In your face where nothing grew before

I have been out of town for a week or so and thus missed much of the consternation over the sculptural installation on the south Dunedin foreshore.

But, returning at the weekend, I was just in time to attend on Sunday afternoon the official opening of the Harbour Mouth Molars.

Regan Gentry's "controversial" new work stands between the sea and the scenic commercial-industrial hinterland whose garish barns and tired warehouses otherwise distinguish that flat, once-swampy quarter.

To those who are as yet unfamiliar with the installation, it consists of six giant molars positioned on the Portsmouth Dr shorefront just along from the GJ Gardner complex.

The molars each weigh 6.5 tonnes and have been constructed from concrete and Oamaru stone by the artist, paid for - to the tune of $45,000 - by the Dunedin City Council through its art in public places programme, and commissioned by a special committee made up of local curators, artists, designers, art instructors and planners.

On Sunday, I was intrigued.

From a short distance, like palms in the foreground of a spectacular vista, they offered a fresh perspective on what lies beyond, the harbour itself, and the topography of the hills and slopes that frame it.

Their presence seems to require you to reassess both the ground on which they stand and the new horizons they assemble.

Up close, now embedded in the roped gums of pinkish scoria, they impressed as actual sculptures, hewn meticulously out of stone.

From the middle ground they offered a sort of wry, challenging "smile" in the way that art obliquely sometimes does.

I liked what I saw but, if public comment to date is anything to go by, I appear to be in a minority.

Mr Gentry, originally from Hawkes Bay, now hailing from Wellington but who completed a fine arts degree at Otago Polytechnic, is an artist with sculptures or installations in many of our major centres: his Subject to Change installation in the capital; Near Nowhere, Near Impossible, a legacy of a residency at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui, and Flour Power in Christchurch are three examples.

He has established an enviable reputation as an emerging national sculptor.

At the "after-match" function at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, the assembled heard that, fresh out of art school and embarking on the ruinously difficult path of "public art", Mr Gentry caught the attention of Creative New Zealand by attempting to get a "foot in the door" of the organisation - literally.

A foot ruler apparently still protrudes from the door of its offices in Wellington, DPAG director Elizabeth Caldwell told those gathered.

In other words, the sculptor is no stranger to having his tongue firmly in his cheek as he works.

And I suspect it is partly this - public art should be "high art" and appropriately solemn - and partly the resistance of the installation to a singular and pretty interpretation, that causes some offence.

Oh, and the idea that any public money at all should be spent on such a thing as "art", whatever it might be.

Of course, people are entitled to dislike particular examples of "art", and most of us spending an hour or two in the local galleries would find plenty that did not light our collective bonfires.

Public art will always attract more than its share of opprobrium because it imposes itself on public space; and thus, like it or not, into the consciousness of those who would prefer, given the choice, not to be seen dead in an art gallery.

It brings that art gallery out into the open; it uses the environment as its canvas.

It embodies a personal vision, it pushes boundaries, it may appear gratuitously at odds with its surroundings.

Controversy is to be expected. And is even to be welcomed.

After all, if nothing else, these molars might now serve to remind us that the patch of ground on which they stand, and the outlook they are said by some to blight, have to date been largely ignored by all and sundry except perhaps a handful of kite-surfers and those looking for unguarded space on which to dump waste and other rubbish.

But because it is public, should it eschew the mysterious particularities of the artistic imagination, those which typically synthesise personal experience, craft and subjectivity? Should it kowtow to, and strive for, some idea of universal appeal? Some kind of popular notion of beauty and meaning? And would it be art if it did?

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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