BOOK EXTRACT: Serious Fun - The Life and Times of Alan Gibbs, Chapter 16

BOOK EXTRACT Serious Fun - The Life and Times of Alan Gibbs, by Paul Goldsmith (Random House; Kindle edition here)

Chapter 16: A substantial foothold: The Farm, 1997–2003

Nobody in the group that I arrived with had ever seen anything like it. We’d come in the main gate to The Farm, which at that time was a rough timber construction sporting the skull and horns of a steer, and along the drive past Richard Thompson’s sculpture till we came over the brow of a hill and there, rising out of a large, sloping field of mown kikuyu grass was the most extraordinary thing: a great curving wall of rusting steel, perfectly horizontal, slicing up the landscape. It was three or four times the height of a man, five centimetres thick, more than 250 metres long, and it came out of the ground on a pronounced lean. As I walked around it, moving in and out of its curves, I was conscious of raising a sweat. On this summer afternoon, the steel radiated heat. Someone said, accurately as it turned out, that the sculpture must weigh 600 tons. It was exhilarating.

The Gibbs Farm giraffes with Richard Serra’s Te Tuhirangi Contour in the distance. (Click any photo to zoom.)

I’d joined a hundred or so people for one of the more significant events in the history of art in New Zealand, a celebration of the installation of Richard Serra’s sculpture, Te Tuhirangi Contour, at The Farm on 1 February 2003. Long recognised as one of the pre-eminent artists of the modern era, Serra had attracted admiration and controversy in almost equal measure over his lengthy career.1 His Tilted Arc, a 3.7 metre high steel wall across New York’s Federal Plaza, had been destroyed by the US government in 1989 after years of furious public debate; in 1999 his exhibition of Torqued Ellipses at the new Guggenheim Bilbao had attracted great interest. But he hadn’t yet done anything on quite the scale of Te Tuhirangi Contour. Gibbs had not brought a minor work by a master to The Farm; he’d extracted from Serra his largest and one of his most interesting site-specific works. He was introducing something that was entirely new to New Zealand, as well as commissioning an artwork that has aroused considerable international interest.

Naturally, at the launch, guests speculated as to the cost of this artwork.

I heard confident assertions, ‘without a shadow of doubt’, that it was in excess of $10 million; expressions of awe, bewilderment, pleasure and blustering dismissal bounced around. Artists in shorts and jandals mixed with neatly pressed business titans and their wives. There was quite a buzz.

Gibbs with Richard Serra.

Jenny Gibbs was there with her friend the novelist Witi Ihimaera. She’d featured frequently in the New Zealand news since the separation, most sensationally in the celebrated 1998 saga of the stolen Colin McCahon painting, the Urewera Mural. It had been stolen from the Department of Conservation’s visitor centre at Lake Waikaremoana. Te Kaha, a heavily tattooed Tuhoe activist, and another man were eventually charged with its theft.2 Jenny Gibbs agreed to take part in an elaborate scheme to recover the painting, whereby on 29 August 1998 she was driven blindfolded in her car to a secret location where it was loaded into the back. The media went crazy — ‘the millionairess’ tangled up with Maori activists and art thieves. TVNZ devoted its final 60 Minutes special of the year to the story of ‘Mokos and Millions’.3
One art critic wrote of Richard Serra’s work that it ‘uses industrial materials to attain a zone of experience at once more concrete and stranger than the sad habits of our ordinary lives’.4 The scene, the people, the atmosphere, the experience that February day at The Farm was far from the ordinary.

Born in 1939, three days after Gibbs, Richard Serra was a compact New Yorker, who despite his age looked feisty. It was obvious that he and Gibbs had had some strong discussions in the creation of the great work, the design and construction of which had spanned several years. They’d first met in New York City in 1998. Serra later recalled:

The first thing [Alan] said to me was, ‘I’ve just been to Storm King.’ I have a very large piece at Storm King and I think it’s a fairly consequential piece. Alan said, ‘I want a more significant piece than that, I don’t want any wimpy piece in the landscape.’ . . . So Alan was throwing down a gauntlet. If you’re going to do something here I want your best effort.

