Jim Allen who last week turned 100 has been developing his artistic practice since the 1950s, and was a pioneer of post-object art in New Zealand in the 1970s.
Nearly fifty years ago in 1974 I interviewed him as part of a series of video interviews with leading artists -“ Interviews with six NZ Artists” (Allan, Albrecht, Binney, Ellis, Hanly, Twiss.). This is a transcript of the interview.
At that time his major works included the designs for the windows, stations of the cross and crucifix for Futuna Chapel (1961) in Wellington, the ICI mural (1965) in Wellington ,”Wairaka” Lady of the Rock (1965) in Whakatane and his first post object exhibition at Barry Lett gallery including Tribute to Hone Tuwhare, 1969,
John Daly-Peoples: How do you describe the work that you now produce You don’t do figurative or representational work – why don’t you, and what you see as a sculptor’s aim, or your aim as a sculptor?
Jim Allen: Well I have to talk about my own personal aim and it’s not that I dislike realist work, or have no interest in it, for instance, I get a lot of enjoyment from the work of
Brancusi and people like this. And it’s not as if I’ve turned my back completely on that in terms of appreciation. It’s just that my own preoccupations appear to take me a very long way from those kind of realist things. But my work seems to have two kinds of polarities – one is where I’m involved with a physical problem, which leads me to the evolution of structures to solve the physical problem, and here I’m talking about work of a more architectural nature. For instance, the work which I did at Palmerston North Teachers College, the design solution was based upon the architectural elements of the spaces surrounding the sculpture and the floor plan, on which the sculpture was standing on. And the fact that there was a considerable number of, flow of people walking backwards and forwards within the space which it’s situated in- And it’s very much a practical problem to evolve something which will complement the architecture stylistically, and also not to clutter up the foreground so as it becomes an obstacle for people to have to walk round, and so on.
When I get a problem I tend to approach it from a structural design analysis point of view, and produce a solution which meets the problems inherent in the site, rather than carrying an idea to the site and imposing it upon that situation. Now I’m not against that, I’m just saying, this is what I tend not to do. And the other thing, which is the other polarity, is where I’m concerned about ideas, and I seek to use materials, and methods to get to grips with the idea in a visual physical way. But, primarily I’m concerned about ideas, and the significance of ideas, in different kinds of relationships, and then I seek to use materials which will begin to deal with these ideas in a visual kind of way. And that leads me to use media which would be classed as being non-traditional, and in fact it leaves the whole media opportunity completely open, because when you’re dealing with ideas, anything becomes appropriate, as to that which will best explain, or demonstrate the idea. And I guess a lot of people have difficulty in getting close to my work because the materials which are used, and the way in which they’re used, differ greatly from traditional types of medium, to traditional types of usage of media. But it’s because I’m more interested in the idea, or ideas which can be generated by materials, rather than doing a purely formal exposition.
JDP: It would seem that the idea itself, was important – not so much the piece of sculpture or what comes out of it, but rather the actual involvement in the process.
JA: Yeah, on a lot of occasions the intentions are modified by the events as they occur at the time, particularly with this kind of work. And, with “Sonic MI”, what nobody else realises, but the problem is that had three things worked out for “Sonic W’, and that each of them was cancelled out, one after the other, because the venues, or the space available for me to perform these works, was changed. was told that was going to – I had the dining room as a space, and I evolved a work for that space, then that disappeared because they wanted to use it for coffee, or something. I then evolved a work to the place on the grounds on the lawn outside, in a marque, the marque didn’t materialise, and
twenty-four hours before the start of “Sonic Supers” I was given the room which I was placed in. Not using this as a way of excuse, but it certainly threw me a bit, and the work which has evolved for “Sonic W’ really wasn’t what I’d planned, it was something that I had to rush through, which was unfortunate. But nevertheless it has the bones of the approach which I would had to any of those spaces, which was to create a situation within which a certain amount of participation – free participation – both by performers who are used to the structures I was setting up, and people who would have been seeing it for the first time – could have got some feedback by becoming involved, in a physical situation. And in this sense most of the things I’m involved with are traditional, when one talks about them in these kinds of terms. They involve space, they involve sound, some sets of physical dimensions, but instead of the viewer, or spectator being on the outside of them, he becomes part of them and he becomes part of the sculpture itself, in many cases, not in all cases, but many cases.
