Louise McRae has just heard that another of her new sculptural works has sold when we catch up with her at home in Pakiri. She’s celebrating with gin and watermelon juice - not something she’s tried before, but she seems to quite like it.
Lou’s from Kaiwaka but her lust for life has taken her all over the globe. Her curly blonde hair is invariably wild, her jeans are covered in paint and charcoal, she has kind blue eyes and a huge grin. Lou, and her partner and their two teenagers live in a big black shed in Pakiri, which is evolving into a stylish home and studio.
Lou’s new body of work, entitled ‘Unmonument’, is a new angle for her. It’s sculpture, but not the fractured wood on board which her many clients know and love. “It all comes from the same place, though,” she says. Over the years, Lou has had to deal with much heartbreak – the death of her brother and later, of her husband. There was emotional breakdown at the time; her creative response was to break stuff up. Finally, there was breakthrough. “The broken paintings were way more interesting and beautiful. I’ve always been clumsy, it’s a family joke. But destroying things with purpose felt great – an honest response to the world of ‘perfection,’ that I’d never been part of.”
Perfect. The very word annoys her. “Perfection is very rarely possible, and the pursuit of it brings anxiety. Accident, mistake, failure – these words generate fear, but I see them as fertile – opportunity germinators. We need to understand that collapse is not just an end but a beginning, and an opportunity to make something new.”
Lou expanded this concept for her Master's degree at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design in 2015. Being a speaker at the 2017 Decon and Reuse Expo in Portland, Oregon was a further catalyst, forcing her to examine her personal thought processes and present them to a non-art audience. It was hard, but valuable. This new work still references ‘opportunity from collapse’, but from a larger perspective.
Monuments are about status, usually massive, impressive, sombre, often phallic… “usually made for men, about men,” she says. Lou Unmonuments, with their small bases and colourful, wobbling chunks of concrete, are their antithesis. Public erections around NZ are often based around notions of empire and war. There’s one in Matakana: a statue of George V which periodically has its head nicked by local wags, igniting community outrage.
Lou thinks it’s healthy. “I’m not condoning vandalism, but I feel that the time has come to ask about ‘meaning’ for colonial, patriarchal monuments. As well as commemoration, they represent a bunch of ideas which we should be questioning. And what do we want our new monuments to be about? Look at Sky Tower, the tallest monument in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a casino.”
There’s a gentle feminist poke to stereotype in her choice of construction materials. She uses heavy wood and concrete – but brings bright colour to the equation. “Colour is often seen as vulgar, and always as feminine. I can’t believe we still need to have these conversations, but yes: the world needs more female power!”
The work is also about the top-heavy construction industry in NZ – huge houses with mortgages to match. In a wider context, global politics feel unsafe, out of control. Words are scribbled on a paper bag taped to the wall above Lou’s desk: ‘slump, entropy, erode, teeter, balance’. “The world’s foundations right now are not sound,” she says. “We’re on a sliding slope – but maybe that’s a good thing.”
Traditional monuments contain perfect cubes, spheres or columns. Lou’s slumped concrete forms are made by pouring concrete into cut-up coffee sacks which she sews by hand. The concrete stretches the bags into unpredictable organic shapes as it hardens; sometimes the bags burst. Her wood is often burned and charred. “Fire is cleansing and it connects us. We’re all drawn to fire, we’re all made of carbon. And that velvety blackness shows off the wood grain so nicely!” she grins.
Lou’s Unmonuments could topple at any moment. They’re a reminder to let go of control, encourage imperfection and embrace chaos. Are you ready?