Michael Lett restages Jim Allen’s Poetry for Chainsaws

The artwork was performed by the artist's daughter Ruth Allen on 21 July 2023.

Sculptor Jim Allen is a legend. He’s just turned 100.

Allen combined being an experimental artist with being an inspirational teacher. He may be our country’s most influential art educator. After working as an itinerant arts advisor for Gordon Tovey’s Art and Craft Branch of the Department of Education in the 1950s, he became Head of the Sculpture Department at Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland in 1960.

Allen always made bold work. He collaborated with architect John Scott on the Futuna Chapel in Karori, in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, which opened in 1961. He designed the Chapel’s ‘light modulators’ and coloured-Perspex windows, and the wooden crucifix and Stations of the Cross that ‘brought the story of Christ’s Passion into a genuinely international, postcolonial focus’. He also created the 1965 concrete foyer mural for Imperial Chemical Industries’ head office in Molesworth Street, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington: ‘a sculptured concrete panel inspired by the micro-structure of naturally occurring copper crystals, building blocks of the chemical industry’.

But the turning point came in 1968–9, when he went on sabbatical. Travelling through the United Kingdom, Europe, and America, he witnessed student unrest and saw edgy art, discovering the work of Hélio Oiticica and meeting expatriate filmmaker and kinetic sculptor Len Lye. These experiences precipitated a radical shift in his art, as sculpture was coming off the pedestal. Returning to Aotearoa New Zealand, he created environmental structures—‘small worlds’ that enveloped the viewer. Soon, he also moved into performance. Such works marked a radical departure in his practice and kickstarted the post-object art movement in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The post-object art scene centred on Elam, with Allen and a cohort of precocious students that he inspired and enabled, including Philip Dadson, Bruce Barber, Marie Horner, and Roger Peters. Some would be celebrated in the 1976 book New Art: Some Recent New Zealand Sculpture and Post- Object Art, which he edited with Wystan Curnow. In 1977, Allen crossed the ditch, becoming Founding Head at the School of Art, Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. He worked there for ten years.

When Allen returned to Aotearoa New Zealand in the late 1990s, post-object art had became something of a missing chapter in our art history. However, its significance would be reasserted in a number of key shows, including Action Replay at Artspace, the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, and Auckland Art Gallery, in 1998; Points of Contact: Jim Allen, Len Lye, Hélio Oiticica at the Govett-Brewster in 2010; and Groundswell: Avant-Garde Auckland 1971–79 at Auckland Art Gallery in 2018. For a long time, Allen’s New Zealand Environment No. 5 (c.1969), acquired by the Govett-Brewster back in 1970, was his only post-object work in a public collection. But, in 2006, O-AR 1 (1975) was reconstructed and acquired by Auckland Art Gallery; and, in 2011, three reconstructed 1969 works were acquired by Te Papa. Philip Dadson and Tony Green’s book Jim Allen: The Skin of Years was published in 2014 and Allen became an Arts Foundation Icon in 2015. Canonisation was complete.

On 21 July this year, on Allen’s hundredth birthday, Michael Lett made a statement by launching his new space—in a former church hall on East Street, next door to his gallery, in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland—by restaging an Allen performance first presented at Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation in 1976. This time Poetry for Chainsaws was performed by the artist’s daughter Ruth Allen, who recited Allen Ginsberg’s classic beat poem ‘Howl’ over the racket of three chainsaws jittering across the floor.

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