By Rebecca O’Shea, M.Art Admin UNSW Art & Design, BCA UOW
Cicada Press at UNSW Art & Design in Sydney, is involved with many projects that employ art as a mechanism for broadening social consciousness, all the while interconnecting with a passion for the printed form and the exchanges it enables. Two printing projects involving New Zealand artist Gregory O’Brien offer examples of such an exchange, and how collaborative partnerships can have a participatory role in changing culturally ingrained attitudes toward the environment.
Gregory O’Brien, a recipient of the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2012, identifies ‘foremost as a writer and poet, though, also as an artist’ often uniting the visual art and literary worlds. He explains, ‘that rather than seeing the disciplines in contradiction, working in both areas is a way to become creatively ambidextrous within the forms’. Echoing the tenants of French Symbolism, O’Brien enjoys the notion that there is poetic resonance in all the art forms through the fundamental formulas that they share, such as form, narrative and texture.
The opportunity to collaborate with Cicada Press instigated an exciting way of working for O’Brien, and in so doing affirmed his love of paper as a medium. For O’Brien, the printed form offers a perfect meeting place between the paradigm of published books and original artworks, as the technology of intaglio incorporates aspects of both. While working on his new etching ‘Whakaari/White Island obscured by seabirds’ to be developed at Cicada Press in 2014, O’Brien regretted that he had not pursued printmaking, with its inherent tradition and abundant possibilities, much earlier in his career.
Since creating his first etching with Cicada Press in 2008 for the boxed set, Crossing the Tasman, O’Brien has produced over 30 prints. Since 2010, many of these were developed collaboratively with fellow New Zealand poet and artist, John Pule. Sailing to Raoul (2011) and What I did and did not have (2012) are specific examples, demonstrating the complementary fusion of the artists’ approach to collaborative practice through print.
Collaboration is at the core of O’Brien’s approach. He ‘sees art as a conversation that allows human experience and intelligence to be brought together,’ be it through curating, writing, creating or being a visiting resident in a communal print workshop. The collaborative process is one that allows for inspiring experiences to be shared by like minds.
The Kermadec project, a creative expedition made by nine artists to the Kermedecs aboard the HMNZS Otago in 2011, is an ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration in which O’Brien acted as an advisor and coordinator. The aim of the project is to advocate for the protection of a 620,000 square kilometre region centred on Raoul Island along the Kermadec trench, a natural formation resulting from the subduction of the continental Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates. It is an ecologically diverse, relatively undisturbed expanse of water that spans the northern tip of New Zealand through to the Tongan Islands. As ‘Science has difficulty capturing the public’s imagination [just] as art can’ the PEW Environment Group invited O’Brien to gather an artistic cohort to visit this unique environment. The diverse body of work produced, culminated in the travelling Kermadec exhibition.
The nine artists selected, including O’Brien, were New Zealand artists, John Reynolds, John Pule, Robin White, Phil Dadson, Jason O’Hara, Elizabeth Thomson, Bruce Foster as well as Australian artist Fiona Hall. O’Brien, described the venture as ‘an inspiring and galvanising experience’ with ‘a great crew’. Drawing on the sights and experience, each artist produced a print for the suite Voyage to the Kermadecs, that was developed at Cicada Press in 2011 and included O’Brien’s piece, A Crown for the Kermadec King 1. The zinc plates, on which the artists inscribed their reflections, were worked on during and after the trip – the experiential memory of the voyage now etched on their surface. O’Brien commented that Michael Kempson and Cicada Press ‘were integral from the beginning to the print-project which, as it turned out, proved to be a lively and interesting component in the ‘Kermadec’ art production’.
O’Brien’s Kermadec investigations included an accumulation of ‘notes for drawings and poems’. These were ‘inspired variously by the omnipresent sea, the charts and electronic gadgetry on the ship’s bridge’, as well as the daily cycles of nature and the magnificent rising and setting of the sun. Poems that articulate O’Brien’s experience of the journey can be found in Beauties of the Octagonal Pool (2012) and on the Kermadec website.
Reflecting on poems and drawings created during the trip, O’Brien recalls a resonant chord that was felt by all who made the voyage to experience Raoul Island; ‘a strident, rejuvenating, energising sound, a note struck in defence of that which is worth preserving on this planet.’ Though not a prerequisite for attendance on the Kermadec voyage, advocacy for its protection seems to be a significant outcome for each of the artists, their tangible expressions offering insights into this vulnerable pristine environment.
