Amicus Certus in Re Incerta: Corporate Wellington Sculpture

The Australian Mutual Provident Society (AMP) began its New Zealand operations in Wellington in 1854. Its push into new markets heralded the arrival in the city of the classically inspired statuary group, Amicus Certus in Re Incerta, originally devised by sculptor Charles Summers for the Society’s Sydney headquarters. The Greek goddess Tyche is in the centre of a pyramidal composition, clutching the cornucopia, symbol of bountifulness. Tyche is flanked by reclining figures of a youth and a woman with child. The Latin inscription inscribed on the base has its origins in Cicero’s orations. Translated as ‘A certain friend in uncertain times’, this quotation-cum-corporate motto continues the sculptural themes of protection and benevolence on which the company traded.

Versions of Summer’s sculpture adorn the society’s major buildings, where they proclaim its corporate values and identity, all the while becoming ‘the best known commercial symbol’ in Australia.[1] The AMP building on Customhouse Quay in Wellington has an Amicus sculpture at the highest point of its roof, while another occupies the foyer.

The ideal company—client relationship embodied in this statue can be extended to the partnership forged between art and business when corporate sculpture operates in the public realm. Corporate owned or funded sculpture constitutes a significant proportion of Wellington’s public art, suggesting that a mutually beneficial partnership based on benevolent patronage has existed for some time.

These ideals are undermined by accusations of a corporate takeover of Wellington’s sculpture, largely brokered through the Arts Bonus scheme. This well-intentioned scheme ensured that public art accompanied the urban redevelopments of the 1980s. With its mixed legacy of cultural tradeoffs and financial incentives offered to developers, it became difficult if not impossible to manage from a civic point of view.

The Amicus Group predates the uncertain times that gave rise to Arts Bonus sculptures. Yet the ways it functions as corporate art, and the issues it raises, live on well into and beyond this scheme. Summers’s deployment of a classical sculptural language to sell insurance provides an interesting case study of the use or abuse of artistic traditions and practices to reflect business objectives (a criticism often leveled at corporate art). The goddess of luck seems an unusual symbol for an insurance society to adopt. Classicist H.D. Jocelyn suggested that Summers may either have lacked classical knowledge or misinterpreted the figure.[2] The statuary group more clearly serves to invoke the majesty and authority that references to the classical lent the company in a colonial context. These meanings have subsequently shifted to represent the proud history of AMP.

Wrightsons (now PGG Wrightson Ltd) sought to trade on a similar sense of cultural currency and authority when commissioning Roy Cowan to produce a ceramic mural for its Europa House headquarters in 1972, following his high-profile contribution to Expo 70 in Japan. As a celebration of this company’s contribution to the agricultural sector, the mural has  connections with the sculptures commissioned by the AMP. Cowan produced a modernist take on the concept of natural abundance symbolised in the Amicus statues by Tyche’s cornucopia, that is laden with fruit and other products of the soil. A centralised sun motif dominates the mural. lt radiates porcelain and glass rays of energy around the composition, creating an abstracted pattern that unites distinct sections representing the forestry, fisheries, farming, and shipping interests of the company.

Cowan’s medium and use of organic, abstracted forms drains the mural of these direct associations, creating a slight disjunction between form and message. The mural celebrates the natural powers and forces abundant in the land, which may or may not relate directly to the commissioning agent. The accompanying plaque serves to bind the mural more securely to the company’s achievements.

The award of the Reserve Bank sculpture competition to Guy Ngan in 1972 confirmed his status as the key local exponent of public art. Ngan’s thorough understanding of public art is made clear through his response to the open competition brief, which placed no restrictions on subject or style.[3] His winning submission Taiaha offers a modernist reworking of several elements of conventional corporate art closely attuned to the commissioning institution.

The sculpture consists of fifty interlocking bronze parts that form two stylised taiaha held by Ngan’s signature ‘tiki hands motif’.[4] Taiaha acts as a monumental and symbolic guardian figure. Mounted on an exterior wall, it protects the entrance to the Reserve Bank and the integrity of the country’s monetary systems. Like the Amicus Group, Taiaha invokes concepts of protection and the solidity of the institution it represents. But a distinct cultural shift is marked in Ngan’s embodying of these concepts through an abstracted Māori warrior, as opposed to Summers’s classical goddess. Taiaha provides an early example of the fusion of Māori and modernist European motifs to announce bicultural corporate identities and agendas that flourished in logo designs in the 1980s. These references overturn the values advanced through the Amicus statues, insisting that the country need not look entirely to its Western heritage for its sense of history, identity and progression into the future.

