Are you my motherland?

Are you my motherland? Or the myth of nationality from the diary of an antipodean interloper.

2015 Cabinet exhibition Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design.

PART ONE: Foyer cabinet

Justine Giles, 2015, If you lived in this box     Justine Giles, 2015, If you lived in this box(detail)

Justine Giles, 2015. If you lived in this box you’d be home now [cardboard, marker pen, stick]


PART TWO: Library cabinet

Justine Giles, 2015, The things we (never) leave behind Justine Giles, 2015, The things we (never) leave behind2 Justine Giles, 2015, The things we (never) leave behind3

Justine Giles, 2015. The things we (never) leave behind [Nana’s embroidered table runner, sprouting potatoes, dimensions variable].


Are you my motherland? Or the myth of nationality from the diary of an antipodean interloper.

Nationality, unlike race or culture, is arbitrary.

Parliamentary debates about changing the New Zealand flag, as well as the issue of extending New Zealand’s quota in response to the refugee crisis, have brought issues around nationality to the foreground in recent months.

What constitutes nationality? Is it a birth certificate? A passport? Citizenship? Having a family history in a particular place? In a country formed through migration, we all have stories from other places that have helped construct our identities.

If nationality is based primarily on happenstance, distilling our diversity into a cohesive symbolic identity is problematic; we don’t all fit into the same box.

And if nationality is so tenuous, how can we make decisions on who does or does not belong?



September seminar studio work

I like to look back on work with a bit of distance, so here, belatedly, are some images of my studio work critiqued in the September seminar. (With the added benefit of being beautifully photographed by Lea Schlatter).

September was a work-in-progress seminar, and additionally it was the seminar in which the part four students had to deliver Oral Presentations.  In the short period between July and September my main focus was on creating the presentation, but I wanted to experiment with a couple of ideas, and decided to test out a book format.

Trace book 2   Trace book

Justine Giles, 2014. Untitled (Book of traces) [ink, ballpoint, coloured pencil,    graphite on detail paper, 110 x 175mm (closed)]

The first is a little fourteen page book of transparent paper with book inscriptions (or part inscriptions) on each page. The writing can be see through several layers, though not all of them, which means that as you flick through the book the layered images shift with the pages.

I was interested in seeing what would happen if all these pages that had be altered with handwriting were all together in one place, a concatenation of sentiments, built upon each other, and yet still separate.

Indigo a fiction 3Indigo a fiction 2 Indigo a fiction 1

Justine Giles, 2014. Indigo: A Fiction [mixed media, 137 x 205 x 20mm (closed)]

The second book was a different project based on the theme Indigo. I became interested in Isaac Newton’s inclusion of Indigo as a colour in the spectrum and the subsequent controversy over whether it was a unique colour at all.  The suggestion being (as I’ve written about before) that he wanted very much to find seven colours in the spectrum (because seven was a significant number at the time) and finding only six he is said to have invented Indigo (named after a dye).  It interested me in part because my partner is colour blind and one of the things he has difficulty with is shades of blue, and also because I associated the story in my head with Rebecca Solnit’s Field guide to getting lost where she uses the evocative phrases “the blue of longing” and “the blue of distance” to describe how things at a distance (such as mountains) seem blue, but are no longer blue when you reach them.

I loved the idea that Indigo could be the colour that sits between reality and fiction, known, visible, but somehow contested anyway.


The books were a misstep.

I had been so focussed on the subject that I didn’t pay enough heed to either form or content.  The one-to-one relationship (i.e. books about books) was pointed out as being distracting, and in hindsight I absolutely agree.  It is too easy to miss the subject because the form is so dominating.  The book format, because it is familiar, is also very leading.  Viewers want to read the work in a linear way, which closes it down to one prescribed interaction.

Where other work has been more successful is where they have suggested books while being present as something else. This is a better way of addressing the concept of trace because trace is a transformation not a reiteration. My work is not necessarily about books in a literal sense, but these works made that really unclear.

