Exhibitions | Oliver Roake | resonance


November 2023 - February 2024

Something gravitational draws the viewer towards the works in Resonance, by Oliver Roake.

A series of blackened timber panels are arranged into square or rectangular shapes, echoing the proportions of the golden section, so that the widest correspond comfortably to the arm span of the human form. Within these, each work bears Roake’s mark - spirals travelling outwards upon concentric circles. In a Roakian twist these ancient symbols are generated afresh from soundscapes, or recordings, in this instance of endangered birds in the Fiordland forest. Honouring a tradition of making in wood, the artist’s feeling for his materials is authentic; cracks and crevices are permutations to be explored and incorporated, rather than hidden. As a child Roake lived in a medieval house which his parents were restoring, in Kent, England. ‘My bedroom was literally 800 years old. They were taking apart and rebuilding a very old house with traditional materials…[there were] old oak beams and that tradition of making.’ The experience seems to have imbued him with a preternatural feel for wood. ‘It was a pretty special time...'

While Roake’s parents played CDs, these days Roake finds himself collecting records and leaning to the analogue but enjoys the challenge of the digital. As I think about Roake, Marilyn Webb’s exhibition has opened in Ōtepoti Dunedin. I could not be there, but this week I have recalled the sound of Marilyn’s voice, especially her laugh. How it felt to swim in the soft waters of her favourite lake surrounded by hillsides of dun-coloured tussock; to connect with that place.

For this exhibition, Roake has traversed another landscape that Marilyn loved, recording the birds on the way to Piopiotahi Milford Sound; finding himself awestruck by the intensity of the sonorous dawn chorus. He used the recordings to create digital files, then drawings; these representations of sound then being carved into timbers. His works draw you into deep time through their manifestation of the sonic, using both the spiral and concentric circles. They suggest sound and are shaped by sound and yet, there is no obvious sound. It is for us to traverse those grooves and gullies, those ripples in time, flexing our inner selves like a needle to a record, to consider what it is for the birds which made those sounds to be absent, for they are scarce and becoming more so. Like a medieval meditation maze, we follow the eddies of a trail of sound up, over, around and... through.

Roake amplifies the voices of these birds and brings them into the city, into this space. Hence the works both record and amplify; they are silent and yet they speak. They are timepieces

Perhaps humans can’t resist the pull of the spiral. It reaches from the helical nature of our DNA through the natural world around us, in shells, in eddies in water, to the shape of our galaxy and beyond. Neither can we resist the circle with its suggestion of wholeness, of connection. Sound, too, goes to the core of us. Earlier this year, scientists confirmed the Universe itself has a sound, a low hum; Einstein’s 100-year-old theory that gravitational waves permeate the universe was found to be correct. It has also been discovered, in separate experiments, that our heart cells respond to sound, creating patterns at a cellular level in response to its stimuli. It occurs to me that as the two Voyager spacecraft travel at 38,000kms per hour beyond our solar system bearing their respective ‘golden discs’ of sound recordings from Earth, Roake offers recordings, tempered by fire, for the inhabitants of planet earth which call our attention to this place, to these moments – to attend, to listen, to care. For the dawn chorus work, Roake used oregon. ‘The oregon worked and spoke in a different way. It had a different energy. It had more resin and burned faster.’

The magic emerges from the process. ‘I’m always trying to learn more from my own practice and to learn new techniques,’ says Roake. ‘There’s something I really enjoy about working with timber. It’s never straightforward. Timber can surprise you... You learn to understand the variation of each piece.’

- Andrea Hotere

Resonance presents new work from Oliver Roake. A development from his Re/cognition series, this exhibition extends the visual language Oliver has created to embody sound, place, and time. Continuing his exploration of traditional craft and modern technology, Oliver uses digitised machinery to form the sculptures, and finishes them with techniques honed over centuries.

This body of work is based on sound recordings taken over a five day period in Fiordland. They map encounters with native birds along the journey into Piopiotahi Milford Sound. Oliver introduces a new composition, the concentric circles are framed by defined edges in the wooden panels. This creates a portrait of a distinct bird or group of birds that Oliver encountered. The exception is the rounded sides of Deer Flat Dawn Chorus, its Oregon Pine grain embodies the layering of birdsong at daybreak. Each song bleeds into the collective whole, becoming indistinguishable from one another and filling vast spaces. As Oliver says, "you can’t feel the edges of that sound."

The three species highlighted in this series, Toutouwai New Zealand robin, South Island Kākā, and Kea have official conservation status of at risk, nationally vulnerable, and nationally endangered. The works in Resonance connect with Oliver's unease about human activity that erodes the habitats of native wildlife and the need to protect these environments.