Serra made the first of five visits to New Zealand and The Farm in February 1999 with no specific brief or preconceived idea of what he might do. He spent several days walking over the undulating Kaipara landscape in search of a suitable spot. Gibbs wanted him to locate his work on the harbour side of a line of trees; Serra insisted that the paddock behind that line of trees was where he wanted to work. He was interested in the fall of the land there. He then spent the next year or so thinking about what he might do. He thought first of placing a number of objects in the landscape, such as he’d done at Storm King and elsewhere. But then, when looking at a model that revealed the contour lines of the paddock, he found himself passing his finger along a single contour. ‘What if I use one contour to pass through the swales and the valleys and the elevations?’ he asked himself. ‘Would that mediate the site in the way that other things didn’t?’6 Having alighted on that idea, he thought initially of a 500 metre wall, 1.2 metres high, then of two walls following two contour lines that people could walk between. Finally, he returned to a single line, but with a lean that made it perpendicular to the fall of the land.

Peter Roche’s Saddleblaze.

Serra is a rare artist who appears to enjoy and welcome input from others. Gibbs and Noel Lane chipped in with ideas. Of Gibbs, Serra said, ‘You know as kids there are some people you like to play with because you can make a quantum leap and some with whom you can’t; Alan is a great guy to play with.’ They built a wooden framed mock-up of the wall to gain a sense of how it sat in the landscape and a feel for how high it needed to be. Soon Serra and Gibbs fell into a debate about the material to be used. Serra wanted it to be steel, the material used in most of his works. But with the lean, he thought 4.8 metres high was the limit of what could practically be manufactured. Gibbs was insistent that 4.8 metres didn’t generate sufficient drama. He wanted six metres, and since at that height using steel would be a massive undertaking, they should build it in concrete. Serra stuck to his guns:

Why does it have to be in steel, why couldn’t you build it in plastic, why couldn’t it be in any other material? I came to a conclusion if you’re interested in inventing form, interested in matter, one of the things you understand immediately is that matter imposes form on form. I thought to win this game I had to humour him along enough and just outlast him. And I’m going to walk if he doesn’t want to do it. And I did. I really wanted to build it in steel or not at all.

Eventually he received word that Friedhelm Pickhan’s steelworks near Cologne, Germany could form the plates at six metres and persuaded Gibbs that it was worth the considerable cost. Work on 56 plates, weighing 11 tons each, began in June 2000. Each was bent differently, following computer modelling by a designer who had experience in the aerospace industry. Disaster struck, however, when they were loaded on the ship bound for New Zealand. They had been designed to be stacked 10 plates high, but the captain had them stacked much higher, to the point that they fell over, nearly sinking the ship. All the plates had to be returned to the plant, set up again and re-measured. Most needed some reworking. It delayed the project by a whole year.
The 600-odd tons of steel plate finally reached The Farm in November 2001, starting the installation phase, which fascinated Gibbs. Serra’s contract was to provide the plates of steel; Gibbs’ job was to find a local engineer to design a system that would hold them up. He turned to Peter Boardman, a structural engineer. ‘One of the interesting things about sculpture,’ Boardman says, ‘is that the artists are usually pushing technology, the engineering and some of the physics right to the limit, and they tend to work by the seat of their pants; they say, “I think we’ll do this,” and wave their arms around, and we try to do it.’8 The 11 degree lean added significantly to the challenge. Boardman had to pile down nine metres and then produce a continuous concrete foundation on which the steel could be erected. Each plate had four massive steel feet welded to the bottom that were bolted to the concrete.
Another complication with steel is its capacity to expand and contract with changes in temperature. The 250 metre long wall had to be engineered so that it wouldn’t buckle on a hot day. The simplest solution was to have a small gap between each of the plates, but Serra wouldn’t hear of such a lazy compromise. The wall had to be continuous and without flaw, with the plates touching each other. The whole wall then needed to be able to expand and contract (with a total movement of around 40 millimetres), which Boardman provided for by allowing the steel plates to slide on their foundations. The feet stood on low-friction plastic and there was a little room left around the bolts. The wall was completed by May 2002, followed by extensive landscaping work.

