Labour of Life [The Art of Work]

Sculpture on the Peninsula 2019

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The Labour of Burying Sculpture as Performance interview with Simon Morris; Standing Room Only - RNZ


Sculpture on the Peninsula Award winner


 In describing the work, Chief Judge Jenny Harper said that it was intellectually rigorous and

probably a bit baffling. “But I liked it — and its links to American land art, as well as the traditions 

 of the tangata whenua,” she said.



On 8th November 2019 the exhibition opened to the public for its biennial celebration of sculptural art from around the country. Having previously exhibited here in 2011 I found time and reason to submit a work that was accepted:


Labour of Life [The Art of Work]

A performance, with three sculptures.


 “If you don’t want to grow old, do what Chomo does. Dig into the earth and                                         

you’ll never get ill, you won’t put on weight, you’ll always feel good.

                                                                                                   Chomo, 1978 [translated]



Across the three days of the exhibition, for eight hours each day, I will be digging three trenches. The length of each will be determined by a variety of factors including soil type, location, my fitness, the weather, and public participation. Throughout the ‘dig’ three works I have created from rākau rangatira will rest at the foot of each excavation.

On Sunday 10th of November at 1.00pm the works will be acknowledged by myself and anyone else who would like to offer any words relevant to the moment. Following this the works will be wrapped in whāriki - harakeke mats, placed in the ground and buried.

Once all the soil has been returned and the turf placed back and packed down we walk away and the works remain, returned to the land.


Participatory element

The public has the opportunity to take part in the creation of the work, in the digging of the resting places for these taonga. And, as in Chris Burden’s offer in his work “Honest Labor” (1979), this is a chance for the public to talk to me about the work and my practice. In order that there is a meaningful commitment to the ‘honest labour’ people helping will need to dig for at least 15 minutes.



1. Tīrau [Boundary Peg]

2”x 3” scantling not less than 18” (Dimensions as specified in The New Zealand Gazette: Regulations for Licensed Surveyors under the Land Transfer Acts 1879).

Boundary pegs, made from Mātai, were used by colonial surveyors to separate Māori from te whenua, the land, in many cases by unlawful means. Arguably these pegs also contributed to the separation of Māori from their culture.

Mātai was one of the timbers identified as suitable to make boundary pegs. This timber was recovered from a Mātai I removed from a site in Āraiara Lincoln prior to the demolition of a building at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research.


2. Kakauroa [Axe]

In the not too distant past Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū Banks Peninsula was covered in Tōtara, Mātai, Rimu, and Kahikatea. These rākau rangatira have now largely disappeared from the landscape, save small pockets of remnant forest and patches of regenerating bush. In 2010 I met a farmer in Goughs Bay near Akaroa (whose settler family had cleared the land the family are still on) who had stockpiled Tōtara fence posts as he replaced them with treated pine. Some of this indigenous ‘gold’ - aged and irreplaceable - is now in my care and used to create works that, in part, are a homage to this ‘chiefly tree’; Tōtara is culturally significant to Māori and was important in the construction of the colonial nation.

The Kakauroa was a highly prized trade item between Māori and settlers, used both as a tool and as a weapon. This axe is crafted entirely from Tōtara that is at least 300 years old.

This work also reminds us of our loss; between 1860 and 1900 over 20 sawmills operated on Te Pātaka o Rākaihautū Banks Peninsula, reducing indigenous forest cover from around 75% of the land area to about 5%. Today the remaining forests are fragments, often no more than a few hectares in area.


3. Kō [Digging stick]


Māori were essentially an agricultural people. The kō was the main tool Māori used for digging. Each village was surrounded by gardens, and everyone was involved in cultivation. Chiefs and their families set the example of labour, which was followed by all.


