Copyright 2007-2017
Built with Indexhibit

Of Gorse, of Course

2006 - 2008

The Of Gorse, of Course project grew from a four month placement as the William Hodges Artist in Residence in Invercargill over summer 2005. Of Gorse, of Course explores the artistic possibilities and uses of gorse, while also depicting the story of its introduction and vigorous acclimatization in New Zealand. The name of the show alludes to the fact that the wide variety of works in the show are all made completely from gorse (Ulex europaeus) – of course!

Solo exhibition: Southland Art Gallery and Museum, Eastern Southland Gallery, The New Dowse, Millennium. Group show: 'Woodwork', Sarjeant Gallery.

As a country whose economic foundations are tightly bound with primary production, New Zealand has a long history of struggling with gorse. Surprisingly, considering its notorious history, gorse has hardly ever come under the spotlight of art projects. Of Gorse, of Course seeks to remedy this situation, providing a witty and conceptually playful insight into the story of gorse in New Zealand.

Hard Labour Aaron Kriesler
(Essay 1 from catalogue)

Andy said a lot of things
I stored them all away in my head
Sometimes when I can't decide what I should do
I think what would Andy have said
He'd probably say you think too much
That's 'cause there's work that you don't want to do
It's work, the most important thing is work
It's work, the most important thing is work

(Lou Reed, Work, Songs for Drella, 1990)

I first came into contact with or became aware of Regan Gentry a number of years ago when he was touting around his Foot in the Door (2004) project. Having worked in various galleries over the years I was accustomed to receiving exhibition proposals from ‘emerging’ artists and making a quick call on the merits of said documents. On first inspection there was nothing exceptional, provocative or contentious about Gentry’s project, if anything it was surprisingly innocuous. Actually it was this unassuming quality that made this project difficult to simply dismiss – there seemed no good reason why the work should not take place. What this artist was proposing was to put a strip of measuring tape or ruler (a foot in length) into the gallery front door. At a one level Foot in the Door was illustrating in very direct terms how hard it was for an unknown artist to get in or accepted by the gallery network. At a more discursive level this simple intervention revealed the machinations that define and shape what goes on show or is allowed to happen in both public and private art spaces in New Zealand. The decision to accept or refuse this project also highlighted the lengths to which individuals relied on the institutional framework to set the terms of their response: “As you can imagine, a permanent work placed in the gallery door is a major project, which would have to be approved at all stages, requiring a long lead-in timeframe and much planning.”1*

What is one of the most compelling aspects of Foot in the Door is the artist’s complete immersion in all aspects of the project, from devising the conceptual framework to writing the proposal, following up on the correspondence and physically installing it in all eighty-six venues.2* I think this is important because it shows even in a relatively early project in his career that Gentry recognizes the benefits from controlling the construction, distribution and reception of his artwork. Foot in the Door is an ingenious artwork because it operates in such a provisional manner – the intervention is almost imperceptible, while it co-opts or accumulates a vast array of art galleries – the artist collects the institution rather than simply becoming a part of their collection. In the process this exercise highlights the co-dependent relationship between the art institution and its endless search for the ‘new’ and the ‘emerging’ artists reliance on them for furthering their career path. And it is this innate awareness of the give-and-take of this type of situation that characterises a number of Gentry’s artworks. It is even notable in his final year submission at art school in Dunedin, where Gentry erected a massive arch comprising 145 car tyres in a deserted building site. A key component of Black Rainbow (2000) was the site because seven years earlier the historic Century Theatre had been demolished so a tyre store could be built. The shop never happened, so the sculpture stood in for the loss and distress this community felt in the wake of this experience. It is the combination of materials, site and this monument’s temporary nature that powerfully articulates the futility of this act – in the process the optimism and wonder of a sublime moment (rainbow) is inverted and transformed into a foreboding symbol of destruction and unnecessary waste. Gentry is able to invest symbolic power into the raw products that are co-opted for this piece, while he also gleans the cliché ‘clean’ and ‘green’ imagery that has become so ubiquitous in motor vehicle and oil industry promotional material.