Taiaha’s apparent referencing of other sculptures in Wellington furthers Ngan’s modernising agenda. A contemporary newspaper report immediately connected Taiaha to Richard Gross’s equestrian statue on the Cenotaph, based on the large-scale use of bronze, ‘unprecedented in modern sculpture in the city.’[5] The vertical taiaha is also utilised as a structural element in William Trethewey’s Kupe Group of 1940, at this time in a decrepit state awaiting its bronze casting.

The Arts Bonus scheme was insistent that corporate ownership should never compromise artistic practice. Denis O’Connor’s Mote Park on the Terrace uses the concept of the sculptural fragment to unite a complex range of cultural signs and natural forms. O’Connor’s response to the developer’s request for a commentary on the sculpture that ‘reflects something of your client’s business interests and aspirations’ reveals the tensions of this alliance between art and business. He wrote:

This sculpture explores the concepts of TOOL / JOURNEY /CULTURE / SHELTER / NATURE / ENDEAVOUR / HISTORY / LOCALE … For some time now my work has been concerned with the interlacing of local and regional references with cultural antecedents and tradition … I’m sure any combination of these themes could allude to the Sun Alliance Insurance company interests’.[6]

Matt Pine similarly resisted the slippage between sculpture and the corporate logo that these commissions can induce. His Circle Segment, made in 1988, was part of a continuing interrogation into the formal and conceptual possibilities of the circle, referencing sources as diverse as minimalism and Māori wells and traps.[7] Placed high on the exterior foyer wall of the Royal Insurance building on Waring Taylor Street, however, its bisected aluminium shapes essentially read as a form of signage. Pine’s objections to this centralised and elevated placement of the sculpture were overruled by the building’s owners.[8] The circle segment reflects onto the ground, where its form is outlined on the tiled flooring. This visual connection is disrupted by the elevated placement of the sculpture, neutralising the implications of this extension from wall to floor. Circle Segment’s negotiation of its site and the physical relationship it establishes with the viewer are all compromised by this elevated placement.

Many Arts Bonus projects appear tacked onto pre-existing buildings in this manner, with little consideration given to the relationship between sculpture and architecture. A model for this relationship can be found in the Amicus statues. Both versions demonstrate a level of integration with their architectural settings that characterises nineteenth-century monumental traditions but is sorely absent from many equivalent projects of the following century.

Philip Trusttum sought to transform the experience of Unisys House by harnessing the magical and alchemical properties of stained glass, a medium historically activated through the relationship with its architectural setting. Northern Lights consists of 402 panels of coloured and leaded glass based on the design of a jewelled necklace. These panels form a canopy, extending from the entrance of the building over the footpath, that throws shifting patterns of colour and light across its drab urban environment. But Trusttum’s delicate light games are largely subsumed within the packed and unsympathetic setting of The Terrace. Architectural forms and details closein around the sculpture,limiting its potential vantage points and the sensory experiences it can offer.

Rock, an earlier work by Neil Dawson, enacts a more thorough transformation of its site. While not an Arts Bonus project, Rock was commissioned in 1984 for the Bank of New Zealand tower on Willis Street, the most controversial building development of the early 1980s. Dawson treats the site with playful irreverence. An open gridded construction that traces the skeletal contour of a rock was suspended at the corner of the building, visible from all approaches. Now relocated to one side, Rock hovers above the heads of its audience, utilising both vacant airspace and the vertical pull provided by the once-tallest building in the city. Its plays on form and formlessness, natural and cultural structures, and concepts of construction and the grid, take in all of its surrounding redevelopment, while subverting the architectural dominance of sculptural form. The modernist tower of glass and steel is made the straight man in a lively sculptural gag that, unlike a lot of public art, is for the benefit of its audience rather than at their expense.

