Bing Dawe and his sculptural birds fly at Ara

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03 Aug 2017

Birds appear to fly from a sculpture erected today at a gateway to the almost-completed North Green at Ara Institute of Canterbury’s Christchurch campus.

The work, by Art & Design tutor and prominent New Zealand artist Bing Dawe, makes a strong statement about the future of our local birdlife. While the birds surround the sculpture, seemingly in flight, they leave behind negative images in the body of the steel arch.

“The birds are of the Waimakariri River,” Dawe says. “They are common to our braided rivers. There are 10 birds in total representing six species. On the positive side, they are lovely to look at, in 3D cast bronze rendering. On the negative side, they leave holes behind, there’s a blank space.”

Dawe would like people to get to know our birds. “I would like people to take away an understanding of the birds, like a field guide, and be able to identify them. The birds are accurate but slightly up-scaled. The dark silhouettes against the sky is how you usually see them in nature.

“If people can look at the birds and get an understanding, they might then take a walk up the river sometime - if I could inspire that, then my job is done.”

To see one of the country’s rarest birds, students and staff don’t have to go very far. “The Black Billed Gull hovers around the supermarket across the road from the campus – that is one of the most endangered birds in the world. Not the Black Backed Gull, which is also over there in more numbers, but the Black Billed – it is a river breeding gull.”

In the work, the curving arch of the main volume takes inspiration from the Rybill Plover, a bird whose bill curves peculiarly to the right; it is well adapted to getting food from under stones.

Dawe has spent a lifetime studying native fauna.  The work commissioned by Ara is part of a series called a Landscape With Too Many Holes. “My focus is the river because I grew up next to the Waitaki, so I follow it from the source to the sea and pick up areas of concerns on the way. It is hard not to be concerned,” he says.

Dawe’s work was showcased in a major retrospective at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 1999. He is the recipient of a number of prestigious awards including the Wallace Art Award (1999) and has work in galleries and private collections around New Zealand and overseas. Another ongoing series features the small native fish (Galaxiidae), known to many as the culinary delight whitebait, which get their name from their covering of small spots resembling stars in the Galaxy.

The North Green sculpture at Ara took six months of work, amongst teaching and other artistic commitments, and is something of a swansong for Dawe, who retires at the end of the month after almost three decades years of teaching. He is chuffed to know that future Art&Design students will see his work right here on campus.  

“I’ve been here for 28 years. I started in O Block in Craft Design, then over to D Block and the course became the Bachelor in Design and then Applied Visual Arts. We kept the large technical element, maintaining the balance between the theoretical understanding and history, and a broad base of skills to equip students for a career as an artist, or as a teacher or curator.”

Dawe keeps in touch with graduates. He’s had a visit this morning from an Ara alumni who is now a set designer at Whitebait. While much has changed during his career, some things have stayed consistent.

“The digital world, yes there are changes such as laser cutting and 3D printing, but what has remained the same is the human need to make things. It is sought after by our students. Although they are working with technology they still want to be able to draw and model.

“The size of New Zealand means artists need a broad range of skills as they can be called on to do a range of things, so we ensure our graduates are well equipped for the New Zealand context.”

New Zealanders are generally well informed when it comes to art he says. “The infrastructure of art in New Zealand is good, you still need a product if you want to sell, but the client base in New Zealand has grown. There is an awareness and interest and that goes across art, music and literature.”

Speaking of the human need to make things, Dawe will continue to make art and may even be seen at Ara now and then visiting colleagues and checking on the students’ progress.

See more: Bing Dawe – images of work

Read more: The new North Green: art, basketball and greenery