The use of disused, cheap everyday and second-hand materials has been an ongoing facet of Gentry’s sculptural practice. To a large extent this is the result of simple pragmatism, it is a cost effective way of operating and enables him to produce grandiose projects on a limited budget. There is also another dimension to these found bits and pieces, they provide an important preexisting set of tropes and uses that the artist can test and experiment with. This is the basic building block or platform that can be transformed into a totally new object or substance, so the act of making is marked or dependent on how far the artist can take or push this element. In ArrRhgT (2003) 350 light bulbs were laid out forming the word ARRRGHT and installed three metres underwater in the Wellington harbour. Not only was this an incredibly challenging work logistically (none of the problem-solving electricians consulted for this work could confirm that it would actually work) it also demanded a lot of the artist’s technical skills (including underwater rigging) and physical endurance (large periods of time were spent installing and working on the sign in the water). It is almost as if by the end of this project the only invocation that the artist can make is to simply scream out what has plagued him for weeks – ‘art’. Again, the location of this work is important as this sculptor’s disillusioned words that hover in the murky depths of the Wellington waterfront are prescient when considered in relation to the series of literary-based installations that pepper this site.3*

This propensity to transform everyday elements is a common thread that marks all aspects of Gentry’s practice and is most clearly illustrated in his latest project Of Gorse, of Course. The product of the William Hodges artist-in-residence programme (it is worth noting here that Hodges was the artist on board Cook’s second voyage who chose to represent these shores according to a sublime visual rhetoric) this saw the artist spending four months in Invercargill accumulating and then starting the manufacture a series of objects from gorse. This is a particularly noxious weed in New Zealand that was originally introduced to this country in the nineteenth century primarily for agricultural purposes. Today gorse has become synonymous with a colonial vision (Pakeha) of New Zealand that sought to break, shape and regenerate the land according to European and in particular British farming methodologies. The land under these pretexts had to conform to a set of preconceived expectations that were out of step with the biodiversity specific to this place. This agrarian utopia not only left an indelible mark on the physical landscape, it also defined the vision for a number of New Zealand artists during this and subsequent periods who tended to see the land through this construct.4*

On the one-hand Of Gorse, of Course with its ‘rustic’ aesthetic clearly toys with what might be considered a provincial vernacular with its assortment of rural tools, tree stump chopping block, crate of homebrew gorse wine, deer antlers, sawhorses and beehives. But to see this installation strictly in these terms would be to disregard the black humour that bubbles away just below the surface. The obsessive manufacturing of these various items from gorse is ultimately an act of perversity; they are designed to belie the homespun qualities with which they speak. In this respect Gentry both offers up and quickly removes the sense that this will be an easy-going or comfortable gallery going experience - what you see is not necessarily what you get. So the homely ‘homemade’ look is a part of a deliberate strategy that is designed to ingratiate itself on the most skeptical of art audiences and in a sense the installation could easily be interpreted as a study of gorse history and its utilitarian value. Again we find the artist playing with presentation methods to elicit a series of responses that are not simply dependent on the art object working in isolation. Instead this display/installation speaks across a number of divides from tourist shops to craft stalls, souvenir stops to art galleries - with the artist offering no easy way out in terms of revealing his relationship to these communities.

