Artists' Biography: Keila Martin and Andy Irving

This essay was first published to accompany the exhibition Nowhere Here by Keila Martin and Andy Irving at Dog Park Art Project Space in Christchurch, and was subsequently republished in Matters journal.

Keila Martin and Andy Irving live in Palmerston North, so I catch an Intercity bus to meet them and prepare for the exhibition Nowhere Here. I try to sleep at the beginning of the trip, but the bus driver keeps cheerily announcing the names of passing towns and waking me up. So I stare out the window and send a message to my brother: It’s strange how we grew up in rural New Zealand. Our family emigrated from Zimbabwe to rural Whanganui when we were young, and our childhood was constructed between these two different places. He replies: Eating rabbit at the Bun’s farm. I smile; this is one of our more surreal, shared Whanganui memories.

The green farmland of the Manawatu looks simultaneously strange and familiar to me from the bus’s window, and it seems Keila and Andy have a similar sensation when looking out the window from their suburban home in Palmerston North. The two artists moved North from Wellington last year and the town has a mutable, abstracted face in Nowhere Here. Keila’s diminutive paintings show the anonymous, backstreet scenes of the suburbs around their new house. She looks for snapshots that give very little away; brief, arbitrary edits from a sea of information. Her paintings are small—partly due to the constrictions of staging a show in another city on a limited budget—but also to foreground transience and temporariness. This is a town where everyone is moving through.

Keila collects me from the bus station in their Nissan Sunny, resplendent in the colour dubbed ‘Palmy cream’ by Andy because of its ubiquity in Palmerston, and replicated in the show as a small model. Keila gives me a hug and says, ‘Palmerston North has the bleakest bus station. I never want people to have to wait here long.’ It’s true, it is bleak: concrete cinder blocks and a fading mural. We get in the car and drive through town to their new house.

Their villa is in the midst of substantial renovations: walls and faux 1970s ceilings have been taken out, carpet ripped up, sections re-piled. As paint and wallpaper has been removed, the house has emerged in a pleasing strata of colour. Mustard yellows and eggshell blues compete with floral patterns, remnants of prior decorating decisions and styles. ‘Some things are just too good, and will have to stay,’ says Keila, pointing to the vivid green kitchen cupboard doors.

Stripped back to its bare bones the house feels in transition. The whole structure is in the process of being pushed from multiple, lurid pasts into the future. Nowhere Here seems to stem partly from this process of unearthing and repurposing that Andy and Keila are surrounded by, and active within, every day. ‘I’m very concerned about the instability of the house’s main pilings,’ Andy says, while we sit in the kitchen and Keila makes me a sandwich for lunch. ‘It preys on my mind. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about it. It seems stupid to keep renovating on top of something that isn’t totally secured.’

Several of Andy’s constructions in the exhibition read as props for activity and transportation, or suggest a groundless site that could be easily packed away and moved on. The yellow tarpaulin curtain is the same material as that used on the sides of large haulage trucks that roar through Palmerston’s streets night and day. This is a farming town, a depot town.

The afternoon is grey and cold, but Keila gives me her thick angora cardigan to wear (which I have always coveted), and we take their dog Toby for a walk along the river and through Palmerston North’s botanical gardens. Keila and Andy want to show me Savage Crescent, a site that weaves its way obliquely through Nowhere Here.

Built by the first Labour Government between 1938 and 1944, and named after Michael Joseph Savage, its first leader, Savage Crescent is made up of 245 state houses, most of which are maintained in their original designs. State housing was a new initiative, and the suburb is redolent of modernism’s utopian aspirations with its communal garages (which were later removed), a large central recreation area and ample gardens. It was one of the first in a planned rollout of ideal ‘garden suburbs’ for New Zealand’s working class population. Other state housing sites around New Zealand are characterised by the sameness of the houses, each square, wooden, white house mirroring the next, in well-ordered rows. Savage Crescent however, is a chocolate box of different architectural styles: Georgian Revival, Moderne Functionalist, Mediterranean. The Savage administration used the suburb as a test case, working with different architects and experimenting with structures and designs to determine the best model for future state housing projects.

Savage Crescent is a short walk from Keila and Andy’s house. The site is a loaded metaphor of stability, idealism and the aspirations of the mid-twentieth century left. Small reflections of this ‘ideal suburb’ surface in Nowhere Here. Though, Keila is as interested in the abstracted back fences of Savage Crescent as she is in the well-mannered road frontage of the houses. Her small paintings turn the suburb inside out, as if searching for its hidden construction, the logic of its leftist ideology somewhere beneath its weatherboards and brick.

Nowhere Here has a carefully coordinated physicality of objects and paintings—the bright yellow tarpaulin, the detailed model of the car, the prominent weave of the canvas in Keila’s paintings—but these all have a blankness (or smoothness? Or blandness?) that puts them slightly off kilter. These tangible things are also, almost without exception, mediated by frames, mirrors, holes and screens. Looking at and understanding images is deliberately frustrating in Nowhere Here.

The show references objects and sites that are close to Keila and Andy’s house, but it also considers how an understanding of home is constructed through images of places projected from afar. Keila and Andy are specifically interested in images of the surreal meteor strike in Chelyabinsk, Russia, that lit up the sky, injured hundreds and caused a billion Roubles worth of damage on 15 February 2013, appears in the show. The extraordinary videos and photographs of these meteors streaming across the sky seem entirely foreign and otherworldly but were instantly accessible, absorbable, and replicable for people across the world. No one’s life is truly local these days and Keila and Andy have a way of interpreting this distance through practical and understandable proportions. Andy’s meteor on a wire, confined to its limited, repeatable trajectory, and Keila’s specimen-like painting of a meteor, seem like tools to comprehend global events from a frugal, local standpoint.

The next morning, I wake up in the spare bedroom surrounded by Keila and Andy’s other artwork wrapped in bubble wrap and Tyvek. I have a shower in the semi-deconstructed bathroom. We eat breakfast, and Keila tells me about her dream from the night before:

You and I are weeding a pot plant and I pull something up. I look down and think, ‘Oh, this must be a bulb.’ But on closer inspection I see it is a moth with a small, human face. It hatches and turns into our dog Toby. But it isn’t nice, it is malevolent, so I call 111. I think that Massey University might be interested in studying it. I wrap its mouth with a lead and take it to Dunedin. On the way, I see some old ladies, and I think, ‘I’ll only ever be friends with old ladies here.’ I leave Toby in Dunedin, and spend the rest of the dream striving to get back to Palmerston North, I know it is my home, and I need to get back.

When I write this text out in full from the notes I had taken, I am in the Lower Hutt War Memorial Library. It is too cold to write at home. There is snow on the Rimutaka Hills and it feels like it had been raining for days. I go to and type in ‘moth’. It says:

To see a moth in your dream indicates that some unseen irritation may not surface until it is too late. It is important to pay attention to details and not to overlook certain things. Alternatively, the moth symbolises your weaknesses, character flaws or fragileness.

I type in ‘Dunedin’ and ‘family dog’, but nothing comes up. There is nothing about a moth with a human face, which seems to me to be the most potent image of the dream. That, and Keila’s determination to get back to Palmerston North, because it is her home, which ties in neatly with this essay, and the show, I guess.

Thomasin Sleigh