precious plants and people, people, people

a reflection on Gabi Lardies time in residence with Artists Alliance

There is a delicacy to Gabi Lardies work, a natural loveliness which she light-heartedly bemoans. In her initial proposal for her residency at Artists Alliance, she expressed a desire to experiment with intaglio, a print-making method in which the image is scratched into a smooth surface before ink is spread across it, sinking into the incisions then being pressed into paper as it is pushed through a printing press. It is the precise opposite of relief printing methods like wood and linocuts where the image is stamped and sits atop the surface of the paper. With intaglio, lines are bodily and fraught with feeling – think of Käthe Kollwitz’s bodies flayed by sadness or Goya’s tumbling twilight atrocities. There is frustration in the slowness of a method which is not so ponderous and deliberate as carving, but hasn’t the ease and immediate gratification of sketching or painting, either.

It was this scratchy sense of urgency which Gabi hoped to harness in her use of intaglio techniques – to create rougher, angrier images which would work in stark contrast to the gentle melancholy of the leafy mono-prints and translucent pages which make up her recent Air books and prints. However, during her time in residence, the contingent nature of her experimentation with intaglio was revealed when her own prints – of fallen debris from local kauri, tōtara, nīkau and harakeke – turned out unexpectedly mellow. Careful and compact, the raspy scratches on Gabi’s plates soften into simple lines with a light touch and a faint, human tremor. Rather than through her use of intaglio processes, Gabi’s frustration and raw feeling can be found in the words she has composed to accompany her prints. These swift poems draw inspiration from the natural world and the way we feel within it, particularly when it is quiet, when we are alone. They also respond to the Māori creation story in which Tāne, god of the forest, pries apart his parents, earth mother Papatūānuku and sky father Ranginui, wrenching them from their loving embrace to let light into the world. Trees in the forest are thus believed to hold the sky above the earth so that the creatures of the earth do not have to live in darkness. Gabi’s verses make reference to the colonisation of Aotearoa, when the settlers first started destroying vast areas of bush and caused many Māori to worry that the darkness would return. They point out that this destructive, colonising drive continues to this day as our cities push out into forest. Gabi’s words and wider practice act as a quiet protest against the piecemeal sprawl of the city which strangles the earth. Through tactile processes and generous acts, her work seeks to communicate and facilitate our most vital role as humans: to actively care for the land.

This turn towards nurture, towards stemming the sprawl with our hands in the earth, is inspired by a karakia about the harvesting of harakeke.

Hutia te rito
o te harakeke
Keiwhea, tekāmakoekō?
Kī mai ki ahau
He aha te mea nui
o tēnei ao
Māku e kī atu
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

When the heart is torn
from the flax bush
where will the Bell bird sing?
You ask me
what is the greatest thing
on Earth
My reply is
it is people, people, people.

This karakia affirms the precious nature of human life by aligning it to the central shoot of the harakeke bush –  a part which should never be harvested so the plant may continue to grow and produce. Similarly, Gabi’s work foregrounds the special abilities we have as people to create and to cherish. Through diverse projects which include guerilla planting of native trees, folding pockets into her zines to cradle seeds and teach people how to care for them, and her current project which includes the gifting of tiny plants and handmade books to be taken home, planted, read, touched and cared for, there is a gentle yet constant message being communicated: take the time to hold and enjoy, to care, to do something so small which gestures towards the largest thing of all.

Each and every aspect of Gabi’s work involves benevolent and laborious processes which seem to highlight the role of the artist as laborer, both physical and emotional. Her interest in creating intimacy, in weaving her own stories into each ecological experimentation, offers viewers a way in, as does the tactility of her chosen mediums – paper thick with ink, unfolding in unexpected ways. Each of her books has a faint whiff of science about it, but it is the romantic, school holiday brand of science which most delighted me as a child – collecting specimens, pressing flowers, visiting the gemstones and dinosaur bones at the museums and reading books. From propagating native plants, to collecting and sketching organic debris, to holing up in libraries and penning poems, to the spray-painting of mysterious, miraculous mono-prints, the hours etching shapes into tiny perspex panes and pressing them with such care to create unintentionally gentle intaglio prints, and finally, to the fiddly, highly skilled and time-sapping techniques of book making and binding, each of these processes performed by Gabi strike me as labors of love, but also of hope. She speaks of her work as nostalgic and sad, but there are whispers of frustration, of urgency and a desire keep the darkness held back, and those whispers carry. The generosity of each book, print and seed which is sent into the community is a way of forging forward, of feeling out into the world, and there is so much optimism and warmth in these gestures it’s hard not to feel something, to feel cherished and the desire to cherish in return.

Lucinda Bennett