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Features / August 29, 2013

New Zealand: Art Under the Long White Cloud

Aotearoa—the Land of the Long White Cloud, as New Zealand is known in Maori—is remote to many, even as a certain image of it is known worldwide. Pitched as an outdoorsy fantasyland, the country elicits visions of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth and sublime, subtropical bungee jumps. And yes, it is beautiful, rugged, pastoral, unique. Like Canada, the natural (still) tends to dominate the tourist narrative. Suffice to say, as a Canadian artist travelling in the region this spring, I learned that such marketing-driven identifications barely describe what New Zealand is actually like.

A little more quietly, to one side, is the New Zealand art world. For this group, colonialism, multiculturalism, migration and isolation remain central themes—if not in their work, then in their lives. But there is also distinctness in place and culture that cannot be attributed to broad and hegemonic categories. There is a strong critical connection to what is going on in the rest of the world, an awareness that looks outward from relative distance. Yet there is also an individual character that is quietly resistant and acutely self-conscious about its global position. I visited three of the nation’s major cities during my sojourn, engaging with various galleries, institutions and individuals along the way.


The most populous city in New Zealand also hosts the largest art community in the country. A variety of project spaces, commercial galleries, museums, mid-level institutions, and art schools form a diverse and internationally connected scene. There is a palpable feeling of competition and a jockeying atmosphere. Galleries and artists are vying for attention, trying to distinguish their programs or their practices. Multiple art schools contribute numerous new graduates every year to this already crowded party. Obviously, the competitiveness is based on an economy of scarcity. There are many sophisticated and deserving artists, and a rarified number of opportunities.

I would also wager that there is a sharp criticality developed in Auckland because of its cosmopolitan, yet isolated, nature. In this city, firsthand knowledge of international art is mostly gained through books, magazines and the Internet. The library at the Elam School of Fine Arts is a thing of legend. These media that convey art indirectly are highly regarded, becoming primary, rather than secondary, sources. As a result, criticism and art history are indelibly woven into art experience. Auckland artists are very informed about what they are doing in a wider context, yet they are still physically quite far from the centre. They are constantly comparing themselves (and others) to what is being presented on a global stage, ranking, rating and contesting each other’s work. In order to succeed, this seems to be a necessity. Ultimately, it is a thorough knowledge of what is happening elsewhere that engenders this desire to be part of that outside—to fight hard for visibility and challenge the rationales of why others become visible.

Toi o Tāmaki (Auckland Art Gallery) is the major collecting institution in the city, as well as the country. During March and April, the gallery had a variety of exhibitions emphasizing their collection of contemporary and historical New Zealand art. In general, these shows had qualities typical of state galleries. The works were presented through art-historical matrices, were over-hung, and were conservatively organized around broad themes. The gallery itself is a recent purpose-built structure, yet already seems too small for what its staff is trying to show.

On the upside, the version of New Zealand art history presented at the gallery is relatively inclusive. Many of the nation’s most distinguished artists are women, and the collection reflects that. Significant works by Olivia Spencer Bower, Lois White, Rita Angus, Christine Hellyar, Selina Foote and others allude to the breadth and importance of women’s contributions. There are also many works by Māori and Pacific Island artists, although these tend to be more recognizable in recent acquisitions. Peter Robinson, Michael Parekowhai, Brett Graham, and Lisa Reihana are represented by major works. Art from New Zealand’s Asian communities also features prominently in the gallery, reflecting some attuning to multicultural demographics. This year, Tiffany Singh has been showing new work in the gallery’s Creative Learning Centre, and Choi Jeong Hwa’s Flower Chandelier is currently a prominent, crowd-pleasing installation in the foyer.

The work Kuaka by Māori artist Ralph Hotere is a particular standout of the gallery’s collection, thankfully given a space of its own. Originally commissioned for the Auckland Airport in the 1970s, Hotere’s glossy painted panels vibrate with thin vertical lines of rainbow chroma on a dense, dark background. The work is massive and visually stunning, refusing attempts to absorb it as a total viewable area. The central panels display the words of a Te Aupuri Māori chant also titled Kuaka. In English this word translates to godwit (a type of large shorebird that migrates as far as the Arctic to New Zealand and back again). The subject is compelling both for the painting’s original location in the airport and for its connection to New Zealand’s history of settlement and migration. Before the Māori, birds came to these islands, taking refuge, making territories and adapting. The kuaka/godwit and its journey are enduring, so Hotere’s painting evokes a timescale that goes before and after the human. The chant’s invocation of seasonal repetition and the fragility of life are made all the more poignant by the artist’s recent passing.

