everything was spinning
Arum: A White Room is a site specific installation by Anne Rush realised at Nelson’s Suter Art Gallery Te Aratoi o Whakat? in 2008. It is the culmination of more than two decades of full-time art practice and weaves together multiple strands from Anne's career. The scale and ambition of the exhibition is an unprecedented achievement for this artist and marks a seminal point in her artistic development. It also signals a turning point in the artist's life and in this respect, this installation is transformative at both an artistic and personal level.
In a 1992 interview, Anne Rush described herself as one of those irrepressibly optimistic people who could always turn a crisis into something positive. She chose to look on the “bright side of life” and “I think that comes out in my paintings”. This was certainly an apt description for her work of that time: expressive and colourful mixed media paintings that critic Ian Wedde described as a “homegrown fauvism on the brink of losing control”.
That interview was conducted after a feverish decade of production for this artist. Anne took up full-time painting in 1983 and enjoyed early success. Her first solo exhibition in Nelson in 1984 was a near sell-out. The mixed media domestic interiors and still lifes were described as “sunny … celebrations of autumnal fecundity … that reflect the simple, the rustic and the comfortable ... It’s homely message, simply: 'Cheer up, life ain’t that bad.'”.
Buoyed by this success, she pounded the pavements in Wellington and was soon taken up by Kay Roberts at Galerie Legard (later Brooker Gallery). This relationship resulted in a regular schedule of solo and group shows from the heyday of the 1980s economic boom and at the height of the New Zealand women's art movement. Anne exhibited tight and exhaustive series of paintings, each exploring an emotion, observation or phase in her life as a wife, mother and horticulturalist. Her domestic studies also took on political tones which reflected the dominant themes of the women's movement. Paintings such as ‘Ironed Out’ (1985) (later purchased by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs) and ‘Dinner Again’ (1987) showed the influence of Sylvia Siddell and Jacqueline Fahey. She later began to include references to the anti-nuclear movement through incorporation of peace symbols, collaged or drawn onto 'plates' or hung out as 'teatowels' on a mixed media ground of watercolour wash and pastel.
Later she turned her focus to landscapes inspired by Sir Mountford Tosswill Woollaston (1910-1998). Both were exhibitors with Loft Gallery in Motueka and participated in group shows. His lesson to Anne was to “paint less and think more”. His mentorship can be seen in Anne’s paintings of the later 1980s and it is as if Anne opened the French doors on her domestic interiors. The expansive landscape that had sustained Woollaston throughout his career provided Anne with a backdrop for allegorical and sometimes mythological subjects in oil that addressed cycles of life as metaphors for an empowered femininity.
Throughout her varied concerns of this decade, Anne retained a fiercely vibrant palette and she became known primarily as a colourist. Colour was harnessed to express frustration with the repetitious and mundane nature of domestic chores or to celebrate the season’s harvest and flowering. Inevitable comparisons were made with the work of the other prominent Nelson colourist, Jane Evans, (Wedde, 1985, Evening Post) and Anne's expressiveness drew her into a “loose confederation of artists such as Pat France, Christina Conrad, Sylvia Bowen and Jane Zusters”.
Inspired by a trip to Turkey in 1991, Anne began to produce abstract tableaux in muted tones. The discovery of fibrous handmade papers in 1996 was also a turning point and these have featured strongly in Anne's work ever since. New materials have always played a major role in Anne's work and are just as important as new concepts in defining a series or triggering a set of experiments that can sustain this artist for years.
During the 1990s, Anne also became more involved in arts administration and cultural advocacy. In 1993 she was a co-founder of the ‘only in Nelson’ organisation Arts Marketing; an arts advocacy umbrella group for artists in the Nelson Tasman region. An important initiative was the development of an artists’ studio trail which offered visitors a chance to see ‘art in its own place’. Consequently, much of Anne’s work of this decade went directly to private national and international collections. The success of Arts Marketing is a testament to Anne’s indomitable spirit and for this and broader community involvement, Anne became a Member of the Order of New Zealand Merit in 2004.
