Welcome to the Review Repository - an archive of reviews that were originally published in the Saturday edition of the Taranaki Daily News from September 2007 – April 2008.

The reviews were written for a general audience and therefore tend to be descriptive and educational in focus.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Haunting Hostility

The Barricades by artist Dane Mitchell (image courtesy of Starkwhite)

Public protest is a fundamental human right. From the strategic but peaceful activism of Parihaka in the late 1800s - to the bloody clashes of the 1951 waterfront dispute and 1981 Springbok rugby tour - or the moving presence of the 2004 seabed and foreshore hikoi. New Zealand’s subversive past is important to be aware of. Especially given the recent civil rights infringements of the anti-terror raids in October – an instance which emphasises how public complacency allows those in power to attain dangerous levels of control over the innocent. Indeed the history of protests around the world emphasise that the voice and action of the people can influence a governing power. Be it though peaceful resistance or violent riot, public protest is often done with feeble means. For instance, human chains, banners, loud speakers, rocks and motorcycle helmets are no match for water cannons, rubber bullets, armoured vehicles and military style attacks. However, despite these odds and apparent failures many protests have succeeded in inspiring subsequent generations to make governmental improvements. Highlighting the fact that public protest is an integral agent in maintaining a healthy democratic society.

If you are feeling complacent in your reaction to political issues I strongly suggest visiting the exhibition The Barricades by artist Dane Mitchell currently on show at Starkwhite gallery in Auckland. Through deceptively simple means Mitchell’s exhibition leads the viewer to understand the fragility of human rights and the importance of public protest. Making an immediate statement as you approach the gallery’s storefront window is a large wall that has had its plasterboard dissected and removed in places with surgeon like precision. Leaving rectangular holes that both reveal the walls timber skeleton and also allowing you to peer through into the next room. Walking into the gallery we find that the rectangular plasterboard shapes have been subtracted in order to create makeshift shields with chain handles, much like those made for the Springbok tour protest. However, being made of plasterboard these shields are a pathetic defence for any attack. Not to mention a defilement of the gallery’s pristine and quasi-sacred white wall. The shields are perched against each other as if one were about to construct a house of playing cards.

On the ground nearby are a cluster of molotov cocktails cast in plaster and placed as if awaiting to be set alight and hurled through the air. However, these homemade artilleries appear petrified with age and stand now as archaeological relics of some foiled rebellion. Due to their unearthly whiteness they also have a spectre like appearance - haunted perhaps by their potential harm and the troubled souls that felt compelled to make them.

Obstructing ones passage into the main gallery space is a work consisting of a shovel which has been stabbed into the wall at head height. From which a blood red flag hangs from the handle. This work offers a violent gesture. It draws on the history of domestic or rural tools being used as makeshift weapons by peasants. The flag's poignant colour and proportionate size to an adult could further symbolise a memorial to bloodshed.
More importantly the shovel and red flag has a striking similarity to the hammer and sickle motif of Soviet Russia as a symbol of the working class. There is also an element of magic to this work. The shovel seems to be impossibly counterweighted since only the very tip of the shovel is penetrating the wall. Making it appear as if it were channelled by a poltergeist like entity.

Following on from the shovel are an extensive series of finely rendered coloured pencil drawings. Each sketch is a monochrome of either red blue or brown. The drawings depict barricades which seem to have been drawn from photographs due to their lack of depth and hard edge. Further on there are two books that contain photographs from which it appears some of the drawings are made from. Emphasis here is upon the makeshift constructions that protesters have created. The constructions however appear pathetic in comparison to governing forces. The barricades therefore stand in as symbolic defences for human integrity and fortitude.

In the centre of the gallery is another stack of shields leaning against a pole accompanied by a wheelbarrow from which a soundtrack of a crowd emanates. Also, on a nearby wall are three framed mind map diagrams drawn in pencil on drafting film. The diagrams contain words that depict crowds rife with emotion and link inanimate objects with events that describe a multitude spurring out of control. It also appears that the words and arrows in the diagrams can be unstuck and repositioned on the page. Signifying that the schematic which we are presented with is not fixed fact and is just one view of a particular past riot.

