Elizabeth Thomson

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I feel as if I have inhabited the Kermadecs in my mind and my work since the 1970s, when a Scottish ornithologist friend, who had spent time there, told stories of the wildness and beauty of its isolation, its history, and bird populations. When I arrived on Raoul Island, there was much about the place that felt familiar to me. For many years I have been using the Kermadec pohutukawa leaf in my work. In 1994 I completed a major sculptural commission for the Kermadec restaurant on Auckland’s viaduct basin.

I cast in bronze various forms of deep sea life—creatures that do in fact exist in the Kermadec Trench—and these were installed in the aptly titled ‘Trench Bar’.

While at sea on HMNZS Otago, the vastness of the sea was incredible. Once on Raoul, however, it was the smallest details of life on the island which made the strongest impression. Walking up the Denham Bay track for a closer view of the caldera, I found myself drawn to photographing mosses, lichens, fungi and also petrels nesting deep inside burrows.

I was struck by the contrast between the vastness of the setting—being on a remote speck of land, on the rim of an ocean canyon—and the intimacy of the encounter, the mixture of tenacity and fragility in everything that surrounded us. I found some red berries that had fallen from a nikau and made my own grid-composition, which I then photographed. Raoul has similar bush and birds to mainland New Zealand; but there is a sense that everything has been shifted somehow, affected by the vast elemental forces that sweep over and churn beneath the island. Caldera is about the volatility of the island, the fire within. While the panels look like they are based on boiling lava, the imagery is in fact derived from human blood cells.

Before the voyage, I had been working on images for an exhibition ‘The Mystic Garden’. Those images were derived from cellular structures and botanical magnifications. Returning from Raoul, I found that the pre-existent works were very much aligned with what I had seen and felt on the island. The experience gave a new resonance and relevance to the images I had been working with. To me, Raoul Island is very much the mystic garden. Wonderful and frightening.