Beginning in 2001 however, something irreparable happened to Anne Rush, something that fundamentally challenged her optimistic spirit. She sought solace in painting, finding the creative process had a therapeutic and calming effect. Picking out the arum motif that first appeared in the 1995 exhibition Journeys she began to explore this flower in her characteristically methodical way. She also began to paint in white although “at the time I did not recognise the significance of the shift from working in coloured palettes”.
During this period, the joyous occasion of her daughter’s wedding provided a positive focus and distraction. While Emma was busy researching the arum as a suitable flower for the wedding bouquet, Anne thought about their interesting sculptural form. The white variety also has a “particular purity and nakedness” but also carries a stigma that was bound in the unexplicable logic of medieval folklore and ‘old-wives tales’.
Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day. Now I place them here in memory of something that has died.
Seeing the potential of the arum as a symbol for her experiences, appropriating its positive and negative connotations, this flower took on an iconic status in her work.
The arum lily is a confusing common use name for a plant that is neither an arum (genus Arum) nor a lily (genus Lilium). The arum lily belongs to the genus Zantedeschia and is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant from the family Araceae. It originates from South Africa and was introduced to Europe as early as the 16th century. The plant became so popular that in 1870, the botanist Asa Gray found it “too familiar to need further description”.
The arum lily was known in New Zealand from the 1900s and was a popular cultivated garden plant that required little tending (Image – flower stall). But like some other introduced species, it soon grew prolifically in the wild. This abundance affected the value and symbolism attached to the plant in New Zealand and the following is a rare quote that describes a curious mixture of new and old world beliefs:
In 1946 ... I emigrated to New Zealand ... [and] was lucky enough to obtain an apartment [sic] in St Heliers Bay, Auckland. The rent included the garden, the maintenances of which I took on. At the bottom, in a sort of wild corner, was an enormous spread of arum lilies. They were breathtaking in their beauty, and finding a huge vase which stood on the floor, I cut some of the lilies and arranged them to make a pleasant display. Next day my landlady arrived to check that I had everything I wanted … On entering the living room, her hand flew to her mouth and she cried out: ‘Oh, whatever have you done!’ She turned to me, eyes blazing: ‘You’ve brought arum lilies into the house. Don’t you know you must never do that? They mean there will be a death in the house.’ I confessed my ignorance of this ‘old wives tale’ and said they looked so beautiful, I could not resist bringing them in. She said that in New Zealand arum lilies grew like weeds and were treated as such. When she told a neighbour what I had done the other woman actually crossed herself, and, needless to say, I did not do that again.
In this short passage lies the paradox of the arum. As a white flower, the arum has long been regarded as a suitable flower for the decoration of churches – for religious ceremonies, funerals and weddings alike (Image – church decorations). It is believed that the flower (sometimes with the stamen and pistils removed) symbolised the restored innocence of the soul after death and its purity served as a protection against the forces of evil. This association with the afterlife meant it was an unsuitable gift for hospital patients and for display in the home. There is also a practical truth: while its juice was once prized as an aphrodisiac and “good for the plaque” the arum is poisonous and responsible for many hospitalisations in New Zealand.
Despite these connotations, the arum has long been regarded as the epitome of beauty and grace. The lily is associated with the Virgin Mary and has always represented purity and innocence. While the arum is not a lily, it has assumed those qualities. During the Victorian era, the arum lily was defined in floral treasuries as representing “magnificent beauty”. This, combined with the arum's association with purity, provides some explanation of the flower's popularity with brides through to the present day (Image – Bridal portrait). The arum also began to appear as a floral accompaniment in female portraits as an allusion to feminine grace and unblemished virtue. For others however, the arum's association with beauty and death remained its mystery.