This body of work presents a compelling selection of both conceptually informed assemblages and ephemeral works together with precious art objects that can be easily collected, sold and re-exhibited. This variety of artistic expression allows the viewer many different entry points from which to examine the precariousness of human rights and what it means to stand in protest against a governing power. You will find Starkwhite at 510 Karangahape Road, Auckland.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Burning Vision

Artists’ visions keep culture and society healthy. However, as history illustrates the populace often struggle to understand and appreciate the significance of an artist’s work in its full extent in the contemporary moment of its public display. Unfortunately this results in many artists getting a hard deal during their time only to be revered decades after their death. There are plenty of examples in art history that could illustrate this. In New Zealand one of the most prominent examples is the artist Len Lye. Despite having received awards for his more traditional art Lye’s passion was to pursue more edgy, exciting and less constraining art forms. However, New Zealand’s conservative culture of the 1920s would not have been able to stimulate Lye in such a way. Indeed, even Lye himself must have been somewhat of an oddity to many New Zealanders at this time since he is noted to have been a wild and eccentric character. So in search for an artistically stimulating and accepting community Lye travelled to Samoa, Sydney then finally escaping to London in 1926 by working his passage onboard a ship as a stoker. Within a day of arriving Lye charmed his way into London’s hip avant-garde art scene. Lye’s unconventional art and charismatic personality made an immediate impact in London - astounding the critics who lauded him as being more innovative than his English contemporaries. However, at this time Lye also received a somewhat brief, inaccurate and dismissive review in the Art in New Zealand Magazine. In fact Lye didn’t receive due recognition in New Zealand until much later in his career when the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery exhibited a solo show of his in 1977.

The current exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Five Fountains and a Firebush gives us some further insight into the innovative art of Len Lye while also drawing attention to his visionary legacy. The concept of the exhibition is inspired by a live solo performance of kinetic sculptures under coloured lights that Lye performed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1961. The exhibition consists of five different permutations of Lye’s motorised steel rod kinetic sculptures known as Fountains and one very similar work entitled Firebush. Each Fountain is distinctly different in movement, scale and display. What makes this exhibition of particular note is that it introduces two newly created works never exhibited before. One of these works is Fountain which was created this year based upon Lye’s plans. Fountain is a sweet ethereal wee creation that has a subtle pulsing and contracting movement of fine steel rods - which sometimes appear translucent in the blue light. Its movement resembles the propulsion and grace of a jellyfish.

The star of the show is definitely the work Firebush. Firebush is a 2007 replica of the original 1960 version which Lye performed live at MoMA. The work is operated by a button which simultaneously triggers African drumming music. The drumming seems to stimulate Firebush’s sinuous tendrils to vibrate and contort almost to the point of tying themselves in loops. Each individual thin steel rod dances a different erratic and improvised choreographed movement whilst electric with blood red and copper light shimmering in all intensity and passionate vigour.

The unique aspect of each Fountain reveals Lye’s persistence in choreographing the intricate interplay between movement, physicality, sound and light. Collectively each of the six works triggers a vast range of bodily sensations and thoughtful musings in the viewer - from intense excitement to tranquillity and meditative reflection. The different versions of Fountain also reflect that the concept was constantly evolving. Lye finally planed to make a fountain that would be 45.7 meters high. The installation of many Fountains at once gives us some understanding of what it might be like to experience the monolithic scale that Lye had intended.

This exhibition gives us a specific in-depth investigation of one small component of Lye’s kinetic practice – emphasising the laborious experimentation and planning that goes behind making only one idea a reality. This exhibition will also appeal to a diverse audience – since you don’t need any specialised knowledge to appreciate the visceral movements and visual spectacle that these works instil in the viewer. This effect and popular appeal was exactly Lye’s aim to unify diverse people under a common experience that speaks to us beyond the constraints of conventional communication. A universalism that Lye hoped would speak to our shared inner being while also inspiring us to live out our own unique individuality. A vision which was undoubtedly inspired by Lye’s working class background as a common labourer and his childhood adventures in the wilds New Zealand. It is a pleasure to have such a fresh and lively presentation of Lye’s artwork from which we can grasp some understanding of his visionary artistic philosophy.