Sometimes the most useful lessons are learned in walking down the wrong path for a while, because at the very least it helps in identifying what the right path might look like. Understanding what went wrong and why is critical for being able to pick up and progress further.  Mistakes aren’t failures.

A Knight’s Tour

Invention is often built on an existing idea, a small kernel around which the innovation grows. If you were to follow one of these filaments it would lead you backwards and forwards, through repetitions and variations, like some kind of illogical map. The iteration of an idea contains both the familiar and the strange. To a curious mind ingenuity is a problem solving game.

The knight piece in chess traverses the board in diagonals. A knight’s tour is a mathematical riddle in which the knight must navigate the chessboard in such a way that it lands in every square once only. It is at once an intellectual puzzle and a parlour trick.

A Knight's Tour 7

Justine Giles, 2014. Diagram of the Mechanical Turk a chess-playing automaton that bested Charles Babbage twice [ink on paper, 455 x 560mm]

Justine Giles, 2014. I went home to find the Chess Challenger 7 and came back with my father’s old calculator [framed calculator, 250 x 300mm]

 A Knight's Tour 5

Installation view

A Knight's tour 1

Justine Giles, 2014. Image of Charles Babbage as seen in the Science Museum, London in 2009 [graphite on paper and panel, 250 x 300 mm]

Justine Giles, 2014. The right hemisphere of Charles Babbage’s brain as seen preserved in the Science Museum, London in 2009 [graphite on paper and panel, 250 x 300mm]

A Knight's Tour 4

Installation view

A Knight's Tour 2

Justine Giles, 2014. Chess Challenger 7 reconstructed from memory with the help of two siblings and Google [watercolour and graphite on paper, foam core board, 380 x 240 x 65mm]

A Knight's Tour 6

Installation view

A Knight's Tour 3

Justine Giles, 2014. June 2014, Turing test beaten? [screen-shot print on paper, 420 x 297mm]

The Process of Finding

The very concept of finding requires that something must at first be lost, left behind or forgotten, temporarily elsewhere until it is once again called into the spotlight in the excitement of its having been found.

A second-hand bookstore is a temporal holding space, a halfway house for words waiting to complete their promised transaction from person to person. A bookstore like this one is a magical elsewhere for ideas, until they are rediscovered and passed on once again.

The road to rediscovery is often serendipitous, a consequence of a strange journey that leads from this to that. Surrendering to the search means opening up to possibility of the unexpected.


When I first stepped into the Hard to Find bookshop a couple of months ago, I was inspired. Here was a bookstore with all the whimsical charm you could dream of: the shelves a winding maze of cramped passages through the main area, stairs with the slightly too tall steps leading up to the mezzanine where the books reach up to meet the now dangerously low ceiling. The stairwell to the upstairs is lined with rose pattern wallpaper cracked to show the hessian layer beneath and undulating loosely across the walls distorting the proportions of the hallway. The walls of the front rooms over-looking the street carry the bleeding brown of past water damage.

shop 1

Everywhere books, books, books, cramming the shelves, windowsills, on mantelpieces, on each step of the main staircase, piled on the floor two deep in places, knee high in others. And on the rare wall spaces, and in between shelves, on the end of shelves, on the banisters, the railing, the poles holding up the mezzanine, and even in places on the roof the crazy ephemera… bookmarks, cuttings, photos, postcards, photocopies, handwritten instructions on scraps of paper, and art.

It looked for all the world like a scene from a book. The kind of place you would knit together in your imagination, but never actually see in real life. I went home and dreamed about it, and became obsessed with the notion of holding an exhibition in that unlikely place.