The Victorians’ fascination with arum lilies persisted into the 1930s where it “reached the status of a decorator's cliché, still loved by many but seen by others as out of fashion.” Ignoring fashion, the American painter, Georgia O'Keefe, made arum (calla) lilies a classic motif in her work. One critic made the noteworthy observation that these were “not merely paintings of, say calla lilies but are at the same time portraits of feminine states of feeling and mind”.
The conceptual potential of the arum was also explored with different effect by other international artists such as Diego Riviera (1886-1957), Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) and Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989). In New Zealand, artists as diverse as May Smith, Peter Peryer, Michael Parekowhai and Fiona Pardington have also made reference to the flower. What is common in all of these representations is the artists’ flirtation with the flower's rich cultural history and revelry in its ambiguous meanings.
For these reasons, the arum has been a useful motif for Anne Rush. The flower's powerful symbolism represents an archive that could be mined conceptually while maintaining a minimal approach. It was a natural extension of her flower painting and subtle return to feminist concerns. It also reflects the personal pleasure she derives from flowers and flower arranging – something she inherited from her mother who died in 2007. Most important however, the arum became a protective mechanism and served as a poised and elegant foil during a period of mourning, loss and grief.
The arum series did not however, develop in a strategic and calculated fashion. As with her previous bodies of work, Anne Rush responded instinctively to her environment and experience. In the darkest days of this period, Anne began to model the lilies in three dimensions. The main form was constructed from flax paper, the stem in bamboo and steel and all finished with a matte white surface. At first the lilies were affixed to primed and stretched canvases in geometric compositions. (Image slide 3) Later the bouquets became unnaturally contorted and tightly constrained within the edges of shaped-canvas mounts. (Image slide 15).
In 2005 Anne was invited by exhibition curator, Lara Strongman, to develop a work for the Fine group exhibition of Nelson artists at Shed 11 in Wellington. This was the first time that Anne created a work in response to a functional space. Arum 2005 was a multi-part wall work that presented the arum as offerings or column-like sentinels supported by L-shaped wall mounts. Spurred on by this work, Anne later began to experiment with the arrangement and quantity of the modules; first in horizontal runs of five or seven (Image slide 5) and then in vertical and geometric patterns. The following year, Strongman extended the same invitation. The resulting wall sculpture Peace 2006 comprised thirty nine mounted arums configured in two adjoining pyramids (Image – Peace installation). This was the largest art work ever executed by this artist, but it was still (in concept), a singular arum presented en masse.
Visitor engagement and feedback from this work sparked an ambitious new direction for Anne. Viewers spoke of the art work being like an altar or memorial (Image – Church of Sacred Heart, Takaka), an interpretation that came from many perspectives and across belief systems. This response touched a chord with the artist and she began to see the possibilities of an art work as a total environment, an installation, as the penultimate achievement of the arum series.
‘Installation art’ was a natural extension for Anne but required a fundamental re-conceptualisation of her intention and approach to the Arum series. Foremost, was the creation of an art work where the total experience takes precedence over individual parts. Anne also had to consider the history and nature of the site as an ingredient in the art work. Furthermore, she had to negotiate and control the effect of this on the interpretation of the arum, and the public expression of the private experience behind the work.
This incorporation of the site into the concept of installation art developed in the 1960s. Site specific artists had drawn attention to the discursive practices of the art gallery which assert control and power over the visitor experience of art in this site. Through the application of art history and curatorship, the art gallery imposes order on individual creative endeavours and makes distinctions about art, much like a natural history museum which classifies and organises insect and plant specimens. While site specific art largely developed outside of traditional museum sites, Anne Rush saw a relationship between the discursive practices of the art museum reflecting her own “search for the human spirit in an uncertain world”. At a conceptual level, the experience of the art work and the purpose of the site were complementary and advanced the same principles. Moreover, the unusual history of Nelson's public art museum also offered another layer of meaning that perfectly suited Anne's vision for the arum installation.
