Interpreting the world

Dunedin Public Art Gallery's visiting artist Erica van Zon sets up Peeled Egg, part of her...
Dunedin Public Art Gallery's visiting artist Erica van Zon sets up Peeled Egg, part of her upcoming ''Dogwood Days'' exhibition. Photo by Linda Robertson.

Dunedin Public Art Gallery's visiting artist, Erica van Zon, spent eight weeks here in July and August but her exhibition ''Dogwood Days'' opens this weekend. She tells Charmian Smith about her love for the futile and fake on fake.

From the age of 13 Erica van Zon knew she wanted to be an artist.

She loves making stuff by hand and she makes many different types of things, from tapestry and soft sculpture to wooden and metal objects, from clay and cardboard to papier mache and even neon, although she admits to having had that made professionally.

''I couldn't quite do the fine art of neon construction, but I did work for a year in a cafe to save up to pay for it, like every Sunday, so it was like work in a different way,'' she said.

She is one of Dunedin Public Art Gallery's visiting artists this year and her exhibition, ''Dogwood Days'', opens on Saturday. She thinks that even as a teenager she was attracted to art by the possibility of interpreting the world around her.

''It's enjoyable. For me it doesn't seem like work when I'm making. Some things can be long-winded and tedious, but it's mostly an unconscious process actually.''

Growing up north of Auckland, she studied at AUT then travelled, visiting relatives in Holland and living in Amsterdam and then in Melbourne.

About a decade ago, when she was in her mid-20s and living in Holland, she made a lot of soft sculpture, she said.

''I really do like it but it started to get quite crafty in a cute crafty way and I had to break with that. I went to Elam [to do a master's] to change my practice.

''It was torture for the first year but in the second I started to develop my material repertoire and started to think about a framework and a way of working that set me off on the path I am now.''

She developed a methodology of looking at props in films and re-creating those that struck her, but the intention of re-creating became an interpretation, she said.

''I guess there's a bit of slippage there. Sometimes I gave myself licence to be quite liberal with that idea of interpretation.''

One of her works was a fake film set made with wooden flats and metal framework for the handmade cameras.

Moving to Wellington with her partner, she found there were more opportunities than in Auckland and worked part time in administration at Enjoy, an artist-run space in Cuba St.

The job became full time and zapped her creativity, she said,''One day I found myself helping an artist hang artwork and I was up a ladder for eight hours hanging their work. It dawned on me that wasn't what I wanted to be doing.

"It was great because I could save money and I felt usefully employed but it wasn't what I felt in my heart I wanted.''

In 2011, she applied for a residency in China through Ware (Wellington Asia residency exchange) and spent two months in Beijing.

''It was life-changing. I'd never been to Asia before and found just being away from New Zealand was really great and having a new environment to create artwork in, and having full days dedicated to making artwork and uncovering new things was really beneficial.

"That set me back on the path again of making art my primary career and other jobs had to feed into that,'' she said.

''I started to look at re-creating things I'd seen in China - I love the idea of the fake on top of the fake, the fake Mickey Mouses, the fake Western things that were adopted in China.''

She was also intrigued by the Chinese horoscope and curated a show at Enjoy involving 12 different artists, each with a different zodiac sign addressing that sign.

She thought about applying to work on The Hobbit film, but was happy she didn't in the end, preferring to continue with her own work, she said.

''I like the conversation my artwork is having as opposed to it being some sort of viable employment for me. I can't just go and make something abstracted.

"It has to be hinged on something that is tangible from my world around me. It's like the idea already exists and there's that representation of it. That's partly the beauty of it. It has a kind of futileness to it as well. I quite like that.''

A key exhibition last year was ''Light on the Dock'' at the City Gallery Wellington based on an idea she'd had for a long time around picking books from her bookshelf and re-creating objects from those books: the idea of cognitive distancing as there is no visual image, she said.

She selected characters from books and items she associated with them and turned them into sculpture with a bit of slippage.

''There's a bit of artistic licence in terms of something happening, like a cocktail party and creating an item you associate with a cocktail party. For me it was a grapefruit hedgehog,'' she said.

''Also about that time I started to think about how to represent things that are hard to represent, like sunlight hitting the desert, in a way that wasn't traditional or overwhelmingly installational.''

She was invited to make a digital set for that aims to make New Zealand digital material from libraries, museums, government departments, publicly funded organisations, the private sector, and community groups easy to find.

Having noticed that a lot of her work is in the form of food, she called her set ''Food and Form''.

''This set is a broad range of inspirational images that deal with the form of foodstuffs and sculptural form, and sometimes where the two meet.

"Within this set there is a nice push and pull between reality and depiction, artificial and natural, sharp and organic, decorative and functional, abstraction and titillating. Many of these objects draw in tremendous personal memories for me,'' she said.

In Dunedin, she has been making objects from daily life, like washing shoes: a pair of shoes embedded in blue-grey wax that looks like water, from personal memories, characters from books, a portrait of her father that is a box with pieces of steel and aluminium scrap, a large piece of pleated calico inspired by a cushion her mother made, things she found in the street like a stick of rhubarb and a piece of persimmon, cheese and vegetables from baked clay, and Humpty, a toy from the television series Play School that she saw in Toitu.

''I went to Olveston and loved the way everything was treated in the same manner, regardless of its actual monetary value, and because it was a personal home, the domestic scale and the care that goes into the place had a lot of resonance with me,'' she said.

She represents it with a grater, a huia feather and two worms made from clay presented on the bright cerulean blue of some plates she saw there. Inspired by a Frances Hodgkins still life, she copied the objects in it and laid them on a cloth.

''I've been thinking for so long how to represent Frances Hodgkins. I love the way later on in life she slips into this surrealist way of working. I really wanted to bring her into this exhibition,'' she said.

A fan of feminine technology and materials, she has made tapestries and taught herself to bead. As usual, slippage happened as she worked.

''Ideas can sometimes go out the window, like you start making something and it can affect your attitude to it and things get discarded or completely remodelled. Generally not though,'' she said.

''It's interesting. You are jumping from one thing to the next and it's quite disparate, but I'm hoping for my signature to encase the whole thing.

''I guess there's a certain way I make things that's particular to me. It's very heavy-handed; it's really overdone; everything's overworked or it's not that simple; there's no lightness of touch.

"It's not really illusionary but in part it feels really flattened, tying into that thing of prop-like, fake or distinctly cartoony,'' she said.

She thinks viewers don't need to know the background of her work.

She believes the experiences are within the objects and that there's scope for people to make up their own minds as to what they are looking at.

She quotes fellow artist Julian Dashper, who recommended keeping interpretation to a minimum to let the artwork shine.


See it

• Erica van Zon's ''Dogwood Days'' opens at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery on November 29 and will be on display until March 2015.



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