Bing Dawe

For decades one of New Zealand’s most pre-eminent sculptors, Bing Dawe, has been encouraging us all to engage with our environment, to look at our natural landscape and to ask the question, “In embracing the latest technologies have we distanced ourselves from the natural cycles of life?” The modern world seems to revolve around consumerism, yet in his artworks, Dawe shows the beauty and delicacy of the natural environment and sadly, the human destruction surrounding it.


Born in Glenavy, New Zealand in 1952, alongside the Waitaki and Waiho rivers, Dawe’s childhood was full of fishing, catching eels and becoming familiar with the rivers’s bio-diversity and eco systems. These experiences were crucial to Dawes’ later artistic practice and his observation of the delicate balance required to support life in this environment. Recent works have focused on the vulnerability of our native species, both fish and birds. Often his sculpture conveys ideas around presence and absence, pointing to the possible loss of these smaller species as a result of human impact on their natural habitat. 


In 1999, the survey exhibition at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch, ‘Bing Dawe: Acts of Enquiry, spanned a period of more than 20 years. This survey exhibition included works that he collaborated on with notable New Zealand artist, Ralph Hotere. These were a series of 'endangered species' sculptures as part of a protest against the proposed Aramoana smelter near Dunedin. In 2018, Ashburton Art Gallery curated an exhibition of thirteen artists who “explored the cultural, conceptual and imaginative qualities of water in Canterbury and its crucial role in the well being of our communities”. Dawe was chosen as one of these artists. The work Titipounamu  was one of a series of his works included, which come under the title,ʻA Landscape With Too Many Holes’. The work depicts a ’necklace’ which represents the delicate existence of the rifleman bird in New Zealand. On one side we see the beauty of the native bird, whereas the opposite shows the gaping void left in the landscape, once decline of the species begins . Dawe says the sculpture is “about the balance of the negative and positive of things. As we celebrate and appreciate what we have, we must remind ourselves to be ever-vigilant of what we have lost.” An Important topic nationwide, this exhibition was then exhibited throughout New Zealand.


Through beautiful carved and created wooden and steel sculptures, Dawe shows the struggle that our native eel faces simply to exist, as we damn our waterways and divert rivers for irrigation and electricity generation. Similarly, in his Galaxiidae series, the tiny kokopu fish also known as ‘stargazers’ or ‘whitebait’ (hence the constellations in the hemispheres and circles of his sculptures) are harvested young. They are vulnerable particularly to degrading water quality in our rivers and dramatically reduced flows caused by irrigation and electricity generation. Through the placement of steel wires and barriers, Dawe again creates beautiful sculptures that connect these endangered fish to the sky above us, (the galaxies spots echoing in the galaxy by way of stars). Constantly presenting this negative and positive space in nature and showing the barriers that human make between these, Dawe’s works are both achingly beautiful and hauntingly foreshadowing the true state of our natural world’s decline.


Dawe graduated from the University of Canterbury's School of Fine Arts in 1976 and has since had numerous solo exhibitions including a major retrospective at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in 1999.  He is the recipient of many awards including the highly prestigious Wallace Visa Gold Art Award.  He worked at the school of an art educator at the Ara Institute of Canterbury for 28 years until 2017. His work can be found in significant public and private collections both in New Zealand and overseas, including public art commissions in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Rotorua.