The Suter Art Gallery was built as a memorial to the second bishop of Nelson, Andrew Burn Suter (1830-1895) by his wife, Amelia. Bishop Suter was a man of wide cultural interests who regarded art as a form of worship: “a gift of the Supreme Being and conferred on man with a view to his absolute enjoyment and not especially with a view to his well being”. An artist himself, Bishop felt that “we are carrying something of the divine intention in making music and drawing or painting part of our occupation or part of our necessary and joy producing diversion”. The Bishop Suter Memorial Art Gallery was initiated soon after Bishop Suter's death in 1895 and opened in 1898 with the Bishop's personal collection of art as the founding donation. This gallery is then, both a temple to the study of art and a memorial to an ecclesiastical figure who played an important role in the early cultural life of Nelson.
While The Suter's ecclesiastical history is an unusual story, it exemplifies recent museum theory which compares the processes and habits of the art museum to sites of religious worship. In a largely secular society, the protocols and mores of art galleries – the formalities of exhibition openings, the protocols of art display and the reverence in which art works are viewed, represent one of the most prominent public sites of ritual behaviour. It is little wonder then that The Suter was an obvious place for Anne to develop the arum installation and harness the context of the gallery as a conceptual layer for the work’s interpretation.
In 2006 Anne approached The Suter with a proposal for the original gallery, the oldest-purpose-built art space still in use in New Zealand. This gallery was designed by the Gothic Revival architect Frederic Jersey de Clere (1856-1952). Jersey de Clere had been the Diocesan Architect for the Anglican Church and was known as “The Architect of Angels”. It was built according to the classical proportions of Fibonacci’s golden section and has come to be the most coveted exhibition space in The Suter complex. With this as her template, Anne’s proposal set out to transform the space and harness The Suter Art Gallery in all its dimensions.
At a basic level, Arum – A White Room was conceived as a sculptural painting that commanded the whole gallery. The gallery was divided into two spaces. The first was an antechamber, the proportions of which were determined according to the first quadrant of the golden section rectangle. This was a transitional space that prepared the visitor for the immersive environment of the second gallery. Visitors were asked to remove their shoes in this space, which, like a marae or temple, affirmed the transition from a secular to sacred space. The second chamber was completely white. A white floor was laid atop the original matai timber and the corners of the space curved off. The whiteness of the space accorded with the concept of the modernist white cube but also denoted a softer, more personalised (feminine) space.
In the centre of the second chamber were columns of suspended arum. These activated the interior space of the gallery and resembled forests. At the base of each column was a pool of marble chips from the sacred Takaka hill. This ancient and highly regarded material is commonly associated with masterpiece sculptures, memorial sites and headstones. Takaka marble was also used to clad the columns in the atrium of the Beehive, the executive wing of the New Zealand parliamentary complex. In this installation, the arum pillars supported the space as a memorial site and the broken shards of the marble spoke of the fragility of emotions.
The walls of this chamber became the canvas surface of early paintings in the arum series. The arum were unleashed throughout the space to traverse the walls; reminiscent of schools of fish or a melodic score. The undulating rhythm of 700 hand-built wall mounted arum also represented a personal expressiveness; reflecting Anne’s long and tumultuous journey; albeit in a refined and conscious way. The sheer number of arum also emphasised the significance of this symbol for the artist and conveyed some sense of the cathartic effect of the artist’s process.
In this monochromatic scheme, the symbolism of white became a dominant element. In origin myths throughout the world, white signifies the dawn of humankind and is the essence of clarity, purity and divine celestial power. The book of Job describes how God made the angels before lighting up the heavens. This ensured that the angels, clad in linen of immaculate whiteness, were already present to praise Him. Hence, messengers with good news from heaven, the white bird and the archangel Gabriel, are visions of immaculate whiteness. In Judaism, the Grand Rabbi wears white linen to signify an amicable relationship between God and all people. This unifying quality of white was given scientific evidence by Issac Newton’s 1669 discovery that the colour white results from the synthesis of the six coloured rays of the spectrum.