Commercial art galleries in New Zealand are highly influential, and in many ways the market drives the most ambitious projects. In large part this is due to limited public funding for both artists and institutions. Simultaneously, there is an informed and supportive collector base that purchases work, and gallerists who are cultivating local as well as international interest in New Zealand art. Michael Lett is probably the most well-known of these gallerists, and his new exhibition space exudes cool blue-chip chic. Exhibiting with him is not the only route to wide recognition as a New Zealand artist, but it is a major step.

I was pleased to come upon the solo exhibition “Set Down” by Australian Hany Armanious during my visit to Lett’s gallery in the spring. At first appearance, these sculptural works are coyly constructed found-object mashups integrating the plinth in their composition. Isa Genzken is very present here. But on further inspection, the materiality of the objects becomes unnerving. Each component, small and large, is cast from pigmented polyurethane resin. The mimetic effect is laudable, and obviously there is tremendous technique evidenced. But where Armanious’s work shines is in his shrewd choice of objects and curious eye for detail. For instance, some of the plinths appear to have a protective cover of brown paper over the resin. It is only on very close viewing that one realizes that this “paper” is part of the resin cast itself. Cheeky object mimicry could easily manifest one-liners, but Armanious avoids the pitfalls through variation, invention and absurd humour.

Somewhat equivalent to a Kunstverein, Artspace functions as one of Auckland’s longest-running and most established non-collecting spaces. Located in an odd 70s building on Karangahape Road, the gallery features a large primary exhibition space, a reading room, and a small, unique project space known as the Mezzanine. Swedish artists Goldin + Senneby’s performance work M&A was being presented at the time of my visit. Familiar names on the international circuit, Goldin + Senneby have a practice that deals with the legal and economic systems surrounding art production. In this case, their exhibition consisted of a one-person play produced with New Zealand playwright Jo Randerson that was performed in the gallery. During the exhibition, an actor perpetually rehearsed the play, leaving traces of past performances accumulating in the space. Crucially, the production was supported by investing the usual exhibition funds in an algorithmic trading strategy set up by investment banker Paul Leong. When the money from the investments ran out, the exhibition ended. The presence or absence of capital in M&A caustically evidenced the knife edge that contemporary art actually balances on. Whether this is old news or increasingly relevant critique is hard to say. Some of the implications of the work seemed painfully obvious, but then again, it is often important to reaffirm the obvious publicly. Opinions of the exhibition in Auckland were strongly split. Undoubtedly the provocation of a debate was crucial to why a project like this was programmed in the first place.

One of the newer additions to the Auckland scene is Gloria Knight, a project space located near the main port. Forwarding an aesthetic most associated with recent “net art,” the gallery connects to a young, international community that produces art online as much as in the studio. Its past program has had some gusto, and it is no doubt ambitious. However, the show on at the time of my visit (“Repeat Pattern”) was unremarkable, signifying a homogenous global style that mixes early 90s graphic design, EDM, commodity fetishism, and remix culture in predictable ways. This exhibition could have been anywhere. The notable exception was a work by Berlin-based New Zealander Simon Denny, whose hybrids of televisions, aquariums and obsolete media platforms are jests on aspirational lifestyle construction. Denny is a familiar name (ubiquitous in New Zealand) primarily because he has been able to take images and objects expelled by communication technology and grant them new significance within his recognizable cosmology. Perhaps this added significance is what “Repeat Pattern” lacked? By exemplifying a Contemporary Art Daily “style,” it only duplicated it—without expressing a shift from the commonplace toward the innovative. It looked trendy. It didn’t influence a trend.


There is one unavoidable narrative that has defined life in Christchurch for the last two years: the impact of the earthquake that struck in 2011. During that time, much of the city’s iconic downtown core was shattered to rubble. Parking lots replaced office blocks. The cathedral crumbled in on itself. Rather than an instantaneous disaster, Christchurch is experiencing a prolonged single event, the multiplicity of its effects shaping every aspect of the material and emotional atmosphere. The shock is incomprehensible. In this environment, it is undoubtedly difficult to sustain an art community. Nonetheless, the mood on the ground is one of determined persistence. Three galleries contribute most substantially to the scene: Dog Park Art Project Space; the Physics Room; and Te Puna O Waiwhetu (Christchurch Art Gallery).

Dog Park exemplifies the ethos of New Zealand artist-run spaces. Recognizing an audience and a need, a small group of committed individuals (Chloe Geoghegan, Ella Sutherland and Barbara Garrie) began the gallery in June 2012, taking on the lease for a disused industrial space on the outskirts of the city centre. Since then, they have put together a regular program of exhibitions by mostly New Zealand artists. This programming has been driven by its quality and relevance to the local artistic community, rather than any themes related to the earthquake. Christchurch’s cultural landscape is still dominated by the idea of disaster recovery, so making room for an art conversation other than this was a vital initiative. Largely funded out of their own pockets, the project is beginning to gain small amounts of public money and sponsorship to offset the organizers’ day jobs. Despite extra cash, the things that keep Dog Park going are the indomitable energy of its founders and the generous involvement of their local community. The future of the project remains uncertain, but its role is a crucial one for Christchurch.