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that the shop itself was a work of art, but how could I get people to reconsider it in this light given that they were more likely to take it for granted as a shop? The exhibition needed to include works of art that were inspired by books, research and storytelling. Rose and Alexa (whose work holds parallel themes to my own) were on board as soon as I described my ideas. We didn’t know if it would work, if we could pull it all off, but we thought it would at least be a very interesting experiment.

shop 3

At first I thought that the artwork would operate as a MacGuffin, (to steal some film lingo) that is, an interchangeable plot device around which the action revolves; in this case the thing that the viewer must look for, which in the process renders the shop visible as an artwork. In order to find something one must search, and in that search be exposed to many more unexpected findings along the way… this the experience that The process of finding attempts to illustrate. Trying to find the artwork in the bookstore would mean coming across and examining other works of art or ephemera, or being disrupted by book titles: a personalised journey of discovery.

It is the role of the artist (through the artwork) is to ask the viewer to look at something in a different way. During the exhibition, we hoped the uncertainty created by the layering of artefacts would encourage the viewers ask themselves “is this the art?” and to perhaps conclude (regardless of what they are looking at) that it is. The artwork is the exhibition. The artwork is the participating viewers’ own experience.

On the other hand it might seem strange to suggest that sixteen artworks are just an elaborate artifice to make the viewer look. I’m not suggesting that the individual works should be dismissed as meaningless, and here the MacGuffin analogy falls apart because actually there are at least two possible levels of engagement in the exhibition:

Firstly, in the search for the artwork the viewer is required to look closely at the shop in order not to miss anything, and in the process makes their own discoveries within the shop.

shop 2

Secondly, the artwork itself reflects the idea of finding. Whether it was, for example, Alexa’s found and photographed text, Rose’s found DVD collection that also evoked lost motivation, or my accidental watercolour created by water damage to a book, they are all about discovery. These works are evidence of the artists’ own search and the exciting moment of encounter which is paralleled during the exhibition by the audience looking for the work.

The preview night was a pretty strange experience, but one in which viewers for the most part took child-like glee in, clutching the artwork list like a treasure map, some even doggedly checking off the artworks one by one determined to trace them all. There was even an unanticipated level of collaboration between viewers, as they asked each other for help or gave directions, and jubilation when a new work was found. One of my friends commented that it created camaraderie between people who might not otherwise have talked to each other. And many people returned home with their own discoveries in the form of books.

I went back again this weekend, during regular hours, a guide to my family who couldn’t make the preview night. The atmosphere had returned to that of a slightly irregular bookstore, and the artworks were swallowed up within, absorbed into the identity of the shop, disrupted only with a couple of kids running around (to the tolerant bemusement of the patrons) yelling: “Aunty! I found another one!”


IMG_7053 IMG_7057

After a few initial set backs (due mostly to my inexperience of working with wood) I finally finished the pantograph I’d been planning since the last seminar.  I’m going to need a bigger drawing board to attach it to, but eureka it works!

The principle is that you draw with the pencil on the left, and the pencil on the right mimics the movements and copies the drawing larger.  The quality of the lines are somewhat dependent on how tightly the joints are screwed (it is more fluid, when they are looser, obviously) but having the wing nuts on means that the joints can all be played around with.

Two works from January

I wrote this (detail 2)

Justine Giles, 2013-2014. I wrote this in a language I can’t read (detail). [Cut-out and graphite on vellum, 594 x 841mm]

In July I started experimenting with the idea of writing as a form of drawing.  Since then I have become more and more interested in the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and what they mean in terms of art making. The left hemisphere, which controls the right hand (my dominant hand) is a linear thinker, this is the part of the brain where language is stored, and it is also the part of the brain that is utilised in writing the alphabet.  The right side of the brain is often associated with creativity and a more holistic understanding of the world.  The right side of the brain is more associated with art.  In looking at text as a drawing process, I realised that it became a very interesting question of which part of the brain is in control.  When drawing the English writing I was trying to pay attention to the forms of the letters over the words and the meanings, but in the process I would slip between the two modes of understanding, sometimes breaking out of the characteristic almost meditative mood that takes over when I am drawing.  I began to think about the watercolour I did that incorporated German written in a child’s hand.  Because I don’t understand German, it occurred to me that this was more like drawing, however to push it further still I knew that the next step must be to draw a language where even the letters are a mystery to me.

