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Reef madness in exhibition

Blacklight illuminates bleached coral reef chunks in Conor Jeory’s photographs of an endangered blue undersea world.

On show at Verve Cafe the images in Views from the Trophy Room are montages of the Gisborne artist’s paper mache coral clusters that colonise the walls and workbenches of his tin shed studio.

The bleached coral chunks have in turn been colonised by marine creatures Jeory created from hot glue.

In January 1998, Verve Cafe was a marine sanctuary for Jeory’s installation of hot glue creatures in his show Life, Feeds on Life, Feeds on Life. The coral clusters were colourfully redolent with life forms that lived harmoniously with the coral.

That show was all about the fecundity of the reef, says Jeory.

“In the 20 years since I’ve learned about coral bleaching. Now we have the Great Barrier Reef grief.”

Climate changeClimate change is blamed for coral reef bleaching. When water is too warm, corals expel the polyps (zooxanthellae) that live in their tissues. The coral and the algae have an endosymbiotic relationship so the algae-expulsion results in entirely white coral. Nature magazine reported last year that in 2016, bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef affected 73 percent of the reef’s coral. In the 36 years between 1980 and 2016 the average time-interval between bleaching events had halved. Science magazine reported in January this “dramatic shortening” of the time between bleaching events threatened these ecosystems’ existence “and the livelihoods of many millions of people” around the world.

The bleached coral reefs are now vulnerable to other algae, microbes and tropial fish species.

“So now we get these invasive creatures,” says Jeory.

“They move in and colonise the place so I began to play with the hot glue gun again.”

Jeory has created several species of fast multiplying invasive creatures. He used the cut glass base of a vinaigrette bottle to stamp a myriad of star shaped marine creatures that can be used in multiple ways.

To texture the bleached coral chunks Jeory used the tip of a conical biro cap and a variety of pen ends that included indented, ridged and star designs.

“I put the paper mache on wet then stippled it. The petal forms on them I made with my fingers. Everything is hand-formed and organic.”

His initial thought in creating the organic, complex and highly textured coral chunks from paper mache was to mount them on boards.

“I thought if I made a piece of reef it would have to be like a hunting trophy. I imagined people collecting pieces of reef and hanging them on their walls.”

Undersea worldHe recalls watching on TV in the 1970s The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau in which the marine explorer filmed Maldive islanders cut chunks from a coral reef. Taken to shore these chunks were ground up for building material.

“As I learned about coral bleaching I thought I’d make armies of invasive brittle stars and have them invading the trophy collector’s wall. The brittle stars’ job is to pull the reef apart then create their own arangements.”

Known to cling in multitudes to corals and sponges, and reproduce by cloning, the invasive brittle star is closely related to the starfish. Jeory pictured his brittle stars trailing in chains like leaf cutter ants, carrying bits of the coral they had ripped up. While his hot-glue brittle stars are in competition with a translucent gold species to rip apart the bleached coral reef, some of his brittle stars are confused. Instead of a coral fragment, one marine creature carries a piece of plastic.

The plastic bits are some of the detritus Jeory collected from Gisborne beaches.

Verve Cafe owner Ray Teutenberg photographed the paper mache forms (and the invasive species that have taken them over). Jeory used open source image and photo editing software called Paint.NET to alter the size of some of his marine creatures and to montage the images of his paper mache coral chunks.

“I picked out some of the choicest bits of the coral collection and turned some of the creatures into conglomerations.

“It’s like these guys are creating their own civilisation.”

REEF GRIEF: Ultra violet light lends a luminous appearance to artist Conor Jeory’s bleached coral chunks created from paper mache. Montaged photographs of the pieces present an under water blue world that is under threat.Pictures by Conor Jeory and Ray Teutenberg
PLASTIC BEACH: An invasive marine creature confuses a piece of plastic for a coral fragment.Pictures by Conor Jeory and Ray Teutenberg