Snake Pit and beyond

During its short but dynamic existence, Snake Pit became one of Auckland’s most talked-about exhibition spaces. Sam Thomas looks back on running the space and what followed in his career as an artist.
Hellfire exhibition, Sam Thomas at BCA Rarotonga

During my last year at art school in 2011 I met the landlord of a building in High Street, Auckland, which was facing demolition—although the date hadn’t yet been confirmed. The last tenant, iconic clothing store Paris Texas, was running ‘closing-down sales’ every week and once they were gone the landlord wanted someone to take care of the building.

Space is precious at art school—when you aren’t fighting for your work academically, you’re fighting for physical studio space to make it in. Whether you were an artist who taped out corridors and rooms spilling out of your studio floor with different coloured tape, breaking the space apart, or coming over the top with glass and wooden constructions held together with temporary fixtures, clamps or pegs – everyone seemed to have some way of claiming their territory in a highly competitive environment. So it made sense to take over the High Street space and my sister Rosey, fellow student James Wylie and I decided to see what we could do with it.

Rosey took over the ground floor space with her clothing store, and we split the space behind into artists’ studios where 17 artists rented a space. Initially it was a real mess because the Paris Texas liquidators had literally ripped out all items of value, including light fittings and fire alarms, leaving wire cascading out of the walls like spaghetti, and we had to reinstate everything before the artists could move in. The changing rooms provided good storage and one was even used as a studio—it must have been the smallest—and cheapest—in the city.

James and I converted the upstairs internet cafe into a gallery, painting the walls and polishing the wooden floors with the help of colleagues from art school. In the basement, which was well known by clubbers as Club Mirage in the 1980s, and The Box in the 1990s, we created a venue for young bands, using wooden pallets to create a stage and raised booths. Most Fridays and Saturdays the basement was packed with bands and their followers; they preferred it to the other nearby venue, the Ellen Melville Hall in Freyberg Square, which had a stuffy community hall vibe. Fellow artist Bob van der Wal and I fabricated the building’s new moniker, Snake Pit, from the old Paris Texas sign, butchering and juggling its letters, then sat them on top of the awning, broadcasting our presence across the square.

In just over a year we held 22 exhibitions and showed work by over 250 artists. We started the gallery in September 2011 and I asked my Elam tutor, Allan Smith, to curate a show to kick off the 2012 season. First he chose eight artists then kept adding more, ending up with 52 works from 37 artists. That exhibition Running on Pebbles: thought-lines with incidents and increments got a very good review on John Hurrell’s EyeContact blog and really put the gallery on the Auckland art radar. Suddenly we were getting lots of visitors—and new artists wanting to exhibit. We found running a gallery quite tricky as you become intertwined with the entity you represent. Increasingly we found it hard to maintain a neutral position as more and more artists asked for shows—many of them friends and fellow students.

By late 2012 the wrecking ball was literally hanging over our heads and we had two weeks to move out before the November deadline. Our focus went into finding new studio space for the resident artists and fortunately we found a large space in a Karangahape Road arcade. Most of the old Snake Pit crew has been able to stay together, but unfortunately there’s no gallery space in the arcade.

Exhausted and needing a break after Snake Pit closed, my girlfriend Pouarii Tanner and I decided to go to Rarotonga for a holiday. I wanted to get back into making art and a few months on a Pacific island seemed like an ideal tonic. Just before heading off James, Bob and I had a post-closing Snake Pit exhibition at Sue Crockford Gallery. One of my works in the show was a banana chandelier; I’d picked up a commission to make another one so at least I had something to go on with. When Ben Bergman, director of BCA, which is the main gallery on Rarotonga, saw the finished chandelier work he offered me a three-month residency. Our planned stay eventually stretched out to a welcome nine months.

Clockwise from top left: Tavioni workshop, Rarotonga; hollowing the vaka covers; lashing the vaka covers; the Hellfire installation view at BCA, Rarotonga
Sam Thomas holding one of his Banana Chandeliers

On the island I became friends with Mike Tavioni and his wife Awhitia. Mike is in his late sixties and is the last taunga (traditional master carver) on Rarotonga. He’s the ‘go to’ man for people wanting carved objects with traditional motifs, tatau patterns and so on. I spent a lot of time in his studio making small carvings and watching him work. His studio was a popular meeting place and people were constantly dropping in saying: “I need a headstone for my uncle’s grave”; “My son is turning 21—can you make him a spear?”; “A chief on the other side of the island is having an investiture and needs a traditional throne”.

