Other Worlds: on Ruth Watson

Wellington Sculpture Trust, Four Plinths catalogue, 2018


  1. I’m on top of the world, the seagull thought. Beak turned toward the ocean, flanked by the museum, the seagull had little cause to wonder but which world?

2. The globes were running a bit behind, Ruth Watson told me over Skype. The people who put the polystyrene on said it could take 4-5 weeks but now it was looking closer to 5 weeks.

3. The seagull squawked. It perched on top of the globe on the first plinth.

4. “I do worry about the context next to Te Papa, people have an expectation of education…”

5. The seagull stood on a 3D model of a 17th Century etching by the Dutch engraver Jan Goeree depicting an ancient view of the world without water. Sea air sluiced through the seagull’s feathers and it shuffled back and forth, oblivious to the paint job and polystyrene, beneath its neat webbed feet.

6. What excites a bird’s eye view?

7. Other worlds. The world you were born into and the world you leave, the world balanced on an egg on a spoon, still running. The world entered through The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the workshop of Weta, Middle Earth mapped on a double page inside Tolkien, the gigantic queue to get into Gallipoli, or the arrival of Maui, premature, wrapped in a tress of his mother’s tiki tiki and thrown into the…

8. “There’s always been the mapping,” Ruth told me. She’s an artist who has written essays on cartography. Her work re-orientates maps and mapping processes. In 1988 she made a black and white photocopy of Another Map of the World on rice paper. In 1991 she varnished The Known World, her double-take on the Italian cartographer, Fra Mauro’s medieval map of 1453. In 1997 she exhibited The Real World in a Perspex box; a globe of meat, spun from animal tissues, made under supervision in a medical pathology specimen laboratory at the University of South Wales. When it comes to maps Ruth is an expert, a nerd. “I’ve actually avoided making globes,” she said. “I’ve always been more 2D.”

9. See?

10. “Jerusalem is indeed the centre of the inhabited world latitudinally, though longitudinally it is somewhat to the West but since the western portion is more thickly populated by reason of Europe, therefore Jerusalem is also the centre longitudinally if we regard not empty space but the density of the population,” Fra Mauro, wrote on his map in 1453. He was a monk, the Americas still off the —

11. The seagull strutted back and forth on the Goeree globe, lifted a wing, tucked its head back in. Blinked. Another settled on the black globe on the second plinth. “Here we present a global, spatially explicit and observation-based assessment of whole-ecosystem carbon turnover times that combines new estimates of vegetation and soil organic carbon stocks and fluxes.” Ruth corresponded with a scientist named Nuno, using his carbon sequestration data to create this globe. Her jazzy patches of paint might be countries or carbon stocks in flux. “Our findings suggest that future climate/carbon-cycle feedbacks may depend more strongly on changes in the hydrological cycle than is expected at present,” Nuno explained. The seagull on the black globe caught a current of air and zig zagged up-up!

12. Mars, the red planet, on plinth three, has not been painted red. Instead, it is decorated with the Latin names for channels and canals. For a while in the nineteenth-century people (mostly men) believed that there were canals on Mars. Percival Lowell, a Boston born American Businessman and astronomer, studied Mars for fifteen years staring down the end of a Telescope. He drew beautiful pictures of the canals, which he believed Martians had irrigated into the planet’s surface, so they could tap into the polar ice caps. P.S. The actual colour of Mars is closer to Butterscotch.

13. In 1992 Dr. John Gray published his bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from

14. “Oh my god, the Geoid,” Ruth said. The Geoid is on the fourth plinth, right next to Te Papa. It looks dented, like a globe with its side kicked in.

15. The world isn’t right. The world doesn’t look like that.

16. Ruth has a lecture she gives on maps and men. The lecture is handsomely illustrated with photographs of famous men in front of maps. The same is not true of women who tend to be photographed off the map (or at least not in front of the map or beside it.) However, Ruth does have a great image of Jane Fonda dressed as Barbarella and shot from the crotch, a planet spinning in the background behind her. Barbarella is out of this world, even though Jane Fonda is from it.

17. “Do you think man’s been to the moon?” I asked over Skype. Ruth laughed. “Excellent question.”

18. The most magnificent globe in existence is the Jewelled Globe, a treasure of the Iranian Empire, studded with over 51 thousand gemstones. The oceans and seas are emeralds. The land masses rubies. (I can see Australia on the jpeg of the Jewelled Globe online, but Aotearoa?) According to legend Nasseridin Shah Qajar, a 19th Century King of Persia ordered the construction of the globe to keep track of loose gemstones in the treasury. (Ruth wanted to make her own version but alas there were not enough loose gemstones in the treasury.) The globe now sits in the Tehran National Jewels Museum. According to the online travel journal of the ‘Wandering Scot,’ the museum is not signposted. It is in a bank vault underneath Melli Bank on Ferdossi Street. To reach the museum you need to enter via the Central Bank building just to the North. The staff store your bag (and camera), run you through a metal detector and then send you South across a courtyard to the vault. The hours are 2-4.30pm Saturday to Tuesday. It is definitely worth trying to visit if you are in Tehran.

19. Four heterogeneous globes sit on the fourth plinths outside the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. Open to the elements and seagulls, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

20. “I don’t know how they are going to weather,” Ruth said.