Exhibition closes 24 February 2008

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Perfection Issues

Photo: Ben Davis

Art is a language without a dictionary. This is due to the fact that it's actually impossible to have one fixed meaning with art – since it is equally fair game for both the artist and viewer to make sense of art how they wish. However, this hasn’t stopped artists trying to communicate beyond cultural boundaries or attempting to uncover the true essence of the world. In this discussion you cannot overlook the importance of modernist abstraction of the 20th century since it was the exactly the sincere attempt of such artists to attain the essence of all things which conversely revealed that such a pursuit is unattainable. From the 1920s De Stijl movement and their reductive pursuit of turning impressionistic landscapes into black lined grids and flat planes of primary colour - in order to derive a universal skeleton structure of the world. To the specific objects of the 1960s minimalists who attempted to create the perfect relationship between raw industrial materials and geometric forms in relation to an objects surrounding environment – with the purpose of grasping the essential understanding of ones physical being in the world. The legacy of modernist abstraction has attempted to attain perfection via the use of geometry with the understanding that mathematics and science is the one true undeniable universal language. What they did not question however, is that even geometry is riddled with history, cultural significance and is open to many different understandings and symbolisms. In our current age geometry is mostly associated with corporate logos, industrial design and synonymous with power and wealth. However, despite the disillusionment of modernist utopianism a fertile legacy has remained for contemporary artists to explore the complexity of geometric abstraction and its slippery meanings.

One such artist who has positioned himself in the thick of this artistic discourse is local artist Matt Henry - currently exhibiting at the Fishbowl gallery. The Fishbowl is located in a regular domestic garage that has been converted into an art gallery sealed behind a glass wall so that you view the art from the street. Henry’s exhibition entitled Fresh Hoki at the Fishbowl deals with the makeshift context of the Fishbowl gallery while also toying with and unsettling the serious pursuit of geometric abstraction and minimalism.

Fresh Hoki at the Fishbowl consists of two oil and canvas paintings, a section of varnished concrete floor, a black painted window, a1kg block of cheese and a wall mounted bottle opener. The installation appears to hinge on one painting of a yellow square on white background entitled Homage to the ZBP1165. Obviously the result of laborious layers of oil paint achieving a pristine surface almost the quality of porcelain. The brilliant canary yellow beams like a headlight upon its white ground and acts as a definitive focal point to the installation as you peer into the Fishbowl from the street. However, as the title hints to us there is more going on in this painting than the ritualistic application of paint and a visually stunning yellow square. Homage to the ZBP1165 sounds like the model design number of some industrial product suggesting that the painting is a representation of a much loved appliance. The unconventional waist high hanging of the work also indicates that the painting is an abstract depiction of a domestic appliance. One that is valued for its hardedge modern design - judging on the paintings attention to precision and proportion.

Further domestic reference is made in neighbouring works. A readymade wall mounted bottle opener is positioned at the correct functional height in order to open a beer bottle with just the right amount of leverage. A significant residue of Stella Artois bottle caps are strewn below – evidence of a night on the booze. Not just any boozing mind you – this beer denotes a certain demographic since not everyone can afford the extra few dollars to purchase such a brew. Or even feel socially comfortable with the fashion associated it. On the opposite wall is a standard supermarket 1kg block of cheese. By either tinny luck or ridiculously divine fate the cheese fits perfectly into the cavity of the garage’s exposed studs.

Throughout this installation Henry mixes the common and profane with the quasi sacred and profound. The result pushes and pulls our understanding of the work from contemplative appreciation of Zen-like perfection to humorous in-jokes and serious art historical references. The significance of these inherent contradictions draws our attention the problematic slippages that occur by using art as a visual language, the cultural subjectivity involved in ascribing value to objects and how this reinforces social hierarchy. This exhibition qualifies the Fishbowl as New Plymouth’s most innovative alternative contemporary art space and hopefully this standard continues – it is rumoured that there will be more exhibitions over the summer period.

The exhibition is viewable from the sidewalk in the weekends only from 10am-3pm and closes on the 23rd of December 2007. The Fishbowl is located at 31 Young Street, New Plymouth.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Weaving Ideas

Art can be a like a foreign language - and like language it is often difficult to understand and appreciate the significance of an artist’s work unless you have some prior knowledge or skills that help you decipher or translate its meaning.

