Environmental Exhibition – Wellington – 2010

Work by Bruce Mahalski, John Badcock, Lex Benson-Cooper and Debra Britten.

July 30th  –  August 15th, 2010.

I started collecting shells, fossils and bones when I was very young. My parents were both scientists who had collections of their own and we travelled quite a bit overseas so there were always opportunities to pick up interesting stuff. Once my mum even tried to send a weaver bird’s nest to New Zealand when we were on holiday in Africa  but customs weren’t too keen on letting it into the country! Most of my collection I found myself on beaches or roadsides.  Some people might consider it ghoulish to collect bits of dead animals but to me it isn’t about death – it’s about life. Like a sympathetic magician I hope that by possessing  an animals bone a little bit of its life force will rub off on  me. It’s also a tribute – a form of recycling – a lot of these things are just too good to leave lying around and I have to take them home.

For a long time I didn’t think about using any part of  my collection as raw materials for my art practice. I put the best of my pieces in display cabinets and keep the rest in boxes. The first time I used some of my bones in making an object was for the show – Full Spectrum Dominance – at the Mary Newton Gallery in Wellington in 2002. A large part of the show was a collection of $2 Shop toy guns which I had tried to strip of their negative associations by  instilling them with new beauty and life.  One of these was  Bone Gun#1 – a toy M16 rifle completely covered in bones. It was such a joy to  that I soon made another – Bone Gun#2 (see below).

Bone Gun #2

20 x 70cm

Bones attached to a toy gun

(Comes in purpose built metal case)


Bone Show- Bone Gun cf case (Medium)

‘Environmental’ will be the first time this piece has been exhibited. It comes in a rusted sheet metal case (not shown) especially made for it by local artist and stone man – Carl “Carlucci’ Gifford.

When my Wellington art dealer, Ron Eskamp told me he was planning a a show with an environmental theme I suggested making a series of work that began where the Bone Guns left off. Happily Ron was  quick to approve of the concept. I could have continued to predicate my bone works on military apparatus but I didn’t want to repeat myself any more than necessary.   For some time I could not think what to make out of bones and then I realized that I didn’t need to make anything at all. I could just layer bone on bone to achieve interesting textural effects. I immediately ramped up my bone collecting efforts and put the word out among my friends to grab any interesting specimens they saw.

Bone Show- Bone Gun (Medium)

Lintel #1

(to be hung over the top of a door frame)

13 x 1050cm

Layered bone and shells on Matai plank


Bone Show - Lintel (Medium)

This was the first piece I made specifically for this show. I didn’t originally intend to make a lintel or indeed to make anything symmetrical. I was only planning to layer bone on bone as in the detail pictures below. However  the piece soon took on ‘a life of its own’ and acquired a Viking/Pacific look I had not anticipated.  It contains sixteen skulls including those of a sheep, a hawk, a duck, a hedgehog, a penguin and a Chatham Island Weka and many other bones including those of moa, seal, cat and wallaby.  The bones are attached  to a plank of 150 year old Matai timber (as are many of the other pieces)  which  I picked up from a skip opposite my old studio in Abel Smith Street. An old colonial cottage was having (an illegal) refit and a lot of good stuff had been dumped including two very old mummified cats which I also grabbed for some future use.

Bird Man #1

15 x 1180cm

Bird Bones attached to plank of Ponderosa Pine


Bone Show - Bird Man (Medium)

I had finished nearly all of the work when I found a box of albatross or mollymawk bones I had forgotten about in the attic.  It’s hard to tell an albatross form a mollymawk – particularly when its not in exactly tip-top condition! It was the day I  was going to see Ron at the Exhibitions Gallery show him photos of the work for the show.  I decided it’d be nice to have one more work and quickly laid out some of the  bones on a plank of ponderosa pine and took a photo. Ron decided it  was his favorite  so I decided I’d better actually put it together for real. As well as duplicating parts of bird/human anatomy the piece also references the ‘cult hooks’ of Papua New Guinea and the bird man culture of Easter Island (Te Pito No Te Henua).

