While in Auckland I stayed with Phill Rooke and his partner, Helen and I want to pay tribute to Phill’s work, for it is undervalued in the art world. Phill created the sculpture in front of the Blackball Museum by the way.
Phill’s work has always celebrated the physical process of the working person, that ability, past and present, to create and to alter, the physical world in which we live. Of course, the natural environment is the wider context in which this human physical creation takes place. As part of this paradigm there is the physical creation of the work of art; the sculpture or painting or drawing being the work of the artist, as worker.
Polynesian brickmaker, from a community piece.
This celebration of process has a strong spiritual quality, a wonder and an awe, in the same way that the painting or sculpting of the nativity, as a celebration of God becoming part of the physical world, is filled with wonder and awe.
Phill’s father, who was a worker and a communist
Rooke’s sculptures accordingly have the physical shape and presence of the ikon.
A mill worker
But, of course, while the working person creates and alters the physical world, under capitalism, the fruits of his or her labours are owned by the capitalist, and this is the source of the revolutionary impulse. In the same way that Christ was rejected and his physical presence murdered, this also being the subject of religious art, the worker is alienated from his or her work. There is a resonance here for Rooke; a tension and knowledge that underlies his work, with the natural world often echoing this tension – birds as well as symbolising liberty have the paranoia necessary for survival.
La Passionara, the celebrated activist in the Spanish Civil War
When Rooke moved to New Zealand in the 1990s he widened the celebratory aspect to the worker having made and still making, the community in which his work takes place, in some ways mirroring the way those early Christian communities were made. Accordingly, he constructed icons for community centres and public places.
The paradigm behind Rooke’s work inevitably involves a critique of the art world, which celebrates subjective, individualist ‘works of genius’, which then become a commodity for the investor. Art is privatised, with criticism a reading for the market, and the creation of importance being a part of marketing. This extended into the cold war, with abstract expressionism, as a movement, being funded by the CIA in an ideological battle against the social realism of the USSR. This has morphed into post modernism as the culture of neoliberalism or late capitalism. Diversity leads to the need for niche marketed commodities, both in the shopping mall and the gallery.
Portrait of Nurse Shadbolt, a NZ nurse in the Spanish Civil War
In this global cultural narrative, it is easy for Rooke’s work to be marginalised (Marxist, religious and community oriented), a nostalgia, in the same way as the worker or the working class are seen as nostalgic concepts. Yet that is simply untrue. Anyone who works with or closely observes a builder or plumber or sawmiller or digger driver or gardener at work will see the pride that remains, the pride of making or healing a house or making a road or cycleway or landscape, the pride in making the world a better place. But the tensions remain of who ultimately owns the results of the work.
Accordingly, those basic physical processes that Rooke celebrates, in his icons, is a necessary reminder of what is at stake, both materially, socially and spiritually.