In this sculpture Christine Hellyar has assembled a set of ‘artefacts’ inside old domestic display cases, arranged to make the whole as it appears before us. The ‘artefacts’ are based on objects from the natural world such as plant stems, leaves, nests, and logs. The artist has created these elements out of bronze casts, plaster moulds, ceramic models, and found objects (including the cabinets themselves).
Hellyar deliberately mimics the look of a mini–museum collection in her assembly and arrangement of these objects. In this way, she is calling our attention not only to the content of her sculpture, but to its ‘containment’ – both these ideas have been major and developing themes in her working career.
The natural environment is the source of many of the objects she has created, and it has also informed her approach to creating them. Growing up next door to the bush Hellyar has gained first-hand knowledge about how things grow and decay – the systems in the bush.
The artefacts in her sculptures are often based on ‘real’ items – found objects. These are things that are an integral part of our environment, but when the artist uses or makes casts of them, and places them out of their usual surroundings, she helps us to take notice of them in a different way.
But she takes this different look further. Taking objects out of their usual surroundings and arranging them for viewing is an expression of the human way of selecting, ordering, thinking, and talking about artefacts. When we change the context, how does this change our view of the objects?
Of her approach to creating and assembling her sculptures, Hellyar says, ‘I either try to transform people’s view of things so that they’re seeing things in another way, or else I’m trying to comment on something, perhaps on a more intellectual level rather than just on a feeling level, maybe both’. (1) Hellyar also enjoys ‘playing with paradoxes – things aren’t necessarily soft or hard, they can be both – similarly male/female, natural/manmade and so on’ (2)
In one of her earlier works, Country Clothesline (1972), Hellyar made latex castings of clothes and created a sculpture of these clothes on a clothes line. In selecting and arranging these ordinary items, and displaying them in an ‘art museum’, she created a debate on the way in which we attribute value to objects. Her choice of subject in this case reflects a feminist concern with the valuing of domestic work, as distinct from things usually thought of as having ‘real worth’. She says, ‘Also I saw the clothes as part of the New Zealand landscape – that’s why they were green.’
So Hellyar invites us to think about content in her work, and she also draws our attention to the idea of the container. She says, ‘The container could be a room or a hand or a body – I’m interested in alternatives to the sculpture stand.’ (3) We think about how the individual elements of the sculpture are arranged and contained. Hellyar also invites us to consider the paradox of containment. In the sense of the nest, there is nurture, protection. In the sense of the display case, there is protection, but also confinement, entrapment even.
These thoughts lead us to consider how the person who does the choosing and arranging has power over the way we understand and value things. In choosing what stories or artefacts to include, they also choose what to exclude. They decide what is, and is not, important. Hellyar asks us to think about this in terms of the stories humans tell about the natural world, western science tells about indigenous cultures, men tell about history.
(1) National Art Gallery. (1981). 3 Sculptors: Jacqueline Fraser, Christine Hellyar,
Pauline Rhodes. Wellington: National Art Gallery.
(2) Walker, Tim. (1997). Conversation with Christine Hellyar. 28 November.
(3) Walker. (1997).
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).