The One in ‘UNITY’, the I-figures of sculptor Gill Gatfield
New Zealand artist and sculptor Gill Gatfield, discusses the ideas, forms, materials and contexts of UNITY, a site-specific project divided into two parts and presented at Palazzo Bembo and the Marinaressa Gardens.
In a period of acute turmoil – war, pandemic, climate change, flow-on effects on human rights – your project for Personal Structures has a timely title: UNITY. What lies behind the ideas of UNITY?
UNITY evokes the wisdom of ancestors and new philosophies to activate the mind’s eye. From early Buddhist teachings and the 6th century BCE musings of the Ancient Greek slave Aesop to the 19th century CE whakatauki by Māori King Tāwhaio, spiritual guides call for strength in unity when confronted with adversity. Philosophies of unity and harmony also diverge. In Western thought traditions, unity has developed on a pretext of uniformity and conformity while early Confucians held that harmony is achieved through creative tension. Across knowledge systems, the individual serves the collective. In mathematics, unity is One.
This project imagines how the forces of unity can be shaped in the Anthropocene, a period of self-centrality and drive to dominate not only the ‘Other’ – nations and people outside the centres of power – but also the Earth and the biosphere. In my casting of UNITY, the abstract I-figure is deployed as an active agent, a symbol of the individual unit and of the spirit – human, ancestral, Earthly and other-worlds. Carved from rare materials and manifested in physical and digital realms, the I-text conveys a message, expressed through the precious figures of Harmony and the virtual mirage of Native Tongue XR, at once personal tokens and collective monuments to unity.
"This project imagines how the forces of unity can be shaped in the Anthropocene, a period of self-centrality and drive to dominate not only the ‘Other’ – nations and people outside the centres of power – but also the Earth and the biosphere."
Gill Gatfield | Photo credits: Danilo Santana David
In UNITY, there are two distinct types of form and materiality – minute and precious in Harmony, and monumental and virtual reality in Native Tongue XR. How do these ends of the sculpture’s spectrum meet in UNITY?
The two parts of UNITY collectively probe the I-figure as a first-form, a totem and emblem, upright and free-standing – a sovereign state. Each part does so from different directions, from where scale is both monumental and personal, where materials become matter and methodologies result in conduits of meaning. In this way, the project investigates how unity can emerge and flourish through creative conflicts and transformational shifts.
Empowered by the metaverse, Native Tongue XR is a free spirit transcending borders and materiality. Over three metres high when scanned through a smartphone or tablet, the virtual sculpture is experienced at full scale, in three-dimensional space and in real-time. Equally atavistic and high-tech, it projects the past into the present. The totemic figure is the digital twin of an ancient kauri monument named Native Tongue, carved from the heartwood of a majestic tree from a forest in Aotearoa in New Zealand at the end of the last Ice Age. The virtual medium serves to amplify and release the figure’s time-bound materiality and minimalist form, merging creative technology with conceptual art frameworks. It presents itself as a means and not an end.
Native Tongue XR by Gill Gatfield
On the other hand, Harmony contests and shifts borders through different means. Inside the gilded frame, a triptych of micro-figures align and punctuate the minimalist black square. Carved in unique stones and gold from the I-lands of Aotearoa New Zealand, the ancient materials hold the wairua, spiritual essence and ancestral connections to whenua, origins and land. The figures emerge out of the dark. First forms and icons evoke spirits, ancestors, origins stories and other worlds. Uniform in scale yet unique in every other sense, they articulate Oneness in distinctive voices. Lying sylphlike on a bed of black velvet, the naked pronouns address colonial contexts, refocusing an exoticised lens of early European explorers, and upholding autonomy in a post-colonial feminist critique.
In UNITY, ‘monument’ is explored as a state of mind. As the giant figure of Native Tongue XR surfaces through the metaverse, it dwarfs the human form. Its scale and ephemeral presence are in conflict and catch people by surprise. Monumental and deeply personal, Native Tongue XR ‘lives’ inside each viewer’s mobile device, a monument in every hand, roused at will. Also displacing scale, Harmony fills the Palazzo wall in its field of fuscous green while outside the black square, the minute figures also fit in the palm of a hand. To see Harmony, people draw close, immersed in I-figures, engaging the mind’s eye. These miniature I-columns are micro-foundations for macro-ideas.
Harmony by Gill Gatfield
This two-part work is situated very precisely in two iconic venues connected by water. In these presentations, what relationships arise between the artworks, their contexts and the city of Venice?