The result of four years’ work surpassed Serra’s hopes. ‘I could not have imagined that the piece would come in as well as it did,’ he concluded.9 New Zealand art critics were intrigued. Hamish Keith wrote, ‘The rural backblocks of Kaukapakapa are not a setting in which the casual traveller would expect to encounter one of this century’s great works of sculpture, but there it is. . . . On a fine north Auckland day with scudding clouds, sunlight rolls across the face of Te Tuhirangi Contour, painting its rolling curves with light. Seldom have I seen anything as fine or as moving.’10 It forcibly struck Keith as an artwork that had required considerable courage to commission; so unlike anything that could have been undertaken by a public arts committee.11 The work now features prominently in international surveys of Serra’s work.12
Gibbs was thrilled. For him, however, being involved in the creation of the work had been as much part of the enjoyment as the result: the evolution of the work, the practical problem of trying to assess the value of something that has no resale value, the engineering challenges, and the personality of the artist. Over the course of several visits, Serra lived with Gibbs. They’d butted heads over politics (Serra and his wife were left-wing), over art and nearly every other controversy in the world. On his final visit, Serra gave Gibbs an elaborately carved Papuan penis sheath. It was a private joke, since they had long joked as to who had the biggest ‘balls’. Serra hadn’t been able to buy any suitable testicles, so the penis sheath was the nearest thing he could find as a mark of respect.

Te Tuhirangi Contour was part of a much wider project: the transformation of a once scruffy property in a neglected corner of the Auckland region into ‘Gibbs Farm’, a private folly of magnificent proportions that was fast becoming a sculpture park of international significance. Together with his remaining family in Auckland, notably Amanda, Noel Lane and their children, The Farm continued to bind Gibbs to New Zealand. It drew him home each summer and, alongside the amphibians, travel and reading, provided a steady stream of fresh stimulus and challenge that sustained him.
The basic division after his break-up with Jenny was that she took the paintings while he took the sculptures. She took the Paritai Drive house; he took The Farm. During his travels in 1996/97 particularly, Gibbs had intensively and systematically toured sculpture parks around Europe and North America with his three daughters, meeting artists and gathering ideas. For some time he’d been a member of the Dia Art Foundation in New York, a private, contemporary art institution established in the 1970s to commission site-specific, long-term exhibitions of major artists. Donald Judd, the ’60s art icon, had been one of Dia’s favoured sons. In the 1980s he’d developed a monument to himself in the desert outside Marfa, Texas, not far from the Mexican border. There in two former artillery sheds he housed a large collection of his sculptures, grids of aluminium blocks mainly.
Gibbs and his daughters looked around Marfa, and then went to northern Arizona to meet James Turrell, another sculptor who was engaged on his own gargantuan project in the Painted Desert. His idea was to turn a dormant volcano into a work of art. ‘He took us up to the depression just before sunset and told us to lie on our backs,’ Gibbs recalls. ‘As the sky darkened, the rim of the crater turned into a dome as clouds came over, a fantastic optical illusion.’
At that point, in 1996, Turrell had been working on Roden Crater for more than 20 years, but the major construction works he planned were still a couple of years away. Gibbs was sufficiently impressed with the man’s ambition and brilliance to invite him to The Farm in the hope that he might be inspired to do something there. He came and proposed building Gibbs a sky room, essentially an underground chamber with a hole in the roof through which the viewer looked up to the sky by day and the stars by night, creating a similar illusion. It was one of several proposals for sculptures at The Farm that were not commissioned.
Amanda and Emma had peeled off the southern US sculpture tour after a couple of weeks. Emma’s studies at Cornell demanded her attention, as did Elvis, her 3.6 metre pet python that had the run of her New York apartment. Amanda had earlier produced Gibbs’ first grandchild, Callum, and also needed to get home. Debbi, who was carving out her own career in New York City managing alternative record producers, was more flexible. She was the last one left when they reached Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field in western New Mexico, one of the earlier major projects funded by Dia. This comprised 400 polished stainless steel rods laid out in a grid, one kilometre by one mile, with the tips of the rods defining a horizontal plane. She remembers their visit well:
We flew into this rough, but largely horizontal landscape in a small plane. They gave us a cabin to stay in and a meal; we had the place to ourselves. Nobody said much and we wandered off to the Lightning Field in the late afternoon heat. Since it was bone dry we could see forever. These perfectly aligned poles, shining in the sunlight, were amazing. In the middle of a dramatic sunset, a huge storm came over the horizon, with forked lightning. The sky went into all these crazy colours; the lightning was flashing, the poles were shimmering — and it was raining cats and dogs — and we were having a fantastic time out there. After a few hours a huge light sweeps over the poles. ‘That was a car,’ Dad said. ‘It can’t be,’ I said. ‘We’re in the middle of nowhere.’ ‘Maybe it’s some kind of son et lumière,’ he suggested. Gradually we conceded it was a car, then we saw lights in the hut flashing on us as we staggered, hysterically falling over, soaking wet, covered in sticky mud, laughing our heads off. It turned out that our pilot had raised the alarm that we’d disappeared in the lightning storm, which they take a whole lot more seriously over there than in New Zealand. They thought we were insane.13
Gibbs had long been interested in lightning; he’d dreamed of creating something that generated great flashes. He’d fantasised about having a big Van der Graaf generator that created sufficient static electricity to get a spark between two balls. When the New York-based Kiwi artist Len Lye visited New Zealand in 1977, he’d come to Gibbs’ home in Titirangi. Gibbs’ old university mate John Matthews, a New Plymouth engineer, had befriended Lye and had arranged the first New Zealand exhibition of his work at New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in February that year.14 Gibbs had sat in the pool with Lye and described his idea of having two balls sparking electricity across the pool.
He recalls Lye replying, ‘It’s a great idea, Alan, but heck, you need a bigger scale than that. How about those big TV towers up there? Let’s put two great balls on the top and have lightning smashing between them.’15 Neither Lye nor Gibbs could figure out how to turn such a dream into reality. But the problem nagged away at Gibbs. He went so far as to commission a PhD student in Canterbury to think of ways to build a sculpture that shot electrical discharges using electricity. But he’d found nothing that pleased him by 1996 when he met Eric Orr, a Californian artist known for works that combined fire and water.

