by Lara Strongman
The kotuku is the native white heron, a bird that, in Mäori culture, symbolises all things beautiful and rare. The saying ‘He Kotuku rerenga tahi’ refers to the white heron as a bird of single flight—a sight seen perhaps only once in a lifetime.
Inspired by the kotuku from the bird halls at Canterbury Museum, Caroline Rothwell’s work will float on a large pond in the Botanic Gardens. For a moment it may seem to startled passers-by as if a pure white heron has momentarily landed in Christchurch on its flight over the Southern Alps. August/September is the season when the kotuku leave their winter haunts and head for the secret breeding colony at Okarito on the West Coast of the South Island—the only nesting colony of kotuku in the world.
Caroline Rothwell’s sculpture is concerned with the ways that light and shade and the tricks of visual perspective distort our experience of form. With three birds’ heads arising from a single glistening white body, Kotuku appears like a three-dimensional Rorschach inkblot, each side forming a mirror image of the other. The result is a haunting and enigmatic work, at once strongly recognisable as the native heron but also—like the inkblot used in psychological testing—an abstract form ready to engage with the viewer’s imagination.
Kotuku continues Rothwell’s interest in giving concrete sculptural form and a sense of enhanced scale to ephemeral things of beauty from the natural world. Previously she has worked with flowers, inkblots and shadows, rendering these forms in three-dimensions and on a massive scale. The kotuku, the native white heron, is a natural progression of these ideas, in a site-specific sculpture conceived especially for Christchurch. With Kotuku, Rothwell reveals a sense of the uncanny—Sigmund Freud’s term for a psychological state whereby the familiar is made suddenly strange—which lurks beneath the surface of the natural world.
Caroline Rothwell is one of New Zealand’s leading contemporary sculptors. Her large-scale work has featured in many major exhibitions in Wellington and Auckland over the last couple of years, and is included in the collection of Te Papa. Kotuku is her first work in Christchurch.
Lara Strongman is a curator and writer who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Formerly Deputy Director and Senior Curator at City Gallery Wellington