The Physics Room and Te Puna O Waiwhetu, being established institutions, have had to adapt to the contingencies produced by the quake in different ways. Miraculously, the building where the Physics Room is located survived, while almost all the structures around it were condemned. Te Puna O Waiwhetu was less lucky, and as a result it has moved its program into two separate buildings in the city. Additionally, both galleries have undertaken multiple projects in the public spaces of Christchurch, both independently and in collaboration with an organization called Gap Filler. These public projects are redefining huge amounts of the downtown core, with murals and sculpture commissions functioning as the most visible artworks. The city has become something of a testing ground for large-scale public art, and many projects of varying success have proliferated. If nothing else, the priority on public art has fostered a conversation about what Christchurch could or should become as it redevelops.

The exhibitions within both galleries during my visit had a light approach, providing respite from the crumbling outdoor infrastructure. Perhaps this gentle mood was coincidental, but it seemed at least considerate of an audience that likely did not desire to compound the city’s feelings of misfortune. Agatha Gothe-Snape was showing in the Physics Room front space. Her improvisations with the work of previous artists and exhibition structures in Christchurch paralleled recent emotions in the city: recover some optimism from what is now past. Gothe-Snape shared the gallery with Karin Hofko, whose performance-to-computer works again rely on strategies of improvisation, using the Internet as a site for navigating and manipulating existing material. The brightly coloured inflatables produced by Seung Yul Oh literally filled one of the Christchurch Art Gallery’s offsite spaces. At another space, Reuben Paterson’s digital animation inspired by Māori patterns glittered an Op-art trance.


At the southern tip of the North Island, New Zealand’s capital is also home to a clutch of exciting galleries. The city has a laidback feel, and its planning promotes walking and public transport in a more manageable way than the rest of New Zealand. Having only visited for two days, I cannot pretend any authoritative description of the place. My impression was of a city where life is a little more comfortable. Rent is cheaper; jobs are more secure. There is a mixture of a 70s counterculture crossed with the nine-to-five bureaucrat lifestyle of a capital city. Bespoke coffeeshops and bars are plentiful, microbreweries abound, stable incomes and government jobs support a populace with time to relax. It is a “creative” city, some would say.

One notable exhibition during my visit was at Robert Heald Gallery, featuring recent pictures by Auckland-born artist Richard Bryant. Bryant’s works on paper are intimate in scale and conceptually and technically deft. Subtly constructed collages using found materials are diffident and removed from the evidence of human touch. These are not cool industrial objects per se. They are foremost evocations of the wear of time across surfaces. Natural forces are at work, and the effects of light, heat, moisture and abrasion corrode what were once new materials. There is a tangible Tarkovsky effect, and in their small scale and tight compositions the works are oddly cinematic.

Uphill from Robert Heald is Te Pātaka Toi (Adam Art Gallery). The Adam is a university gallery, boasting an impressive, if unconventional, multi-storey space. Inside, an exhibition of recent acquisitions from the collection provided an overview of contemporary New Zealand art influenced by conceptual approaches. Works by Billy Apple, Mladen Bizumic, Philip Dadson, Louise Menzies, Campbell Patterson, Sriwhana Spong, Jae Hoon Lee and many others formed this diverse exhibition. The works of two particular artists stood out within the larger structure of the show. Sonya Lacey’s film Newspaper for Vignelli was projected on a mezzanine level of the gallery. Shot on 16mm and transferred to DVD, the work depicts the pages of a newspaper being blown by the wind on an empty street. Further inquiry reveals that the newspaper in the work is Lacey’s own recreation of Massimo Vignelli’s rejected proposal for the European Journal in 1978. Vignelli’s design practice (known for its attention to order, grids and hierarchy) is here shifted from principles of universal communication to everyday detritus. The wear of time, the effects of elements, and the fickleness of taste overshadow desire for a perfect system.

Connecting with the delicacy of Lacey’s film were the images of Ava Seymour. On first viewing, the works in her series 11 Bars of Oboe appear as rather dry geometric abstractions, with their minimal schemes and precise compositions echoing early 20th-century artists like El Lissitzky or Kazimir Malevich while also resembling digital vector drawings. It is only after prolonged viewing that a different quality is revealed in the work. In actuality, these are photographs of very finely cut collages. White paper shapes rest on black grounds, their wavering edges made with a knife held in a human hand. The hardness of mechanized imagemaking is subtly undermined. The title suggests musical performance, but evokes much more. Again, as with so much in this complex nation, appearances are not always as they seem.