Jeremy Leatinu’u’s monumental materiality

An in-depth look at Jeremy Leatinu’u's Building monuments and folding forts upon a slippery ocean and a moving sky, currently on view at Gus Fisher Gallery, in conversation with gallery public programmes & engagement officer Robbie Handcock.

Date 17 August 2021 Interview Robbie Handcock Photography Kallan MacLeod

Jeremy Leatinu’u, Building monuments and folding forts upon a slippery ocean and a moving sky [configuration 4]. Installation view, Gus Fisher Gallery, August 2021. 

Robbie Handcock: Kia ora Jeremy, and thanks for speaking with me today. We’re here to talk about your newly commissioned artwork at Gus Fisher Gallery as part of the exhibition From our Beautiful Square that looks at themes of time and interiority by reflecting on a period of global lockdown. The work is called Building monuments and folding forts upon a slippery ocean and a moving sky. Firstly, it’s a striking title, how did that come about?

Jeremy Leatinu’u: The title took a little while to figure out in terms of what name I thought would be appropriate for the feel of the artwork. Building monuments and folding forts upon a slippery ocean and a moving sky seemed to be the most fitting. The other names I had were pretty straightforward. I was thinking I could go down the route of simply picking a title that explains the materiality of the objects, like 600 boxes and four tarpaulins.

Which is exactly what the work consists of in terms of materials. You’re changing the configuration of this sculpture every two weeks. If you had gone down that route, would you then have to change the name of the work each time?

Ha, that’s what I thought. In some ways the title does tend to link into some of the sculptural historic references that the work attempts to make, but a big component is also trying to return to a time and space where I can be playful as an artist and simply have a really direct, physical relationship with the material. Much like if we think about how we might make or build or create things at home as children.

The idea came about probably five or six years ago. I wanted to treat a gallery space much like a warehouse or shipping container where I could fill that empty space quite quickly using multiplicities.

I often think each artwork I make might not be the absolute resolution I was aiming for, or hoped for, but I definitely learnt something doing that work, or doing that mahi. I use the word artworks, but I also like the word experiments as well. It just allows me to say, if it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out, but at least I know now.
— Jeremy Leatinu’u

The title you did settle on speaks quite directly to the materials and it speaks to that playfulness as well. You’re also referencing 20th Century minimalist sculptural practice, like that of Sol LeWitt, but you’re doing something quite different with it. What is it from those practices that attracts and interests you to draw from them?

I think it’s the restriction to the number of materials I use, and what I do with them. It’s not like I’m using the cardboard boxes, cutting them up and taping them to create a new form. I wanted to keep my approach limited to find what the possibilities were in making a work within those confinements. The confines would be that I can erect a box and then I could pack it down, I could use the entire number that was ordered or I could use the smallest amount from the order. I could simply stack them or line them or have them on an angle. It meant I could focus on those elements as possibilities and think about them in relation to the space, in relation to the colour of the boxes and the walls.

The tarpaulins came in as a way to help bridge some of the more distant connections between the boxes and the room. I knew that, given I’m dealing with gravity and the fact the boxes are all grounded, the tarpaulins would bring a vertical element, climbing up the walls, and offer contrast in terms of texture and colour.

Lighting has been really important for you here as well.

The lights themselves, the spotlights and how they’re arranged, are actually the last part of the process and aren’t necessarily considered until the rest is figured out. I can’t really think about the lighting until I’ve completed the configuration. That’s the only time I can consider what shadows are being produced.

It’s really sensual, the lighting. It accentuates the corners and surfaces and repetitiveness in a way that would be really different in a brightly lit white room.

Totally.

With this work I know you’re really interested in the formal qualities and the materiality of what you’re working with, but it is also linked to and references your experience with warehouse labour. You’ve got this quite personal relationship here which has been translated into a very formal exercise.