The above work, written in Farsi and translated by a friend, reads “I wrote this in a language I can’t read” or at least that is what I believe it to say.  It talks about Trace in the faint graphite gridlines used to create the pattern of the letters, as well as graphite on the wall that is seen through the cut lines, and more faintly through the slightly translucent paper.  This work also experiments with the idea of both additive and reductive marks (drawing and cutting). It is about the hemispheres of the brain, of tricking the right into believing that these are just beautiful lines, and frustrating the left in its quest to make sense of the language.

It is about not knowing, and never having known (as opposed to remembering and forgetting).


Justine Giles, 2014. Prefigurements. [Ink and ballpoint pen on detail paper, 420 x 594 mm]

These handwritten book dedication pages are fascinating to me.  The combination of printed words and personal messages inscribed, create something unique.  There are many books in a print run, but as soon as someone alters it with the addition of their own handwritten text, there is only one just like this.   These works are representations removed from their original context (as part of a book) and original scale, but painstakingly copied to the pressure of the handwritten line.  This communication was meant for one person, but in the process of leaving the possession of the recipient, they are now messages dislodged from their purpose, outdated.

In the absence of the book, these become representations of a transaction between people.

Problems with installation

jg11 jg5 jg7 jg8

For January I was allocated a difficult almost corridor-like space which leading to the stairs to the mezzanine offices.  From the entrance of the space directly ahead was a gap that led to the stairs and the walls were either side.  In discussion with my supervisors we came up with the idea of adding another wall to the back to conceal this area, as you can see in the first picture above, and giving me a much more workable space.

There were a number of problems with this installation that I need to keep in mind for July (and beyond!)

One of the biggest problems was the humidity in the studios which warped all of my paper dramatically.  Not only that, it warped all the paper differently!  Never having worked with prints before it didn’t occur to me that the grain of the paper would be different on different prints, but I discovered this was the case when some of them warped top to bottom and others side to side, and they bowed out from the wall by a good 20cm.

The translucent papers seemed to fare better (perhaps because they are slightly waxy in texture?) although the thinest ones looked the worse for wear by the end of the week.  I need to be wary of the materials I use, and I also need to consider how to hang them given the humidity.  As you can see in the images above to avoid the excessive curling I had to secure the paper to the wall at the corners, and it is still evident that the paper is trying to curl at the edges.

I need to become better at installing my artwork to create interest in the space and to encourage more connections between artworks.  One of the criticisms I received was around the symmetrical layout of space.  I chose to hang it this way because I didn’t consider these works together as a series (rather I was presenting a number of strategies or threads) and wanted to avoid having a wall of this and a wall of that.  I know it was quite clumsy, so this is something I want to note for consideration when I install in July.

One thing I thought was successful about the installation was the work on the far wall: I wrote this in a language I can’t speak. The subtlety of the image makes it difficult not only to photograph, but also to see clearly in a white cube.  That being said, the subtlety is an important part of the work itself.  I remedied this by adding a rectangle of graphite drawn straight onto the wall behind it, and hanging the work slightly out from the wall.  The graphite behind lifted the cut letters just enough, and the layered effect only added to the reading of the work.

I’m really happy with how the space looked with the added wall.  I’m also happy with many of the works individually.  I now need to be conscious of the selection and presentation.

Experiment with ink


This is an experiment with printing ink… A kind of poor-man’s printmaking process. I put down a plane of glass, rolled ink on it, placed paper on top and then traced over a photocopy of a photograph. It meant that I couldn’t see the work until after I had created it, which I find very interesting in theory. I like the way that the image is understood through the combination of images that the sense of what it is starts to become clearer through the repetition, but on the whole this doesn’t work for me, it just falls flat. It could potentially work if there were hundreds of them, but I’m not sure the work is worth pursuing.