Birds have long been associated by humans with the ethereal. Appearing globally in lore as omens and symbols, they act as airborne messengers traversing the corporeal and incorporeal worlds. Flowers too have historically been ascribed a symbolic meaning, regularly employed in art and literature to express a hidden narrative, or gifted as traditional expressions of love and loss. The metaphorical significance of the two might seem tethered to the past – yet our contemporary world abounds with birds and flowers used as emblems for cultures, countries, and companies. But what happens when we lose the icon itself? The Poignancy of Absence, Paul Dibble’s exhibition of new sculptures, considers the impact of extinction on our cultural ecosystem, and presents a eulogy to New Zealand’s own lost fauna.
The sculptures in The Poignancy of Absence feature native New Zealand birds atop branches, their bills suggestively in reach of New Zealand’s iconic Kōwhai flower. Like a caricature, Dibble’s birds are instantly recognisable though greatly abbreviated, as they have been condensed down to their lively essence: the fan-like spread of the Pīwakawaka’s tail, the elegantly curved bill of the Huia, and the long straight tail of the Tui, referencing its direct flight.
Birds have been a recurring motif in Dibble’s practice for over a decade, darting in and out of his sculptures as a real bird might. Previous series have seen bronze birds perched on immense geometric forms in Corten steel, as if playfully desecrating the great minimalist sculptures by Richard Serra or Donald Judd. Dibble’s most recent works represent a shift to a more solemn tone. The Huia, in particular, resonates with Dibble. The Palmerston North foundry run by the artist is close to the Tararua Ranges, where the last sighting of the native wattle bird was recorded in 1907. Once prized by Māori and settlers alike for their white tipped tail feathers, the Huia faced inexorable extinction caused by widespread deforestation and over hunting. The Huia is a morality tale for colonial exploit and environmental neglect. Dibble resurrects the lost bird, instilling his oversize bronze Huia with an inherent duality: at once omen and tribute.
This duality is underscored by the artist’s masterful grasp of bronze, a medium both wholly malleable in its liquid form, and indelible when solid. This is most discernible in Waterfall, 2018, where Dibble captures the viscous fluidity of molten bronze to form the cascading water, and contrasts it with a solid slab cliff recalling an ingot. Dibble’s concern with the materiality of his chosen medium is shared with European modernist sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and situates his practice alongside those who endeavour to maintain simplicity and truth to material. The Tui and Huia studies further explore the possibilities of bronze, incorporating negative space. A void becomes a wing, or belly, as curved cavities articulate the birds’ anatomies in an otherwise paraphrased form.
Dibble’s bronze is patinated a sombre brown, which offsets the 24-carat gilding of his Kōwhai, akin to the riotous dumping of yellow in the otherwise uniform New Zealand bush. Kōwhai are our national herald of Spring, bursting into flower and providing nectar for our native birds. Once included in a poem lamenting the loss of New Zealand’s flora and fauna by statesman William Pember Reeves, the Kōwhai in Dibble’s sculptures are a lively celebration of their endurance. Much like a bouquet of flowers gifted to express condolences, Dibble’s gold flowers become gestures to the birds they accompany: a rally cry to conservation, and a lasting tribute to our New Zealand ecosystem.