In the watery realm of Venice, a fluidity of consciousness and life lines flow through UNITY. Water is a force of renewal and healing. The ancient materials in UNITY, selected and brought to the Venetian city from the Pacific islands of New Zealand, each derived from water. In Harmony, pounamu (jade) is moulded by water, and the pure 24-carat alluvial gold and Tākaka marble are created by waterborne minerals trapped in mountain fissures; whereas Native Tongue XR re-stores the DNA of a primordial tree suspended in the chemistry of a peat swamp for over 45,000 years.
Like water, gold runs through the veins of the ancient city. From the golden basilica of Saint Mark’s to the gilded facade of Ca d’Oro beyond Ponte Rialto, gold relates to God and godliness, and symbolises the value and values of Venice, a glittering showcase of power and desire. In UNITY, gold is currency and alchemy. Mercurial properties arise from the artworks – Harmony’s gold-I casts a golden light on the black square, a halo in the abyss, while the golden grain of Native Tongue’s heartwood emerges from the ether.
In the labyrinth of Venice resides an underlying anxiety of being lost and a corresponding revelation of being found. The allusions within the abstract I-figure enter this subliminal space, illuminating and disclosing while remaining enigmatic and cloaked in mystique. The miniature messenger Harmony holds its secrets close while Native Tongue XR is unlocked through a secret code, releasing a spirit that touches the land and suspends belief.
Native Tongue XR by Gill Gatfield
UNITY derives further contextual meaning from each iconic location. Between the arched windows of Palazzo Bembo, the precious miniature Harmony fronts the Canal Grande beside Ponte Rialto, an ancient mercantile hub and glittering display case for rare gems and curiosities from West and East. Centred on a wide expanse of fuscous grey, Harmony’s treasure shines inside a gilded glass cage, isolated and out-of-reach. Circled by gold laurel leaves, the frame recalls the corona bestowed on gods, heroes and doges, a Classical symbol of status, victory and peace.
Like an artery connecting the two parts of UNITY, the Grand Canal flows from Harmony, beneath marbled bridges to the lagoon at Riva Sette Martiri, the site of the first shipyards from where the powerhouse of the Republic of Venice, La Serenìsima, traversed the Mediterranean for treasure and conquered other territories. Here, in the 16th-century gardens amidst the leaning maritime pines, Native Tongue XR is a virtual organic totem ‘rooted’ in the shallow soil that supports the floating city. The I-column casts the shadow of a majestic tree that fell at the end of the last Ice Age in the polar winds of climate change, as the fragile city of Venice faces an uncertain future of climate-change-induced rising seas. Bestowed the twin title of Madre Lingua XR, this keeper of life and memories is a Siren of things to come.
Harmony by Gill Gatfield | Photo credits: Federico Vespignani
As sculptures and symbols, UNITY expands on the 2018 presentation Zealandia in the Architecture Biennial Time Space Existence also with the European Cultural Centre. Can you describe how these two projects diverge or intersect?
Zealandia and UNITY each reflect on the nature and place of humanity and ancestral spirits in a meta-ecosystem. Using a language of conceptual abstraction, these projects use the cyphers of X and I to engage the body, senses, emotions and mind as dynamic sites for perception and action. Each artwork proposes an open equation addressing ephemeral and spatial realms, specific contexts, and art tropes.
Carved from a rare marbled stone, Zealandia’s X-figure rewrites the ‘perfect proportions’ of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (circa 1510), an iconic drawing housed in Venice. This Renaissance ideal, immortalised on the one Euro coin, continues to inform the industrial and spatial design to the exclusion of women. Inventing new ratios based on the proportions of women from every continent, Zealandia’s outline is replicated in shadow on the ground, creating the female genetic code - XX. Amid global movements for gender equity, respect and inclusion for all, the figure proposes a modern-day Victory of Samothrace, a Goddess messenger for a new age.
As Zealandia engages external elements of time, space and existence, UNITY builds on the ideas of ‘Personal Structures’ and the 2022 biennial theme of Reflections by looking within. Inviting close encounters with notions of Other and Self, an internal dialogue develops through Harmony and Native Tongue XR. These voices arise in the present tense, embodied in the first-person form as a pronoun, symbol, sound, number and text. Inclusive in form, this figure activates every-One, proposing new touchstones for personal and collective, diverse and expanded, worldviews.