Joanna Langford was invited to create a new installation – The Whisper Lands – for the 2009 Auckland Art Fair because of her knack at creating sculptures with uplift: towering plastic clouds, improbably delicate ladders to nowhere, stilted houses, pink mountains, and candy and cookie castles. Langford is an architect of the imaginary, conjuring fantastical worlds and sugar highs.
Joanna Langford’s The Whisper Lands 2009 project is the largest sculptural installation to-date for the artist and brought her to the attention of Auckland audiences, many of whom had not previously seen a major work by her. The project, which was curated by Rob Garrett (Curator of Special Projects), created a dramatic and ethereal entrance experience for visitors to the Art Fair.
As visitors to the Auckland Art Fair arrived at the venue in May 2009 they passed through the main doors, through ticketing and then made their way through a 30 metre long two-storey high entrance hall before coming to the art gallery stands. Joanna Langford’s brief was to create a new installation to occupy a 16 x 9.8 metre area of the entrance hall and its full two-story (7.5 metre) height.
Langford’s installation suspended clusters of interlinked white plastic clouds from the ceiling. Langford contrived to make the work breathe: large, very quiet fan units were hung at the top of each of the cloud structures and they were set on 2-minute on/off cycles. So the clouds gracefully filled up with air over the course of about 10-15 seconds, held their shape, and then, when the fans switched off, the clouds deflated in about 15-20 seconds until the fans switched on again.
Seen up-close, Langford’s installations seem wonderfully off-hand and down-to-earth. Whether they are tiny mdf houses on slender stalks cobbled together using a glue-gun (
Lollipop in Follow the White Rabbit, Artspace, Auckland, 2003) or towering plastic-bag clouds (Down from the Nightlands, Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui, 2007) they are light-weight, portable – the work of an itinerant artist – and fabricated in ways that suggest they could have been made on the dining table by raiding the kitchen odds-and-ends drawer.
Not only do they have an air of something you-could-do-too, they seem clumsily or awkwardly put together as if Langford hasn’t quite mastered the techniques of cutting, trimming, gluing and plastic-welding. They are naff; either delightfully or disturbingly, depending on how attached you are to neat edges and seamless connections.
Of course Langford is not unskilled or clumsy. The apparent off-handedness of her technique is a deliberate effect. The artist’s awkward manners are perhaps both the avoidance of any whiff of virtuosity (read pretension) and a strategy to re-direct our attention to the imaginary worlds she creates. Some will like the home-made qualities they see in Langford’s work, some will be unsettled by them, wondering how she gets away with such cack-handedness. Either way, what lingers most is the sense of magic and wonder of her Lilliputian and floating worlds.
Since 2003, Wellington-based Joanna Langford (b.1978) has exhibited her delicate imaginary clusters of habitations, ladders and towers to nowhere, and cloud-scapes in artist-run spaces, project galleries, with her dealers in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, and in a growing number of public art galleries. She is receiving increasing critical acclaim and has proved herself capable of undertaking increasingly ambitious and imaginative projects.
The artist recently completed major installation projects for the Christchurch Art Gallery (in 2006 during the Olivier Spencer-Bower fellowship residency), the Wanganui’s Sarjeant Art Gallery (in 2007during the Tylee Cottage residency), the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth (2008), and the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery at City Gallery, Wellington (2008).
The Auckland Art Fair special project by Langford echoes and further develops the cloud works she exuberantly created during and since the artist residencies in Christchurch and Wanganui. In Christchurch (Beyond Nowhere, 2006) she made a long, billowing, ground-hugging cloud which hovered over the Christchurch Art Gallery’s indoor pond, with her signature skewer scaffolds clustered around like guardians; and the next year clouds arced across the ceiling of her dealer’s gallery, Jonathan Smart, in The Quietening. In Wanganui, her welded plastic bags formed an ethereal spiral high into the dome of the Sarjeant Gallery, trailing beneath them a tracery of delicate ladders, platforms and towers (Down from the Nightlands, 2007). There the puffy evanescent clouds floated within the dome like a golden Giovanni Battista Tiepolo baroque sky come to life. Most recently, in Wellington, the clouds were rendered in crumpled brown paper, and had sunk almost to floor level, propped up by a scaffold of skewers (Brave Days, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington, 2008).
For the Auckland Art Fair Special Project, Langford has again taken to the heights, and in the challenging architectural space of the former Alinghi yachting base she has conceived her most ambitious and largest cloud installation to date. The artist was keen to create “a zone that is so physically different” from where you have just been “that it feels like anything could happen and it heightens your imagination.” This is the power of the recent cloud installations: they are so modest and everyday and yet they create the kind of magical experience that can catch you completely off guard.
Joanna Langford’s installation project was supported by the Arts Board of Creative New Zealand.
Artist: Joanna Langford
Title:The Whisper Lands
Media: Plastic bags, wooden skewers, glue, lights and electric fans
Dimensions: Approximately 7.5 x 16 x 9.8 metres
Commissioner: Rob Garrett
Curator: Rob Garrett
Project art management: Rob Garrett
Location: Marine Events Centre, Halsey Street, Viaduct Harbour, Auckland CBD, New Zealand
Duration: 4 days (30 April – 3 May 2009)