Gregory O’Brien’s immersive print, Raoul Island Whale Survey with shipping containers, Astrolabe Reef, is a two-plate etching and aquatint in brown black and grey blue, produced by Cicada Press in 2013. Inspired, in part, by the Kermadec Project, it references both his time spent on Raoul Island, situated in the northern part of the Kermadec Ridge, as well as Astrolabe Reef, located in the Bay of Plenty just outside of the Kermadec Ridge. ‘Astrolabe Reef was the site of an environmental disaster in October 2011, when a container vessel ran aground, spilling oil and debris into the surrounding ocean.’ While the etching contemplates the ‘benevolent and positive agency of humanity that is embodied by the whale watchers and the conservation project on Raoul Island, it also engages with how humanity can get things very wrong.’
Raoul Island Whale Survey with shipping containers, Astrolabe Reef was completed via international correspondence between O’Brien and Kempson. As printmaking can already be an exacting process, working with the alignment of multiple plates, as well as communicating across continents made the process all the more exacting. The etching plate was first sent to New Zealand for the image to be drawn, followed by O’Brien’s visit to Cicada Press in Sydney to continue discussion with Kempson and make aesthetic decisions on colour and technique for the print’s resolution. To suggest the presence of an ocean, the spit-biting process was used on the supportive plate, creating tonal variation in the grey-blue wash. The hydrous blotches evoke the character of islands and the movement of currents, creating an aerial perspective that complements the key plate, where natural elements are juxtaposed with human gadgetry and poetic text, components that are characteristic of O’Brien’s oeuvre.
Produced as part of a print project designed to raise funds for the development of a National Whale Centre in Marlborough, New Zealand, the theme of O’Brien’s print unites with its purpose, the outcome being sold through Wellington’s Bowen Galleries. Following the screenprint by Auckland based artist Dick Frizzell, O’Brien’s etching is the second of this series, which continues with contributions by John Walsh, John Pule, Michael Tuffery and Fiona Hall. ‘The National Whale Centre is the vision of former Director of the National Gallery of New Zealand, Luit Bieringa’, who, inspired by the Kermadec project ‘decided to produce a print suite on the theme of whales to help raise money for the venture’. With this contribution, the museum has developed from solely a virtual presence to an actual one in late 2014, becoming the first museum in New Zealand to offer a specifically oceanic focus. The Picton foreshore is an apt location, for it is a community with 172 years of history as the hub of New Zealand’s former whaling industry. There is now a shift to simultaneously acknowledge this history while initiating environmental research, focusing on the more sustainable industries of cultural and eco-tourism.
With another stint in the Cicada Press studios in 2014, O’Brien continued his ecological reflections and collaborative inclinations with a beautiful series of birds in flight, including an etching with regular collaborator, John Pule. Through a veil of silhouetted birds, the viewer glimpses the volcanic Raoul, White and Mayor Islands of the Kermadec trench. The nuance in tone and texture is achieved through a combination of etched line work and aquatint. In contrast, O’Brien’s relief etching Low land, high water / Rekohu, Chatham Island and collaborative print with John Reynolds, Notes on the Raising of the Bones of Pablo Neruda at Isla Negra, demonstrate the graceful unison of contoured line-work and text, making use of the printed form as drawing and visual mapping to describe place and experience.
The lyrical imagination of Gregory O’Brien brings a distinctly individual motif to printmaking with the combined use of image and text. Describing ‘art as a song rather than a lecture’ he explains that while being ‘advertently political doesn’t interest him, there are underlying messages, both in his art and poems, that consider such things’.
‘It is important to still consider notions such as beauty and truth, proportion and balance, in the modern world – especially in consideration of the environment, working towards the future, thinking more seriously about preserving what we have and celebrating it in a positive way…yes they are romantic notions but (in many cases) they are the values of individuals and the community that need to be nurtured.’
The conception of interdisciplinary partnerships, such as the National Whale Centre’s print series and the Kermadec project, are constructive examples of nurturing and furthering values of community, connection and preservation through art. Through collaborative initiatives, like those conducted between Gregory O’Brien and Michael Kempson at Cicada Press, artists and facilitating organisations contribute to a wider discourse that promotes ecological consciousness.
 All quotes unless otherwise stated are from correspondence between Gregory O’Brien and Rebecca O’Shea
 O’Brien, G Kermadec: Nine Artists in the South Pacific, ‘Kermadec, Gregory O’Brien, http://www.thekermadecs.org/kermadec-nine-artists-in-the-south-pacific
 O’Brien, G ‘A Crown and a Bell for the Kermadecs