Artist Steve Carr was on a residency at McCahon House in Titirangi when New Zealand’s first COVID lockdown was announced. Now, as Auckland emerges from its second stint at Alert Level 3, he’s created a significant new sculpture that will occupy Takutai Square for the three months of spring. It refers to the possibilities of a post-COVID future, as well as some of his favourite artistic themes from his past. Here, he talks to Britomart’s Jeremy Hansen about the creation of the work and the themes it addresses.  

JEREMY HANSEN: Steve, you’ve created a sculpture that looks like three piles of old tyres with plants in them, but the tyres are actually cast in bronze. What are you trying to tell us? 

STEVE CARR: I guess this sculpture kind of speaks to a lot of themes that I deal with in my work and pulls them all together. There’s boy racer culture – the short film I made called Burnout featured a slow-motion shot of a car doing a burnout and all the smoke coming up from the tyres. It was the idea of alchemy, of one material transforming into another. That’s happening here too. I really like the idea of this work in public space - there will be this assumption that it’s a pile of rubber tyres and on closer inspection people will see it’s a precious metal.  

People have come to expect public sculptures to be made of materials like bronze, yet they probably expect a person on a plinth more than piles of tyres.  

I was really interested in doing something in bronze which could last 100 years, but for the time that it’s in existence the plants in it have to be looked after in a way that grows and changes over time. I’m interested in this idea of slowing down, and with our perception of how time can feel really quick or slow. These tyres are about motion that has been cast and frozen, and they’re paired with plants that are constantly moving and growing. [The plants were selected and planted by landscape architect Jared Lockhart] 

This work has had a long gestation period, but the resolution to it came during the first lockdown, which extended your residency at McCahon House in Titirangi. Can you talk a bit about that? 

When I arrived in Christchurch four or five years ago [Carr is a senior lecturer at the Ilam School of Arts at the University of Canterbury] I talked to the bronze caster Matthew Williams about the work, but it was the McCahon residency where the idea of the planting into the tyres came together and added something deeper to the work. Whether you think the car tyres reference boy racers or family trips or the puncture you get on Christmas day, the plants make me think of the tyres you have in gardens that are often painted in bright colours and filled with herbs.  

Why is it that you’ve referred to car culture, or boy racer culture, regularly in your work? 

It’s a nostalgic thing – it’s about teenage years, a lot of my memories are about my older sisters and their boyfriends, and they were about cars. I didn’t drive until I was 26 or 27, but I’ve always been fascinated by car culture. Even the title of this work, ‘In Bloom’, which is a play on the plants in the tyre stacks, is also a Nirvana track, which is those 90s grunge rebellion years. I do find boy racer culture intriguing – it’s not just male dominated, there’s quite a big culture around female racers as well, and a strong sense of community.  

There’s also an environmental context to this work – we were talking the other day about how tyres are a significant environmental problem, as are cars. It’s hard not to think that this work is a kind of memorial for all of that.   

Britomart is a high-traffic area, right in the heart of our busiest city, and it’s been pedestrianised as well, so it raises interesting questions about transport and how we deal with that. We can’t help but consider In Bloom in terms of environmental concerns – petrol vehicles are now known, of course, to be a leading cause of carbon emissions, though here nature takes over. As the planting grows, the work will change and evolve with the passing of time. Takutai Square is a busy place where people are walking past this work constantly, so it gives them the opportunity to see it multiple times and pick up on all those layers of detail. They might notice it’s metal, the text on the tyres, or see how the planting is establishing and changing to the seasons. The sculpture is a timeline, and a marker of their time in that space as well.  

In Bloom by Steve Carr was made with funding from Creative NZ. The work is displayed in Takutai Square courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett.