Walk of Wonders
Photo: Hazel Redmond

What if, somewhere in the Havelock hills, there was a portal to another time? And what if Rush Cottage at Black Barn was the home and workshop of a genius inventor? And what if there were birds big enough to carry human passengers? 

This August, we get to explore these what-ifs, and a myriad of magical light art at the second edition of Walk of Wonders. Creative director and co-founder Ant van Dorsten is hard at work in the shared loft workspace in Heretaunga Steet, walking the trapeze wire of excitement, inspiration and panic at the range and volume of what must be done to bring this project to light and life. 

“This one is big,” he says with a tense smile, “this one is much more ambitious.” 

Ant and his childhood friend and business partner Henry Gordon (who runs Black Barn Bistro) introduced Walk of Wonders last November, delayed from its original winter date by Covid, to around 7,000 visitors, who delighted in exploring the walk-through large-scale light art show. 

Think giant billowing and glowing toadstools, tunnels of light, a strobing feature in the Black Barn amphitheatre, animated faces in the hedges, bobbly towers of lustrous light orbs, light paint action in the underground cellar – it was a feast for the senses! It was joy-filled, and astonishing and utterly beautiful.

You might say that Walk of Wonders has its origins at Burning Man. Ant and Henry have ventured to Nevada annually since 2015 to partake in the nine-day immersive art experience that is Burning Man. Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis, is erected by the participants for a festival of art and music and self-expression. To hear Ant explain it, it sounds addictive. 

This is where Ant and Henry fell truly in love with huge art, and where they met their artistic heroes, sculpture duo HYBYCOZO, the Hyperspace Bypass Construction Zone. From that fortuitous meeting and other international connections made around this time, Ant and Henry’s company Vesica Aotearoa was formed. Vesica became the Australia/NZ agent for HYBYCOZO, bringing the large-scale geometric installations from the northern hemisphere down under for festivals and buyers. This led to further the development of Vesica’s own ‘quiver’ (how Ant refers to their collection of light works – like a quiver of arrows), and involvement with the circuit of large, immersive art and light festivals throughout Australasia. 

But of course, soon it was time for them to create an experience of their own – Walk of Wonders. The longer-term plan for Walk of Wonders is to take it on the road, tour it throughout New Zealand and Australia.

Ant bounces between his desire to make art of his own and his compulsion to make space and possibility for the art of others. In creative directing he’s finding the balance. First he took that role with the initial Outfield Festival, and now he’s driving this side of Walk of Wonders, while business partner Henry Gordon has a handle on the user experience. “As well as so much else, he’s the one who keeps things slick, and really working for the visitors,” says Ant. 

What could have been swept away by the virus – like so many other nascent event ideas and plans – found its way, albeit a few months late, to the Havelock hills. “It wouldn’t have happened without Henry Norton from Sight and Sound,” says Ant. 

You can picture them, slumped over beers at Brave Brewing in Hastings as the news rolled in. Border closing, lockdown looming, uncertainty the new normal. Ant was touring other large-scale work, managing other projects and Henry Norton’s Sight and Sound business suddenly looked very worrying. For events specialists and technicians, things turned very dark very quickly. 

“It felt like all my work, and my world was disappearing. And that’s when we resolved to do this light festival still, to do it as soon as we could.”

Strolling through the show on a Sunday evening last November and slipping in and out of the hexagonal light frames of Ant’s own conceptual piece, Full Spectrum, I recall thinking we couldn’t be further from Covid and all its restriction and dullness.

The preparations for Walk of Wonders 2021 don’t have the external uncertainties and worries 2020 provided, but there are certainly more glowing balls to juggle now. 

Light painting on Te Mata Peak. Photo: Hazel Redmond
<br>Light painting on Te Mata Peak Photo Hazel Redmond

One of the elements that set WofW apart from other immersive/walk-through light shows was the connected soundscape which accompanied wanderers on their journey through the light projects. The effect this had on the overall user experience led Ant to ponder the possibility of a total overarching narrative to guide the next Walk of Wonders. This is where the human-carrying giant birds come in. Ant is inspired by folklore, his own children, symbolism, pop culture and picture books, so he’s taken on some help to get things honed into a workable structure.

Working with EIT’s Tom Pierard on the music scape and local author Gareth Ward on the story, Ant has developed the tale of Timea, an adventurous 9-year-old girl on a journey which slips between the now and a re-imagined version of Havelock North in the early 1900s. Feels like we’ll be getting hints at the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – that juicy, fascinating sliver of Hawke’s Bay history. 

Timea’s universe will be brought to life through sound, illustration, puppetry and of course, light. And we ‘wanderers’ will follow her adventure as she follows a ruru/morepork out into the winter night, drops through a portal and lands in an alternate reality. Rush Cottage will never be the same once you learn to see it as Rushed William’s Workshop of Wonders.

The food and beverage offerings are being ramped up this year, with seven local vendors setting up in the market space. There will be roaming performers, and fire composition. Plus, Ant’s fiancée Phillipa Nicholson is curating a ‘baptism of pink’ featuring numerous local and national artists in the underground cellar. There’s a push to lift and grow every aspect of the event.

By the time we, the wanderers, reach the end of the wander, we’re still only in the early stages of Timea’s – and Ant’s – journey. 

“Walk of Wonders 2021 basically covers the first two chapters of the Timea story,” Ant says. He’s on a creative mission to further develop his characters, his setting, the light-filled voice of it all. 

Why write a book or paint an image when you can transform an entire landscape using a dazzling mix of multimedia?!

Walk of Wonders runs from 5-15 August at Black Barn Vineyards. First release tickets are available online now. 



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1 Comment

  1. So looking forward to experiencing such an amazing event. How very fortunate we are to have such talent and a wonderful venue in which to hold it.

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