Perhaps one of the greatest artistic movements which has been greatly misunderstood or not understood at all is conceptual art which first began in the 1960s. As the name suggests conceptual artists decided that the idea of an artwork is more important than appearance or form. Since “ideas” were essentially their media conceptual artists didn’t need to paint or sculpt in the traditional sense. Instead they adopted a role similar to that of a manager or an architect who through carefully worded instructions, rules or formula could be responsible for the creation of something significant. It was logical therefore that conceptual art typically took the form of language, text, photography and readymade objects.

What makes conceptual art difficult for most people to understand is because it requires a lot of patience and willingness of the viewer to contemplate on what might seem as overly simple gestures. This challenging experience is important to conceptual artists because their artwork is meant to act as a trigger for ideas as opposed to a landscape painting which aims to woo the viewer with the illusion of reality. Conceptual art is more like a riddle or a crossword - you have to actively think about the artwork rather than being passively feed information or imagery. The result of conceptual art therefore might be as simple as a single word written on a wall or a specific object placed in a particular location – but despite their simplistic appearance these artistic acts can be keys to vast corridors of knowledge and rooms filled with complex meaning. The conceptual artists of the 1960s have had a considerable influence on contemporary art today. Many artists currently employ the conceptualist methodology in order to create artwork – despite whether they paint or sculpt in a traditional manner or not.

Information Given – a solo exhibition by artist Justin Morgan currently on show at the Lesley Kriesler gallery - toys with the legacy of conceptual art but does so to interrogate the authority of academia and question how we study and understand the world. The exhibition is centred around two expansive but unobtrusive works displayed on two parallel walls. The two works entitled Outer and Surface Samples 1-40, and Sample Drawings Bagged 1-51 both consist of sequential rows of clear plastic bags pined to the wall. In Outer and Surface Samples 1-40 the bags are filled with samples of various organic matter such as splinters of wood, leafs or hair. The samples appear as evidence from a forensic investigation or an archaeologist’s archive. Despite the pretension of specialist research we are not presented with any explanatory information and the specimen labels are folded over so the viewer can’t read them. Sample Drawings Bagged 1-51 features plastic bags containing simple line drawings in blue ballpoint pen that appear to reflect the contents of the other bags. Being physically situated between the two one cannot help but playing a game of comparisons trying to match the physical sample with its drawn depiction. However, this game quickly appears to be futile as it seems impossible to make positive matches.

Our understanding of the exhibition is further complicated whilst considering another work situated in the middle of the room. The work is entitled Sample Booklet 1.1 and consists of a book and a standard white art gallery plinth with a removable Perspex box lid. The book is filled with captions and technical information pertaining to images that don’t exist in the book or else ware in the exhibition. Spinning our confusion even further into orbit is the display of the book. Rather than encapsulating an artefact the Perspex lid is placed on the floor with the book on top - leaving the plinth itself with no displayed object and the book open for visitors to leaf through.

At first glance the artworks appear to be the result of some intensive study giving the exhibition an austere academic sensibility. However, after assessing the incoherent evidence on display the reliability and accuracy of what we are presented is brought into question. Indeed, this exhibition poses more questions than it answers. With no didactic explanation or logical descriptions there also seems to be no purpose or result of the displayed research. Therefore, the exhibition as a whole indicates towards the possible fallacy of academic study - leading us to question the Babel like towers of supposedly reliable research, facts and theories that saturate our information age. Facts and theories that also might support the formation of governmental policies, change how we live and influence our perception the world. The exhibition also plays on the tradition of conceptual art by using seemingly simple objects and information to weave ideas into poignant artistic statements.

Information Given closes on 1st December
The Lesley Kreisler Gallery
Gill Street above Portofino Restaurant

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

More than eye candy

Botanical illustration is more than pretty flower paintings. The visual representation of plants have graced the walls of palaces and decorated textiles for thousands of years. Either venerated for their sustenance, mystical medicinal properties or the goods of trade and commerce plants have been depicted in numerous stylistic ways – each one fulfilling a particular cultural purpose. The same can be said for botanical illustration. By acknowledging the history, aesthetic decisions and function that inform the creation of such illustrations one can reveal the motivations and agendas that formed them – and help us understand what botanical illustrations might mean to us today.

