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The Room: The Poet’s Room Te Whare Toikupu

Justine Olsen and Karl Fritsch

‘It is in the living room shielded by sofa cushions and huddled behind a ranked army of bric-a-brac that the individual searches for a safe haven from the shock of modern urban life. It is in the phantasmagoria of the interior that objects appear deprived of their immediate usefulness and acquire new meanings and functions, as they are cast in a system of personal associations and elective affinities. What talismans shroud our dwelling places.’ – Massimiliano Gioni, The Keeper, 2016

Presenting an intermediary point between public and private, the domestic interior operates both as an inward-looking source of refuge and relief in an increasingly busy and complex world; and as a visual display of self-expression – a construction of how we imagine ourselves
being seen.

The appearance of the contemporary interior is everywhere. Emanating far beyond the pages of the glossy magazine spread, stylised impressions of domesticated spaces appear to us in Instagram and Pinterest feeds, real estate listings and renovation reality TV. Staged living-room settings can be found in hotel lobbies, shared offices and in the voluminous corridors of the suburban shopping mall, signifying opportunities for relaxation and sanctuary. Thus visualised in arrangements of objects and in choices of decoration and design, the interior chronicles the human experience of dwelling through material culture. It communicates social codes for behaviour that reflect the key values of its occupants in relationship to survival, utility, comfort and privilege.

The Room examines how human experiences of interior spaces are constructed and expressed through ornamentation and design. This large-scale exhibition presents four curated environments. Conceived as rooms, each explores the social and cultural dimensions of domesticated spaces. Together, they share a focus on the methods by which interior architecture communicates manifold languages of identity and self-expression.

Within a series of interconnected built structures designed by Knight Associates, curator Justine Olsen and jeweller Karl Fritsch, design writer Emma Ng, curator Ane Tonga and artist Ani O’Neill, and interior designer Rufus Knight with architect Mijntje Lepoutre each present an interior scene for The Room.

Existing somewhere between living room, stage set, and design-fair-display, The Room casts the interior as a constructed display system; a set of configurable props and spatial treatments that, when redrawn, brings into close view our cultural and political associations with the objects and architecture of lived spaces. 

                                                                                                                                                                                  — Kim Paton: Director, Objectspace

In its consideration of humble, everyday items and art, The Poet’s Room Te Whare Toikupuis a place where ‘living’ expands the notion of an interior. It’s an intimate space where an abundant, eclectic array of things – including hue or gourds, a possum fur cushion and a stone iPad – signal ways of living in 21st-century New Zealand.

The project began when I invited Karl Fritsch to consider how a room might articulate ideas about living. Fritsch is a contemporary jeweller who, prior to his arrival in New Zealand in 2009, trained and worked in Germany. He is especially interested in challenging the meaning of craft and art by asking questions about cultural value: the ordinary and the precious, the everyday and the fundamental – the needs of life and living. Materiality is at the core of his thinking as an artist/jeweller, and he brings a perceptive outsider’s eye to the materials and ideas of his adopted country.

So what are the everyday and fundamental needs of life and living? How and why do we live with objects, and what do they say about our lives?

A space to exist in is the first fundamental need. The intimate spaces of Objectspace’s plan for The Room immediately suggested habitation, and so for The Poet’s Room Te Whare ToikupuFritsch ‘manipulated’ one of the spaces, designing a window that opened into a shelf, a wall that extended into a bench, and a table. European modernism comes to play as space expands through built-in furniture.

Although this is a room of Aotearoa/New Zealand, another, European room lies behind Fritsch’s conception for the project. The Poor Poet(1839), by Bavarian romanticist painter Carl Spitzweg, is one of Germany’s most admired paintings and most reverberant interiors. In it a ‘poor poet’ lies in a makeshift bed, umbrella spread above him to catch drips from the leaky ceiling, living and working surrounded by the tools of his trade and the essentials of life in middle Europe. It conveys, Fritsch says, ‘the romantic idea of an artist in a room. It’s about basics – the opposite of decorations and status symbols.’ The room in the painting, like The Poet’s Room Te Whare Toikupu, is about existence supported by the most basic of materials. These materials, and objects, and existences, will change according to the cultural histories of the places that we live.

Materiality and place

After a space, the next fundamental needs can be symbolised by various objects. Fritsch identified a desire for comfort, and the material aspects around that, and so a possum fur cushion, with its aspects of desired and the undesired, was the first object he selected for the room. The luxurious furry cushion suggests the comforts of home, while the fur skin hints at one of our most unwanted predators in New Zealand: here the pest arrives within the interior. The cushion’s shape subtly refers to the four-pointed star – a common signifier of celestial navigation and our place in the South Pacific – thus beginning a conversation about the importance of ‘place’.

Fritsch aligns this object with Warwick Freeman’s investigations into the four-pointed star through jewellery: ‘It makes sense – the cushion is abstract as a shape and yet understood as a domestic piece. There’s a lot of depth and materiality, and those details are very important to me.’1

Materiality and dependence

Amongst the ordinary, commonly found materials of New Zealand is Joe Sheehan’s Coromandel basalt slab. Shaped as an iPad and titled Personal Space (2019), it’s an object which Fritsch suggests ‘is part of our lives and we can’t be without’. Joe Sheehan, a stone carver working in one of the most traditional crafts, considers contemporary notions of living. He comments on the iPad’s self-reflecting qualities: ‘As a user, once you pick up an iPad, it takes on the act that we’re used to – becomes a window that we fall into, or turns into a mirror so suddenly we feel and see ourselves.’2 

Similar in shape is Ben Cauchi’s Untitled(2018), displayed against the wall. Cauchi is interested in the craft of photography – and for Karl Fritsch, this work is reminiscent of the material qualities of jewellery: ‘It’s about the little visual details that allow you to explore and enjoy it and yet it’s art. It doesn’t offer you much… it resists stories and offers no clues. It’s very minimal and leaves it open to you to think, “What’s going on here?” but then it’s an A4-size abstract work – the size is like a mirror.’