Seeing this was a real eye-opener for me—imagine someone coming to your studio and asking you to make them a headstone. It really made me realise how art and life are intertwined. While I was working with him Mike kept saying “You should make something bigger—a vaka,” which at first seemed too ambitious for me; then getting the residency and having the opportunity to study with Mike made the project seem possible.

Although he’s a traditional artisan Mike has a forward-thinking philosophy and is keen to accommodate change, acknowledging that if you don’t build on tradition and incorporate new ideas, you won’t keep the flow of knowledge alive. From my point of view this was lucky because I wanted to build a canoe incorporating a few tweaks that reflected contemporary island life. I wanted to base my vaka on a Cadillac design, with tail-fins, indicators and headlights—modern elements that hadn’t been ‘used’ before in Cook Islands design. Luckily Mike was really into it—otherwise I wouldn’t have felt able to build such a vaka while working under his guidance.

Building a vaka used to be a highly formal process, as my notes suggested: “Traditionally building a vaka starts with handing the tools to the taunga and running small errands around the workshop. At this stage even touching the vaka is banned. Eventually the student is asked to hollow the body of the vaka with an adze. This process of chipping away the centre of the log until it becomes bowl shaped is a slow task, but not without risk. If the adze goes too far and pierces the log it can render the vaka useless, especially when there is no access to epoxy glues. The taunga checks the hull’s depth by tapping along the inside, listening and feeling for the correct shallowness of the wood. When the depth is too fine to be worked on by unskilled hands, the student is sent away and it is finished by the taunga.”

Fortunately Mike has embraced 21st-century technology, and once I’d selected my log I was able to hollow it out with a chainsaw, which looked really easy when Mike did it. He used a large chainsaw, gently rolling it up the log and back down—again and again—as if he was doing the ironing. But when I picked up this massive, heavy thing I found just cutting one slice was really hard. Eventually I concentrated and mastered the process, slowly grinding the log down and shaping the raw log until it took the form of a canoe. To make the covers at each end of the hull I split a smaller log in two, shaping each plank with an adze and then lashing them in place with coconut sennit (woven cordage), as well as carving, fitting and lashing the gunwales to each side of the canoe.

It took me six weeks to complete the Vaka project which was displayed in my residency exhibition, Hellfire, at the BCA Gallery. The idea for Hellfire came from my conversations with Mike about how the missionaries dominated and destroyed Rarotonga’s pre-European culture, imposing western religion and burning huge numbers of priceless and culturally important carvings. Now there are no pre-missionary artefacts left on the island. I wanted to create an exhibition that attempted to remould objects like those lost to the islanders, to reflect modern Rarotonga where the vakas are Honda scooters and the coconut thatching is a plastic product called Palmex which comes from China.

After the residency we returned to New Zealand where I’d had a proposal for an exhibition, Beachcoma, accepted at Dunedin’s Blue Oyster Project Space. The show opened in late 2013 and explored the idea of escaping to a secluded place and how this affects one’s creative output. But rather than base the show on the Pacific ‘beachcomber’ stereotype, I’d developed an interest in The Beach Boys—in particular the group’s leader Brian Wilson. At the peak of the band’s success Wilson couldn’t cope and he withdrew from the music world. He had a large sandpit built inside his California mansion where he spent days building castles, drawing in the sand and attempting to discover the world anew. For the exhibition I made some smaller canoes, several light works and a Palmex structure, drawing on the metaphor of the remote islands—or in Wilson’s case the sandpit – as a place of refuge, and of trial and error.

Looking back at the skills I gained in Rarotonga I sense that although technology is making the world seem smaller (artists can go online and learn about traditional practices from a YouTube video and then incorporate them into their own work), you can’t really learn these skills, their history and context online.

From sitting, talking to Mike and working in his studio, I learned far more than I could have by watching a video, in particular about how in places like Rarotonga artists are an integral part of the community. The past two years have made me appreciate the benefits of collaboration, sharing and peer influence. So, after several months making art in a shed at home on my own, I’ve gone full circle and moved into a space in the arcade with the old Snake Pit crew—back to a place where I can talk and think about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Sam Thomas, Beachcoma, hand-cast resin bananas, LED lighting and wooden headrest, 2013, at Blue Oyster Project Space
snakepit studio and gallery
Snakepit at its former location in Lorne Street, Auckland

Published in Art News Autumn 2014

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