Larger than life – a visit to Gibbs Farm

Academy Travel tour leader Robert Veel takes you on a virtual tour of one of the world’s great art sites.

New Zealand entrepreneur Alan Gibbs has always thought big. After an early career in diplomacy and banking he made his first fortune in the 1980s in the nascent telecommunications sector, before moving on to shipbuilding, developing high speed amphibian vehicles used from Detroit to the English Channel.

Gibbs purchased his eponymously-named farm in 1991. The spectacular site reflects his entrepreneurial vision. Kaipara Harbour – the largest harbour in the southern hemisphere – dominates the horizon and the constantly changing tidal profile of the shallow waters creates natural drama for the sculptures on the farm.

Gibbs and his then-wife Jenny began collecting with smaller works by New Zealand sculptors. Many of these works are placed close to the residential buildings, off limits to all but the immediate family. But he soon realised such a grand landscape needed to be matched with bold, large-scale artworks. Rather than purchasing works from art fairs, Gibbs commissioned site-specific works, engaging the very best contemporary sculptors from around the world. The roll call of names is impressive: Anish Kapoor, Richard Serra, Andy Goldsworthy, Sol LeWitt, Maya Lin and Bernard Vernet, just to name a few.

Gibbs was meticulous in his planning, requiring the sculptors to visit Gibbs Farm and consult extensively. American sculptor Richard Serra, who was hardly short of lucrative commissions closer to home, remembers Gibbs’s crystal clear injunction, “If you’re going to do something here I want your best effort.” And it seems to have worked. Serra’s snaking 140-metre-long Te Tuhirangi Contour is among his finest works.

Scale and the interaction between landscape and artwork are an essential part of the Gibbs Farm experience. According to curator Rob Garret, “Gibbs Farm is the perfect environment for what can only be described as a double experience of many of the artworks. On the one hand they can mostly be seen from a distance and their true scale is deceptively disguised by the drama and scale of the landscape around them which often out-muscles them. But walking the landscape and coming into close quarters with each artwork, one after the other, each work fills your viewing horizon and imagination.”

Up close with Richard Serra’s 140-metre-long Te Tuhirangi Contour

Apart from Serra’s magnificent bronze contour wall, this writer’s favourites include Vietnamese American sculptor Maya Lin’s 2013 work A fold in the field, Bernar Venet’s 2012 work, 88.5˚ ARC x 8 and Neil Dawson’s Horizons (Gibbs commissions one new work a year, so the collection is always expanding).

Maya Lin is best known for her inspiring but controversial Vietnam Memorial, embellishing Washington’s National Mall, not far from the Lincoln Memorial. Lin undertook the Washington work as a student, but her more recent work has been ‘earth art’. Five consciously artificial hills rise like bunkers from the flat land near the harbour shore, simultaneously reflecting the natural environment and acting as a foil to it – thereby creating artistic ‘tension’.

Maya Lin’s A Fold in the Field enjoys a stunning backdrop

Bernar Vernet’s curving steel columns thrust skywards, like skyscrapers on a far horizon. They are a triumph of scale – visible but not overwhelming from a distance, but, with a column length of 27 metres, they dwarf anyone who walks up to them.

Bernar Venet’s ARC is mounted high on the last ridge-top before the land descends to the coastal flats

The local flag is flown by New Zealand sculptor Neil Dawson. His 1994 work, Horizons, was one of Gibb’s first commission. Like a vast transparent tissue on the horizon, Dawson uses voids and mesh-like screens to echo the surrounding hills.

Neil Dawson’s ever-changing Horizons – weather dependent

The biggest name at Gibbs Farm is undoubtedly Anish Kapoor. His fabric and steel Dismemberment, Site 1 was commissioned in 2009. Like a giant two-ended French horn, the deep ‘Chinese’ red sculpture lies in a fold at the top of the highest hill at Gibbs Farm, overlooking all the other works. It is a good starting point for a walking tour of the farm. It was thanks to Kapoor’s highly successful work that many other internationally-known artists were attracted to the site.

Anish Kapoor’s Dismemberment, Site 1, created from blood-red fabric stretched between two giant metal rings

And as if this magnificent amalgam of ocean, landscape and sculpture isn’t enough, Gibbs has populated his farm with exotic wildlife from throughout the world. An emu, giraffe or bison is likely to wander into your viewfinder just as you are lining up that perfect shot. An inspired touch, reminiscent of the menageries of emperors past.

Emu’s out for a stroll, with Serra’s Te Tuhirangi Contour in the background

Gibbs Farm is located on the Tasman coast, about 90 minutes north of Auckland. The bad news is that it is very difficult to gain access. New Zealanders enter a ballot for one of four open-days a year, during which 4-6,000 people visit the farm. Some private tours are also offered, but not to individuals. A private tour of Gibbs Farm is a highlight of Academy Travel’s New Zealand North Island tours, which is scheduled again in March 2019. We have arranged special access to the farm.

Robert Veel

Robert Veel

Robert Veel is a cultural historian with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Italy, the USA, Scandinavia and Turkey. He has a strong personal interest in the visual arts, architecture and music, and is a founding director of Academy Travel. Robert holds a BA, Dip. Ed and M.Ed, all from the University of Sydney. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Sydney before a long stint at the University’s Centre for Continuing Education, lecturing in Italian history and culture and working as Assistant Director. Robert continues to teach occasionally in Continuing Education courses.

Upcoming tours led by Robert Veel

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