Nike Savvas

The colourful greeting provided by Nike Savvas’ installation, ‘Finale: Bouquet’, has given the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum’s new Toi Art Gallery in Wellington, NZ, the grand entrance its lofty, open spaces required.

Heralded as a ‘game-changer’, Te Papa Tongarewa’s newly contemporised space – Toi Art – opened in 2018 with a triumphant flourish and a feeling that, finally, the institution will be seen as living up to its promise as New Zealand’s national gallery (having effectively swallowed the erstwhile national art gallery in a merger, way back in the 1990s). It may be all about perceptions, but it’s a breakthrough nonetheless, and nothing could be better than Nike Savvas’ work to announce that breakthrough with a fanfare.

There could be no clearer signal that art has its own pride of place, as one moves from the more subdued ambience of the Nature section and into the bright new world of Toi Art. There is even a sense of theatrical drama about it – and if there’s anything that museums have learned in the last few decades, it’s that the commitment to art is something that must not only be done but, by all means, it must also be seen to be done.

In this case, it has taken some architectural reshaping – including a capacious double-height gallery, which we enter through a ceremonial entrance wall – and a bold commitment to large-scale three-dimensional work, the likes of which have become such a feature of the experience of art in institutions everywhere.

Commissioned to fill the nearly 9-metre-high ‘threshold’ gallery of Toi Art, Savvas’ Finale: Bouquet is indeed a work of majestic proportions, although she is certainly no stranger to gigantic projects. Made up of thousands of small, coloured, mobile parts, suspended in the gallery space, it has an immersive, somewhat interactive character. In fact, people can literally walk through the work on their way to the new galleries which occupy the top two floors.

The installation is tailored to the context in many ways, and not just in being specifically designed for the space. Aware of the underlying dichotomy between art and science in Te Papa’s collections, the artist chose to derive the colour palette for the installation from the late nineteenth-century botanical illustrations of Sarah Featon, whose work was published in what is sometimes called New Zealand’s first illustrated ‘art book’. Of course, in Savvas’ hands, the colours inspired by Featon’s modest watercolours representing native flowers (kwhai, forget-me-not, white mountain lily, taurepo, kkbeak, mnuka, phutukawa and sun orchid) become a riotous cacophony of hues that seems unmistakably contemporary. The words ‘not in Kansas anymore’ spring to mind.

As per the title, the work presents us with a bunch of flowers. Although it really looks nothing like a ‘bouquet’, we can appreciate the simple gesture. Maybe it’s a giant Abstract Expressionist rendition of a bunch of flowers. Having lived in Canberra as a child, the artist says Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles made a deep impression on her. Maybe it’s a celebratory ticker-tape parade, as if captured in suspended animation, the climax of some grand ‘finale’ (as the other part of the double-barrelled title suggests). Either way, you have to use your imagination.

There is always the temptation to account for Nike Savvas’ work purely as a seductive sensory spectacle, and yet, in general, it is highly allusive and suggestive. Moreover it is usually a bundle of associations being brought together in what is at first glance simply an ‘abstract’ work. Indeed these are typically disparate, obliquely related but partly contradictory or mutually reconcilable elements of possible meaning which exist in parallel, without ever ‘blending’ into one – and this results in a work that is uniquely enigmatic, while inviting multiple forms of engagement.

Dissonance is part of the dazzle. It’s actually interesting to consider Savvas’ work in relation to the ancient tradition of mosaic art, rather than modern painting which is the usual point of reference. As in the mosaic, the most basic property of Savvas’ art is its composite quality, and there is a constant dialogue between the big and the small, the part and the whole. Its constitutional field is not singular, but plural; its parts are diverse, their interrelationships are fluid, shimmering. The mosaic also lends itself to metaphor, in terms of social, cultural or political realities, and serves as a reminder of the provisionality of our attempts at ordering and stage-managing the world we see.

Finale: Bouquet is a work for the times, by an artist who understands the questions. It’s undeniably spectacular, and yet also quite disarmingly low-tech, and tangible. It seems to hover on this threshold between objective knowledge and free-floating subjectivity, and give volumetric expression to something which is hard to quantify: the experience of art. And, as a permanent addition to Te Papa’s collection, it’s sure to delight audiences for many years to come.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 49, 2019

Nike Savvas | Finale: Bouquet
Until 12 January 2020
Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand

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