It’s funny, I think of one of the comments Carl Andre made was that objects and materiality often have a language that we’ve created and we’ve placed upon them. To some degree I think it could be true with this work at Gus Fisher Gallery. It’s heavily connected to my time in distribution centres and stacking boxes, being part of an assembly line. I never considered the boxes for what they’re actually used for. At the time, when I was working in these centres, I just saw them as objects in space that I was moving around for distribution purposes. They had to go from a large container and be divided amongst 14 pallets and could only be so high because they needed to fit on the back of the truck, which was then going to the final destination—a kind of breaking down of these objects so they could be distributed across the country.

It seems like you used a really similar logic in working on the configurations here. It’s that same set of restraints and math that you need to plan out the amount of boxes in the space.

I think that was most evident in the second configuration when there were 16 columns, made up of 200-something boxes. That, to me, felt more like a warehouse. Even the lighting was completely different in the configuration because it didn’t require any of the track lighting, just the ceiling lights. The fact you could walk in between the columns made me think they were on pallets. It did take me back to that time [in the distribution centre].

Sometimes when I’m making these configurations I think of how a bricklayer or someone building a rock wall would feel. There is a sense of satisfaction when you get something just right, or close to being just right. When you step back and you realise all those smaller pieces have created this larger work. I feel like I’ve been quite close to that feeling of satisfaction with this work. I’d probably be a bricklayer or something if it wasn’t an outdoor trade. I can imagine it’s hard work, but that satisfaction is addictive.

Jeremy Leatinu’u, Building monuments and folding forts upon a slippery ocean and a moving sky [configuration 2]. Installation view, Gus Fisher Gallery, July 2021.

When you’ve done these reconfigurations it’s been like an open studio. Interestingly, it brings a performative element that’s been part of your wider practice until now. How has that experience of making on-site while interacting with people been?

Being an open studio, it didn’t make too much of a difference for me. I feel like we’re doing that stuff anyway even if the gallery was closed, it’s just that we’ve allowed the public to be part of it. For visitors it’s an opportunity for them to ask any questions, to witness or experience being part of the work itself, as opposed to arriving at its conclusion.

I find that working and talking is great. Sometimes the objects or boxes can actually aid conversation. When you’re working, you don’t have to be looking people in the eye every time you speak. You can just be exchanging words. It’s not too dissimilar to how many collectives across different cultural or ethnic groups work. They’re all geared to achieving a common goal.

Making in situ was important for this work. There was some pre-planning involved prior to testing things out in the gallery, using the likes of SketchUp and having drawings and whatnot. But there’s nothing like working in the space and trying to figure out how things are working with one another, with the boxes, the space, the floor, and the lighting.

So you wouldn’t outsource that? Leave the gallery with plans and let someone else execute it, kind of like a foreman role? (or like how Sol LewWitt works with his wall drawings?)

I did think about that. Say, if there was an overseas opportunity and they wanted a similar work, how could that be transported with Covid, etc? Could this idea work in that kind of context and what would it look like for me? How would I feel about that without being there? That satisfaction is taken away from me because I’m not part of the physical installation of it. For me that was a really useful experience to go through.

I think it’s a really generous thing for an artist to make themselves available during the process of making. There’s interesting overlap with Salome Tanuvasa, who is exhibiting at the same time as you in the Dome Gallery next door, in terms of working in abstraction and also in situ. We had Salome make some of the larger-scale paintings here and we turned the gallery into her studio for the day. It was so lovely. I was really grateful to be able to witness that and see those decision making moments that happen during a painting. It’s similar seeing you plan, or having to adapt and change things. Even just this past weekend I witnessed you adapting the configuration because you couldn’t get the ladder up to where it needed to be.

Very practical!

Jeremy Leatinu’u, Building monuments and folding forts upon a slippery ocean and a moving sky [configuration 1]. Installation view, Gus Fisher Gallery, June 2021.

I also like those moments where a logistic limitation can change an element of a work.