JDP From the 1960’s on you are looking at new sculptural methods, you start to try out a lot more ideas than you had previously – would this be so? Or when you talk about abandoning Elam, did you start to have to redefine what you saw as sculpture, and re-examine and explore some of the new aspects?
JA: Well, prior to the 1960’s I’d been employed by the Education Department, doing experimental work in Māori schools in the far North of New Zealand, and I went straight from the Royal College in London to that job. And I think probably it was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it brought me into contact with people, and with children, who are operating at a very early creative stage. And I learnt an immense lot from these people and from the children, in fact they would be the biggest single influence on the way I think, and what I think is important and the way I work, and the values I place on things. When I came to Elam it gave me the opportunity to return to making things, which I hadn’t had for some time, and for a few years there was a heavy physical involvement in casting and moulding and welding, and so on like this. The kind of forms which emerge from those periods are, a generic term which applied to them, that was called “slotsies”, and they were in the main, cast pieces of aluminium which slotted together, and some of them had the possibility of a variety of combinations, you could slot them in different ways, and they formed different shapes. They were concerned about articulation, and things like that. With the “slotsies”, I was very much concerned with the articulation of things, and also, some exploration into casting techniques.
About that time, I did one of the largest castings in Australasia, by the polystyrene method, it involved quite a lot of experimental work in moulding with sand and so on. That’s the work which is in the Bank of NSW in Queen St. So, there was quite a heavy involvement with the experimental techniques with media, of a more traditional kind. But in terms of ideas, I was involved with the articulation of forms. The next sort of development from that, occurred after, or during the period I was on leave, in 1968, in Europe. And it was a very good time to be away. The art schools in Britain were in ferment, they were having riots going on, the schools were being closed, the students and staff were objecting to the administration of the colleges, and the aims and intentions of the courses, degree courses, and diploma courses. There was the French riots
which nearly overthrew the authority in France. There were riots in Germany. And we were in Britain, and I was very closely – I can’t say associated with – but I was in very close contact with the ferment in the art school at that time. We were in France when the riots were on in Paris We were living in an area in London, where groups of students were trafficking from both England to Europe, to France and to Germany, and backwards. And every evening there was a large campfire in this place, and hundreds of young people just sat round, and people were standing up and speaking and talking about what was happening in their country, and what they were concerned about, and what they were trying to do to right what was happening there. And the kind of proposals that were being put forward. And people were discussing for and against the proposals, which were being aired. And there was a time of great vitality, and big things were happening, old established modes of performance and behaviour in quite large sections of society were being set aside, and people were talking about alternatives in a very vigorous way.
I have counted myself being fortunate in Europe at that time. As far as what was happening in the art world – there was a development of multimedia activities, which I. hadn’t come into direct contact with before, there were experimental laboratories with sight and sound situations. There were many instances of development of mixed-media activities, it seemed that the dividing lines between painting and sculpture, and filmmaking, and drama – it was very difficult with many of these activities to set up any dividing line, it seemed to encompass all of these activities, in one way or another. Now this related to me in a very curious way, because it took me back to the experimental work which I’d done in the far North in New Zealand, particularly with a school called Oruaiti, and a teacher called Elwyn Richardson. And I started my activities in that school with him, and he later went on to write a book which is called “In The Early World”. But the main thesis of this activity was, we gained, or made, terrific strides in child growth, by using one activity to reinforce another.
By this means, we had children, for instance, a lot of poetic development, developed in this kind of way is an example; we had children climbing pine trees, and taking handfuls of the pine-needles and chewing them, and just climbing round the trees generally. And when they came back to the ground, we asked them to write about what the trees said to them, and we told them not them not to worry about any problems with grammar or spelling, or so on, just to set down what they felt and what they were thinking about when they were doing this activity. And we got a lot of free and direct poetic utterance through that. We got a lot of work, and a lot of development out of pottery, out of coil forms, and the children made animals. They also made lots of things out of clay. And they were asked to write what they were thinking about when they were making these things, or they were asked to a story about the things which they were making. And they were asked to make paintings and Iino-cuts, about these things.