The earliest known image resembling a botanical illustration is from a Greek papyrus dating from approximately 400 AD. It is assumed that these early illustrations were used to traverse language boundaries in the growing travel and trade of the ancient world and to increase the accuracy of information about medicinal herbs. Botanical illustration as we know it today, however, is often attributed to having emerged during the renaissance (14th -17th centuries) with the fine etchings of Albrecht Durer and the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci, who made their illustrations in the aid of early scientific enquiries. In the following period the enlightenment (18th-19th centuries) rationalism was thought to be independent of mystical belief and therefore lead to a golden age of science - which in turn caused some major developments to botanical illustration. Enlightenment illustrators strived to depict an objective realism of surface, form, structure and often showed the plants dissected and with exposed roots. Despite the pretension for objectivity and didactic purpose, the illustrations remained highly stylised and heavy-laden with particular connotations of romantic beauty. Later during Modernism (late 19th and early 20th centuries) botanical illustration became more refined, precise and symbolic of mankind’s superiority over nature. Since then there have been many new advancements science but nevertheless the quest for knowledge of the natural world continues. Botanical illustration has likewise continued to provide a didactic and aesthetic service for scientists. However, in our digital age one must ask what purpose paintings have to science when computer imagery is so proficient.

Well on exhibition in Puke Ariki’s Lane and Wall galleries are some contemporary botanical illustrations which give us some insight into such questions. The exhibition is called A Passion for Plants: Botanical Paintings by Susan Worthington. There is a range of plants represented from rare indigenous foliage to common wildflowers and prised rhododendrons. Humbly presented in simple plain black frames these powerfully seductive watercolour paintings need no fancy display to win respect from the viewer. Indeed, each work has an aura of sophistication and elegance. However, we must question why these paintings impress us so much.

For instance, one painting depicting a blooming kakabeak branch can tell us as much about human connotations of beauty than the specimen itself. Browsing the painting we are shown flowers from bud to bloom. Each flower has a vast range of different hues and colours from quinacridone reds, magentas, pinkish tangerines and slivers of daylight yellow. This careful rendering allows us some insight into the complexity of the plants photosynthesis. The branch holding the blooms seems to be surgically dissected allowing a central composition that draws our eyes further inward - rather than the edges which might make us question what is beyond the frame. The central composition is significant of the categorisation and taxonomy of science to reduce things in order to understand the whole. At the bottom right of the painting is a dissected example of a flower allowing us to study the petals inner chambers and stigma – further emphasising the deductive pursuit of the scientific eye.

The sterile depiction of indigenous plants also brings to mind the colonialist history of Botanical illustration. Voyages such as Cook’s Endeavour carried on board naturalists who were both scientists and proficient painters - to report on the natural resources of the south pacific for Britain’s quest for riches and power. Botanical illustration therefore is also not only shaped by scientific endeavour but also the imperialist prerogative of nationalistic exploit and economic dominance.

These paintings reveal that we find nature beautiful only when it is depicted as empirically ordered and controlled. Which perhaps suggest a deep seeded fear within the human psyche of our inherent transience and mercy on natures baffling complexity and wild unrelenting power. Furthermore, the painstaking skill of these paintings also helps us understand the benefits of painting over digital media. The subtlety of water soluble paint and the intricacies that the human hand can record on paper are far superior than any laser printer and computer programme. The exhibition also gives us some insight into the skill, patients, research and understanding that is required to produce botanical illustration of this calibre. Overall the great thing about this exhibition is that it will captivate anyone who has a pulse.
Exhibition closes on the 13th of January 2008.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Culture Clash

