Words, spoken or written, are often considered the central components of communication. Surrounding these words though are a whole host of grammatical bodies – commas, dashes, semi-colons, full stops, parentheses – each influencing the pace and meaning of stories in their own way. Vaimaila Urale’s practice begins with the removal of words, refining her visual arsenal to the spaces and shapes that occupy the spaces between. In the process, she explores and recalls mark making as its own form of storytelling, drawing connections between the use of lines, shapes and pattern that can be found across cultures, times and technologies.
Vaimaila’s work is strongly identifiable for her disciplined use of only a small selection of characters found on any modern computer keyboard. Through constant refinement, she currently works with just four keyboard symbols: < > / \. Vaimaila’s choice of vocabulary references her interest in two distinct forms of communication, ASCII and pre-colonial Samoan art forms, such as tatau, tapa and Lapita pottery. ASCII is an acronym for American Standard Code for Information Interchange. In the mid-20th century, this computer code was used to transmit messages to teletypes by allocating a numerical value to characters on computer keyboards. Tatau, tapa and Lapita, by comparison, depend less on a fixed key and more on a tradition of visual representation. Triangles, circles, lines and geometric motifs have different meanings depending on their placement and surrounding designs.
It’s this space between the mark and its potential interpretations that Vaimaila exploits best. As keyboard strokes, Vaimaila’s language is recognisable to a wide range of viewers. Yet stripped out of context, the symbols become the building blocks for a range of patterns and designs: contemporary ciphers that the viewer can decode as they choose. The infinite permutations possible with just a few elements are reined in only by the surface that they’re applied to. In the past, Vaimaila has worked with skin (via tattoos), digital screens, paper, clay and timber, with the size also ranging from a small framed A4 print to full scale public murals.
To expand the possible ways she might deploy her chosen visual language, Vaimaila works with a number of people from different creative backgrounds, and collaboration features prominently as a characteristic of her practice. For Typeface (2016), Vaimaila worked with digital media artist Johann Nortje to create a live screen displaying a pattern of keyboard characters that would respond to the movements of people walking past it, changing pattern as they walked by. Moving to a more direct bodily relationship, Vaimaila has collaborated with tattoo artists, making tatau-inspired digital designs that are inscribed back again onto skin with contemporary tattoo machinery.
Collaborations enable Vaimaila to explore innovative ways that audiences might experience art. For the seminal exhibition Mata mata (2013), Vaimaila teamed up with artist Rangituhia Hollis to create wooden cues intricately incised with diagonals, triangles, koru and other motifs found on traditional Maori and Pacific weaponry. The cues were part of a participatory exhibition comprised of pool tables and a digital video that invited visitors to play pool, transforming the gallery from a passive space of looking to an active space of engagement. Play, surprise and excitement are all recurring strategies that Vaimaila uses in her exhibitions to enthuse audiences, and it’s no surprise that she is continuously working with people across disciplines to develop new ways of presenting art experiences.
Social relationships, then, are a constant backdrop in Vaimaila’s practice. Her works tease out the relational aspects of reading symbols, working collaboratively, and enabling audience participation in an artwork. Within these three co-ordinates, Vaimaila’s practice opens up rather than closes the space between the sign and the story, creating room for multiple translations and transmutations.
Essay by Ioana Gordon-Smith
BORN: 1972, Fagamalo, Samoa
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Visual Arts, Auckland University of Technology (Head of School Award); Certificate in Glass Design & Production, Universal College of Learning
PUBLIC EXHIBITIONS: Typeface, CoCA Centre of Contemporary Art, Christchurch (2017); Myths & Legends in My Veins, Papakura Art Gallery (2015); Tautai moving image exhibition, Nga Taonga NZ Archive of Film & Television, Wellington (2015); Electronic Pacific, Fei Contemporary Art Center, China (2013); Electronic Pacific, SOMArts, San Francisco (2013); Everyone Talks to Everyone, The Dowse Art Museum, Wellington (2013); Earth, Wind & Fire, Blak Dot Gallery, Melbourne, Australia (2012); Social Interface, Ramp Gallery, Hamilton (2012); Offstage 4, Artspace, Auckland (2012); Anatomy of the Pacific, Artstation, Auckland (2012); This is Not a Vitrine, This is an Ocean, Waikato Museum, Hamilton (2011); Dad & Dog Book – Viewfinder, The Film Archive (2011); Look Dad, Dogs, St Paul Street Gallery, Auckland (2010); Language People, Artstation Gallery, Auckland (2009)
COLLABORATIVE EXHIBITIONS: Typeface Live Tattoo Session (with Chris Amosa), Cain Tattoo Studio, Whau Arts Festival, Auckland (2015), Whau Mural Project (with Copyleft Collective & Allan Haeweng), Whau Arts Festival, Auckland (2015); Inside/Out Poster Series (with Dane Taylor), Whau Community Arts, Auckland (2015); Mata Mata 2.0 (with Rangituhia Hollis & Taura Grieg), Auckland Live (2014); Typeface (with Johann Nortje), Corbans Estate Gallery, Auckland (2014); Mata Mata (with Rangituhia Hollis), Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland (2013)
D.A.N.C.E. ART CLUB - ART COLLECTIVE: Noho, All Goods, Auckland (2016); Guinness World Record Attempt, Artspace, Auckland (2014), GWR Livestream, Rockies, Auckland (2014); Night School, Fuzzy Vibes, Auckland (2014); Crockpot, RM Gallery/David Dale Gallery, Scotland (2014); ART UTE, Alex Monteith, Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland (2013); D.A.N.C.E. Studios, RM Gallery, Auckland (2012); HOUSIE! Next Wave Festival, Melbourne, Australia (2012); D.A.N.C.E. FM 106.7, Erupt Taupo Arts Festival (2012); Kava Circle, Snake Pit Gallery, Auckland (2012); Vaka Performance, Papakura Art Gallery (2011); Casual Romance Club, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington (2010)