In A.P.G.A (the name is taken from a 1908 French café song, Chanson De L’apga, by Henri Fursy), artist Henry Turner draws together a diverse body of paintings, sculpture, a bound volume and embroideries in an immersive exploration of religion and irreligion, faith, divination and city-making. Meticulously executed, intriguing in their multiplicity of form and allusion, the works in A.P.G.A frame a unique line of inquiry into human belief. Sally Blundell talks to Henry before the exhibition.
A.P.G.A opens 5.30pm Tuesday 26 April at City Art Depot and runs through to 16 May 2022.
Sally Blundell: There are several shrine-like objects in A.P.G.A – one involves a representation of a NASA test stand in America. How did this come about?
Henry Turner: There are quite a few tests sites and they are all enormous, but I saw a photo of this one (there aren’t many) and I was delighted – it’s like a shrine! It was built for the Apollo mission but it has all the elements of a shrine. It contains a sacred object – the rocket which is to be tested – and people seem to worship it. I like that idea that these bizarre, enormously expensive structures are a sort of modern religion. They have a huge commitment of resources for no tangible benefit, except possibly the idea of living on another planet some time – which is rather like heaven in a way. So it’s almost a spiritual commitment.
The Little Key To The Small Cloth, Henry Turner, Painted styrene, plastic, water transfer, wood, gesso, etched brass, 395x330x230mm, 2022
But there is no rocket.
No, well, I’m not much concerned with the rockets. It’s about the structure. It is all about scale, power and control. I was thinking about this on the way here. I can’t remember where I read it but there’s a story in which, unbeknownst to most of the people, there is a large extra-terrestrial craft anchored off earth that has broken down. They have entered into an agreement with humanity to get it fixed, but our only means of communicating with them is visually – so we build large structures. The Great Wall of China said something like the spare part will be with you shortly – i.e. in the next few hundred years. Apple Park is maybe a reassurance, and the pyramids a message to say hang in there! – we are working on it.
The other shrine is also missing a sacred object.
That one comes entirely from my brain. It is a made-up religion without a god. I’ve been listening a lot to Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews. By the time of the Iron Age, Judaism was becoming separate from other religions in that part of the world, all of which had images or statues, carried in processions. Judaism had words but there were no images of YHWH – so these shrines were empty. I find the idea of an empty shrine fascinating. If I present an empty shrine now, the audience can put anything they want into it. I do like the idea of making up religions for one’s own personal context
Superblood, Henry Turner, Wood, plaster, gesso, paint, wire, sandpaper, styrene, brass, 335x195x115mm, 2021–22
The bronze figurines, these small gods, also seem personal, certainly adaptable.
Yes, they are strange and flexible gods. I have been interested in syncretic religions, a religious framework in which things are not fixed because they don’t involve (for example) a protean text. I read recently that it was only quite recently that the human population of India surpassed the (approximate) number of gods. So as ideas change the god or gods or god-shaped patches of mist or whatever change according to the needs of the consumer.
Yes, in some way they are a commodity. That’s interesting too.
So these gods, or effigies, serve different purposes, or needs?
They have got different attributes according to what you want, or what is a concern. That one is to do with growing things, that one is to do with the rising sun, that one has a shrine on its head, that one is to do with beehives – I adore bumblebees I must say, they live in the midst of my most precious areas and their eggs are astonishingly beautiful. Any person can put their faith in the bumblebee. And they carry different things – there’s a shooting star, there’s a body wrapped in cloth, a house, eggs, a bag in which to put sacred materials. That one is holding bells – I love bells; I love the sound of clinking bronze.
O Time Thy Pyraminds (e), Henry Turner, bronze, 225x160x65mm, 2021–22
Were you involved in the process of making?
Definitely – I took the seven wax casts taken from the plasticine sculptures I’d made to the foundry. They coated the waxes in a kind of ceramic slurry which goes very hard. Then they melt out the wax and replace it with bronze – that is the lost wax process. I watched all seven come into being. It was very ceremonial. They put the ceramic shells in a sort of giant oven with a metal cover and gas burners and use a pair of tremendous gauntlets to pick them up – and carry them up the aisle, like a host or something. Then they take the crucible and pour the bronze in. It was so Dionysian – it had a strongly religious aspect, definitely some kind of ritual.
From here you choose very different finishes – some painted, some polished, some looking as if they have just been dug out of the ground.
Yes, so they will have dramatically different appearances and manifestations at different times. One is partially encased in silk, like a shroud. Others I have put different patinas on them. And one is as if excavated, which is actually the remains of the casting.
Like an archaeological discovery?
That archaeological thing is interesting, that idea of leaving things that last. In the future it would say something about the past but the body will remain more or less recognisable – so it will become a more elemental thing. That’s the good thing about Giacometti – they are figures that have decayed to the last identifiable thing.
The Absolute Name, Henry Turner, bronze, 475x110x100mm, 2021–22
You pointed out the shooting star – you also have a bronze replica of the Column of the Snakes and a series of quite lurid dinosaurs. These are all objects that have been presented and re-presented in mythology, popular culture and art.
