Denis O'Connor

Echo’s Tree

26 October - 24 November 2018

Echo’s Tree is a result of Denis O’Connor’s recent Blumhardt Foundation Residency in Australia, where the artist immersed himself in translation: reaching for images in response to the texts of influential New Zealand poets of our time, such as Andrew Johnston, Geoff Cochrane and Hera Lindsay Bird. It also heralds a return to working with high-fired white China clay after a 35 year hiatus.

O’Connor describes the framework of the residency as producing “crafted objects in communion with altered readymades, personal histories that criss-cross and are bound to larger social or natural histories.” The artist sourced a set of old cedar wood Japanese boxes that once held calligraphic scrolls or bowls for a tea ceremony. He set about recladding these readymades – already possessing a rich cultural history – with found material weathered and coded with narratives of place: roof slates from historic buildings around New Zealand, including Christchurch Cathedral. The dreamlife of vowels is an example of this, with its apparitional porcelain vessel from atop the box, completing the diptych. Curator Lara Strongman notes, “the back stories of materials are always significant in O’Connor’s practice, co-opted in to the stories which circulate around his works.” 1

These wooden boxes also refer to histories of cultural exchange between Japan and New Zealand. These historical exchanges exerted a considerable influence on the development of ceramics in Aotearoa. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s studio potters from New Zealand bonded with leading figures of the Mingei folk traditions such as Shoji Hamada and Takeichi Kawai. O’Connor however, was more interested in the practices of Sodeisha, a group of experimental post-World War II Japanese ceramicists intent on breaking with such traditions. As part of a wider research trip, O’Connor encountered the work of Sodeisha during a residency in Japan in 1982, returning to New Zealand to echo their assertion of sculptural concerns over utilitarian ones.

O’Connor’s position caused considerable controversy among local adherents to studio pottery traditions – particularly as his work came to prominence in the 1980s – being widely exhibited in contemporary public art galleries and collected by significant cultural institutions. He is now regarded as contributing significantly to the development of ceramics in New Zealand, with an ever-evolving practice and an enthusiastic supporter of a younger generations of artists who have moved in to working with clay, such as Virginia Leonard, Isobel Thom, Lauren Winstone and Kate Newby.

O’Connor’s Irish immigrant heritage informs his practice, with art making as an evolving exploration of the mysteries of identity. His works often have an autobiographical register, tracing personal and generational histories interwoven with geographical and social histories. In this show, O’Connor references and reimagines the imagery of pishogues (from the Irish piseog, or “witchcraft”), objects employed in Gaelic folklore traditions. For O’Connor, these objects are thus imbued with unseen energy and psychic gravitas. Given pishogues are seen as possessing a living presence akin to a talisman, his sculptures carry much of their uncanny quality with them.

The artist describes his work, in part, as “trying to find a language” – be that through text, or the visual language of symbology and sculptural materials. Fittingly, writing also acts as an integral component of his practice, whether publishing on his own work or that of others. This significant publishing record also reflects his connection to a genealogy of artists’ writing across the twentieth century.

O’Connor also frequently engages in detailed correspondence with the private commissioners of his sculptures. These projects, often in collaboration with architects, directly engage the family histories of those commissioning the work, and translate these in to personally meaningful imagery and forms integrated in to their architectural environments. To that end, spoken and written conversations contribute to their narrative coding.

Language is employed in a way that combines image making and storytelling. Bill Manhire has described O’Connor’s collaboration with poets as a form of translation, finding an affinity with Ralph Hotere’s interpretation of poets’ texts. In this exhibition, the artist has also inscribed the last line from Hera Lindsay Bird’s landmark debut collection of poems along the length of a clay spirit level sculpture: “this is a ransom note with no demands.”

1 Lara Strongman, “Denis O’Connor’s Memory Places,” in What the Roof Dreamt (Auckland, New Zealand: Aitche Books, 2007), 7.