Negotiating change

Artist Eve Armstrong stretched herself to make her largest collage yet for the Big Wall at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Photo: Linda Robertson.
Artist Eve Armstrong stretched herself to make her largest collage yet for the Big Wall at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Photo: Linda Robertson.
Wellington artist Eve Armstrong is a bit of a magpie, so she was in heaven looking through Dunedin’s op shops. She tells Rebecca Fox how her finds changed the direction of her latest exhibition.

Rubble from the old Wickliffe print site, old ceramics, handmade hooks and discarded haberdashery. Artist Eve Armstrong cannot get over how easy it is to find material, especially those she likes to use in her work, in Dunedin.

Eve Armstrong.
Eve Armstrong.

''Wellington's op shops are very picked over but here I found some really high quality haberdashery, which was really exciting for me.''

Invited by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery to be its visiting artist this summer, Armstrong arrived thinking she would continue work on her Trading Table project, for which she sets up a table in a public space to trade objects and services without exchanging money.

However, after spending some time in the city, visiting op shops and the art gallery space, she became inspired.

''The project took a different turn.''

A significant part of the project was a visit to Dunedin's Odds and Ends shop in Princes St.

''I loved chatting with Jim and loved the long process of closing down the shop.''

Finds from that shop, the hooks he makes, feature in a photograph in the exhibition.

''They're very sculptural objects and I wanted to work with those. In my mind I imagined them as the last objects in the shop when he finally sells everything in there.''

Discussions with him also highlighted for her how, given the architectural richness of Dunedin, the city did not appear to suffer the same urban flux as other centres, but then, halfway through her residency, Cadbury's announced its closure.

''Just these little reminders the city is in the process of negotiating changes.''

Discovering the art gallery was formerly part of the DIC department store also struck a chord as a lot of her previous work had involved retail display, consumer packaging - things at the end of their life.

''The DIC was a really important starting point.''

She visited the Hocken Library to view its collection of DIC memorabilia and photographs dating back to the Victorian era.

''The DIC had a big role in Dunedin life. It was one of the first warehouse spaces where people could look and touch and see all these items in one place. It really captured my imagination, how significant that would be for people and the chance to reflect on the department store's history and function.

''Most people you talk to have a story or knew someone who worked there.''

It drove her to have all the walls removed from the Sargood Gallery, as it was important for her to have a very open space.

''So you could read one work with the other.''

The retail link was also reflected in the Big Wall work, which features china and crockery. Interestingly, that area was the old china display in the DIC.

''It was a natural fit.''

While the store was quite influential on her thinking, Armstrong warned people would not see obvious references to it in her work.

Armstrong is also interested in the changing urban landscape and being based at the Dunedin School of Art meant she often passed the old Wickliffe Print site, which has been reduced to rubble.

The site fascinated her, so she collected some of the rubble to use in one of her sculptural works in the exhibition.

''I picked up bits and pieces along the way. I'm often working with cast offs and off-cuts.''

She also collected off-cuts and remnants of fabric from op shops in Dunedin to transform into a colourful sculpture for the exhibition.

''I love that it's part of people's projects they didn't want. I wanted to make them into these ... to me they were like signs or sculptures, to create another possibility for these unwanted fabric pieces.''

Armstrong took all of these aspects and ideas back to Wellington where she developed them further but that was only a rehearsal for the real thing.

It was not until she got into the gallery space at DPAG that the exhibition began to take its final shape.

''Once you start making you have to go where the work takes you as well. It's not an illustration of your research, its using that research as a starting point. The work definitely starts to have its own life.''

Even her big wall work was a work in progress.

''It wasn't planned to the 10th degree. For me its about having a direct relationship with the materials.''

Armstrong describes it as a reaction between ''materials and circumstance''.

''Like you order a particular type of paper and it comes in a different colour and you have to work with that, use that and make it work.''

Having the technical support of the gallery, unique to the residency, has meant a lot to Armstrong, allowing her to push boundaries. Her largest wall collage prior to this was 10m long and was photographs on vinyl and packaging tape.

This one used smaller photographs on vinyl and wallpaper Armstrong hand painted. Each was in a different shape and size to give a different texture and warmth, a ''handmade'' look to it.

''You get the sense of accumulation of materials. I think people do read that into the images, those subtleties. It's something you don't get with a single digital image.''

With the help of painter and decorator Wayne Jenkins, the work went up despite a few challenges.

''We ask experts to do things the opposite way they do things 'please don't cut a straight line', 'please make this wonky', but Wayne got it and in the end I was making suggestions on blending this one with that.

''Without his expertise, it wouldn't have looked as sharp.''

Armstrong likes to be able to be physically in front of something and look and touch it so very rarely uses the internet to buy anything. For this project she made an exception thinking she had found the perfect match for the wallpaper she wanted to use for the project.

''It wasn't. It ended up being better.''

Some may look at Armstrong's work and read an environmental bent into it but that is not her focus.

''It's more out of a sense of practicality, of working with what is in front of me and finding the potential in it.

''The art comes first. I'm not making it because I have an environmental cause.''

Her passion for op shopping has always been there, she says.

''It's something I've always done. This is my mother's top. I've always used second-hand materials or found materials in my work.''

After growing up in Wellington, she studied art at Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland, but that was only after studying textiles for a few years in Nelson.

''I transferred to do sculpture at Elam. I decided I didn't want to work in just one type of media.''

While her work is often described as installation she sees it as sculpture.

She is attracted to sculpture as the items are in a person's space.

''You have to negotiate the space. It's a very physical relationship, you have to move around it, so it literally feels down to earth.''

Armstrong refers to the work she does in her studio as rehearsals, as nothing gets finalised until it gets into the gallery space.

''It's starting to change a little bit. This residency has been about developing work and different ways of working.''

A lot of the time her work has been one large sprawling sculpture, but this time her work for the Sargood Gallery involves smaller ''more discreet'' sculptures in one space.

Armstrong wants to make sculpture a playful experience.

DPAG curator Lucy Hammonds said Armstrong was selected as visiting artist as she was someone the gallery greatly admired.

''She's a leading contemporary artist of her generation.''

The gallery was keen to see what could come out of her spending some time in Dunedin and the result was ''fabulous'', Hammonds said.

It had been fascinating to watch how Armstrong worked and see how the work had evolved from her time in Dunedin, through her visit home and what she brought back.

''There's been a great deal of surprise and delight in seeing what has come about.''

The size of the Big Wall work had made it a ''very ambitious'' installation for the exhibition, she said.

''Like all contemporary art, it's an untested way of working so there is very much a process of figuring out how to do things.

''It's been very satisfying to see it come to its full potential.''

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