New Christchurch public artwork reflects on Antarctic exploration

Auckland-based artist Brett Graham (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, Tainui) spent several months hard at work in a tent in Henderson with his friend Steve Woodward, grinding and chipping away at a nine-tonne piece of Norwegian Arctic White granite for his new sculpture, Erratic. Commissioned by Christchurch City Council and produced in association with SCAPE Public Art, the artwork is being installed along the Ōtakaro Avon River, opposite the statue of Robert Falcon Scott.

This new sculpture speaks to the journey of another Antarctic explorer, Roald Amundsen, whose skill and use of indigenous expertise in reaching the South Pole were largely ignored by the British press in favour of Scott. It takes the form of a large, horizontal, rounded piece of granite, imported from Amundsen’s homeland of Norway. The 99 mounds on its surface, unfurling in a spiral from the centre, reference the number of days that Amundsen and his men took to journey to the South Pole and back. The design of the mounds also draws from indigenous calendars and the Inuit tradition of building stone mounds to mark territories.

Indigenous peoples and issues are a strong guiding force through Graham’s art. Through his Māori whakapapa, he feels affiliated with a global network of non-Western people, and his work consciously engages with indigenous issues and how they are affected by the history of imperialism.

“I am intrigued by how history chooses to memorialise events and historical figures, while forgetting others,” Graham says. “Amundsen was the actual ‘victor’ in the ‘race’ to the South Pole, but because he wasn’t British, he was overlooked, even vilified. His genius in using the techniques he learned from Inuit communities on how to survive the extreme cold was seen as unsporting.”

“We welcome Brett Graham’s quietly monumental work Erratic to the city’s growing public art collection,” says Public Advisory Group Chair Anthony Wright. “With its glacial and Antarctic connections it speaks to the natural and human forces that have shaped Te Waipounamu and adds to the city’s Antarctic gateway narrative.”

Erratic is a sculpture that ruminates on the very nature of memorials, and how only select elements of history are seen as worth memorialising. The title of the artwork takes inspiration from glacial erratics: rocks that have been carried vast distances by glaciers and deposited somewhere far from their point of origin. It is also a play on words for the way the British Empire, including the Commonwealth, have chosen to remember history.

“We are delighted to be the producers of another permanent public artwork for Ōtautahi,” says SCAPE Public Art Executive Director Deborah McCormick. “Brett’s work has such an incredible story to tell and carries such weight both culturally and artistically. Erratic will make a fabulous addition to our city’s legacy artwork collection.”

Erratic is being unveiled on 11 March.

This artwork is made possible thanks to the support of Naylor Love, Cosgroves, Treetech, Beca, Ōtākaro Limited, Anderson Lloyd and Christchurch City Council.