried away in bags over weeks. Seawater was also pumped up into a gallery for the sculpture Weight (2016),where it was used to fill large water tanks in an amount relative to the king tides that now flood her street.

Weight (2016–17), installation and performance over one hour – sea water (Brighton), PVC tanks, performers, life jackets, 2100 x 1400 x 1200mm each tank.
Centre of Contemporary Art Toi Moroki, Ōtautahi Christchurch

Tanks were also a feature of an installation work from a year earlier, Ark (2015), which, like Weight, involved performance art elements – primary school students from Brighton practised their tsunami response protocol in Drill alongside Weight; and university art students performed a more mysterious action in life jackets as part of Ark. But even when she makes sculpture that does not involve performance or the depiction of people, it still somehow carries the traces of human desire fixed alchemically into the work.

Ark (2015), installation and performance over two hours –including Untitled, 24 water tanks, dimensions variable.
SOFA Gallery, Ilam School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury 

There are explicitly human photographs in this broad body of work that picture the artist herself lying on the ground in the open air (having run from the camera and thrown herself down to beat a ten-second timer). Her multiplied body stretches out to block water further flooding developed ground and eating into paths and roadways in work called Drawing Water (estuary action) (2018). It is here that we can clearly see the artist’s background in dance and, furthermore, in architecture – which together are the orchestration of bodies and materials in space.

Drawing Water (estuary action) (2018), Brighton Estuary, photograph printed on Fujifilm lustre paper, edition of 3, 430 x 630mm

In two more recent works Macleod has used the very air itself, the most spectral element that moves in prevailing winds. In Waitaha Canterbury, these are the easterly onshore and the northwester that barrels down from the mountains, often bringing after it the south-westerly as it swings anticlockwise.

On an East Wind (2021) and The Trapping of Ghosts (2020) involved collecting sea-air in dunnage bags – normally used to pad cargo in container ships – from Brighton and Wakanui beach near Ashburton respectively. This transported air displaced the still, close air of an Ashburton gallery space, and in an empty commercial building in the Ōtautahi CBD that is surrounded by large law firms.

on an east wind (2020–21), public installation – sea air (New Brighton), dunnage bags, aluminium, plastic joints, cable ties, 1200 x 2500 x 2200mm each structure.
Awly Building, Scape Public Art, Ōtautahi Christchurch

The Trappings of Ghosts (2019–20), installation –sea air (Wakanui Beach), dunnage bags, steel, wood, aluminium, cable ties, 1200 x 2400 x 2200 each structure.
Ashburton Art Gallery, Hakatere Ashburton

Fire as an element is less directly involved in Macleod’s work, but it is the sun that lights her environment, making visible the conditions from which her work emerges. It makes the plants grow, evaporates water, and dries up floods and mud, and is transformed into energy to power living creatures. Fire is there, but its light is not indexed in this body of work in the direct way that air, water, and earth are. But it is warming the earth in alarming ways thanks to what we are blindly doing to our atmosphere.

stones, soil, sand, silt and bones, this new work at Te Atamira, has sieving (gathering, sorting, filtering) in common with others in her practice; and with this, dry earth-matter that shows geological time, geographic time. Earth might be absent in this sculpture, but it is implied, bringing with it the time of the mountain, and the sandy shore where all rivers end up.

In the making process, sand for The Salt of the Earth and The Fall had to be screened. The sieves were the large, round kind used in horticulture, or by serious gardeners, to sort growing mediums into uniform textures, and to screen out unwanted things. These sieves were made on site (on a needs-basis) as practical, functioning tools, and then the sieve as form became the central idea of a work.

The Slow Amputation of Her Protective Arm (2019–20), pine roots of drowning trees from Brighton Spit and Avon – Heathcote Estuary, plywood, steel, webbing, 2200 x 3000 x 600mm.
Exhibited in Te Wheke, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū

The slow amputation of her protective arm (2020) built on vivid childhood experiences of screening soils with her father in his Tōtaranui nursery. Memories of selecting from the round sieves that hung on the wall, and of performing the meditative job at hand, seduced the artist into making them a work of their own.

This 2020 work is composed of sieves of different sizes nested inside each other. Hanging on the wall from straps, their mesh isn’t made of what you’d expect it to be made of, but from the teased-out roots of flooded pine trees. These trees drowned in the saltwater that rose following earthquake subsidence in her neighbourhood – in life, their roots operated like sieves to the land, straining the silt and earth as it came and went with the tides. 

stones,soil, sand, silt and bones appears suspended from black webbing straps to hang gently above the ground, swaying slightly if brushed against (or maybe it’s the wind). They are sieves, industrial-sized, and made of different materials to filter different grades of particles or matter – solid, liquid, gaseous, and fictional. Some are mesh, others have round holes – they are whatever shape that does the mysterious job they are required to do. 

Here, with this work, are we processing primary resources, archaeology, or looking for something else in the earth? What do we sort through – and separate, pile up – in the way we live, think, feel, and perform? What happens when things break down and wash away, and we do too? It’s probably all just stones, soil, sand, silt, and bones in one way or another.

The mesh gauges are different in each sculpture, as though some entity is trying to grade things into different piles. Maybe the material is the matter that slips down from mountains – or erosion’s scree (stones and grit), and the finer suspensions and solutes that end up in riverbeds. As sculptural elements, ghost traces are here again in this work, but this time in the drawings that appear when the sieves, their frames, and hanging mechanisms cast shadows.

That beautiful moment when the sugar goes through the sieve, you can’t control that. It’s doing its own thing, and someone is observing. Macleod might not repeat works, as she moves on to new forms, following materials to new places, but the artist keeps on filtering ideas, experience, and time – engineering displacements, shaking out priorities, studying losses, sorting, making things perceptible.

Things wear down over time, but this is nothing novel – there is always entropy in the material and energetic worlds. But what art can do is change our logic-settings, put on a different filter, and make new realities with its fictions. Facts are always simpler than the truth or any meaning – that’s much more complicated and shifts like sands. It really does depend on who is watching.

Melissa Macleod (born 1973) lives in Ōtautahi Christchurch. In her work as an interdisciplinary artist, Melissa Macleod has exhibited in numerous public galleries and artist run spaces in New Zealand, as well as in Japan while on a Creative New Zealand Emergent Artist Grant. She graduated with an MFA (Sculpture) with Distinction from the University of Canterbury Ilam School of Fine Arts in 2016, and has been the recipient of numerous accolades over recent years, including the Olivia Spencer Bower Award (2021), and a recent commission for Te Wheke, at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Melissa is represented by Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch. 

Gwynneth Porter (b.1970, Aberystwyth, Wales) is a writer and editor from Ōtautahi Christchurch in Aotearoa New Zealand. Writing essays since the mid-1990s, her practice has involved persistent experimentation with forms, methodologies and subject positions – auto-theory, ficto-criticism and dialogue – for art writing and book development with artists.

Gwynneth has recently completed a PhD through Monash University in Melbourne’s Department of Art History and Theory with a thesis titled ‘Delinquent palaces: Adolescent museum visitation in literature.’ She was the founder and editor of Clouds publishing and her essays have appeared in books published by galleries such as The Barbican, Objectspace, Christchurch Art Gallery, Te Tuhi, City Gallery Wellington, The Dowse, Artspace, Artspace Sydney, Michael Lett, A Gentil Carioca, ACCA, Te Papa Tongarewa, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, The Physics Room, Teststrip and Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

With thanks to Fielden Metalworks, Richardson Motor Bodies, Slade Engineering, Lyttleton Port Company, Gwynneth Porter, Luca and Philip.

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