“Mapping objects within a space”: Bedrock at The Physics Room

In conversation with Becky Hemus, Emerita Baik, Maia McDonald, and Nââwié Tutugoro discuss their recent exhibition Bedrock at The Physics Room, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, curated by Abby Cunnane.

Date 6 July 2021 Interview facilitated by Becky Hemus Photography Janneth Gil

Emerita Baik, Maia McDonald, and Nââwié Tutugoro, Bedrock. Installation view, The Physics Room, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, April 2021.

“’I think about how objects are social, how they speak with us. How they placate us.’ Nââwié Tutugoro wrote this earlier in the year, responding to an email thread about the exhibition Bedrock. Her words hold some of the ideas connecting works by Tutugoro, Emerita Baik, and Maia McDonald: the things we make to live with and come home to, the material languages that bring strength or ease in phases of transition, the things that help us remember who we are and where we stand. In Bedrock these foundational relationships are explored across three practices.”
— The Physics Room exhibition statement

Becky Hemus: I’ve seen images of the exhibition but I wasn’t able to visit the gallery. It seems like it’s very much about connection and the way that the artworks interact with each other in the space. Sometimes, and I think especially with sculptural shows like this, the photos look too nice, too polished. You miss what it was actually like to be in the presence of each object. I thought we could have a conversation today that introduces the artworks and expands on their personal significance to you, maybe to help extrapolate on the journey that the exhibition takes you on. We could also talk about how the show was conceived, as it is Abby [Cunnane]’s first curatorial project as Director at the Physics Room. I’ve met and worked with Nââwié and Maia before, but was introduced to you practice Emerita through looking at images of this exhibition. Shall we begin by speaking about the quilts you made for Bedrock

Emerita Baik: My artworks are a series of quilts that merge Western and Korean quilting techniques. I looked at a Korean quilting technique called nubi that incorporates lots of repetitive lines over a duvet. Rather than having a separate cover and duvet inner [like in the western tradition], a lot of Korean blankets are stitched together. My works are made using remnants of fabric from everyday life, such as sleeping bags, towels, and shower curtains. I was initially interested in studying fashion and taught myself to sew at a young age. Since graduating these skills have come together to form part of my practice. By incorporating different materials and techniques, I’m hoping to articulate a fragmented migrant experience, specifically speaking to those living with a language barrier. 

Maia McDonald: So beautiful. I love them. They also have names. 

EB: They are giant, puffy quilts, named after people I know—for instance, one of the works is titled after my mother Julie—who live with a language barrier in New Zealand. I always want my work to have an entity or a bodily experience, rather being a series of objects. So this artwork is a giant layer of fabric with all the lines stitched right through. The repetitive lines have a bodily movement. 

Emerita Baik, I love you more than two loves (detail), 2021, series of four quilts, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Heald Gallery. 

BH: Is living with a language barrier something you’ve experienced?

EB: I was born here, so the artworks mostly draw from my mum’s personal experiences. I guess family relations are always really complicated—and me and my mum being so close—you can sense their emotions and their struggles when living with a language barrier. But it’s not something I have had to ‘directly’ to deal with. Of course, being Korean, I have to deal with racism and people assuming certain things about me when they see me, like being really surprised when I have a New Zealand accent. 

Emerita Baik, Maia McDonald, and Nââwié Tutugoro, Bedrock. Installation view, The Physics Room, Ōtautahi/Christchurch, April 2021.

Nââwié Tutugoro: With each of the works [in this exhibition], we are retelling our own stories. There is a commonality of memory. I feel like all the artworks were really musical, and correspond with sound and language and translation in all kinds of ways. 

EB: I really enjoy that you’ve said that. Music is intangible and can be very personal, in the same way that there are certain emotions and experiences that I struggle to articulate with words when I think about my mother’s experience living with a language barrier. I always try to emphasise this idea and the essence of intertwined complex emotions and experiences through my practice. 

NT: We all tell unseen and unheard stories within the layers of our works. Emerita’s quilts are like a surface or (language) barrier and Maia transforms dense clay into these chiming vessels. 