Orr was in New Zealand for the Auckland Art Gallery Transformers exhibition. After a visit to The Farm he warmed to Gibbs’ challenge of creating a lightning sculpture. He proposed a cow that fired bolts of lightning; Gibbs wanted a tank that did the same. Returning to San Francisco, Orr collaborated with Greg Leyh, an expert on Tesla coils who operated the aptly named company Lightning on Demand. Nikola Tesla was a Serbian inventor and electrical engineer who had moved to the United States and at the dawn of the twentieth century had had the great dream of broadcasting power into the atmosphere in the same manner as radio waves. He was exactly the sort of adventuring giant who intrigued and inspired Gibbs. His coils could generate impressive discharges. The task of creating a lightning sculpture, however, was more complicated than any of them thought.

But after a year or so, Orr and Leyh were getting serious and Gibbs visited their workshop to witness a prototype in action.16 With metal and coils piled high and sparks flying everywhere, it was a thrilling and terrifying experience. The end result was Electrum (for Len Lye), an extraordinary artwork that they built and tested in San Francisco and then reassembled in front of Gibbs’ house at The Farm in May 1998. Still the world’s largest Tesla coil, it forms a 14 metre column with a stainless steel coiled ball on top. It has a primary and secondary coil, the primary coil having a current of about 3000 amperes, changing direction about 40,000 times a second, and a voltage of about 44,000 volts. As Leyh describes it:

A 44,000 volt primary circuit makes up the low-voltage end of the main coil form. The secondary coil starts at the primary, and tightly spirals its way up along the inside wall of the tower, gaining several thousand volts per each complete turn. About 800 turns later at the top of the tower, the large Tesla coil develops several million volts, which build on the top stainless steel electrode, until the surrounding air can no longer withstand the electric field. The result: artificial lightning!