So, what began to happen after a while, as these activities developed, was that a child could start at any point; he could start by writing a poem and then the images conjured up by the poem he could make a painting, or he could make something in wood-carving or in clay. Or he could start off from the point of making something in clay and then write stories and poetry and so on like that. A lot of the work was based on the measurements of things which they were making, or areas in which they were going to use for making things in. And the ordinary arithmetic processes were dealt with largely in this kind of way, of just measuring and adding things up. A lot of these things weren’t new, except that I think in this case they were fully and well exploited. There was a school shop, operating in the classroom, and a lot of the number work was done through the activities of the shop. And the children made things to go into the shop, so a lot of the activity programme was geared in that direction. They also did a publication, which was a collection of their poems, and stories, and Iino prints. And when they had amassed a sufficient amount of material, they bound it all together and they did so many copies of it and put it out.
Those school magazines now are fairly highly prized in educational circles in this country now, because the kind of creative effort that came from these children has seldom, if ever, been equalled, since. The big lesson for me in it, was the development, or rates of development which could be obtained by the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Where one idea started off in one media and was carried through to another. It seemed that big jumps could be made, in understanding and comprehension, certainly with young children. And it seemed to, from what little I knew of education – well, let’s put it this way – the very young child can be stimulated by having a lot of things around it, which are twinkling and moving, and so on, so it’s attention is… it’s not just left there as a dormant, small being but is stimulated, visually and audibly, and if it’s involved , by adults, in a series of activities, it rates of growth and progression seem to be accelerated. And in a way, this is what we were doing in the schoolroom, we were stimulating the children by involving them in extended activity programmes, and crossing from one media into another, backwards and forwards. And by doing this, reinforced and developed increased rates of leaming. It was good school to work in because, we conducted I.Q. testing at the beginning of the programme and the levels we got were for an average group of children, but from the evidence of work which materialised, people wouldn’t have thought that. Well, I was going to go on and say that, when I went to Europe, and I was involved in all these ideas and different attitudes coming through, and coming up face-to-face with multi-media activities in their various forms, what I was seeing again there, were the developmental work which we’d done at Oruaiti and other schools, materialising at an adult level, and a much more extended level because the immediate facilities were much more extensive and much more sophisticated. But nevertheless, there was a clear identification with my previous activities, here in New Zealand, and with what I found overseas. And it led me to a re-evaluation, a rediscovery of my earlier work in schools, and since I’d returned in 1968, this had been my main preoccupation – the fertilisation of, and development of ideas, and the involvement of ideas, using, involving different medium. And I think it goes a long way to explaining why my present work differs so much from traditional usage of materials.
JDP: You don’t in fact structure your art for a particular market, the interest is in the ideas, in the exploration of these in any form?
JA: Right…l think…one of the reasons why I concentrate on this, or free myself, to involve myself in this area – which I think is a better way of putting it – is that I have a job, I have the financial means to support myself. And so my object is not to become a successful artist in terms of producing objects which can be sold and given a monetary return to me – though I’m very pleased when I sell things of course, because it gives me more money to be able to develop my work further, and this is also essential. But basically, I operate on a loss. I’ve had to write any notions of being a success and that kind of thing, out. By doing that of course, it frees me to concentrate on problems, which I set myself. My activities are somewhat restricted because I’m working on my salary only, and I use all my salary for these kinds of purposes. And I’m in a continual state of debt because of this. But at the same time, I hold to the situation, that basically I do have a wage to support myself and the family, and I think of the work I do in terms of what’s involved with it and for no other reason.
JDP: Have you done any commission recently? What would you feel about commission sculpture at this point?
JA: Well I usually do commission sculpture if anything is offered to me, to get myself out of debt a little. And I certainly won’t – even in the commission field – I don’t accept any work unless I’m interested enough to do it. In other words, I’ve got to feel some identity with the problem before I’m prepared to spend my time doing that. And some of the interesting problems I’ve had – have been with the Palmerston North Teacher’s College work – the work for the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, and recently I did a work for Metal Import Company. I made very little money on the Palmerston North Work and also the Metal Import Company, and I owe money on, I operated on a loss for the Commonwealth Games sculpture. So, it’s not a profitable area, either financially, or in terms of my time. But nevertheless, one of the things about commercial work is that there is a certain amount of working capital, and that working capital is money which is not, in ordinary circumstances, available to you. And it gives you an opportunity to make structures which you wouldn’t have otherwise. And briefly speaking, that’s why I accept commissions of that kind – because couldn’t normally afford to do them with my salary.