Nââwié Tutugoro, And a blue vocoder, and everything is blue for them (detail), 2021, various materials, dimensions variable. 

MM: The works that I made for Bedrock were commissioned. I made them specifically for the space, thinking about Emerita’s work, and Nââwié’s work as well. Through researching their practices and looking at other, previous works, I took on board a visual language. It felt like there was a strong relationship [between what we all do]. It was an incredible process to then live with each other for a week as we all got on so well. 

BH: Did you all meet for the first time when you stayed together to install the exhibition? 

EB: Yeah. 

BH: The first time I met Nââwié, I was going to Window gallery to meet another artist [Jenny Takahashi Palmer]. They were deinstalling a joint exhibition that had just finished, and Nââwié was lugging out these puffy hair combs. I said how obsessed I had been with those artworks, and we had a chat about her being part of May Fair [an alternate art fair I was working on at the time]. Nââwié was very busy, but eventually we postponed the May Fair project because of the lockdowns, and she was able to participate. In the May Fair booth, we presented the artwork that formed, and informed, the work at the Physics Room, was that right? 

NT: Yeah. The work that I presented in the Physics Room for Bedrock is definitely an extension of cassette tape garden recorder which was at May Fair. The central image shows the birthing spa that I was born in. I love how people engage with the form. Even before I tell them that I was born there, they regard it as a kind of portal. 

Nââwié Tutugoro, And a blue vocoder, and everything is blue for them, 2021, various materials, dimensions variable. 

Nââwié Tutugoro, And a blue vocoder, and everything is blue for them, 2021, various materials, dimensions variable. 

BH: The May Fair artwork was a digital render with images of physical artworks photoshopped in. It was one of the few booths within the project where the room was the artwork rather than a fictitious gallery space to house pieces for sale. You worked quite closely with Edward [Smith] to realise this, as he was doing all of the renders for uniformity and had the skills to bring your vision to life. How was this digital space translated into the Bedrock artwork?

NT: In the Physics Room exhibition, we projected the image onto a single wall and brought it to a life-size scale. Abby was definitely the driving force behind the concept of having the hot tub take up the space. I thought, if we can’t get the real Persian rug that my grandfather died on and my brother was born on, and we can’t get a hot tub for hire in a gallery to bubble 24/7, then let’s get Edward [and modify the render]. I worked with him again, and this time took away the villa background and turned the birthing spa into a kind of hologram—even more like a portal. 

When we were having conversations around virtual art and its potential, it brought up all these memories of playing the Sims. I spent a good six years of my childhood in that simulation space, designing and pursuing a career and a relationship and all those things. So again, these ideas of memory, nostalgia, my childhood came into play. 

Even though it was a projection, it still had a density and allowed for things to emerge from the space. We also changed the colours, considered the lighting and how it would look when thrown onto the wall. Abby suggested that we accentuated the colours and made the saturation higher. We had a rainbow effect of purple, blue, and orange, which I think added to the surrealism of the installation. The projection area was empty, so it kind of looked like the room was continuing through the wall. As if I am virtually excavating this specific site. 

Maia McDonald, Hapai (detail), 2021, three large clay ceramics fired at the artist’s studio in Ngāmotu/New Plymouth, dimensions variable. 

MM: My artworks were a series of ceramics. When I collect [natural] materials, there is a process that I’ll go through as part of cultural practice. The clay, having been papatūānuku, or having been the earth that we’re walking on, is a very precious and finite resource. I always have that in my mind when I’m thinking about making objects. I don’t really make a lot of work. I tend to make sculptures as they’re needed, compared to a lot of ceramicists who make all the time. For me, having a practice includes thinking mindfully about what’s going out into the world, it goes beyond just populating the world with stuff. 

BH: I guess at least with ceramics, they’re of the earth and they can go back to the earth, eventually. 

MM: Although they aren’t necessarily going to destroy the environment, they are definitely something that will survive. If a mountain erupted here and we had a Pompei situation, they would still be intact. 