At its best in the dark, Electrum provides Gibbs and his guests with the ultimate late night entertainment, usually after dinner and much merriment. The sound of the machine in action is comparable with the roar of a freight train as its motor spins and energy is created, and when the lightning spurts from the top of the ball with even louder cracks, the natural reaction on seeing it is to cheer and then to laugh with delight that anyone would be crazy enough to build such a thing. The smell of burning ozone lingers, as well as the relief that no one has perished in the lightning’s cleansing fire. Eric Orr put it well when he said that in action the artwork touched man’s ‘reptilian brain centre’.18 A couple of months before Electrum’s installation, I chanced across a gang of local labourers who were digging a trench across The Farm for the industrial strength cable that was required to power the work. It could have powered a decent-sized factory. One of them looked up at me, flashing a toothless grin: ‘This guy is one mad son of a bitch!’

It was hard to disagree, but the lightning sculpture, in its way, reflected the essence of The Farm as it was emerging. It was not a platform for art of the pursed-lip variety, of earnest hand-wringing or depressing social statements; it was art as an expression of joy, objects that kicked Gibbs in the guts and thrilled him. It also explored the boundary between art and engineering ingenuity.

Not every new sculpture was as much fun as Electrum, nor as powerful as Te Tuhirangi Contour’s 600 tons of steel, but each of the new sculptures in the late 1990s and early 2000s was intriguing in its design and striking in its position on the landscape. The great New York artist Sol LeWitt had visited The Farm for a week in 1997 to search for a suitable spot to place an eight-metre-high pyramid that he’d designed. Minimalist, simple and yet complex, it was constructed by local builders and rose incongruously from the grass. The Farm’s sheep and goats soon discovered it was easy to climb and afforded a good view from the top.

Leon van den Eijkel, a Dutch artist who had moved to New Zealand, produced one of the more striking works on The Farm in 1998. Red Cloud Confrontation in Landscape is another minimalist masterpiece; 25 cast concrete cubes in a grid on sloping ground. The tops of the cubes, in a way predicting Serra’s work, run perfectly horizontal. Brightly coloured against the green lawn, as the title suggested, it confronts the landscape. None of the sculptures, indeed, could be said to have blended unobtrusively into the hillsides. That was never the object. Years later, the cubes would provide podiums for each of the wedding party when Emma married Richard Garard.

Gibbs had long admired the kinetic sculptures of American artist George Rickey. He’d solved difficult engineering problems to produce artworks with stainless steel panels that move gracefully in the lightest of winds. In the late 1980s Gibbs had visited his studio in upstate New York and commissioned Column of Four Squares, Eccentric Gyratory (III), which he installed at his and Jenny’s house on Paritai Drive. Later he moved it to a new position at The Farm, where it could be seen gyrating happily above the Kaipara Harbour’s vast and ever-changing scene. He liked it so much that he bought another Rickey, Two Rectangles, Vertical Gyratory Up (V), in 1998. This one was taller but just as graceful.


Marijke de Goey’s The Mermaid.

Marijke de Goey, a Dutch jeweller and sculptor, designed The Mermaid, a steel bridge to cross one of The Farm’s lakes. It was built in South Auckland and carried up to The Farm in two pieces by a Russian heavy-lift helicopter.

Kenneth Snelson’s Easy K and Zhan Wang’s Floating Island of the Immortals would later join The Mermaid as works either on or beside The Farm’s lakes. Meantime, in 1999 French Artist Daniel Buren’s Green and White Fence began to weave its way through the property.

The Farm’s landscape, meantime, was evolving rapidly. When he’d bought the property Gibbs found the land covered in trees, plantation and self-seeded radiata pine, macrocarpa and eucalyptus. He cleared the pine fairly quickly and set out to recreate the landscape of Virginia by planting thousands of deciduous trees. Hugh Williams took him to Eastwoodhill, an arboretum near Gisborne which boasts arguably the most beautiful forest of European deciduous trees in New Zealand. Gibbs walked around, filling his Stetson with seeds. Some of his friends tried to talk him out of the plan. Bev McConnell, whose gardens at ‘Ayrlies’ in Whitford have been widely acclaimed, introduced Gibbs to two of the country’s leading tree specialists, Graeme Platt and Jack Hobbs. They agreed with her that Gibbs should concentrate on natives in an environment as tough and exposed as the Kaipara. ‘He wouldn’t have a bar of it,’ she says. ‘Alan was adamant that he wanted a deciduous forest with autumn colours.’19

