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Bricks and the city

20 January 2023
wendelien bakker photo by sam hartnett
Wendelien Bakker. Photo: Sam Hartnett

Reflecting on the disruptive and traumatic changes that have affected Ōtautahi Christchurch over the last decade, Wendelien Bakker’s public installation for SCAPE 22/23 utilises a material that was once ubiquitous to the city. Interview Josie Steenhart

Your SCAPE profile says you’re from “the Netherlands and Ōtautahi”...

My family immigrated to Waitaha Canterbury from the Netherlands when I was five years old and I grew up firstly in Southbridge with the flat plains and Alps always in the background to later moving to what was then sleepy little Te Waipapa Diamond Harbour, catching the old wooden ferry to school every day.

I did Dutch correspondence school while I was growing up and I moved back to the Netherlands to do my undergraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the Hague.

Tell us a bit about your SCAPE work, ‘A low brick wall’...

‘A low brick wall’ was a response to the site that I was allocated. There was already a low brick wall curving around the lawn, bordering the pavement and the grass. It seemed to finish slightly abruptly in a planter and I felt like I needed to add balance.

Initially I wanted it to be a bit closer to the original and I drew it up this way not realising that previously there had been an extension to the wall that wrapped all the way around the site exactly where I had drawn it. No wonder the site feels like it was missing something.

Due to council restrictions the new wall is further away from the trees where it loops around the lawn – hopefully inviting people to trace the line with their eyes or feet.

The site sits next to Ōtākaro, the Avon River. Ōtākaro means place to play – where the children would hang out while their parents were gathering food. I’m really hoping that kids are going to do some looping around on the wall, do a good balancing act, but maybe also adults?

Talk us through the process of your SCAPE work, from concept to creation…

I guess I started by looking at what the site wanted or needed. SCAPE asks artists to work with local industries and I was particularly interested in the bricks, having recently come into possession of a kiln and working with clay.

Canterbury has a rich history of brickmaking and factories, which have almost completely disappeared.

The double bullnose brick that’s used on the top of the wall is not being made anymore and I was looking into making the 400 bricks myself. Amazingly the council had a whole collection of these heritage bricks in their yard and were happy for them to be reused. I love that they are back out for people to see. The bricklayers who worked with Naylor-Love on the install also immediately commented on how hard it is to get your hands on these bricks and how special they are.

It's quite unusual for me to not be working on a project where I am on site doing most of the physical labour, this was a very different approach for me where a lot of the work was in the planning, logistics and visualising from afar. The SCAPE team were really amazing at helping and getting me all the right ticks from the council.

What are your thoughts on SCAPE?

Getting to experience art outside is just the best. When art is responding to outdoor surroundings, multiple sight lines, weather, insects, I feel like it has a whole new life. SCAPE gave me the opportunity to make something sculptural for public interaction and I have loved being able to think within that space.

Flicking through old books with past SCAPE works I realised I had experienced a lot of them growing up and subconsciously I think they helped spark my understanding of what public art does. It's fascinating to see big names from past SCAPE editions diverge from their normal practices and make something for the outdoors. I hope that many more artists get the chance.

You’ve worked on other South Island projects in the past, such as gold panning in Central Otago, could you tell us a bit about those?

Landscapes are endless sources of inspiration to me. My projects are naturally evolving processes using direct landscapes and my body to create works. Often they rely on endurance and are navigated with a DIY attitude.

My gold panning adventure was funded by Creative New Zealand. I spent three weeks hoping to find a nugget of gold and I ended up getting gold fever in the process! I camped out for the entire duration and it was a really special time.

Wendelien Bakker, ‘A low brick wall’, 2022. Photography by Heather Milne. Image courtesy of SCAPE Public Art.

You’re currently Auckland-based – do you spend much time in the South Island? And what do you love about it?

I try to get down to Te Waipounamu as much as I can. Having grown up down south, the landscapes and big skies are so familiar to me, it is truly the most beautiful place and it feels like home to me.

You were on a fellowship in Rome when the pandemic hit, tell us a little about that…

Yes, I was awarded the Wallace Art award to go to the British School in Rome for three months in 2020. I was researching and planning a work around the marble quarries in Carrara, which unfortunately got blocked off as one of the first locations.

Once that happened things moved quickly and the last week was spent in lockdown in Rome until we got the news that the airport was going to shut. I packed up my amazing studio in a rush and got one of the last flights back. I still have little bits of marble lying around here and there to remind me of my unfinished work. One day I would love to go back and see if I can complete it.

Outside of work, you’re building a tiny home. Tell us about that…

I’ve been building a small cabin on my parents property in Okuti Valley (Banks Peninsula) over the last three years. I’ve always wanted to try building something, and it’s a good

reason to keep going down. It’s the most satisfying feeling, sleeping in a little space that I know entirely how it is constructed and I can only blame all the crooked nails on myself!

I think everyone should build a cabin, it’s been a really great learning experience in thinking about location, weather, materials and society and how everything responds to each other.

Anything else people might be surprised/interested to know about you?

I like to card and spin wool to relax.

Plans for the summer?

We have a lot of noxious weeds growing at our house, so I imagine I’ll be doing a lot of weed whacking when the weather gets good!

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