Parallel universes II by Erica Sklenars

Considering a culture’s art can yield insight into the social dynamics of the people. Despite whether an artwork is appealing or not, or even if it is understandable or not, art will always contain significance. Often the significance or beauty of an artwork is found once you consider who made it and from what social / cultural context it was created. Decorated vases from ancient Greece for example, often depicted in elegant, illustrative style the daily occupations and leisure activities of the day. Looking at these vases historically they reveal to us the Greeks’ perspective on bodily beauty, gender roles, fashion and social hierarchies. Viewing contemporary art in a similar manner can reveal to us about the current societal condition. The Wanganui Arts Review on show at the Sarjeant Gallery presents such an opportunity to consider the diversity of our nations social/cultural make up. An annual event open to artists based in the Wanganui region, entries are filtered and edited by a panel of judges who select a list of finalists for exhibition. This year’s judges are Wellingtonians Mary-Jane Duffy from the Mary Newton Gallery and Aaron Lister, from the National Library Gallery. Their choice of artwork seems to emphasise all of the weird, macabre, humorous, na├»ve and insightful artistic talent that Wanganui has to offer. What is interesting about this year’s selection of artworks is what it reveals about the subcultures that inhabit Wanganui.

Two artworks on show particularly emphasise this. One of which is a work by the Rayner brothers entitled ‘Breakfast at every street’. The work depicts a quirky tea party where the guests and hosts of the gathering are the actual serving implements and vessels. The stage of the party is a Formica table. The guests are strange hybridised vessels, something in between a tea cup and an oversized egg cup. Each figure has a ceramic cup bottom, knitted woollen body and an overtly caricatured ceramic head. The host, much larger than the others, takes centre stage on the table, in the form of a ceramic headed tea cosy fitted on an oversize teapot. The oddly fashioned ceramic heads are a typical group of middle class Caucasians in their forties, who despite their ‘cultured’ and austere characteristics, appear as a snobby, conservative clique. The fascinating thing about this quizzical work are the personalities depicted and the perceived social situation at play. Some of the guests have a conceited manner about them, while the others seem jovial and overly polite. The host is the most revealing of all. Obviously a man conscious of his own appearance, with dyed blonde hair or toupee and gold-framed glasses, and the snazzy technicoloured woollen jumper, and a facial expression that resembles Julius Caesar. This host is one of inflated ego and self-asserted social superiority. Considering the work as a whole, it suggests the oddness of social gatherings, the personalities at play, what it means to belong, how we form groups of friends and why.

Parallel universes II by Erica Sklenars

Similar critique could be obtained from Erica Sklenars’ work entitled ‘Parallel universes II’. Consisting of two video works presented on separate TV monitors, Sklenars’ work juxtaposes subculture ideology with third world reality. In one video, we witness still frame footage of a group of neo-punk hipster white kids in their 20s enjoying a drunken fondue evening. The still frames are animated to some experimental electronic pop music, giving the footage the appearance of a low-budget music video. The young adults’ evening spirals into a hedonistic bender as clothes swapping shenanigans take place. The neighbouring TV monitor displays an entirely different world of a sewing factory in India in what appears to be sweatshop conditions. This time, it is amateur camcorder footage of a poor quality as if it was done covertly. The footage is also edited so that frames are repeated and looped, enhancing the mechanical nature of the women’s work. Comparing the two realities seems to draw attention to the inherent contradictions of youthful activists’ ideologies of such ‘alternative’ subcultures. It could also be understood as the comfort we take for granted in our country and the bourgeois lifestyle of small-town students.

The Wanganui Arts Review is an exhaustingly large exhibition which despite it being cram-packed with 177 artworks, is hung and organised well, divided into thematic groups which guides the viewer through the bewildering cacophony of art. There is plenty of work of high technical ability, a fair amount of conceptually clever work and some that is just out there. If anything, this exhibition proves that Wanganui is a twilight zone of creative talent and an enclave for interesting social / cultural groups.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Remixing Myth

Maui by Lisa Reihana
Image courtesy of Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Myths are the fence posts that we use to grasp understanding of the world, to colour our perception of reality and to navigate life’s riddles. Whether they be moral fables or cryptic wonders - myths in whatever form they come in are crucial to how we live life. Stories, theories and even accounts of history could also be viewed as myths which we manufacture to help us understand the past, navigate the present and head towards the future. Therefore, how a myth is told and by whom is very important. Since the creation of a story will always be shaped by the media of communication and someone’s perspective.

