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There's art of all kinds in the landscape at the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail, near Warkworth. Pictured here, “Psychosis Chamber of the Oracle” by Rohan Wealleans.

Sculpture parks – coming to a paddock near you

Jenny Nicholls takes to the trails.

“Is this going to be beautiful?” asks the small girl, skipping in as we are leaving. The hour’s drive from Auckland to the Brick Bay Sculpture trail must seem long when you are small and the day is sunny.

Should art always be beautiful? I would say, in a heartbeat, no.

But I know she will love this place.

Art parks are a surprisingly recent way of showing off sculpture, if you don’t count the walled gardens of old-world aristocracy, bedecked with statues like decorations on a wedding cake. The New York Times credits the Storm King Art Centre in New York, founded in 1960, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England, which opened 17 years later, as the first modern “open air galleries”. Both are around 200ha, and display works by the heavy-hitters of 20th-century contemporary sculpture amid woods and well-tended parkland.

In the 1980s, altogether stranger, wilder and more surreal shrines to sculpture began to emerge: places like Arte Sella in Italy, Wanås Konst in Sweden, and the immaculate, reimagined fishing houses on Naoshima Island in Japan. More “trail” than “park”, the idea was to connect art and nature with “site-specific” art built into the landscape.

Brick Bay, on the road to Snells Beach, north of Auckland, is in basic harmony with this idea, although the work isn’t site-specific, as it is basically a dealer gallery for sculptors. The sculpture trail is run by the Didsbury family who, helpfully, manage a trust to support artists to make their works, in a genre that is often formidably pricey and technically challenging. 

“Phantom Fleet Vessel” by Virginia King floats above the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail pond.

The winding 2km walk alongside ponds and through paddocks, vineyard and bush reveals ingenious, ethereal forms, made – you may need to be reminded – of materials that are anything but delicate: stainless steel, bronze, stone, resin, granite, automotive paint, basalt, cast cement. The sculptures are carefully sited. Sometimes you need a map to find them.

Sculpture parks containing commissioned, site-specific work, like Naoshima Island, are an indulgence of serious wealth. The island is a small splurge by a company that earns billions publishing textbooks. Money may be a subject of some of the works – but it is no object.

But there are other models, too. The emergence of local entities, such as Brick Bay, the Wellington Sculpture Trust and New Plymouth’s Te Kupenga Stone Sculpture Society draw on volunteers and sponsorships, rather than bottomless pockets, to bring sculpture to the public and support artists. The Wellington trust, established in 1982 and supported by sponsors such as Meridian Energy, has installed 27 works in three Wellington sculpture walks – in the Botanic Garden, along the waterfront and in the CBD.

A neon message peaks out through the bush: “Seeing is believing”, by Mary-Louise Browne, at Brick Bay.

Some artists are even doing it for themselves. The most extreme example must be Refuge d’Art in Southern France, conjured not from a single patron’s squillions but the sweat of British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. This sculpture trail requires a taxing 160km trek through alpine terrain to old mountain huts to see every work.

“Thirty years ago, outdoor sculpture was chiefly classical statuary ornamenting a private landscaped garden,” writes the Economist. “Now people are driving hundreds of miles in search of it… One of the most important, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) is introducing visitors to artists they have probably never heard of – and it has managed to take its audience with it.”

The YSP, the first contemporary sculpture park in Britain, was opposed at first by many locals who thought founding patron Henry Moore’s sculptures – the epitome of reviled abstract art – ruined the scenery. Then the local council bought the property. Today, the “blot on the landscape” is on every list of great world sculpture parks, flourishing on grants, carparking fees, sponsorship, events and cafe sales. By 2017, crowds of 480,000 a year were injecting £10 million annually into the local economy.

Locally, Waiheke Island’s biennial Sculpture on the Gulf exhibition charts our own rising interest in outdoor sculpture trails. In 2003, the first year it was held, the event attracted 12,000. Numbers attending rose to 32,000 in 2011, and 40,000 in 2017. 

“Controversial” sculpture seems less irritating when carefully sited in a beautiful landscape – or perhaps it is the effort it takes to get there that weeds out those who think a monkey could have done it. 