At a fundamental level Of Gorse, of Course is the result of intensive and sustained research into the properties and history of this plant form. The act of making is central to understanding this installation because the sourcing and transforming of this material is so at odds with the refined objects that make up the final display. In this sense the artist selected, sorted and manipulated the gorse so it could operate in manners that challenged its natural tendencies. So the day-to-day grind of the work is not simply to learn the principles of this material – it is an inherit part of the problem solving process.. It is also a deeply ingrained part of the conceptual framework. This is poetically stated in the white picket fence that has grown into a series of gnarled and distended unruly spikes. The picture perfect and quaint association usually ascribe to this domestic structure here is completely ruptured, it is almost as if the fence posts have become possessed by the very history that they have kept out for so long.5*

Under these conditions the accompanying video footage of the artist’s fieldwork, where he re-enacts rummaging through the main gorse bush site and gives a running commentary about the act of retrieval, provides a further insight into the raw art product/process. In this context the video becomes not only an educational device but also a richly layered text that locates the artist as the central protagonist – both enthusiastic amateur botanist and authorial expert. As an audience we get to see the artist ‘mucking-in’, we are granted access into the production of the art and to a certain extent this demystifies the art making process. However, the documentary is also well-honed piece of construction that at times seems to accentuate this artist as the archetypal rugged singlet wearing New Zealand male. But of course Gentry is not simply another ‘Man Alone’ disconnected from or seemingly lost in the landscape. In Of Gorse, of Course he is immersed in the land in order to understand this environment and to reveal the cultural/historical features that still define this place.

1. Artist file, response to Foot in the Door, 2003.
2. This is an ongoing project - the artist does not envisage it as a limited edition.
3. The Wellington Writers Walk designed by Catherine Griffiths.
4. see especially Francis Pound, Frames on the land : early landscape painting in New Zealand, Auckland, Collins, 1983.
5. It is also worth noting that gorse was considered an ornamental plant that could be used for hedging when it was first introduced to New Zealand.

Reluctant Emblem Regan Gentry and Biddy Livesey
(Essay 2 from catalogue)

Gorse – Ulex europeaus – is a spiny, golden-flowered shrub belonging to the legume family. Native to Europe, it is most common on the western European seaboard from northern France to Portugal, and has become naturalised in many temperate countries around the world. Although viewed with some affection in Britain, it is regarded as a serious weed in New Zealand, Chile, Hawaii, North America and Australia.

In New Zealand, problems posed by invasive weeds such as gorse are among the most severe in the world. Weeds cost the New Zealand economy an estimated $100 million each year, without including less tangible costs such as loss of amenity in parks or loss of biodiversity.1* Driven by such factors, there has been considerable research in New Zealand into the improvement of gorse control using herbicides, grazing management and fire.2* But despite all efforts to remove it, gorse remains a prominent feature of our landscape and history.

Introduction and acclimatisation

Gorse came to New Zealand with missionaries prior to organised colonisation. In the mid 19th century it went everywhere organised settlement went, and was particularly favoured on the Canterbury plains. Station wives started gorse seed in their gardens to supply fencers, and early colonial governors, as well as colonial and provincial ordinances, agreed that hedge fencing should be encouraged as an improvement of the country.3*

The emphasis placed on introduction of species reflected the wider attitude most Europeans held towards the indigenous landscape. Although native trees were valued as a source of lumber and fuel, indigenous species rarely figured in the long-term plans of New Zealand’s early European population.4* Rather, the prevailing mentality was one of dominating nature, where the land was approached as a blank slate and success was measured by the extent to which the wilderness was tamed. This was also a part of the belief that the country’s native plants and animals – and the indigenous M?ori people – were all on the road to extinction.

At the heart of this process lay nostalgia for England and the re-creation of the New Zealand landscape as an Antipodean utopia. The British settler’s desire to transform the land was both aesthetic and functional. As Paul Shepard has noted, “the European landscape aesthetic did not allow for naturally open country.”5* The ideal landscape consisted instead of small farms and villages situated amid graceful trees and fields.

In Canterbury, virtually treeless when the first British settlers arrived, the contrast between reality and ideal made the task of transformation even more compelling. David Monro, who investigated the area for settlement in April 1844, observed the following year in the Nelson Examiner that “The great drawback to the plain is the want of good wood upon it … this becomes almost a fatal objection.” The introduction of plants such as gorse also involved the transplanting of familiar cultural practices into the new settlement. Writing in the New Zealand Farmer in June 1888, one correspondent gave detailed instructions to gorse fence-makers, right down to instructing planters to carry their spade scrapers between their teeth.

