In the heart of Dunedin (Ōtepoti in te reo Māori) you’ll find one of Simon Kaan’s most celebrated recent artworks.
Ebb Dunedin is much like any other flash boutique hotel: the rooms are stylish, the staff ultra-friendly, and the food and beverage on point. But the glass facade of this three-storey edifice does double duty as an enormous digitally printed canvas. Across 30 panels, a meditative, 20-metre-long work depicts the arrival of Polynesian waka, or ocean-going canoes, through the heads of the city’s Otago Harbour.
Kaan’s distinctive landscapes are by now a celebrated part of the New Zealand art scene, but the Ebb piece feels particularly appropriate for an artist who, over the past two decades, has become something of a Dunedin icon.
“The fact that my work is right through the front of the hotel helps to ground it more than anything,” he says. “[It] settles it within the landscape, and people enjoy that. It’s a large piece of public sculpture now – a private piece the whole city has embraced.”
When approached about the commission, Kaan did some research and found that everyone involved was from Dunedin, including Alison Lambert, a former home economics classmate and now chef at Ebb-Cafe – just one of the places he mentions in and around the city when asked about where he goes to get inspiration for his art.
Finding peace in art
Born in Sawyers Bay, a semi-rural suburb on the outskirts of the city, Kaan is a descendant on his mother’s side of Ngāi Tahu, the largest iwi (indigenous Māori nation) of the South Island (Te Waipounamu). Kaan’s father was Chinese, and he remembers the market gardens and fruit shop his dad’s family had in nearby Port Chalmers. Both of his parents were avid gardeners, a trait not passed down to Kaan, who describes himself as “a terrible gardener” – but he feels their love for gardening fostered his artistic drive.
“With gardening, there’s that creative aspect of growing something yourself and having a relationship with it,” he says. “The art-making process is similar; there are rhythms, sequences and seasonality.”
Kaan studied art in high school, going on to do a four-year honours degree at the Dunedin School of Art. When he was 27, his father passed away. It proved to be a formative time. Kaan returned home from Taranaki to be close to his mother and began producing artworks as a way to process his grief.
Over the ensuing years, Kaan became known for his beautifully realised paintings and prints, which usually depict tranquil seascapes or landscapes, and are dotted by signature symbols – most often wakas, but sometimes also moths, rainbows or waterfalls. He says the calming effect often attributed to his art is related to the spirit of the work – the idea that making something gives it a life force, and something for the viewer to sit and be with.
“The spirit is the essence,” he says. “It’s not about what [the artwork] is saying and not what it’s trying to say. It’s what the artwork does and how it affects you or me.”
Taking inspiration from the sea
Dunedin is the perfect place for Kaan to tune in to the landscapes captured in his works. A city built on the rim of a long-extinct volcano and surrounded by hills, Dunedin is within 15 minutes’ drive of the bush, beaches and mountains.
“It’s a beautiful city in the way it’s nestled within the harbour and the hills,” Kaan says. “There’s a certain wairua (spirit or soul) to it that resonates.”
A favourite spot is Aramoana Beach. A surfer since way back, Kaan remembers his parents taking him there as a kid. Kaan still surfs at Aramoana and says the coastal beaches around Dunedin tend to have consistent swells. He’s also had some unique wildlife experiences on the water.
“An eight-foot-long sea lion swimming under your board on a clear day, cruising under you,” he says. “They’ll weigh a tonne and look a bit like Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars. They’re beautiful things.
“The great thing about the [Otago] Peninsula is the wildlife. It’s … unique, with wildlife ranging from albatrosses to sea lions and elephant seals, leopard seals, and penguins. The yellow-eyed penguins are fantastic.”
Taking inspiration from the city
There’s a robust arts culture in Dunedin, and a rich indie music scene that really kicked off in the ’80s, when the lo-fi “Dunedin sound” came to the fore. For a world class art experience, Kaan recommends the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, but there’s also a bunch of smaller city galleries, such as Gallery De Novo on Stuart Street (where you can maybe grab your own Kaan piece).
The CBD, where Kaan has his art studio, is well known for its gothic-style architecture. The street art, he says, adds another layer of interest to the heritage buildings. A lot of it can be taken in with a self-guided walking tour.
There’s also a long connection with Chinese culture in Dunedin, on account of the Chinese miners (and, often, their families) who migrated to Otago during the gold rush of the 1860s. Kaan loves to visit Lan Yuan, Dunedin’s Chinese garden, which was created with the support of the Shanghai municipal government.
“The Dunedin Chinese Garden is amazing,” he says. “[It’s] a taonga (treasured possession) that acknowledges the Chinese whakapapa (genealogy) that has been here for generations. Shanghai is our sister city; they came and built it for us. That’s pretty special in the context and whakapapa of the Chinese community, which I’m a part of.”
When Kaan wants a drink, he visits Woof!, a local bar run by co-owners Josh Thomas and Dudley Benson, who take a strong stance on social issues such as LGBTQI+ rights.
“Woof! epitomises what Dunedin should be with its art, creativity, and food,” he says. “The vibes are good – you feel safe and energised there. It’s become an iconic part of Dunedin.”
Arc Brewing Co is another Kaan favourite. It’s just north of Dunedin on State Highway 1. He loves to sit in the sun at one of the rustic picnic-style tables with a small-batch beer. Arc Brewery Co also regularly hosts food trucks such as the anime-themed So Bao, which serves Asian street-food classics with a twist, such as a roast tomato and miso ramen, Taiwanese-style noodles with beef shin, and chargrilled broccoli with honey-strained yoghurt and sukkah.
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