The snakes exist as land markers – some had a tripod where the Oracle of Delphi sat. I am interested in the idea of divination. In the ancient world, when they took these gods very seriously, divination was the thing. People would look at a calf’s liver or whatever, but the people doing that would have known a thing or two. If one state sent an embassy to the Delphic Oracle with a question, chances are another state had asked her something similar, so she would have known what things were about. Soothsayers are what were called witch doctors – they were the brains of the operation. They had great knowledge, ability and charisma – they were in that sense intellectuals and states-people rather than stereotypical purveyors of snake oil. Now that’s something to chew on.
And the dinosaurs?
What is the ripest fruit of the human imagination? The dinosaur. There are only a few bones left, we have no idea how they lived, anything we decide about them is complete conjecture. If we have them walking around and bellowing in films, what better testament could there be to the human animal? You remember Walking with Dinosaurs, the original series? That made a tremendous impression on me when I was younger. I found the shapes exciting and the fact they had been sculpted – in those days to have anything animated you had to have a model. The landscapes were quite unlike ordinary life and the close-up heads were done with animatronics. So I set out to make a more or less accurate animal and then I put strange colours on it.
Clouded Mountain, Henry Turner, gouache on paper, wood, glass, silk, gesso, 545x400x240mm, 2022
There are several paintings in the exhibition, one a very detailed map of a city. Is this a real city?
No. I have a corpus of maps and lists of words and concepts but I have never presented it before in any way. But it has a history; it has religious practices, philosophical disputes, economic activities and social upheavals. It is not a perfect world – it has plagues and floods. It is of necessity along a trading river, one main industry is textile production and you need a river for that. Certainly, those shrines I can imagine quite easily being there.
No, it has nothing to do with fantasy literature – which I am not into at all. It is my personal distraction. Magic realism is a different kettle of fish.
A.P.G.A also includes a large, pink curvaceous object – could that be in the city as well?
Not necessarily – it could be, but it would be very hard to make at the scale it is suggested to be at. It’s more of the idea of something very large which has melted softly into those pillowy contours – which is contradicted by the niches cut into it, with different ideas inserted into each. It’s a soft structure, a supple repository for things. One compartment could be folded into the whole, while another could open up elsewhere. It might be something for the psychologist to be interested in, but that might be in ways which don’t concern me that much.
There does seem to be completeness, a wholeness, to the city and perhaps this exhibition.
There’s no single theme – it’s a diversity of ideas that rejects unity. But several things have vague correlations. The idea of the city is not dissimilar to the idea of the book.
A Million Ends And One End , Henry Turner, goat leather, gold foil, card, paper, glue, thread, butter paper, ink, 307x228x65mm, 2022
Can you explain the story behind the book?
I was amazed to read Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’. It is an incredibly good short story. The character comes to a border town in South America – I envisage it being a South American version of Darfield – where he comes across a mysterious volume sent to an English mathematician. It is the 11th volume of an encyclopaedia of a whole world called Tlön, containing its ecumenical discussions and philosophical controversies, its number systems, invisible tigers, astrologies, etc,. A whole field of study grows up around this single volume but it turns out to be the conceit of an American millionaire, a bitter cynic who wanted to demonstrate to God that he was not the only one who could create a world. He poured huge amounts of money into the project on the express condition that it did not involve that imposter Jesus Christ.
So you had this volume remade?
Yes. I had two copies made by a bookbinder in Dunedin precisely as it was laid out, and worked with Aaron Beehre on the design. The page count, the size of book, the colours of the title, the words ‘Orbis Tertius’ in an oval – all are described in the story. But the rest of the pages are blank. The whole point of the story was that the project of which the book was a part could never be achieved in one lifetime. It was clearly a successive society going down generations.
The Weight Of The Planets, Henry Turner, escorial wool, glass, metal, sequins, bullion, plate, real and faux pearls, wool felt, silk velvet, moiré taffeta, silk mikado, 690x570mm, 2021–22
A.P.G.A also includes a shirt, beautifully embroidered, by you, with a heart and other bodily organs.
Making this gave me great pleasure. I’ll wear it on the night but it will be displayed for the rest of the show. I like hearts because you can put anything you want in them; you can have them whole or broken and bleeding.
There is a theatricality in this exhibition – in the shrines, the clothing, the idea of a procession of gods. This does interest you?
Well apart from anything else, I do think the theatrical is underestimated as a force in politics. That aspect of things is relevant to everyone, everywhere. That is why shrines are quite similar all over the world – they are all read in the same way, they are all expressions of some kind of religious consciousness. We can look at a data centre, the workings of which we don’t understand, but we trust the people know what they are doing. It is all about scale, power and control.
I have a fascination for large things used for that purpose. People like Leonardo da Vinci were painters and sculptors but many of them spent a large amount of their time creating theatrical spectacles for their employers. A lot of architects made stage sets – gigantic spectacles of massive structures and quite substantial pieces of engineering showing how spectacularly creative and rich the city was but almost no traces of it survive because it was all ephemeral.