The kō is also a tāonga for Ngāi Tahu with respect to the forming of Pātaka o Rākaihautū Banks Peninsula, as explained by Sir Tipene O’Regan:

What makes Wainui significant, apart from its status as a mahika kai [food gathering area] for mussels and karengo [an edible seaweed], is that it sits beneath Tuhiraki [a mountain on Banks Peninsula, across the harbour from Akaroa]. It’s the beginning of the South Island’s traditional history. The metaphor is used that the atua [demi-god] Rākaihautū is striking his kō [digging stick] named Tuhiraki into the ground, creating, making, discovering the lakes. The furthest one south he creates is Lake Whakatipu Waitai, also known as Lake McKerrow, at the top end of Fiordland.

Rākaihautū comes inland again and journeys up the eastern side of the island where he meets up with his son Rokohuia – I think around Waihao in south Canterbury at Wainono Lagoon, one of the historic hāpua [lagoons] of Kāi Tahu.

Father and son are then joyously reunited to the settlement of Akaroa, which they developed. When they get there, Rākaihautū places his kō across the ridge of the hill above Wainui and changes the name to Tuhiraki – and it’s been a treasured name ever since. The French came and called it Mount Bossu, the hunchback; the hunch is the foot of the kō. The renaming has been attended to now.

He Rau Maharataka Whenua: A Memory of Land, 2016-2017


Pōhutukawa is, like Tōtara and Mātai, a rākau rangatira, a tree of significance to Māori. Just as the ancient Pōhutukawa at Cape Reinga is a ‘leaping-off point’ for spirits of departed tangata whenua Pōhutukawa is significant for Māori from Ngāti Wheke/Rāpaki in its place amongst the stars that make up Mataariki. It too is a link between the living and the spirit world.

In revealing itself Pōhutukawa signals the arrival of Mataariki for tangata whenua of Pātaka o Rākaihautū. Pōhutukawa, when seen here in Waitaha, is the star to which tangata whenua recite the names of those who have died since the last appearance of Mataariki. Tangata whenua of Whakaraupo hold Pōhutukawa in high regard.*

Pōhutukawa is an important symbol for Ngāti Wheke. The kō too is held in high regard by ngā tangata whenua o Ngāti Wheke hence my decision to use Pōhutukawa for this work. The timber has been harvested from a tree on my property.

*As told to me by Caine Tauwhare, tohunga whakairo, Whakaraupo Carving Centre, June 2019.




Labour of Life [The Art of Work] is an attempt on my part to make sense of my work as an artist.

As I journey into the last half of my life and as elderly parents and in-laws enter various stages of decline I see my own mortality even more vividly. After life, death is the only certainty (seems it is possible to avoid taxes). In tandem with the act of thinking-making it is physical work that makes me who I am. Sweat-generating, heart rate-increasing, endurance-testing physical work is a basic human need, a must. And in my case it is also a desire, both for the discomfort and the rewards.

The process of creating artworks in the current ‘global climate’ gives me pause to question my place and purpose as an artist. Why do I create what I do? What purpose does my work have? And, perhaps most importantly, what do I do with it when it is completed?

Being an artist is (amongst many things) what I do, who I am. Yet as a maker I am conflicted. We live in a society where the goal seems to be the Acquisition of Things. This has almost become a religion. I live with this tension of wanting, needing to create yet not wanting to foist ‘more’ on an over-crowded world.

Accepting my need, my desire to make, to build, sculpt, craft, paint, fabricate, construct the question is what to do with ‘the art’? What will happen to what I leave behind? Who will want the works? Should they be preserved? Does it matter? The last nine years in Ōtautahi have brought into stark relief the temporariness, the transience of life – here in the morning, gone by noon, soon forgotten.

Labour of Life [The Art of Work] is a way for me to reconcile this conflict.

Driven to create yet not wanting to have to find a place to display (or worse, store) more ‘stuff’ Labour of Life [The Art of Work] is the perfect solution. It provides me with an opportunity to ‘showcase’ the dying art of the dig - the joy and the toil - while giving me a focus, a purpose to create three unique sculptural works especially for this exhibition. Labour of Life [The Art of Work] is, as a whole, a work that is artistically, culturally, socially and historically significant.


If you don’t work you are stuffed. You may as well make your own coffin.”

