‘Breathe in … out … in … out.’ These rhythmic instructions accompany a panorama of photographs taken by the artist Boyd Webb while lying back in a bath, with his bent knees and the tips of his two big toes seen poking out of the water. As suggested by the text, the water level of the tub is seen to rise and fall gently in a simple play on Archimedes’s principle of buoyancy. When joined together, Webb’s photographs act as a humorous ‘mirror’ to the second panorama that is placed above: images of glaciated mountains that enclose the fluctuating waters of Lake Wakatipu in the Otago region of New Zealand.
These seemingly bizarre juxtapositions – one an observation of the natural world and the other a staged ‘recreation’ – are linked by a title text. This panel provides an insight into both the subject and the concept of Wakatipu. The text begins by informing the viewer of a Maori creation story concerning the extraordinary phenomenon of the recurring rise and fall of the water level in the lake. Maori belief, as related by Webb, is that the lake originated when a fearsome monster Te Tipua was killed, but his heart continued to beat, causing storms on the lake. The text then describes the influence of this Maori creation story on a Pakeha (non-Maori) understanding of the activities of the lake, in which a scientific report dating from 1912 compared the pulsing water levels to a heartbeat. Little scientific explanation was offered, except for a later report offered by the Royal Society of New Zealand in the 1950s that only stated pragmatically that the movement was due to seiche action.
Any sense of reason is upset as Webb combines the cultural myth, the scientific explanation and our human understanding of natural spectacle. Wakatipu raises questions about what is, in fact, ‘natural’; what is the result of customary belief; and the role objective Western science has to play in explaining such a phenomenon. In a surrealist vein, the ‘theatre’ of the bathtub photographs, in which Webb acts as a director and actor, combines a witty, pseudo-scientific explanation of nature with traditional, cultural histories of the lake.
Webb trained initially as a sculptor, but during the course of his studies became influenced by minimal and conceptual art practices. In particular, he looked to the increasing use of photography and text among a range of artists to document ideas, performances and the human body, often resulting in the abstraction and eventual dematerialisation of objects. Wakatipu, one of Webb’s earliest recorded works, demonstrates many of these conceptual interests – ideas that have proved to be ongoing concerns throughout his celebrated career. These include the use of droll humour, surrealist motifs and constructed sets, to comment on the complex relationships that exist between human society and the natural world.
Boyd Webb created this composite photographic work soon after having been accepted into the Royal College of Art, London, in 1972. He included it, among other works, in the exhibition Six New Zealand Artists held in the Haymarket in 1973. Wakatipu was generously donated to the NGV by the Reverend Ian Brown who received the work as a gift from the artist in the year of its creation.
Maggie Finch, Assistant Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)