Nature soon defeated his best-laid plans. By the mid-1990s, it was clear that most of the northern hemisphere deciduous trees were struggling in the Kaipara’s clay soils and harsh south-westerly winds. Gibbs found that his M41 tank was a useful landscaping tool. He had bought a big Caterpillar D10 bulldozer to mow down extraneous trees and smooth some of the land’s rough edges, but soon found that the tank went through trees with considerable chutzpah. Meantime, he was also having trouble with his lakes. He was determined that they should have water that was blue and clear, like the Mediterranean. Hugh Williams recalls, ‘Everyone told him that he couldn’t do it; this was clay country, they would always be muddy brown. That just drove him mad. He did everything to get those ponds clear; the stuff he threw in the water! He hated the fact that nature was beating him.’20

Gibbs kept battling away doggedly with his lakes, but eventually changed tack on the trees. From the mid-1990s, after much thought and debate with Noel Lane and several experts, he planted hundreds of thousands of natives, particularly in the valleys. The pasture, also, was improved out of sight. After some experimentation, they settled on kikuyu grass, which, although it didn’t provide the best stock feed, was able to remain green and pleasant through the summer months.

The Gibbs Farm giraffes with Richard Serra’s Te Tuhirangi Contour in the distance.

Rare varieties of sheep and cattle dotted the hillsides, and then Gibbs introduced exotic animals, such as alpaca, yak, emu and ostriches. A great hairy beast with a fine set of horns standing on a ridgeline against a grey, thundery sky was as joyful to behold as the best sculptural effort. And inevitably the animals interacted with the art; the first half-metre of steel above the ground all the way round Te Tuhirangi Contour soon took on a different lustre to the rest of the wall as, like cats sitting on the warm bonnet of a car, the sheep rubbed their oily wool against the warm steel.

Noel Lane provided the inspiration for one of the private masterpieces of The Farm, ‘Grief’, a cowboy town hidden amongst a eucalyptus forest. Knowing Gibbs’ passion for cowboys — for the notion of honour, the manly code, the freedom of the West, that if you have to have anything to do with women your job is to save them, the happiness of a warm gun — and struggling one year to think of a birthday present, Lane built a model town. He found a flat site amongst the trees that had been used for a logging zone and presented the model to him. Gibbs laughed and laughed, and promised to build it one day, but the years passed and the model ended up covered with dust in the barn. Then a lerp infestation started to affect the eucalyptus trees. At the same time, Gibbs and Lane began to realise that the tall, scraggy Australian trees were completely overpowering and overshadowing some of the sculptures. Sol LeWitt’s pyramid, particularly, had been swallowed by eucalypts. After some agonising they decided to remove several stands of big trees and, almost as an afterthought, Gibbs told Lane that he might as well mill the wood and use it to build his cowboy town.

But it couldn’t just be any old cowboy town. Before building, Gibbs and Lane investigated the concept fully, touring the American West and northern Mexico where several John Wayne movie sets are still in existence. The width of the street was based on the room needed for a wagon to turn around. There was a bank, a saloon, a chapel, a whorehouse — the usual things — and a landing was built above and behind the facades so paintball battles could be waged by Gibbs’ grandsons, who would soon reach a suitable age.
Grief hadn’t been built, however, in time for one of the great events at The Farm: Gibbs’ sixtieth birthday party in October 1999. The event epitomised the free-spirited craziness that endeared Gibbs to his friends.

Having first enjoyed a demolition derby, using some old Holdens equipped with bull bars and big tyres, the guests were drinking and chatting on a hillside when suddenly helicopters rose up from behind some bushes and a full-scale war erupted around them; tanks rolled, soldiers ran around firing machine guns, things exploded. The climax came when a fighter jet swooped past with an incredible roar and appeared to bomb a structure across the swamp (in fact, it was carefully timed pyrotechnics). Those who hadn’t flung themselves on the ground, hands over heads, would have seen Gibbs and his daughter Emma laughing their heads off before the conflagration.

Extracted from Serious Fun - The Life and Times of Alan Gibbs, by Paul Goldsmith (Random House; Kindle edition here)