Cult Hook #1

30 x 1200cm

Bones,shells and fossils attached to  a framework of Ponderosa Pine


Bone Show- Cult Hook (Medium)

This piece is the largest and most dynamic of the series and contains the bones of many large animals including those of pig, seal, dog, dolphin,human, sheep and albatross (or mollymawk) – as well as local  fossils and sea shells. Attached to a background of Ponderosa pine using glue and rods it evokes the cult hooks found in the men’s houses of Papua New Guinea. A hook at the top connects the sculpture to the house’s rafters and another at the bottom is used to hang equipment and offerings to local spirits’.  These ceremonial hooks influenced the success of war, hunting and garden cultivation, as well as helping to ward off disease.

Whale Rope

24 x 1015cm

Length of rope emerging from a piece of old table –top


06 (Medium)

I have a long association with the Island Bay Marine Education Centre and while I was there one day Marco Zeeman showed me a length of rope which had been brought along by two local conservationists, Haydon & Suzanne Miller. Apparently it was part of a seven metre long length of rope they had recovered from the throat of a dead female blue whale that washed ashore in Golden Bay in 2009. It is speculated that it may even had caused the death of the whale. The piece of rope disappears through a hole into a plank from an old hardwood table top. By ‘turning the rope into art’ I hope to spread the sad message that the ocean is simply drowning in our crap and its  high time we all  cleaned up our acts. If this piece does sell I intend to donate my part of the proceeds to some of the main anti-whaling groups.

 Whales - dead blue whale - DOM 13.6.09


Skull Rack #1

28 x 1000cm

Three sheep skulls attached to Matai Planks using metal rods


Environmental- Skull Rack (2) (Small) Environmental-Skull Rack detail (Small)

Skull Rack #1 is inspired by the skull racks of Papua New Guinea where the skulls of dead foes and relatives are preserved in the  men’s houses in racks or shelves.  Despite my comments about the life affirming nature of bones I do have to admit to also seeing a lot of beauty in decay.  The top skull is an amazing example. Despite the fact that it is from a ‘common’ animal I think it is one of the most amazing skulls I have ever seen. I was lucky enough to be given it  on a recent trip to Waiheke Island by Helen Aldridge who also gave me some other excellent bits  and pieces including a mummified kingfisher. The skulls float out 12 cm from their wooden base on thin metal rods.

Three Heads (Triptych)


80 x 80cm

2008 – 2010

Gloss/Acrylic Paint/Sand

Environmental - Head One (Small)

This is one of three heads that make a vertical triptych. I actually started painting these heads a couple of years back when I intended to do a series of works based on drawings that I had done when I was five. My mother had just found the old scrapbook containing the drawings and I thought they were more lively than anything I had done since. I am pretty sure the original drawing was inspired by a carving which I saw on a school trip to Otago Museum. I never completed the series because I had trouble transforming the drawings into paintings and for a while I abandoned the heads when I had trouble resolving the backgrounds.  My recent interest in building up layers of texture enabled me to find a way to contrast the hard gloss of the faces with the softer colors in the background and I decided to finish the triptych in time for the current show.

Chatham Islands Weka

50 x 70cm

Limited edition screen-print by the artist on 350gsm paper(10 prints)


Environmental-Weka Screen-print (Small)

A five colour screen-print on paper based on two photos taken on a trip to the Chatham Islands in 2008. I took the photo of the weka in the foreground but my friend Stephen Robinson took the background picture of the trees.  We were out by the old airport near the bush containing the most famous dendraglyphs (carvings on living trees) and the quality of the light was so intense the scene is forever burned in my brain!  Steve and I  ran around taking photos like crazy but I lost most of mine when I loaded the stick from my new digital camera into the computer instead of routing the pictures through the camera.  No two prints in the edition of ten are exactly the same with slightly different tones and offsets across the edition in keeping with my new ‘more painterly’ screen-printing style.

Environmental – Exhibitions Gallery – Wellington – July 29th – August 15th – 2010



Studio Pictures

Enviro-Studio - July 2010 (Small) Enviro-Studio 4 (Small)

Environmental - Birdman(closeup) (Small) Enviro-Studio 3 (Small) (Small) Enviro-Studio 5 (Small)


About artordeath

Bruce Mahalski is a Dunedin artist, known for his illustration, street murals, and sculpture incorporating animal bones. He is founder and director of the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery, a private museum of natural history and ethnographic objects and curios.
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