“I’m just saying” by John Reynolds, at Brick Bay.

In his lifetime, Henry Moore’s work was decapitated, daubed in blue paint, smashed with chains, and tarred and feathered. Now his undulating bronzes, in their Yorkshire sheep paddocks, are feted drawcards.

Maybe the 5m-tall sculpture polarising Wellington – “Quasi” by artist Ronnie van Hout (a hand standing on two fingers with a face on the back) – would be more popular if it wasn’t in such a commanding and inescapable position on the roof of Wellington’s City Gallery. Even so, the twitter flurry surrounding “Quasi”, the king of all he surveys, doesn’t come close to the maelstrom of loathing piled on the work of another celebrated sculptor – one whose art can today be seen sprouting peacefully from paddocks not far from Auckland.

The single most-unpopular artwork ever made may well be “Tilted Arc”, by the American minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. This colossal work, a 36.5m-long, 3.6m-high, solid, unfinished piece of rust-covered corten steel, bisected a Manhattan plaza from 1981 until it was cut up, to cheers, in 1989. The cost – $US175,000 of public money – hadn’t helped. It was excoriated as “ugly to most people… [it] obstructed the plaza, offered no space to sit on, and blocked sun and view…” Serra fought back. “It is a site-specific work and as such is not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work.”

Sculptures at Gibbs Farm dwarf visitors who have come to admire them, like “Te Tuhirangi Contour”, a 252m steel ribbon by controversial US artist Richard Serra.

During the subsequent court hearing, it was argued the sculpture would “run the risk of deflecting explosions into the government buildings opposite and impeding surveillance of the area”.

But if his steel wall was considered “beyond the realm of stupidity” in Manhattan in 1989, it proved just the thing for a farm in the Kaipara Harbour nine years later. Multi-millionaire businessman Alan Gibbs commissioned “Te Tuhirangi Contour” from Serra for his burgeoning sculpture park – a place inspired, he says, by New York’s pioneering Storm King park.

“[The Serra] was a turning point for the farm,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Tony Perrottet admiringly, “elevating it from a millionaire’s folly to a site of international stature. The vast ribbon of steel, which now crowns a hillside like an austere tiara, broke new ground for the artist. Serra, who said Gibbs told him he didn’t want anything ‘wimpy’, rose to the occasion with a work made from 56 steel plates, each weighing 11 tons.”

“Dismemberment, Site 1”, an 85m-long steel tube and tensioned fabric by Bombay-born, England-based artist Anish Kapoor, is one of the most extraordinary pieces at Gibbs Farm.

Gibbs’ sculpture park, at 400ha, dwarfs both Storm King and YSP. The millionaire told Perrottet he bought his first 100ha for $250,000 in 1991, and wrenched out most of the unwanted trees himself with an old armoured car (complete with working machine gun). A tank he got from the army came in useful, too.

His sheep paddocks now display important works by American A-listers Serra, Sol LeWitt and Maya Lin, British sculptors Anish Kapoor and Andy Goldsworthy, and local sculptors including Neil Dawson, Jeff Thomson, Len Lye, Peter Nicholls and Graham Bennett.

Everything about Gibbs Farm is heroically, beautifully mad: from Kapoor’s 85m-long tube – a giant double-ended trumpet enveloped in a hill: to Gibbs’ menagerie: giraffes, yaks, zebras, bison, ostriches, emu, mute swans and Texas longhorns. In this surreal setting, they seem like artworks themselves.

Another view of Richard Serra's “Te Tuhirangi Contour”.

Another sculpture park near Auckland is more accessible, as long as it is summer. Waiheke’s Connells Bay Sculpture Park, owned by John and Jo Gow, made National Geographic’s Ten Best Sculpture Parks in the World.

