Memorial man

After two years' effort, sculptor Paul Dibble and his team see the dedication of their New Zealand War Memorial project in London.

It’s a long way from Waitakaruru in the rural Hauraki Plains to Hyde Park Corner in the middle of London where sculptor Paul Dibble is installing New Zealand’s War Memorial. But Dibble, who grew up in the featureless drained swamplands south of Thames in the years following World War II, seems to have made the transition in true laconic Kiwi fashion.

Dibble, who has modelled the memorial’s bronze columns on the ubiquitous steel waratah used to fence thousands of Kiwi farms, has exhibited a ‘can do’ attitude throughout his 40-year creative career and perhaps this harks back to his rural upbringing.

While at Elam in the 1960s, where he specialised in sculpture, Dibble began casting bronze candlesticks and crucifixes for Catholic churches—commissions that came about through his friendship with Colin McCahon and church architect James Hackshaw.

For these works Dibble would often build a temporary foundry at his rented flat—”in two hours and be melting bronze by lunchtime,” he recalls. He experimented with sculptural shapes made from fibreglass poured into sewn vinyl and later canvas sewn and filled with sand. These works were followed by large-scale installations, occupying entire gallery spaces with exotic parrots swaying on rods, mythical figures in cages, assemblages of bars, rods and scaffolding.

By the late 1980s Dibble returned to casting bronze, refining the techniques and visual language that are now his trademark—elegant almost weightless and cursive forms that are human, abstract, puckish and metaphorical. Some are almost two-dimensional and ridiculously acrobatic—soaring, leaping, supported by slender branches, props and brackets. There is a joyous humour in his work and his love for the signs and symbols of his country is never far away.

Based in Palmerston North for most of the past 30 years, Paul Dibble and his wife Fran run their foundry and studio from an anonymous factory in the city’s industrial area. Here, stacked, racked and lying around, are the moulds, crucibles, gas bottles, bags of sand and chemicals necessary for running this operation.

It’s fairly quiet when I visit. The War Memorial columns have been shipped to London and the Dibbles will soon follow to supervise the final installation. Smaller bronzes sit on benches around the factory awaiting final sanding, grinding, waxing and buffing.

Though obviously proud of the quite formal, monumental works he and his team have created for the memorial over the past two years, Dibble seems relieved as he discusses his new series of quirky small sculptures, In the Sticks.

“The memorial project was the biggest single art casting ever carried out in this country,” he says. “The larger ones, which are over a tonne in weight, were cast by Heavy Metal in Lower Hutt. And even though they look heavy and raw they contain a lot of information, expectation and restriction. With In the Sticks, the sticks aren’t smooth, they’re rough as guts, so it was something of a relief to be able to move away from the project and do them.”

From the outset Dibble realised the work was not only a memorial for New Zealand’s war dead, but a broader expression of the country’s relationship with Great Britain.

“It was a complicated brief. They also wanted to celebrate our historical links with Great Britain, our trade, sport and cultural ties. I felt like suggesting, ‘Why don’t you write a book?’ After all, sculpture is not journalism and this was looking like a fairly daunting project.”

But the project had fired Dibble’s imagination. Together with Wellington architect John Hardwick-Smith and a small creative team, he brainstormed for a few weeks. “We didn’t want it to be a wall. The Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington is such a profound experience.

We felt it was time for a change, and although there was pressure to fit in with the other memorials in the park, we wanted to make something very engaging that people could walk through and relate to.”

The site was also a challenge. This was no quiet, contemplative corner of a leafy park. There was a nearby tube station entrance, the busy road adjacent was to be reconfigured and a planned hill on the site had to be factored into the design. “It was like designing a castle in the air,” he recalls.

While working through suitable imagery, the team started looking back at traditional markers used through history.

“We looked back at Stonehenge and how in the past sacred places were marked out by stones. Maori use pou to mark territory and places of special importance. Then we thought, ‘Let’s keep it simple and enclose the area by putting waratahs in the ground like a Taranaki farmer.'”

Dibble has always loved war cemeteries with their sea of white crosses denoting ultimate sacrifice.

“So the next stage of the design was to modify the standards and make them four sided. We cut them on a slant so the cross is revealed. We then planned to have them rolling over the hill like a blanket. By positioning the standards on a diagonal we made them more dynamic, expressing defiance and the determination to defend. This also exposed the crosses more clearly.”

The creative process then became all-consuming. The standards have different heights and each has a unique commemorative role.

“The front wedge is dedicated to the war, celebrating the Maori Battalion, the army, navy and air force. It depicts the flags of both countries. Then as they climb up the rise the sculptures celebrate our sport, beaches, bush, trade and literature. There are excerpts of poetry, letters sent home by soldiers and all sorts of cast images and objects affixed to the columns. These include castings of shells from Foxton Beach, a rugby ball, an oar denoting our marine heritage and a fantail perched on a ledge, denoting impending death.”

The layout of the memorial also transports the Southern Cross to the northern skies. The six columns at the rear of the formation form the pattern of the Pointers and the four stars of the Southern Cross, and the crosses are lit from within, while the other columns are lit from the base.

Looking at the work and talking to Dibble, one senses his genuine love for the symbols of this country. His early bronzes often incorporate native birds, fish, rabbits, gumboots, farm-gates, planes and cricketers. They exude connection – as do the later giant Maori anchor stones, fish hooks and flax pounders.

“I’ve always had a great love for the icons of our country. At times I get fed up with all the fuss about identity as I feel it’s being done to death. But I’m one of the 60s generation who had no real identity – few books and writings, no films, no driving force. At art school the teaching was all from England and America and so I ended up as part of that generation of artists exploring New Zealand identity – along with others like Don Binney, Dick Frizzell, Warren Viscoe and Robin White. It was a special time and that vision was quite unique.”

So you get the feeling that the Ministry for Culture and Heritage was on the mark when they chose the Dibble team to create something uniquely New Zealand in a London park. No boring predictability and political correctness from this man. Instead he has given us something visceral, challenging and yet personal.

“I felt this rugged rawness was suitable for a war memorial but also suitable for us as a people,” he says.

Dan Chappell

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