Materiality and sustenance

Hue or gourds – Lagenaria siceraria – also populate The Poet’s Room Te Whare Toikupuin abundance. Hue are grown, carved, painted, decorated, owned and used by Māori and Pākehā artists and craftspeople, cultivators and collectors. 

‘I had been reading Theo Schoon: A Biographyby Damian Skinner,’ 3  Fritsch says, ‘and remembered that when Warwick Freeman and I were researching Wunderrūma,4  I saw the Theo Schoon photographs at Auckland Art Gallery. They were a revelation. They were amazing – how he lived with those gourds… the gourds have something so unpretentious and they are about NZ… Schoon’s room also struck me as like a version of the room in The Poor Poet.’

Theo Schoon was a 20th-century Dutch but Indonesian-born artist whose investigations into Māori art extended to hue. One of the photographs Fritsch remembers, held in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, depicts Schoon’s gourds at his home in Auckland during the 1950s and 1960s: suspended from the ceiling, resting on shelves, carved and uncarved.5  Schoon also studied the relationship of hue to tā moko; and his passion for cultivation and experimentation in their design led to contact with master carver Pine Taiapa.6

The photograph inspired Fritsch’s interest in hue, its horticulture and its use by Māori and Pākehā. In Māori culture, hue is personified by Hine-pū-te-hue, the goddess of peace who calmed conflict. Used for food storage, carrying water, rituals and as taonga pūoro (musical instruments), hue were objects of cultural and physical sustenance. 

Among the many gourds chosen for The Poet’s Room Te Whare Toikupu, James Webster and Hinemoa Jones’ hue offer customary associations. Growing hue has also inspired weaver Lizzy Leckie, collectors Hamish Coney and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, and stone carver Dante Bonica. Bonica has grown hue over the last 20 years to ‘gain an insight into traditional Maori methods for gourd cultivation and processing for domestic vessels.’7  Schoon’s influence appears in the gourds of artist Geoff Fairburn who grew, stained and etched hue, exhibiting between the 1970s and 1990s. 

For weaver Veranoa Hetet and her whānau, hue symbolise sustenance: ‘They are feeding our people,’8she says.  They also have a role in domestic life; and in Hetet’s own home, a gourd made into a lamp shows how an object crafted from customary techniques can resonate in a 21st-century room. Her father, master carver Rangi Hetet, carved the patterns on the lamp, and her mother Erenora Puketapu-Hetet wove the shade. 

Finally, gourd rings made by Karl Fritsch with Francis Upritchard demonstrate that hue can be translated by other craft techniques into objects occupying a close connection to the body. Fritsch has worked with Francis Upritchard on previous projects where the collaboration between artist and jeweller both feels natural and inspires extraordinary results.

In The Poet’s Room Te Whare Toikupu, objects and art point both to the past and to a future where the fundamental needs of a domestic environment in Aotearoa New Zealand expand. Rooms may be intimate spaces and their furnishings small and humble, but they represent larger ideas. Through Karl Fritsch’s approach to this space, ‘the creative pot just got bigger’.

The Poet’s Room Te Whare Toikupuincludes work by: Karl Fritsch, Joe Sheehan, Stephen Maddock and Les Taylor, Ben Cauchi, Wayne Barrar, Geoff Fairburn, Dante Bonica, Veranoa Hetet, Rangi Hetet, Erenora Puketapu-Hetet, Lizzy Leckie, James Webster, Hinemoa Jones, Hamish Coney and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, Pakaariki Harrison, Bekah Carran, Sarah Jane Wilson, Francis Upritchard and Martino Gamper. Our grateful thanks for the generosity of all artists, collectors, cultivators, scholars and friends who have passed on their knowledge.

This and all other quotations by Karl Fritsch in this essay are from an interview with Justine Olsen, 6 March 2019

Joe Sheehan, interview with Justine Olsen, 18 March 2019.

3 Damian Skinner, Theo Schoon: A Biography, Massey University Press, Auckland, 2018

Wunderrūma, an exhibition curated by Karl Fritsch and Warwick Freeman, Galeries Handwerk, Munich, 6–19 March 2014;                           The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, 21 June–21 September 2014.

5 Theo Schoon Untitled (Interior, Home Street) (date unknown), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the artist, 1983, acc. no. 1983/19/21.

Skinner, Theo Schoon: A Biography, pp. 151–183.

7 Dante Bonica, email to Justine Olsen, 22 March 2019.

Veranoa Hetet, visit by Justine Olsen and Karl Fritsch, 22 February 2019.

Justine Olsen and Karl Fritsch, The Poet’s Room, Te Whare Toikupu for The Room, 2019, Objectspace. Image: Samuel Hartnett.

Justine Olsen and Karl Fritsch, The Poet’s Room, Te Whare Toikupu for The Room, 2019, Objectspace. Image: Samuel Hartnett.