In traditional Maori culture, for example, myths of creation and stories of ancestors are represented in pouwhenua (wooden carvings) within a Wharenui. Pouwhenua figures are typically not “realistic” but stylistic representations shaped by how a story or ancestor is perceived through Maori mysticism and worldview. Pouwhenua is also depicted through a males perspective since carving, traditionally speaking, is reserved for men only. As in any artistic tradition the style of pouwhenua varies depending on iwi and historical period. The current exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery presents a new manifestation of pouwhenua which also gives some insight into the roles at play in the creation of myths and their contemporary significance. The exhibition is called Digital Marae a solo show by artist Lisa Reihana consisting of both computer aided photography and video. Reihana’s Digital Marae is an ongoing project that started in 2001 with a particular focus on representing mythic female figures. The Digital Marae has been exhibited in different formations each time. The Govett-Brewster installment features many new works previously not seen before - this time depicting male figures.

Once entering the main gallery doors you are catapulted into a betwixed realm. The gallery is painted in a dark metallic grey with dim spotlights illuminating a series of nine life-sized full body photographs. The photographs are of both living and mythical Maori figures depicted using contemporary technology and aesthetics that provide the same function of pouwhenua within a wharenui. One mythical figure represented is the heroic demigod Maui. An integral figure of Maori mythology as the one who tricked and battled the gods to attain knowledge and quality of life for humans. Many of the stories tell of Maui having to undertake long and perilous journeys into the elements requiring much skill and cunning to complete his missions. Reihana depicts Maui as a muscular man in his mid 30s carving up a pewter grey ocean on a surfboard. Known for their agility, creativity and courage to venture into and master turbulent seas the modern surfer shares some likeness to Maui’s strength and trickster characteristics. Therefore, by re-imaging Maui as a surfer Reihana helps us gain a contemporary understanding into this mythical character. It is also fitting that Maui is depicted on the ocean as it tells the story of his infant years being cast into the sea swaddled in this mother’s topknot. The ominous sea and the obsidian like shards of water that encircle him also suggests Maui’s ultimate death in the vagina of Hinenuitepo (the goddess of death) which caused the cataclysmal loss of immortality for humankind.

Other images delve further into the fantastic by depicting hybrid women/taniwha like creatures and beautiful goddesses personifying natural phenomena. While other images depict contemporary male figures in an illusionary or historically ambiguous manor. The saturated colours, controlled lighting and figures set on a dark background has a striking similarity to seventieth century Italian painter Caravaggio who used such dramatic realism to both illustrate biblical stories and inspire religious devotion. On the other hand the illusionism in these images also closely resembles the dark cinematic aesthetic of popular big budget fantasy and science fiction movies such as The Matrix and 300. By adhering to these popular aesthetics it is as if Reihana’s Digital Marae functions as a type of community/public service making myth accessible and relevant for the multitude. However, this slick aesthetic is juxtaposed by a large video projection work entitled “Let There Be Light”. In low resolution, strange uncoordinated audio and distorted imagery the footage beckons the viewer into the disorientating and undecipherable reverie of the gods. By freely playing with these different aesthetic languages Reihana also re-mixes the societal role and responsibility of the artist - by acting both as a type of 21st century urban visual bard and an avant-garde protagonist.

Digital Marae is evident of cultural adaptation and resilience in the recovery of urban diaspora (commonly termed the “urban drift” of rural Maori beginning in the 1920s and peeking in the 80s with 80% of Maori based in urban centres). While also posing a reminder that culture and our perception of the world is not static but is fluid and ever changing. It also draws our attention to the authorship of myth and how a particular perspective alters the way we understand and live life.

Exhibition closes 2nd December 2007.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Forest of Formalism

artwork by John Johns

Objects are nothing but the significance we give or impose upon them. The means to which we apply meaning to inanimate objects, however, is a complex and confusing muddle of various factors. Stories, memory, emotion, smell, texture, the use of something, the context in which it is utilised and by whom – are but a few contributing aspects that influence what an object means to us. On a national level the significance of objects gets even more knotted and convoluted as the power of cultural, political and economic forces govern the use, production and value of things. Despite their powerful governance these forces – at least in the passing of our daily lives – remain secondary or even subliminally veiled to our personal understandings and meanings of objects.