Totally. Sometimes there can be this pressure that [an exhibition] has to be thoroughly thought out, concluded and resolved. Sometimes artworks don’t work like that. I often think each artwork I make might not be the absolute resolution I was aiming for, or hoped for, but I definitely learnt something doing that work, or doing that mahi. I use the word artworks, but I also like the word experiments as well. It just allows me to say, if it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out, but at least I know now. Having that mindset coming into the project made it less daunting.

I’ve been trying to think of how this work fits in your wider practice, but I’m wondering if I’m just making a stretch in places. I was thinking of the Queen Victoria project and maybe you’re dealing with monuments in these two different ways. I also recently saw your work Mai i te kei o te waka ki te ihu o te waka at Te Uru as part of the exhibition Māori Moving Image that talked about stories of migration and settlement, and I thought maybe it’s the storytelling that’s the parallel here. How do you see your sculptural practice relating to your video and performance work, or is it too reductive to make such a literal connection or commonality?

I think it’s fine for people to make those threads and try to see my art practice as a whole. Lisa Beauchamp [curator of Gus Fisher Gallery] asked what made me go back to sculpture, because I hadn’t necessarily focused so much on it in a long time. The main reason for going back to it was to change it up a bit. The last five or six years I’ve been making video art or art films. Those have been heavily narrative-based and in most cases landscape driven. They’ve told those narratives in both English and Māori. With film you’re dealing with words and language, and you’re dealing with landscapes, but when you bring all of what you’ve captured onto a computer, you’re in the realm of software and editing. You’re stitching a story together, you’re adding sound design, etc. That’s all there to support the narrative. With sculpture I can physically change things. I can physically grab that box, tape it, or move it in a certain direction to create something that makes me feel a certain type of way. It could make me feel a sense of scale, whether I feel bigger or I feel smaller, or I feel squashed in. For me, this kind of sculpture is a more physical experience.

Like an assemblage, a physical version of doing an edit.

Yeah, but then it’s also not tied down to a narrative so strongly like it is in film or video. It allows people to come in and have their own experiences and interpretations of the work.

 

Jeremy Leatinu’u, Building monuments and folding forts upon a slippery ocean and a moving sky [configuration 3]. Installation view, Gus Fisher Gallery, July 2021.

Can you speak about your practice in relation to land, as I know this is something we have discussed before?

Artworks like Earthpushers at Sculpture on the Gulf in Waiheke in 2017, the closest thing I could reference in terms of it being a sculpture, were still performative as well. It had a similar framework where I ordered a tonne of soil from Waikato and had it divided into 700 bags. It moved from my whare to the ferry terminal and then transported over the water to Waiheke. The soil eventually made its way to the eco village there and got tipped into the community gardens and became one again. It was this thing of mass, divide, travel, locate and then bringing back together again.

With the work at Gus Fisher Gallery, Building monuments and folding forts upon a slippery ocean and a moving sky, the recycling aspect of cardboard was one of the reasons I wanted to use boxes. One thing I remember at art school, where I majored in sculpture, was that I had a lot of stuff that I brought back that I wasn’t going to be using again. I felt bad that a lot of it I couldn’t actually recycle. It had to go to a landfill or be disposed of in some way. So I tried to think of materials that can be used again or be broken down and easily recycled.

In my view, the largest monuments in the world are our landscapes or whenua. When people say ko Rangitoto tōku maunga [Rangitoto is my mountain], why couldn’t a maunga be perceived as a monument of sorts? Not necessarily a monument in the western sense, but a monument in terms of how it makes you feel and what it does in terms of identifying who you are or how you are connected to it.

Monuments are often associated with materiality, or are there to remember or give tribute to something or someone. This work has the feeling of a monument through it’s scale, but I don’t know if anyone would call them monuments, see them or think of them in that way.

Thanks so much for your time Jeremy. Is there anything you want to add?

I’m looking forward to seeing the next and last configurations of this sculpture. It’s going to be full on. I’m aiming to try and use the full 600 boxes, but we’ll see how that goes.

 

Jeremy Leatinu’u, Building monuments and folding forts upon a slippery ocean and a moving sky [configuration 4]. Installation view, Gus Fisher Gallery, July 2021.

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