Tanya Ashken: Originals & Offspring

Photography by Cheska Brown

“I feel as though I’ve seen this before.” This is a comment very often made upon a first encounter with one of Tanya Ashken’s sculptures, said with slight awe at a moment of implicit recollection.

Have viewers, in fact, seen the sculpture before? Or have they seen Brancusi’s sculptures, and Hepworth’s and Moore’s, with Ashken’s works now surfacing long-lost knowledge of European modernist sculpture? Otherwise, perhaps they’ve walked along Wellington’s waterfront, or commuted along Kelburn’s Talavera Terrace, with Ashken’s sculptures in these places becoming subconsciously familiar.

One more possibility, and this the most fruitful: these sculptures are known to us because their forms are primordial. Classical and timeless, they’re familiar in the same way as a landscape we’ve returned to every year since childhood, or as a body we’ve slept next to for a decade. Seeing people see these sculptures for the first time, watching them stroke them and walk around them, I’ve observed countless times those moments of startled recognition.

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Archaeological discovery; remnant of an ancient culture; recently discovered fossil; preserved timber washed up at Island Bay beach; a nude descending a staircase; part of a ‘frozen flame’; refined modernist sculpture; sculptor’s refuse… All are possibilities when you come across a work like Ashken’s Olduvai. Sculpted from ebony and later made in bronze, parts of the work gleam as though polished by the strokes of a thousand hands, and other parts are jagged and matte as though the sculpture was just pulled up out of the earth. This is how Ashken wants it: timeless and hard to place, so that we may as well take her works for what they are rather than fitting them into a modernist -ism.

Olduvai gets to the heart of Ashken’s concerns. The Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania is the site of some of the most important archaeological discoveries of early human life and evolution, and Ashken says that when she visited in the ‘90s she “meditated” there for some time and was brought to tears. Some of the earliest human species lived in the Gorge area about two million years ago, and the discoveries made there during the twentieth century altered our understanding of human precursors. It’s in this kind of perspective—rooted in geological, mythological and evolutionary time—that these sculptures stand most staunchly. Paradoxically it is also this connection to ancient cultures that, as Damian Skinner has argued, makes the sculptures modernist.

Stand on the verandah of Ashken’s Island Bay villa looking out towards Cape Palliser and you cannot miss these geological-temporal currents. When seen from here the whole world looks sculpted, carved and washed by many millennia. It’s the same kind of geomorphic landscape that McCahon knew and painted: as he said of the Otago landscape of his boyhood, it has “a calmness, a coldness, almost a classic geological order. It is, perhaps, an Egyptian landscape…” Ashken acknowledges landscape as an influence on her work, but says “it could be a landscape anywhere.” An Egyptian landscape maybe, or a Scottish one. The same, one assumes, for the fauna that appear in her work: you can see birds overseas too.

This is a very different story to the nationalist one that has most often been told about modernism in this country, and it’s different too from the headstrong post-nationalism of artists a generation younger. It’s instead a story of expatriates, marriages and new arrivals; of cosmopolitan Londoners and Parisians living in New Zealand; of connection to the world rather than distance from it. It’s a story about urban, urbane overseas-born women like Tanya Ashken and Dame Louise Henderson, rather than backcountry Men Alone or urban artist men still hanging on to an axe, albeit this one to grind.

Ashken’s work may have been hard to place in New Zealand’s art history of the twentieth century, but standing in a gallery surrounded by her sculptures in the twenty-first, the effect is whole and right. Questions of New Zealandness quickly fall away (if they ever occurred at all), and we find a body of work that has a cohesiveness and unity whether looked at in part or in whole. One sculpture speaks to another, bronze to marble and wood to aluminium. Step off Jessie Street or Island Bay’s Esplanade and you could be in a Parisian atelier, like the one in which Ashken did a year’s study. No wonder Ashken says Paris remains a kind of spiritual home.

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Monolith is an early work of Ashken’s, made in 1962 while she was still living in London. Created from Carrara marble, the sculpture is vertical but with an almost imperceptible curve as it moves upwards. There is a vertical channel along one side that widens towards the top, as though a thumb has effortlessly smoothed a hollow from the marble as it stroked the form. Grey veins in the marble run diagonally and sometimes read like the lines of time in the cross-section of a tree trunk. There’s an effortlessness in the effect of the work, as in so many of Ashken’s sculptures—they seem so final and permanent that you can’t imagine them anywhere else.

Monolith was recently cast in bronze, and, seeing the result for the first time, I had to remind myself that the original marble Monolith is one of the sculptures most familiar to me in the world. Standing always on my grandparents’ mantelpiece, next to a worldly abstract painting by Geoff Thornley, I’ve known the work implicitly—primordially, even—from about the same time as some of my earliest memories. But that’s not what I was thinking about, when I saw the bronze Monolith. Ashken’s sculptures have their own life, and even subtle differences between bronzes of the same edition cause the sculptures to feel quite different. The bronze Monolith was an entirely new work to me: related to the original, but with its own spirit.

It’s telling that Ashken changes the names of many of her works when they are made in bronze. The term “originals and offspring” is Tanya’s, describing well the relationship between the two: there’s some nature and some nurture, so that the works are all, in a way, unique. White Torso, originally in Carrara marble, became Aphrodite II when made in patinated bronze; In Memory of Jacko, sculpted from kauri (Jacko was a dog Ashken cared for), became simply Abstract when cast; Kore morphed into Waiting for Gaia. What the editions lose in wood grain and marble vein they gain in shadow and lustre so that the name change represents the change in their nature.

Aphrodite is an energetic and alluring work from 1967 that, from whichever direction you view it, seems to hold something in reserve. You feel you must go looking for its secret, hunting for the view that might reveal the whole, but walking around and around you never quite find it. Seeing Aphrodite in the original marble next to two bronze editions—each with a different patina and on different height plinths—crystallises the individual spirit of each material. With works like this, and many others, Ashken brings Greek myth and ritual into conversation with the sensuality of Rodin, from her atelier in Island Bay.

I have a vivid memory of Ashken arriving for tea out of a Wellington southerly, with driving rain sweeping her up the avenue and through the first gate. She takes off her raincoat in the foyer and throws it over White Torso with the same nonchalance as if it were a coat hanger. The sculpture immediately came alive, its form filling the coat and giving it shape. The gesture said so well that these are sculptures to be lived with and loved—like a partner or a lover, they become entirely familiar to us but never lose their ability to be seen anew. A New Beginning seems to speak for the whole of Ashken’s remarkable body of sculpture: never beginning or ending, time present and time past, new countries and old, ancient fragment and modern device… Do you feel that you’ve seen it before?