PORTMANTEAU - an exhibition in Palmerston North

Last weekend I had the chance to go and see an exhibition by Kirsty Gardiner at Te Manawa, the Museum of Art,Science and History in Palmerston North. This exhibition got my attention as it was inspired by the Cabinet of Curiosities, something I have become fascinated by with my practice.

The title of the show was Portmanteau (a portmonteau word generally fuses the sound and meaning of two or more words to create an entirely new one) - A Cabinet of Curiosities.

For this exhibition Gardiner has created  a variety of ‘dual works’, where she has used parts from different elements and fused these together to create a new or a physical portmanteau. Gardiner’s influence for these works came from several different angles. She was influenced by two people, Lewis Carroll (writer of Alice in Wonderland and Jabberwocky) and Walter Buller (famous NZ ornithologist).

These two people were born within a few years of each other, but on opposite sides of the world. Both managed to become famous, one for popularising the literary nonsense genre and the other for making the world aware of the Huia (which hastened its demise).

Gardiner also developed an interest in the idea of the Cabinets of Curiosities while working with museum collections.

The main focus of this exhibition was a wall of 77 Huia bird ‘skins’ made from ceramics, titled Barcode. The birds were arranged on a wall in the form of a barcode.

The name of this work and the way it is displayed to me feels like, if you could scan this ‘barcode’, then you would re-introduce the Huia, a bird that became extinct in the early 20th century (extinction caused by de-forestation and overhunting). A nice piece of trivia is; the male and female of Huia work together as a team to get their food. He would chisel away at rotting wood and she, with her long narrow beak goes in to get the bugs.

The naming of the works is also of interest to me, as Gardiner has created her own pseudo-zoological naming system, identifying each work as a species. The scientific names appear to be real, but are a mash up off the two dual parts that make up the standing works. The ‘standing’ birds works are all from Conus Aviarius, where conus is a large genus of predatory sea snails (this is the body of the bird) and aviarius comes from the bird family (the head of the bird). A very clever layer in her work.

Since seeing the show and now writing this blog (& doing the associated research for it), I am even more appreciative having seen it. As the layers that are present in the show, from the naming of the exhibition and each work to the combination of different parts of the natural world for many of the works and her commentary on the extinct Huia are really inspirational to me.

It is making me think about my own practice and how I can integrate some of these approaches.

Posted by Elle Anderson

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