Elizabeth Thomson: A quiet suspension of disbelief

A flutter of bronze moths settle on the walls in Elizabeth Thomson’s upcoming exhibition at The Dowse. She talks to Art News about the making of the work.
Elizabeth Thomson moths

Early childhood memories of a giant puriri moth on her pillow, and waves of moths flying in through the open windows and filling the walls of her family home in the Waitakere Ranges have influenced Elizabeth Thomson’s work in the past, giving rise to large-scale installations based on this phenomenon.

Thomson explores the intersection between art and science, and her use of natural patterns, shapes and textures is widespread in her sculptural works. At the 2013 Auckland Art Fair her monumental wall work, Flight Test – North by Northwest, comprised 1500 hand-painted cast zinc leaves and covered a 20-square-metre area. In May 2011 Thomson was one of nine artists who travelled to the Kermadec Islands on the naval ship HMNZS Otago as part of an initiative by the Pew Environmental Group to raise awareness of the need to protect the near-pristine Kermadec region by declaring it a marine sanctuary. The artists stayed on Raoul Island, and at night Thomson was intrigued by a mass of moths which occupied the buildings the artists were staying in. Remembering the moths of her childhood, and aware of this abundance, this tenacity of life, but also its fragility, she was inspired to create her own large-scale immersive installation.

In late August this year, hundreds of white moths will quietly inhabit The Dowse Art Museum when Thomson’s ambitious installation, Invitation to Openness – Substantive and Transitive States, opens at the gallery.

elizabeth thomson
Elizabeth Thomson with bronze moths from The Dowse collection 1990. Photo: Tom Hoyle

Your recent works have used abstract patterns based on cellular structures and organic forms, yet you keep returning to large-scale sculptural installations. Do you see these as two separate strands of your practice?

Elizabeth Thomson: I see all the work I produce as sensory and experiential—using scale, optics, 2D/3D shifts, ambiguity and a twist on perception. The larger installations tend to be more architectural and determined by wall space, sight lines and/or architectural features. I do enjoy working site-specifically—the viewer’s relationship to the work is immersive and suggests other dimensions and possibilities.

Is the installation at The Dowse your largest project to date? Can you tell us how it arose?

Curators Emma Bugden and Sian van Dyk invited me to look at the spaces in The Dowse with a view to doing a project. I had several ideas in mind and drawings of wall works, which I could extend and expand. The project room, with its high stud and natural light from the large window at the end of a long, narrow rectangular space, was beautiful, but I wasn’t sure how any of the preconceived ideas would work. There was no front-on long distance view and doorways broke the visual flow. We looked at other spaces and then returned. I put my drawings away and stood in the project room, letting go of any predetermined notions. The gallery dimensions are not too dissimilar in scale from my studio, so I felt 
I would like to make a work that could inhabit the space—discreet, immersive, substantive but transitive—white on white. I was hoping to create a similar sensation to my Kermadec experience in 2011, floating in the blue void 10,000 metres deep.

This will be the largest installation of bronze moths to date. The last work was The Black and Whites, (2006–2007), which comprised 145 moths arranged in a geometric formation in My Hi Fi, My Sci Fi – my survey show at City Gallery Wellington, which was curated by Gregory O’Brien. Before that 100 bronze moths—Phantoms of the Night – the owl, the ghost, the moon (1992), were included in Distance Looks Our Way, which toured to venues in New Zealand, Spain and Holland. This will be the second time I’ve used the whole gallery for one work.

Your moths vary in size, patterning and species. Can you tell us about the process of making them?

Some time is spent drawing and photographing moths on walls in the studio—looking at wing shapes, patterning and wing sets. Over the last 20 years Ricardo Palma, the entomologist at Te Papa, has very kindly allowed me to study specimens from their collection and offered guidance. Mostly, the moths I make are based on New Zealand species but not necessarily—often there’s some hybridity.

With this particular work the moths will vary in size from approximately 30mm to a wingspan of 200mm. I’ve chosen moths for their wing shape and aesthetic. Prototypes for about 20 different moth types are sculpted in wax, and silicon rubber moulds are taken from the wings and bodies. Hot wax is injected into the silicon moulds and then the wings and bodies are assembled. Eyes are rolled out of wax and inserted into sockets made with a warmed ‘eye-socket tool’ fashioned from a bronze rod using a welding torch, then antennae and legs are added followed by wing separators. Each wax moth is a one-off and has its own character.

The moths are carefully packed with cushioning material and freighted to Regal Castings in Auckland. I’m always nervous some will break—when they do, they have to be returned, repaired and sent again. Once the moths are cast in silicon bronze they’re sent back to my studio in Wellington.

I use an angle grinder to cut off large sprues (the channel for molten bronze in the casting process) on the undersides of the moths. Also the rods separating the wings are removed. The wings are then ground to make them appear thinner, and missing antennae and legs are remade and welded on. The final finishing gives the moth levity. Each moth is then cleaned, etch-primed and flocked. I’m currently experimenting with different flocking techniques and lengths of flocking fibre. The subtle patterning will require varied shades of flock being applied at different stages.


You’re taking over a large space in The Dowse, and visitors encountering a mass of several hundred moths may find it disquieting. What emotions do you hope the work will invoke?

The white moths will have a ghostly presence—tangible but elusive, quiet and contemplative. I liken this installation to an awakening or a blessing. Hopefully, people will be able to relax into it and enjoy its detail and openness. I intend to add more moths as the exhibition continues.

Moth v. butterfly—most people come down squarely on the side of the butterfly, but you’re obviously in the moth’s corner. Any reason?

I associate moths with mystery, haunting, the sublime. They’re soft-bodied and subtle—circumspect not flashy. They often fly at night but not always—they’re a diurnal species—out at dawn and dusk. Moths are often connected to dreams and realms of the otherworldly. In Maori spiritual and mental concepts, moths are associated with the passing of the soul to the spirit-world—souls are represented by moths.

On the Kermadec expedition in May 2011, we spent a night, a day and a night on Raoul Island. At night in the woolshed, a large number of moths attracted to the light reminded me of the hundreds that would cover the walls and windows of our home in the Waitakere Ranges, Auckland. Moths arrived on this remote island 100 years ago, probably from New Zealand, and I like to think they have evolved in that subtropical environment. They added to the sense of dislocated familiarity that we experienced on the island.

What plans do you have for this ambitious project once it finishes at The Dowse?

The Dowse is hoping to tour the show to various galleries in New Zealand.

I do like the idea of the ‘flock’, ‘flutter’, ‘eclipse’ of moths arriving and landing, dispersed or crowded. Each installation would be specific to the gallery’s interior. I would like to keep adding to the collection and at some stage possibly take it overseas. I would certainly like the moths to remain together as a single work—as a sculptural installation that invites the viewer into a pure moment in time.

Elizabeth Thomson: An Invitation to Openness – Substantive and Transitive States is at The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, from 23 August to 23 November 2014.

Published in Art News Spring 2014

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