Slow journey

Sculptor Joe Sheenan describes his work as an exercise in sitting still

Sculptor Joe Sheehan describes his work as an exercise in sitting still. “I like the idea of slowing down.”

This October, however, Sheehan won’t be sitting still or even slowing down: he’ll be the sole New Zealand representative at the 28th Bienal de São Paulo, one of the world’s biggest international art exhibitions and held every two years in Brazil.

Joe Sheehan photograph

Joe Sheehan will represent New Zealand at the Bienal de Sao Paulo exhibition in Brazil. Photograph by Alistair Guthrie

Named one of the inaugural New Generation Artists by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand in 2006, Sheehan has built a reputation for his exquisitely formed sculptures in pounamu, jade and quartz. His intricate and scale-perfect renditions of cassettes, keys, batteries and other everyday items are a witty pondering on the cultural symbolism of precious stones in our factory-manufactured age.

These small sculptures—such as Non-Rechargeable, which turns the humble battery into a meditation on raw energy—are also a statement on the role of these items as vessels of meaning and memory. He calls this an engagement with the “spirituality of the mass-produced”. His sculptures give a formerly obsolete or spent item a long afterlife, as metaphors of mortality and memory.

Sheehan’s work was spotted by the São Paulo Bienal curators at an exhibition last year at the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth. Fittingly, this year’s Bienal is themed ‘In Living Contact’, positioning itself as a moment for reflection, a resistance to the fast-paced phenomenon of the bigger, brasher art fairs that now dominate the international art calendar.


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