If you find the good oil let us know

25 June 2012 – 14 February 2014
New Plymouth, Taranaki
New Zealand

Project commission for Taranaki Artist in Residence Programme

Curator: Mercedes Vicente


  • 70 litres used oil;
  • Written correspondence;
  • 22 letters to the editor printed in Taranaki Daily News;
  • Text on Govett-Brewster Art Gallery facade;
  • 390kg cement from Holcim New Zealand Ltd;
  • 2.4 tonne cast concrete block (1.3m x 1.0m x 0.7m) positioned at 39deg 16’ 36”S, 173deg 29’ 42” E;
  • Printed book (risograph, offset, cloth-bound).

    Designer: Warren Olds, Studio Ahoy
    Sign painting: Josh Manu, Gareth Radcliffe
    Concrete casting: Howard's Precast Concrete
    Sea transport: New Plymouth Underwater Ltd
    Photography: Shaun Waugh, Maddie Leach, Bryan James

Supported by
Holcim (New Zealand) Ltd
Taranaki Daily News
Creative New Zealand Toi Aotearoa

It's kind of a long story. It started in April last year when I became the owner of 70 litres of "whale oil" from a quenching tank when the School of Engineering closed down at Massey University in Wellington. I had casually asked Mike and Peter (the two technicians who were about to be made redundant) what the oil in the tank was. They swore black and blue that it was whale oil, and possibly sperm whale at that. Used for cooling hot metal, it was suspected that the oil had been in the tank since at least the early 1960s when it was apparently still possible to get hold of genuine whale oil, and it was commonly sought for quenching processes. Its authenticity was uncertain, and where it came from unknown, but it was plausible. I asked what was to become of it and they said it would be dumped in with old engine oil for recycling.

I said I would take it, I would siphon it out, and I would look after it somehow. I think I saw this as a position of self-appointed guardianship. The oil was a deep tawny brown and the quench tank had two inches of grey sludge at the bottom. It looked a lot like a large chip fryer. I felt the ‘whale’ should be returned to the sea.

Maddie Leach
“Letter to Companions”, 25 June 2012. If you find the good oil let us know. New Plymouth: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2014.

Maddie Leach draws together a system of relations in If you find the good oil let us know, between institutions, media, scientists, engineers and readers of newspapers and letter-writers, and shows how this system comes into operation to mark the ecology with the depositing of a concrete block at the bottom of the sea outside of New Plymouth. . . The set of circumstances that are documented provides context for the execution of the work (and the subsequent fallout and spin-offs in terms of publicity) and suggests Leach’s careful planning extends the work through situations of power in the wake of creating the “concrete” object. It almost seems as if the finished object is secondary to the events surrounding it. The story goes that the artist discovered 70 litres of oil that she believed could have been whale oil. Although mistaken, the artist became the custodian of the idea of the whale, an archetype which links the land and the sea and allows sacred time to intervene in the ongoing work, obviously rooted in particular ways in the Aotearoa New Zealand context. The oil was used to fire a kiln to produce cement for a concrete block (a kind of plinth reminding one of Piero Manzoni’s Socle du Monde, 1961, which makes the earth a sculpture). The ceremony of dropping the block into the ocean off Taranaki reminds one of a burial at sea. . .It is interesting that the block is also a marker resting silently on the border of international waters bringing together the earth and the world in the artwork.

Gregory Minnisale
Problem Spaces in The Walters Prize, Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture 7, 2015

If you find the good oil let us know


Twenty-two letters to the editor were printed in Taranaki Daily News (TDN) in early 2013. Eleven writers were invited by Maddie Leach to contribute a letter, of which nine were printed by the TDN. The other letters were written by Leach, Rob Mitchell (TDN Deputy Editor) and a number of local readers. A selection of these are reproduced below, and all of them are included in the book If you find the good oil let us know. New Plymouth: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2014.

If you find the good oil let us know


Ingrid Horrocks reads "Dear Companions" (2014)

Maddie Leach interview with Lynn Freeman
Radio New Zealand, 26 January 2014

If you find the good oil let us know

The Walters Prize 2014

12 July – 12 October 2014
Auckland Art Gallery
Auckland, New Zealand

Walters Prize 2014 nominees
Simon Denny, Maddie Leach, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila,
Luke Willis Thompson

Jury members
Christina Barton, Catarina Riva, Peter Robinson, Anna-Marie White

International judge
Charles Esche

The Walters Prize has been awarded biennially since 2002 for "an outstanding work of contemporary New Zealand art produced and exhibited during the past two years”. The winner receives NZD 50,000. A jury of four individuals (whose names are announced once the shortlist is released) nominate four artist projects and an international judge is appointed to determine the winning artwork. In 2014 the judge was Charles Esche, Director of the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands.

2014 was the first time nominated projects were presented in sites other than Auckland Art Gallery exhibition spaces.

Jurors' statement
"In determining the most outstanding contribution to New Zealand art since the last Walters Prize, the jurors have selected four artists who have undertaken memorable projects that prove art’s traction as a means to engage the social, economic, cultural, technological, and environmental realities we collectively face. Each project demonstrates a conceptual grasp of the legacies of art’s recent history and a commitment to modes of presentation that challenge expectations and shift attention away from objects to processes and situations. They are all willing to test the boundaries of self and society and to question just where art begins and ends. We believe these artists’ practices raise issues that are relevant to our lives, and that they are vitally contributing to and advancing discussions about the nature of art at this time."

If you find the good oil let us know was presented for The Walters Prize as a minimal constellation of three components:

  • A large photographic image with the caption "Hi Renny, we were made aware of this. From a navigational perspective, in my view, it does not warrant further attention. Cheers, Paul" was printed as the centre spread of the Taranaki Daily News issue on 11 July 2014 (opening preview for The Walters Prize exhibition in Auckland). Taranaki-based readers were the first to view this page. Copies of the issue were then available at the preview and from Auckland Art Gallery's front desk for the remainder of the exhibition;
  • The book If you find the good oil let us know was featured in the Auckland Art Gallery bookshop and available as a free download from Leach's website;
  • An audio recording of writer Ingrid Horrocks reading her letter titled "Dear Companions" was available on Leach's website.