Changing attitudes

Removed from the controls of their natural ecosystem, many introduced species responded extremely well to the New Zealand environment. A fast growing plant, gorse readily invades disturbed ground and in New Zealand can form impenetrable thickets up to seven metres tall. Gorse plants can produce up to 34,000 seeds per square metre each year and these seeds remain viable in the soil for several decades. Gorse can suppress plantation forests, exclude grazing animals from pasture, and increase the risk of fire in native habitats and urban areas. If left undisturbed for 20-30 years, gorse can be succeeded by longer-lived plant species, but fire or other major disturbances often disrupt this process, allowing gorse to rejuvenate.

By the early 1860s, the practice of planting gorse in town, as a source of firewood, had been prohibited. In the country however, gorse was considered a valuable fencing plant, and its spread was a visual reminder of the progress of settlement.6*

Gorse fences required substantial maintenance. A set of diaries from Clayton Station, near Fairlie, show that the season for gorse work in the 1880s lasted from July through October and comprised many tasks. There was a continual round of ‘pruning gorse’, ‘trimming gorse’, ‘cutting gorse’, ‘stacking gorse’, ‘burning gorse’, and ‘renewing fence’. In addition there was the removal of unwanted gorse plants from paddocks, and the cultivation of seedlings for seasonal grazing.7*

Despite this burden of labour, live gorse fences continued to play a crucial role in New Zealand’s agricultural development for another 50 years, until most were replaced by posts and wire. This created the paradox of an acknowledged weed that was also of significant agricultural value. While many landowners cited gorse as a problem, others anticipated the loss of valuable enclosure and vital shelter for livestock, and still others argued that they would be required to exercise a level of control that was unsustainable.

A consensus was reached that gorse could and should be controlled in arable lands, roads, and boundaries, but compliance should not be enforced where there was no good reason for it. The Noxious Weed Act of 1928 stipulated that to keep gorse under control, landowners “shall in every year cut or trim such hedges or fences in a workmanlike manner”. In practice this was seldom done.8* The same Act also held individuals responsible for the gorse when it spread beyond their hedges. Containing the spread of gorse soon became the main concern in its control.

Gorse escaped to hillsides and other land not being used for crops or grazing. This land, while marginal, could be returned to grazing quality if gorse was eradicated. Advisors warned farmers not to burn gorse stands, as fire only promotes more vigorous sprouting. Instead, they should fell the stand in late spring, let it lie until autumn, and then fire the debris against the wind for a thorough burn, then sow over with a competitive grass. Pre-Second World War era chemical technologies were trialled but proved to be of little use. Some farmers even experimented with flame-throwers.

There were other problems. With age, gorse hedges tend to become scraggly and open. Makeshift wire or board segments were used to fill the gaps or the entire hedge was cut and allowed to re-sprout. The sod banks under the hedges became havens for rabbits and suffered erosion. On many farms, the hassle of taking care of gorse hedges began to outweigh their advantages, and by the 1940s there was a widespread trend towards their elimination.

Science lends a hand

The attempt to control gorse biologically in New Zealand was one of the earliest undertaken worldwide. The value of gorse as an inexpensive live fence and shelter plant was taken into account, and the initial search for control species in Europe was restricted to insects that damage gorse’s reproductive capacity.9* The gorse seed weevil was imported from England in 1928, and widely released between 1931 and 1947. Before long, studies showed that the proportion of spring seedpods infested with the weevil was more than 90% – similar to the levels observed in England – intimating that successful control could be expected. However, in response to the New Zealand climate, gorse has adapted to form seeds in both spring and autumn. The newly imported gorse weevil was only active in spring, leaving the autumn seeds untouched. Various studies have concluded that, as a result, the reduction of the annual seed crop by the weevil is only about 35%.

