Urbis chats to feature filmmaker and artist Vincent Ward about his latest exhibition and how growing up in New Zealand influences his work.
Your latest exhibition is described as an “immersive environment”. What does that involve, and why did you decide on these elements?
I work mostly as a feature filmmaker, but I have a background in fine arts. Using an immersive environment allows me to expand on how we perceive reality – to give viewers multiple points of view and a different experience from what they would usually experience at a cinema or gallery. I can involve a wider range of the spatial senses, so the nature of the experience and the messaging is expanded.
For Palimpsest/Landscapes you talk about the psyche and our relationship with the physical world”. Could you expand a little on this?
I’m interested in the human experience and, as a feature filmmaker, in character and how people comprehend the world. In the artwork this focus narrows down as I search for a relationship between the psyche and the physical landscape; through our bodies I hope to plough into and awaken a fresh perception of landscapes as we experience them. By saying landscapes are us, I am saying they are a part of our physical and mental state, how we experience the world, our histories and personal genealogies. By using the body as a landscape in my work, I’m hoping to find fresh ways for us to comprehend and understand where we live –our bodies, our landscapes, our stories, experiences and, therefore, ourselves.
Human vulnerability and transformation are themes that you repeatedly explore with your exhibitions. What is your reason for doing so, why the pull toward these themes?
I grew up quite socially isolated, so I always felt socially vulnerable. Some of the kids at my primary school thought I didn’t speak until I was eight or nine. I had to learn how to read signals and behaviour. Given that I spent much of my childhood roaming at the back of a farm on my own, I was always intrigued by the way that animal behaviour related to human behaviour –aware that we are simply another animal, and why we pretend to be much more. For a certain amount of that time there were only animals, not many people. From seeing animals live, die, change, have emotions, show fear, show neurosis, or herd and care for each other, and then looking at people and watching them change, came an interest in experiences that in some way transform someone – for better or worse – conscious of how adaptive and transitory life can become.
New Zealand is often heralded for its landscapes. What do you think seeing and experiencing them evokes in people? What effect has NZ landscapes had on you personally, and on your work?
One word: belonging. In New Zealand, we have a very dramatic and harsh landscape within a small land mass, therefore we are very conscious of it and it becomes a part of us and our mindscape. My own relationship with New Zealand’s landscape is more complicated. My father was burnt quite badly in World War II and when I was growing up I saw his attempt to heal his body, while also breaking in the harsh landscape around us. The continuing skin grafts to his body became like the transformation of the land around him. As a child, I would draw his war-damaged hands and, in my mind, the land became an extension of his own body, and perhaps mine and others.
You have recently spent a lot of time in China. Did that influence your new work at all? How?
Yes, definitely. The dean at the Fine Arts College at Shanghai University gave me the use of his personal studio for six weeks, gave me ink and brushes and asked me to look for new ways to explore ink painting. One can never compete with traditional Chinese ink painters – they are handed a brush at about two years old already – but one can experiment, which I did. I worked on cloths ranging from 8 to 20 metres in length and mixed the ink and cloth with other substances – tea, other stained cloth, hair and so on. Then I filmed it. Like any cultural fusion, both parties learn from each other and share ideas. In my latest exhibition, there are strong ink elements used in explorative ways and forms, though the scale is contained in works on paper and through filmic installations.
Do you think your work as a director of blockbuster films gains anything (be it technically or narrative-wise) from visual art pieces such as these? How about vice versa? Do you think elements of your film career are visible in this upcoming exhibition?
They are clearly two quite different mediums: feature films are about narrative and for me character-driven. The artwork, however, is stripped down to a concept of essence, which allows me to strip a film down to an essence or idea which translates into fine art, or explore things which are thrown away/ignored in a film. The detritus of a film can become the fuel of a fine art piece. On the other hand, an explorative concept in my art practices allow me to experiment freely and can then be expanded into a narrative or character-driven element in a feature film concept at a later stage.
I have a range of craft skills and installation knowledge derived from my film background – especially in light, materials, and technique – that most non-film people normally won’t have. I wouldn’t have been able to do this exhibition without that body of experience.
You also have an interest in architecture, right?
Yes – in a sense the human body is a piece of architecture, especially landscape architecture. I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to use the CAD files from some amazing architects, such as Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry, before some of their buildings were made and create peopled environments. This relates only in that I’m interested in the interface of realising or revealing the architectural form within a shape, especially a human shape, which people will see in this exhibition.
Palimpsest/Landscapes is on exhibition at the Trish Clark Gallery in Auckland until 23 September.