Dawson’s hovering forms have ensured multiple commissions throughout the city; they possess the ability to speak to and through both corporate and civic practices that was once granted to Guy Ngan’s public work. The 1997 commission for the two-storeyed lobby in the Majestic Centre on Willis Street saw Dawson extend the dialogue set out in his Wellington works between art, nature and the cityscape. Majestic Earth, one of Dawson’s iconic globe forms, is interjected into the transitional zone between the interior of the building and the natural world, a zone that the Majestic Centre breaks down in its attempt to ‘engage the city’ on architectural terms.’[9] The globe hovers in expansive airspace but is indoors. Its rotating forms suggestive of cloud patterns are propelled not by the wind, but by an electric motor. In embracing the possibilities and issues of this challenging site, Majestic Earth commandeers rather than passively decorates the lobby (the fate of a lot of art in this most corporate of settings).

Other partnerships between art and business have extended this model of the foyer-bound commissioned sculpture showcasing corporate values. Meridian Energy sponsors the kinetic sculptures on Cobham Drive, commissioned by the Wellington Sculpture Trust. The partnership is based on a synergy between kinetic artistic and business practices that both transform ‘natural resource into power’.[10] Meridian does not own the sculptures, nor does it control the commissioning process of what are firmly public works of art. The company holds naming rights for the series and the walk they constitute, allowing promotion of the sustainable forms of energy its wind generation business trades on. As the expanding sculpture walk demonstrates, Meridian has come to provide the city with a sustainable form of sponsorship.

The benefits of these new partnerships forged with business extend both ways. The Sculpture Trust insists that a lively sculptural presence holds the potential to attract new businesses to Wellington. But the complexities of this relationship are far from resolved. The City Council’s recent refurbishment of Paul Hartigan’s Whipping the Wind returns the work to the public realm. The neon sculpture was installed as an Arts Bonusproject in the Landcorp building on Lambton Quay in 1988. Yet, facing increasing maintenance costs, the new owner of the building switched the neon sculpture off, essentially decommisioning a public art work. As the building with its additional floor space and increased value changed hands, the sculpture’s status and ongoing life as a public work of art was circumvented. While Hartigan’s sculpture moves as if in response to the Wellington wind, it has clearly been more susceptible to that tricky intersection of artistic and business practices.

Meanwhile, the survival of the Wellington Amicus statues appears guaranteed. The sculptures lived through the uncertain times of the urban redevelopments of the 1980s, when other traces of Wellington’s architectural and sculptural heritage disappeared. AMP’s decision to refurbish rather than demolish its head office was then praised as ‘a victory for old Wellington’.[11] A subsequent heritage protection order placed on the building ensures the continued survival of the sculptures, even though the company has relocated its head office to Auckland. The company’s dropping of its Latin motto for the more prosaic ‘Financial security through life’ indicates that the major challenge facing the sculptures is not physical survival, but the retention of meaning and relevance in the contemporary world as artistic and corporate priorities change.

Published in Wellington: A City for Sculpture, Jenny Harper and Aaron Lister (eds), (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2007), 75-98.

[1] Geoffrey Blainey, A History of the AMP (Sydney: Unwin & Allen, 1999), 31.

[2] H.D. Jocelyn, cited in Blainey, 1999, 31

[3] ‘Reserve Bank Sculpture Brief’, undated, Public Art/Bonus Art, Box 1/2, (Wellington: City Gallery Archives).

[4] See City Gallery Wellington, Aluminium Panel, Tiki Hands and Anchor Stones, (Wellington, 2006)

[5] ‘Impressive sculpture is erected at Reserve Bank’, unsourced newspaper article, Public Art/Bonus Art, Box 1/2, (Wellington: City Gallery Archives).

[6] Letter from Denis O’Connor to Stuart Gardyne, 23 November 1987, Town Planning: Arts Bonus File, 00277:266:18/163, part 1 (Wellington: Wellington City Council Archives).

[7] See Priscilla Pitts, Contemporary New Zealand Sculpture: Themes and Issues (Auckland: David Bateman, 1998), 128.

[8] Letter from N.J. Maharaj to John Leuthart, 15 March 1988, Public Art/Bonus Art Box 3/4, *Wellington: City Gallery Archives).

[9] Stuart Niven, ‘Engaging the City—The Majestic’, Architecture New Zealand, July/August 1991, 49-56.

[10] Wellington Sculpture Trust, ‘Great Wind Project: Sponsorship Proposal for Meridian Energy’, July 1999, 4.

[11] Thea Roorda, ‘In Wellington the AMP has shown They Don’t Have to Come Down’, Historic Places in New Zealand, no.1, 1983, 11-12.