Following the Second World War New Zealand entered a period of enthusiastic land development, with the aim of increasing exports. The campaign against gorse intensified and heavier weaponry was employed, particularly in North Island hill country. During the previous two decades the area of land overrun by gorse, blackberry, wild briar and ragwort had been increasing at the rate of 40,000 acres annually. By 1947 weeds covered almost 20% of total occupied land.10*

Fire, grazing, and the use of phenoxy herbicides such as 2, 4, 5-T were considered the best solutions. While carefully managed burn-offs can result in near-total destruction of an infestation, more often than not a thick cover of gorse seedlings appears soon after burning, as fire helps to break the dormancy of the seeds and provides nutrients for growth. Often the cost of clearance was prohibitive, especially on marginal land or extreme terrain. Control activities also had to be carefully correlated to plant life-cycles.

The failure of ‘classical’ control methods led to a review in the 1960s of the role of biological agents in European gorse control. However, it was not until the early 1980s, with the termination of most farm subsidies (including those for land development and weed control) that the introduction of further biological control organisms was reconsidered. Insects were seen as a low-cost alternative to poison, lessening the economic impact on landowners.

Amid divergent public opinion, the program of introduction stalled in 1982. While the use of gorse hedges and recognition of the value of the plant in the broader agricultural community had been rapidly declining since the 1950s, gorse was not without its supporters. To beekeepers, gorse provides a valuable source of pollen, especially in early spring when few other natural pollen sources are available for feeding larval bees.11* The country’s burgeoning goat farming industry also saw gorse as a valuable forage plant.

A more complex endorsement came from advocates for native forests. While generally supportive of campaigns against aggressive invasive species, many conservationists feared that the indiscriminate nature of biological control would undercut the role gorse plays as a nurse-plant in the restoration of native vegetation on abandoned agricultural land.12*

The very nature of gorse as a pioneering, fast-growing, short-lived shrub means that it can only survive where the land is constantly open and disturbed. Undisturbed, gorse grows vigorously for the first few years, but then slows to a relative standstill. Because it needs full light to germinate, gorse cannot regenerate significantly under its own shade. More shade-tolerant native species such as mahoe (whiteywood), fuchsia, wineberry, lemonwood and five-finger, together with taller trees such as totara, matai, kahikatea or beech, grow up through the ageing gorse canopy, overtop it, shade, and kill it. The irony here, as Hugh Wilson has noted, is that a deliberate policy of disturbing gorse as little as possible will rapidly lead to its demise.13*

Importantly the greatest threats to this process are the classic gorse ‘management’ practices of burning and grazing. As Wilson concludes, natural succession provides another option for gorse management besides the knee-jerk reaction of spraying.

Perhaps ironically, the eradication of gorse has made the remaining stands more precious to some people. As geographer Larry W. Price noted in a 1993 field study, in Canterbury gorse hedges “give the area much of its distinctive character”.14* As a consequence of the wholesale removal of hedges on the Canterbury plains between 1962 and 1989, gorse hedges are now viewed as features of historical significance. Some landscape architects even recommend their retention. “The irony of the situation,” Price remarks, “is that those who want to keep their hedges now face an even greater maintenance burden since they must spray to protect against the introduced spider mite.”15*

The variety of attitudes held towards gorse has affected the direction of research into its elimination. Approval to introduce biological controls was finally given in 1989. DSIR (now AgResearch Limited) imported the gorse pod moth, which is now established in the North and South islands. In Canterbury, observation suggests that the gorse pod moth and gorse weevil are jointly destroying between 90-100% of spring/summer seed crop, and the gorse pod moth is destroying about 15-20% of the autumn/winter crop.

In addition to this, between 1989 and 2001 five foliage feeding control agents were introduced; the gorse spider mite, gorse thrips, gorse soft and hard shoot moths, and the gorse colonial hard shoot moth. Foliage feeders suppress growth by damaging the gorse plant, lowering its ability to photosynthesise, flower and produce seeds.

