How to look at sculpture

The combination of sun and spare time makes summer a great time to take a closer look at that outdoor sculpture – you know, the one that popped up a few months ago that you haven’t stopped to investigate, or that curious one that’s been there for years and is as much a mystery now as the day it first appeared.

So slip, slop, slap - now is the time to get up close and personal with that odd piece of outdoors art.


Here are some tips to guide you in your exploration – and, while the sculptures referenced here are all sited in Palmerston North City, the principles are universal, so you can apply them wherever you may be.

* Consider the surrounding environment – Outdoor sculpture works best when care has been taken to choose a sympathetic location – a place in which the sculpture suits the environment, and the environment is improved by the presence of the sculpture. A prime example is Paul Dibble’s Ghost of the Huia, sited beside the Butterfly Quadrant in The Square. The sculpture features a large bronze huia, which appears completely at home amongst a thick bed of copper-toned flax – sculpture and environment both complementing each other, to pleasing visual effect.

* Walk around it – Most sculpture is intended to be enjoyed from many and various viewpoints. Take a walk around the sculpture, considering the different views the sculptor has created from each new vantage point. Consider, for example, Terry Stringer’s Spirit of Place, sited by the City Council underpass. An integral part of appreciating the work involves viewing it from many sides, with each vantage point revealing different bodily forms. The head, with a winged temple, suggests thoughts taking flight. The hand holds a horn of plenty, while the foot holds a rose between its toes – suggestive of the enjoyment of nature that may take place in Palmerston North’s park-like city centre. This sculpture, to be fully appreciated, should be viewed from several sides.

* Consider its size – Outdoor sculptures are often monumental, commanding attention by the sheer size of the forms. Consider, for example, Paul Dibble’s Who’s Afraid, outside the Regent Theatre in Broadway. Standing at 3.5 metres high, the giant female form towers courageously above pedestrians, bolding facing off against the massive tuatara. Even more spine-tingling, perhaps, are Elizabeth Thomson’s gigantic bronze beetles, clinging eerily to the walls of Te Manawa Art Gallery – intended by the artist to be both hyper-real and unsettling, when gallery visitors glance upward and see the monstrous creepy-crawlies looming overhead.

* Look for details – The happy contradiction of many large sculptures is that, beyond the monumentality of the forms, beauty often lies in the smallest of details. Consider, for example, Paul Dibble’s towering Pacific Monarch sculpture outside Te Manawa Art Gallery. Standing at 4.4 metres tall, the sculpture is clearly visible from some distance away. However, closer inspection will reveal a number of thoughtful details. On the figure’s broad, stern-like thigh cling a cluster of bronze barnacles: these represent the long journeys made by many settlers to these lands. Other surface castings bear the appearance of bees’ nests, representing abandonment of values of the past. And look for the small bronze bird perched atop the figure’s headdress, evocative of the way birds sometimes rest upon outdoor works of art.

* Go ahead and touch – One of the greatest joys of outdoor sculpture is that you’re allowed to touch. Touching a work of art brings you into direct, physical connection with it – you can run your hands across the surface of the work, taking in its shape and texture with your fingertips, in a way rarely encouraged with other forms of art. This is one of the reasons why Anton Parson’s Numbers sculpture in Coleman Place, and the “boulder” sculptures in The Square, are so popular with children – children are free to drag their fingers across the surfaces, sit on them and – to the frequent chagrin of caregivers - jump off them yelling “look at me!” In a more sophisticated way, adults are also able to physically engage with outdoor sculpture; contrast the feel of sun-warmed bronze with cool steel, or the rough pitted surface of hand-hewn stone with works lovingly carved from marble or wood.

* Watch it move – Another unique aspect of sculpture is its ability to create movement – not as an optical illusion, but as an object actually changing its position in space. Phil Price’s kinetic sculptures, including United Divided outside the Palmerston North Convention Centre, achieve this with compelling effect on a windy day – you can stand motionless for several minutes, watching the parts of the sculpture’s broad blue head as they dip, twist, curl and turn. Other sculptures, while physically static, can displace wind or water to a pleasing aesthetic effect.

* What is being communicated? – Public sculptures take considerable time, energy and expense to devise, construct and install – all in an effort to communicate something to us, the viewers. Yet how much time do we take to actually listen? Fully appreciating a sculpture requires some consideration as to why the artist brought the work into being. Some sculptures are obviously intended to commemorate historic figures, such as the statue of Te Peeti Te Awe Awe in The Square, or the bronze sculpture of rugby pioneer CJ Monro outside Te Manawa.


Other sculptures, such as Returning Column by Greg Johns, instead reflect something about the background or influences of the artist – Johns’ “rusty paperclip” sculpture at the intersection of Main Street and The Square reflects the artist’s interest in electromagnetic wave patterns, and is reminiscent of the heat shimmer of the Australian desert (Johns is a South Australian based artist). Other sculptures are intended to convey messages or warnings – for example, several of Paul Dibble’s large sculptural works in Palmerston North serve as reminders of mankind’s effect on the environment, and the importance of protecting our native birds and endangered species.

* Consider the effects of light – With many works of art, light is an essential element in assisting us to appreciate the work. Not only does light enable us to view artworks, it may also reveal subtle textures, marks and colourings upon the surface of the piece. Light upon sculptures may create dramatic results, casting long and fascinating shadows both on the work and beyond itself.


While most works of art are best appreciated when lit from the front, a sculpture may benefit from light falling from above or the side, or even when lit from behind. Changes in light throughout the day, and the effects of lighting at night, can dramatically transform a sculpture’s appearance. Consider, for example, a stone frieze or a carved wood panel. Strong light from the front allows us to see every part of the surface, but light from the side may encourage dramatic shadows to form, and highlight strong relief shapes.


Guy Ngan’s Cityscape, installed along the City Library wall, is arguably best appreciated at night, when illuminated by a clear blue light from behind – the light heightens both the visibility and drama of the sculpture, the cool blue light complementing the sculpture’s grey interlocking forms.

For further information contact ZIMMERMAN - www.zimmerman.co.nz / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.