Date26 Nov 2021
Wayne Youle lives in rural Canterbury, his studio set up inside a large woolshed still heady with the lanolin tang of the sheep that passed through it years ago. ‘The most hostile and brutal thing I live around is the barbed wire that sits on the top of the fences on my 15 acres,’ he says, ‘and that’s there so the stock don’t get into the orchard.’ Although he has lived in cities before, they are not such familiar terrain that he experiences them reflexively, disregarding their physical and social structures. He retains a visitor’s sensitivity and an awareness, as someone of both Māori and Pākehā ancestry, of how it feels to navigate places where you feel different, distrusted, and even unwelcome. Skateboarding as a kid opened his eyes to the many ‘knobs, guards and slivers of steel that prevent skaters and other riffraff doing what they do to kerbs, benches and other common spaces’. Later, he visited Sydney, Berlin, Chicago and London, cities bristling with modifications designed to discourage terrorism, vandalism and visible homelessness. In such places, where architectural deterrents are deeply entrenched, they can attain a degree of subtlety, even elegance – maximising effectiveness while minimising visual disturbance.
In post-quake Ōtautahi, the civic hardware that snags Youle’s attention is far cruder and, on one level at least, more benevolent. 1750kg blocks, cast with ruthless efficiency in unlovely concrete, are used to direct and control the movement of people and vehicles around a rebuilding city that has neither time nor budget for niceties. These ragged cubes and rectangles, some incorporating a loop of embedded steel that serves as a lifting hook, are uncompromisingly functional. Yet despite their solidity, they are also surprisingly ephemeral, appearing and disappearing in the twilight hours only to rematerialise in new locations across the city, with the mechanics of their movement rarely observed. Ten years after the Canterbury earthquakes, these supposedly temporary accommodations – along with road cones and rusty shipping containers – are now an integral part of the city’s physical vocabulary. Cast concrete also dominates the coastal road between Waipara and Picton – a route Youle drives regularly while traveling north for exhibitions. As part of the extensive coastal road rebuild required after the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake, tall grey barriers appear regularly, creating an imposing accompaniment to any journey along that part of State Highway 1. For Youle, these industrial objects perform what he calls ‘acts of separation and division’. Whether they help or harm depends on where, and by whom, they are deployed: they keep some people safe, keep others out, protect property, and keep us all ‘in our lanes’.
Youle’s choice of such anonymous objects is striking. Typically, his practice is grounded in the personal and often autobiographical (he once vividly – a little too vividly – reimagined the moment of his own conception in a 2001 photograph titled And then there was Wayne). His works have investigated his sense of identity, and reflected on his experiences as a son, father and artist, attempting to convey such intangibles as love, influence and integrity. How long a piece of string actually is (2015) measured his connection with his mother over a year through the slow unfurling of an orange scarf from between her busy knitting needles. In contrast, the rough and ready concrete he worked with for this exhibition is cold and impassive. It resembles the structure of city itself, as though temporarily dislodged rather than purposefully designed, and so projects a sort of neutrality, the illusion of separation from human agendas. Unlike more sophisticated examples of urban design that conceal their intentions beneath appealing aesthetics, these objects are aggressively in your face. Yet within a city undergoing massive reconstruction, their ubiquity provides its own layer of invisibility, allowing them to disappear into the fabric of the streetscape.
By bringing these objects into a gallery space, Youle draws our attention back to their hulking strangeness before transforming them with a series of unexpected embellishments. He lifts them on axle stands, adds a luxe blue ‘underglow’, sound effects and foil balloons – attempts on a deliberately human scale to offset the bleakness of all that cold grey concrete. They’re humorously inadequate and painfully human: the long line of black balloon zeros that hovers, cloud-like, above its impossibly weighty cargo reads from one angle like a long, despairing moan. Youle’s alterations don’t deny the current usefulness of the structures they adorn, but they do gesture – faintly and with a certain scepticism – towards a future that might make them obsolete; a more compassionate city designed to bring people together rather than push them apart.
Wayne Youle (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whakaeke, Pākehā) lives and works in Rakahuri Amberley, North Canterbury. A graduate of the Wellington Polytechnic School of Design, his work is often humorous and addresses issues of identity, race and the commodification of cultural symbols. Youle’s work has been shown in national museums and public galleries throughout Aotearoa New Zealand and overseas, and is held in numerous collections, including Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Recent solo exhibitions include 20/20: words of wisdom at Pātaka, Porirua (2019) and Look mum no hands at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū (2017). In 2019 he was a McCahon House resident.
Felicity Milburn is lead curator at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. She works with artists on a wide range of projects, from temporary installations through to large-scale survey exhibitions, and writes regularly about art for the gallery and for local and international publications.