Finally, the concept of biological control of gorse using fungi was raised in 1995, with several species identified as potential mycoherbicides. One of these – Fusarium tumidum, a naturally occurring gorse pathogen - was selected for development.16* There are currently no plans to introduce further biological control agents for gorse until the status and likely impact of the seven already established species is clarified. In reality, the success of biological control schemes is notoriously unpredictable - the most common outcome of such programmes is only partial control.17*

Now and here

The story of gorse in New Zealand is one of idealism disappointed by reality – from the original settlers who sought to bring something familiar into their new environment only to find it turn monstrous; to the researchers whose attempts at biological control make only limited headway; to the farmer burdened with the endless task of controlling gorse for legal if not agricultural reasons.

Today, five percent of arable land in New Zealand is overrun by gorse. From flame throwers to thrips, New Zealanders have tested their ingenuity against gorse, but partial control is the best we can do. Alternatively, we can follow the lead of people like Hugh Wilson, and view gorse as a useful aid in the regeneration of our native bush. Could this be our most sensible environmental and financial move forward? By turning our thinking around, gorse could change from problem to problem solver; from coloniser to conservationist.

1. M. H. Julien, ‘History, opportunities and challenges for biological control in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands’, Crop Protection 26 (2007), p. 257.
2. M. Rees; R. L. Hill, ‘Large-Scale Disturbances, Biological Control and the Dynamics of Gorse Populations’, The Journal of Applied Ecology, Vol. 38, No. 2. (April 2001), pp. 364-5.
3. Hawthorne was favoured by the English, but proved unsuccessful on the dry, shallow soils of Canterbury and Otago.
4. P. Holland, ‘Cultural landscapes as biogeographical experiments: a New Zealand perspective’, Journal of Biogeography, January 2000, p. 40.
5. Paul Shepard, English reaction to the New Zealand landscape before 1850, Wellington: Department of Geography, Victoria University of Wellington, 1969.
6. A. H. Clark, The invasion of New Zealand by people, plants and animals: The South Island, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1949. O. A. Gillespie, South Canterbury: A record of settlement, Timaru: South Canterbury Centennial History Committee, 1971; R. P. Hargreaves, ‘Farm fences in pioneer New Zealand’, New Zealand Geographer 21 (1965), pp. 144-155.
7. Cited in Thomas Isern, ‘A good servant but a tyrannous master’, The Social Science Journal, 44 (2000), pp. 181-2.
8. J.S. Yeates, Farm trees and hedges, Palmerston North: Massey Agricultural College, 1948, p. 206.
9. David Miller, Biological control of weeds in New Zealand, 1927-48. Wellington: Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1970.
10. K. Cumberland, ‘Land problems in New Zealand: A review’, Geographical Review, January 1946, p. 139.
11. R. L. Hill and R. A. Sandrey, ‘The costs and benefits of gorse’, Proceedings of the 39th New Zealand Weed and Pest Control Conference, 1986, p. 71.
12. R. L. Hill, A. H. Gourlay and S. V. Fowler, ‘The biological control program against gorse in New Zealand’, in Neal R. Spencer (ed.) Proceedings of the X International Symposium on Biological Control of Weeds, 4-14 July 1999, Montana: Montana State University, p. 910.
13. Hugh D. Wilson, Hinewai: The Journal of a New Zealand Naturist, Shoal Bay Press, 2002, pp. 162-166; ‘Some thorny questions about gorse, Akaroa Mail, 15 December 2000.
14. Larry W. Price, ‘Hedges and shelterbelts on the Canterbury plains, New Zealand: Transformation of an Antipodean landscape’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers vol. 83 no. 1 (1993), pp. 119-140.
15. Ibid.
16. R. L. Hill, A. H. Gourlay and S. V. Fowler, op. cit., p. 914;
17. M. H. Julien, op. cit., p .258.