Transformative Practice and Open Gestures

Murray Hewitt,  The Rising Gale,  2017 (video still)

Murray Hewitt, The Rising Gale, 2017 (video still)

Published in:
Common Ground
Hutt Public Art Festival, Groundwater
Commissioned by Letting Space
Online Essay


The willow trees blur and the rocks morph as I glance fleetingly at the river from my car window. The Hutt River near Wellington appears little more than a passive channel that divides State Highway 2 from suburbia. But what do I know. I have never lived in its vicinity. I have never walked along its banks or floated on its surface. Nor have I ever pondered about its existence. My perception of the river has been entirely mediated through the window of a vehicle hurtling down the road.

For someone with a more specialised understanding, like a hydrogeologist, the Hutt River is the visible veneer of an immense cyclic distribution system of water, earth, biological life and human infrastructures. A historian or kaitiaki could add further insight, explaining that the Hutt River has had numerous names including Te Awa Kairangi, Te Wai o Orutu and Heretaunga — names that reflect the changing Māori presence in the area.

The vast gap in perception, between my naivety and someone with an expert understanding, is symptomatic of how modernity and urbanisation have ideologically and physically separated many of our population from the natural environment. As the ecological implications of our modern lives catch up with us it is becoming increasingly important to understand these vast environmental systems.

This is the main motivation that drove Groundwater, the theme of the 2017 edition of the Common Ground Hutt Public Art Festival. It utilised the fast evolving discipline of contemporary art to help the public engage with, better understand and value the region’s waterways, above and underground. Hutt City Council initiated Common Ground in 2015, and to curate this second iteration they invited the organisation Letting Space, who took on the challenge of uniting artists, communities, iwi, schools, scientists, and public officials.

Letting Space chose to focus on commissioning five main works by artists, with a further nine projects coming from an open public call. These linked together through a hub created by Letting Space. Seventy six events took place over eight days in late February to early March 2017. All drew on various aspects of scientific method, baskets of indigenous knowledge and social history to highlight ecological problems effecting fresh water.