Spontaneous architecture

Wellington artist Joanna Langford transforms gallery spaces, concocting fimsy, fantastic structures that engage with form, architecture and imagination.

Experiencing Wellington artist Joanna Langford’s recent installation, down from the nightlands, in the Sarjeant Gallery’s lofty dome space, was like being transported on a miraculous Jack-and-the Beanstalk journey up a series of rickety ladders into a miraculous cloud-flled sky. Floating in the dome, these plastic bag clouds brought to mind renaissance frescoes in church interiors.

Made during her Tylee Cottage residency in Wanganui last year, the work is her largest and most ambitious to date and though it seems firmly based in fantasy and improvisation, down from the nightlands has been influenced by the surrounding environs of the town.

“During the first month of the residency I spent a lot of time driving around the area exploring and thinking about buildings and structures, the set-up of the town and the terrain,” she says. “I tend to start with really basic observations, thinking about what interests me in the area, what interests me in the context of my practice, and what interests me in the context of the physical space where I’m going to install the work.”

The towering stadium lights made from bamboo skewers and the precarious staircases in the work were inspired by the many sports stadia Langford saw in Wanganui while looking down on the town from Durie Hill.

“Sometimes the work stems from pivotal experiences and I was quite enchanted by the experience of the Durie Hill elevator in Wanganui, which is a popular tourist attraction. It’s at the end of the township and across the river, connecting the lower regions of the town with the higher area of Durie Hill. The elevator is accessed through a long tunnel that leads you into the heart of the hill and it takes you up through the hill to the Durie tower. You can then climb the spiral staircase to the top of the tower that overlooks the town below. The journey involves a variation of spaces and kinaesthetic sensations in a short amount of time. These spaces vary from the very confined area of the tunnel and elevator to the expansive view at the top of the tower. The sensation of going through and up and around and popping in and out of the ground creates a disorientating and almost surreal experience. This experience influenced how I approached the dome space of the Sarjeant. To me there was a similar feeling of up and downness. The sensation of looking up and out of the dome space in the Sarjeant is like being drawn upwards yet simultaneously feeling very grounded.”

The enormous scale of the dome makes it a challenging site to work with, but down from the nightlands engages lightly and effortlessly with the space.

“The installing of the nightlands is my favourite install to date; it was an adventure from the start! The technician and I had to climb up on to the gallery roof. We had back packs and climbing ropes, and to get to the roof, we had to go into an office then into a cupboard and kind of climb up the shelves and pop up through a trapdoor onto the roof. The day we went up was a wild, windy day and we had to take the panes of glass out of the skylight so we could drop ropes down and hoist up the disk from which all the components of the work are hung. The dome is 13 metres high, so it was quite scary looking down into the gallery. It was so windy and we were trying to haul up this elaborate hanging device I had made, and my hair had come undone and was blowing in my face so I could hardly see what was going on, and we couldn’t hear each other talking—it was really quite funny!

“Once the hanging device was up I worked for three weeks on the scissor lift inside the gallery, hanging the work from top to bottom. It was a really great opportunity to make such a large-scale work in an amazing space. I’m very grateful the Sarjeant gave me the opportunity to work there.”

Joanna Langford, Down from the Nightlands. Installation view, Sarjeant Gallery, 2007

Langford’s work is always strongly spatial and architectural, yet her structures are wonky, teetering and makeshift at the same time.

“I have a spontaneous making style in that the work develops as I potter around in the studio and have that physical connection with materials and craft. I tend to get hooked on particular materials and stay with them for a while; for instance, bamboo skewers and plastic bags have been very popular for some time. I like the practicality of these materials; they’re available in large numbers, re-usable, lightweight, easy to glue together and I can make really large-scale things from them.

“The motifs and landscapes I work with come from the physical and architectural landscapes I’m living in or thinking about, and I research, photograph and make Photoshop collages as part of my working process.”

Langford’s latest work, Brave Days, was made for Enjoy Public Art Gallery in Wellington earlier this year and stems from her interest in early explorers like pioneer pilot and writer, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, who few across the Sahara Desert, experiencing the surface of the world from above for the first time.

“I wanted to create that sensation of expansiveness in Brave Days by lifting the landscape up so the viewer walked through it as well as looking down on it.” With its creased and crinkled recycled brown paper bags, the work conjures up a bird’s eye view of a desert, complete with the rippling lines of hills and valleys. Human presence is hinted at by the lyrical lines of pylons and electrical wires, which power the work’s 12-volt lights.

The use of recycled and discarded materials has been a constant in Langford’s practice, and in keeping with her spontaneous style of making, she’s drawn to the provisional, the discarded and the overlooked – transforming it into something miraculous much like the Arte Povera artists before her who also worked with ‘poverty stricken’ materials.

“I’ve worked in two recycle centre shops now—Wanaka Wastebusters and now at the Wellington City Council recycle centre shop. I find it helpful being in a situation where I’m surrounded by potential art materials and objects and I enjoy transforming these ‘low’ materials into something magical.”

“The type of work I make certainly has its origins in the Arte Povera movement. Those artists took simple and familiar everyday materials and presented them in what appeared to be magical new ways, taking on the role of magician or alchemist to engage the imagination of the viewer. They used ephemeral, non-archival and throwaway materials, making work that was non-commodifable and undermining the value systems of the gallery.

“Povera works were more reliant on the viewer’s sensory and imaginative response rather than an intellectual one. They worked with simple juxtapositions of materials. I think my work attempts to do some of these things.”

Langford, who has a Bachelor of Media Arts from Wintec in Hamilton and an MFA from Canterbury University, now lives in Wellington where she works in her bedroom-studio.

“For me it’s important for my practice to be adaptable to restraints, which are usually caused by financial changes. So the bedroom part of my room is a loft bed. I find certain objects inspiring to have around. The space under the loft is filled with all the knick-knacks I collect while I’m working at my job in the recycle centre shop – mainly odd pictures, hobby paintings, paint-by-numbers paintings, novelty lamps and other decorative objects. Hammered onto the end of the loft bed is a little work bench with a hobby vice, packets of skewers and tooth picks, glue sticks, boxes of old keyboards, electrical bulbs, shelving and banana boxes filled with potential materials and equipment.”

In a departure from her earlier work, which was often inhabited by small figurines, the later work seems more formal and spare; engaging more directly with form, structure, space and architecture. The presence of humans is merely hinted at by manmade structures like bridges, platforms, ladders and lights, which flicker on and off in otherworldly, deserted landscapes.

“There’s a different tone in my recent work; I wanted the later work to be less about what the little people are up to and to have a more sombre feeling about what’s happening to the landscape. There’s definitely a political slant in my work that’s becoming more evident now.”

Virginia Were

Joanna Langford’s work is in a group show at Mary Newton Gallery, Wellington, until 24 May; at the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery, City Gallery, Wellington from 12 June until 20 July; Oxo Tower Gallery, London, from 25 September to 12 October.

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