The Gows are long-time supporters of New Zealand art, and among the permanent sculpture set in their pretty valley by the sea, 30 minutes from the ferry terminals, are works by luminaries Chris Booth, Neil Dawson, Fatu Feu’u, Graham Bennett, Gregor Kregar, Kon Dimopoulos, Christine Hellyar, Virginia King, Barry Lett, Peter Nicholls, Denis O’Connor, Michael Parekowhai, Phil Price and Paul Dibble. The sculpture-mad couple were original supporters of Waiheke’s Sculpture on the Gulf trail back in 2003 – helping nurture the new breed of sculpture worshippers.

“Vanish”, by Gregor Kregar at Connells Bay Sculpture Park, which also offers boutique accommodation in a private cottage by the sea.

Upcoming outdoor sculpture trails

Sculpture on the Peninsula

Banks Peninsula: Art geeks will converge on Loudon Farm (8-10 November) for the South Island’s largest sculpture exhibition, with proceeds donated to the Cholmondeley Children’s Centre. Among more than 70 exhibitors are big names: Paul Dibble, Sam Mahon, Jeff Thompson, Graham Bennett, Istvan Denes, Fiona Garlick, Hannah Kidd, Lorraine Natusch, Aaron te Rangiao and Jane Downes, and exciting emerging artists such as Dunedinite Arati Kushwaha. Tickets $15, children under 12 free (sculpturenz.co.nz).

Sculpture Northland 2019

Whangārei: Fifty sculptors will be exhibiting in the lush grounds of Quarry Gardens, 37a Russell Rd (8-17 November).

Te Kupenga International Stone Sculpture Symposium

New Plymouth: This biennial event (3-24 January 2020) attracts both international artists and skilled locals, who can be watched sculpting in stone on the foreshore. The symposium is followed by a week-long exhibition of the finished work and a public auction on 1 February. The most recent auction, in 2018, raised $223,000 (tekupenga.com).

French artist Bernar Venet’s “88.5* ARC x 8”, which is made of corten steel, at Gibbs Farm.

Sculpture Parks near Auckland

Gibbs Farm, an hour’s drive north of Auckland, is one of the world’s most mind-boggling sculpture parks, but you will need patience to see it. “It’s not a public park,” says Gibbs. “It’s not a charity. I’m happy to let people see it, but it’s still primarily a family holiday retreat.” Getting there involves either emailing the farm from the website’s contact page for a free prearranged visit – or paying to visit on a fundraising open day. Searching for “Gibbs Farm” on Facebook is a good way to find out about charity open days. These sell out fast and visitor numbers are limited. 2421 Kaipara Coast Hwy, gibbsfarm.org.nz

Brick Bay Sculpture Trail is part of a working farm and vineyard owned by the Didsbury family. Set aside at least an hour for this easy 2km walk; more if you want to linger at the restaurant or cellar door. Open daily 10am-5pm (last entry at 4pm). Adults $12, seniors $10, children under five are free, family pass $3517 Arabella Lane, Snells Beach, ph (09) 425-4690, brickbay.co.nz

Sculptureum near Matakana. Barrister Anthony Grant spent years transforming 10ha of farmland into a popular sculpture park.

Sculptureum. Billed as “a world of art, food and wine”, these immaculately landscaped gardens, art galleries, vineyard, events space, restaurant and bar will keep you busy for hours. Rothko, the restaurant, was a finalist Best Destination Restaurant in the 2019 Metro Peugeot Restaurant of the Year Awards. The galleries boast modern masters such as glass artist Dale Chihuly, Matisse, Chagall and Picasso, while the gardens showcase works by New Zealanders of the calibre of Phil Price and Gregor Kregar – although the owner’s billboard musings and all those anonymous knock-offs (especially in the “The Garden of Creative Diversity”) might make you want to jump the fence. It is hard, though, to escape the owner’s joy in sharing his collection – and the giant pink snails are very Instagrammable. Adults $39, children (6-16) $19. 40 Omaha Flats Rd, Matakana, ph (09) 422-7375, sculptureum.nz  

"Mongu" by Michael Parekowhai in a room by Darryn George at Connells Bay.
A bronze work by Jim Wheeler, “Puriri Gate Post”, from his Regeneration Series, at Brick Bay.
“The White Cloud” by Filipe Tohi, at Brick Bay.

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.