Chomo, 1978 [translated]


French ‘outsider artist’ Chomo’s life philosophy rings true for me and highlights the disconnect we as humans now experience physically from that which is holistically beneficial – rigorous, taxing exercise, especially when connected to the land. Having lost this connection I believe we have become removed from the problems Papatūānuku is experiencing as a result of human ‘progress’.


Whatever are you two boys doing? she wanted to know.

We’ve been working Mrs. Parker, I said.

Yes, she said, but what are you digging that hole for?

You see dear, Jack said, some people say they don’t like work,

but what would we ever have if we didn’t work?

Frank Sargeson: The hole that Jack dug (1964)



Honest Labor (1979) – a work by American performance and installation artist Chis Burden – has also proved thought-provoking and helped me focus on the purpose and process for Labour of Life [The Art of Work]. Burden was invited to the Emily Carr College of Art and Simon Fraser University to present and discuss his practice. In lieu of artist-in-residence lectures Burden requested tools and started to dig a trench, inviting the students to join him to dig for four days, and to discuss his work.

Labour of Life [The Art of Work] also considers and acknowledges the role of the low-paid work force that has been employed during the post-quake years to rebuild Ōtautahi Christchurch. Thanks to what some see as unskilled workers the city has risen from the rubble, due largely to immigrant workers who have enabled the developers to continue apace in the acquisition of wealth.


Chris Burden, 1979


Hard Labour

And then there is my own life journey; as I head into the fifth age (sans “fair round belly”) I am regularly reminded of the wearing out, the process of decline as I carry out difficult physical tasks. Some days are akin to looking like Mickey Rourke’s ‘Randy Robinson’ in The Wrestler (2009), as he tapes and massages his way towards ‘getting ready’ to perform in the ring. Elbows and wrists strapped to support over-worked tendons and more-easily fatigued muscles, the desire to dig, construct, sculpt is stronger than the body’s message to give it away.

It is this ‘passion', the desire to be physically uncomfortable that is rewarding, that we as humans grow out of as we ‘grow up’ yet we leave behind that connection between ourselves and the land on which we walk.


Is it not strange that desire should so many years outlive performance?”

William Shakespeare: Henry IV (Poins about Falstaff)





I realise this project is not your usual artwork ‘transaction’. Am I crazy? Probably a little. That is what helps to make Labour of Life [The Art of Work] unexpected, unique, and, modesty aside, important in our current environmental and humanitarian climate.


Whatever are you two boys doing? she wanted to know.

We’ve been working Mrs. Parker, I said.

As for me I'm ready to stick up for Jack anytime. Though I don't

say his missis is making a mistake when she says that someday

he'll end up in the lunatic asylum.

Frank Sargeson: The hole that Jack dug (1964)




References and Advisors


Land Transfer Survey Regulations (page 3)


Indigenous forest loss on Pataka o Rākaihautū Banks Peninsula


Kō information


Chris Burden: Honest Labor (1979) Episodes from a History of Lifting, Frazer Ward pp 4-8


Work Ethic

By Helen Anne Molesworth

Chris Burden – The artist as manager and worker p. 115


The hole that Jack dug (pub. 1964), in

Frank Sargeson’s Stories, Cape Catley Ltd, 2010


Chomo (Roger Chomeaux)


Journeys into the Outside with Jarvis Cocker (episode 1) Chomo @ 33m25sec


Le fou est au bout de la flèche [The madman is at the end of the arrow] (1978), documentary film on Chomo by Claude and Clovis Prévost. Excerpt:


Digging, by Seamus Heaney, 1966


Caine Tauwhare, tohunga whakairo, Whakaraupo Carving Centre


Corban Te Aika, curator, Human History (Mātauranga Māori), Canterbury Museum


Manaia Cunningham, Te Runanga o Koukourārata


Toni Rowe, kaiwhatu o Ngāti Wheke


Megan Herd


Philip Armstrong


Lennie Nathan

Ngā mih nui koutou!