I’m also exploring ideas of tapu (sacred) and noa (common). When I’m taking something tapu, like the earth, I’ll do a karakia, or prayer, to bring it into the realm of noa. In this grouping of works, the heritage, or whakapapa, was not there which was disappointing. Not all of the clay came from a gathering process. I tried to get hold of some clay when I was up in the Coromandel but it wasn’t available, so I had to source an Irish clay for the larger objects. I think generally within my practice I like to go quite slowly and take my time with these things, but because it was a commission and they were large works I didn’t have the capacity. I think it ultimately does detract from my practice, but I have now managed to source two bags of clay for future projects. 

I’ve glazed these works, as I wanted the colour to be quite dark. They are mimicking the earth and Te Pō, which is potential and darkness and nothingness. There are a lot of ideas that are bouncing around about te ao Māori for me in there. It’ll be interesting to see what people take away from the exhibition. 

Maia McDonald, Hapai (detail), 2021, three large clay ceramics fired at the artist’s studio in Ngāmotu/New Plymouth, dimensions variable. 

MM: I also decided to have strikers hanging from the roof that became a part of the work and could be used by visitors, to imbue the objects with sound. It’s almost like synesthesia, when you are in a space and you think about a certain thing then you actually see shapes. And for me, when I think about noa being ‘common’ as a shape, I think about it being quite round and feminine, and encapsulating. So I came up with this form, which is quite womb-like and round. I guess it’s quite a hard thing to describe, because it is a visual idea. The other work that’s sort of off to one side in the gallery space is quite fragmented and angular, and that’s noa, which is more of a complex form. A lot of people have expressed anxiety around interacting with the works, because ceramics are quite precious and you don’t want to break them. 

Maia McDonald, Hapai (detail), 2021, three large clay ceramics fired at the artist’s studio in Ngāmotu/New Plymouth, dimensions variable. 

BH: Did visitors strike the works throughout the exhibition?

MM: Yeah, they did! Actually, right at the beginning of the exhibition one of the strikers came away from the roof. It was lucky that it happened then, so that we could reattach it. But none of the artworks broke, they were all really well fired. 

BH: It seemed like a great first show at the Physics Room for Abby.

MM: She did amazingly well, she’s a seriously experienced curator. I actually first met Abby in the early 2000s when I was working at City Gallery in Wellington, and she mounted a huge exhibition, New Revised Edition, in one of the upstairs galleries with artists Nick Austin, Andrew Barber, Nicola Farquhar and John Ward Knox.

NT: I’d seen Abby around Tāmaki Makaurau when they were a curator at St. Paul Street. I’d known them from around the community and, you know, exhibitions, a little tipsy and whatnot. We’re friends. It felt really nice to be invited to exhibit in their first show at the Physics Room, but also very humbling, I almost have mild imposter syndrome.

EB: I felt like the show wasn’t just about installing. The whole experience of us staying together for a week, and Abby taking care of us. It was a whole entire experience, we stayed together in a villa that she had rented out.

NT: It was really spacious. We all had our own rooms and double beds. It was like ‘artists on tour’ but it felt like Abby was both the director [of the Physics Room] and a person that really looked after us. Like a really caring friend.

Nââwié Tutugoro, And a blue vocoder, and everything is blue for them (detail), 2021, various materials, dimensions variable. 

BH: Did you make any new work throughout the installation that changed because you were spending so much time together?

NT: Yeah, I felt like I did.

EB: I think Nââwié, the positioning [of the leaves] and the way the composition engaged with the other works changed.

But also in your work Maia, we spent a long time considering how the work was going to be installed. Because it was based on the ground and it’s an artwork that an audience walks through and strikes, it felt almost informal.

MM: It was an experience having the work on the ground for me, it felt quite vulnerable. So I guess in my mind, something about the work was constantly changing. 

NT: I feel like all the works were playing with agents or objects and mixing them up by mapping them in the same space. The exhibition was a way of collapsing time and stimulating imagination.

Nââwié Tutugoro, And a blue vocoder, and everything is blue for them (detail), 2021, various materials, dimensions variable. 

Nââwié Tutugoro, And a blue vocoder, and everything is blue for them (detail), 2021, various materials, dimensions variable. 

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