In Prayers and Proverbs, Israel Birch draws upon images of water from karakia and whakataukī to create a body of work through which multiple, hidden narratives flow. Water is life’s blood and represents a life’s journey. It takes on many varied forms and characteristics; it can bring forth or destroy life. Correspondingly, the works are rich with shifting perspectives and fragments of stories to be pieced together.
Birch’s blending of visual and textual imagery is beautifully expressed in Whakataka Te Hau (2017). Red is not normally a colour associated with water, but the artist’s refined use of form and pattern marries with the sophisticated nuances of metaphor seen in the karakia he references.
Whakataka te hau
Whakataka te hau ki te uru
Whakataka te hau ki te tonga
Kia mākinakina ki uta
Kia mātaratara ki tai
E hī ake ana te atakura
He tio, he huka, he hau hū
Tīhei mauri ora!
Cease the winds from the west
Cease the winds from the south
Let the breeze blow over the land
Let the breeze blow over the ocean
Let the red-tipped dawn come with a sharpened air.
A touch of frost, a promise of a glorious day.
As with all of Birch’s works, Whakataka Te Hau (2017) is replete with many readings. Stepped, sharp-edged squares of red pulse with energy as they advance and recede from the picture plane. In the background, burnished swirls of light are liquid and alive, suggestive indeed of the breezes over an ocean dawn. The optical rhythms of the work visually parallel the suggestion of the never-ending cycles of natural and spiritual life, where each dawn is full of unknown potential.
The luminous steel works are anchored by the subtle use of pattern and the solidity of the medium. The rounded corners, lacquered edges, and physical depth of each painting are attributes that emphasises the physicality of their making and their role as art objects. The patterned textures, achieved by grinding and sanding, create visual planes that appear to be in a continual state of flux, mimicking the vagaries of water on one level, and on another setting up powerful illusions of depth and space within the picture planes.
Wairua (2016/17) encapuslates the complexities of Israel Birch’s Prayers and Proverbs. The text floats on the surface, providing a literal expression of a Māori concept of being. Beneath this however, lie much greater depths of spiritual and symbolic nuance which are not fixed, but ebb and flow. The works of Prayers and Proverbs are signposts for those of us navigating our way through the waters, sometimes swimming against the tide and sometimes being swept along by the currents.