On show at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington is an exhibition that reveals how such implicit influences have tainted the meaning of wood in New Zealand. The exhibition is called Primary Products and is curated by gallery director Christina Barton. Here is Barton's introduction text in pdf. Through the work of five artists Barton charts New Zealand’s economic dependence on the forestry industry particularly the production of exotic forests and the politics of its export. The art is a mixture of new work and other works acquired from museum collections (including a stunning installation by artist Jim Allan on loan from the Govett-Brewster collection and a monumental 20 meter long Paratene Matchitt work borrowed from Te Papa). Of the most curious inclusions is a series of black and white photographs by the late commercial photographer John Johns.

Originally commissioned by Forestry New Zealand (between the mid 50s - late 80s) these photographs could be viewed as straightforward documentation. However, the objective perspective that Johns has photographed is not just the result of taking a snapshot rather through great care of lighting conditions and fine artistic skill of composition. It takes no explanation to emphasise the quality and seductive allure of the photographs once you experience them. Although, what really makes these photographs captivating artworks is that they communicate a particular perspective and story to us. Strolling past the 25 photographs we witness the processes and stages of turning trees into timber, its export and ultimate use. We are shown forests inserted like pins in grid formation into vast hill sides - miniscule men scaling tower like trees in strategic fashion in order to manicure and thin out the forest - saw mills that dice and filet logs into timber - which is then stack and sorted in warehouses and yards as if data on mathematic paper. The scale of the production is not clearly apparent until we study an image of a containership - laden with an entire forest of timber - carving through a platinum sea with obvious mass and propulsion. Johns is successful in capturing the enormity and vast scale of the industry through his particular pictorial perspectives and emphasis of linier form. His ridged formalist control of the photographic process also in turn draws our attention to how humankind controls and manipulates the natural world by imposing rational order on wilderness. The images are also significant of the military like efficiency of trade and commerce.

This formalism is also seen in Maddie Leach’s body of work centred around a simple looking crate (exactly 1m high x 1m wide x 3m in length so the wall text informs us) containing a pedantically stacked and securely bound bundle of eucalyptus logs. Confronted with what merely seems a pile of logs in a box it is hard at first not to be perplexed. Indeed, the overtly standard issue industrial appearance of this crate and contents appear deceptively normal. It is not until we read the accompanying wall text that the context of the work becomes clear. Apparently the logs were supposed to have been shipped to Santiago as an artwork for exhibition but due to Chilean customs Leach’s crate was not allowed to arrive. Additional works by the artist nearby act as evidence to this story. Evidence including customs pro-forma stating the crates dispatch and destination. There is also video evidence of the tree being felled - albeit oddly choreographed so that the tree falls exactly centre stage. There is also further footage of Leach’s attempt to find the vessel containing her logs in Santiago harbour. This ridiculously small consignment of eucalyptus therefore, becomes significant of the economic competition between New Zealand’s and Chile’s forestry industries and the political powers that go to great lengths to control international exchange.

Reflecting the formalism of the artworks this exhibition appears to be the result of considered research and planning. Its curious mix of vastly different artists strangely ties together well – perhaps due to the fact that each artists work is isolated in different galleries. This exhibition is successful at making us aware of how political and economic forces pervasively influence the meaning of the objects we are continually in contact with. You will find the Adam Art Gallery nestled amongst Victoria University’s Kelburn campus. Exhibition closes 7th of October 2007.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Activating New Plymouth

Art can be used as both a political puppet and independent agent inspiring social change. As the local mayoral elections gear up not only will we notice careful and strategic decisions made by those in power but also signs and billboards of contending hopefuls. These campaign advertisements may seem common and simple enough – but the choices of visual imagery no matter how nondescript are always trying to present a certain perception or attitude to attract voters. Art and politics have a long and alarming historical relationship. Used either to stir up ferverent belonging to revolutionary ideologies or to inspire trust and optimism under oppressive regimes art has - more often than not - been subservient to politics. However, resulting from the social, racial and gender politics from the 1960s to the 1980s new art practices have emerged that resist nationalistic political power. Such new practices have tended to resemble forms of social activism, in-depth research and community based projects rather than the traditions of painting and sculpture.

The new exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery - Activating Korea: Tides of Collective Action - features South Korean artists and artist collectives many of whom work in these new modes of artistic practice. Acknowledgement of such new artistic practices is significant since – like Soviet Russia of the early 20th century - art in Korea before the 90s was warped by the passionate but singular ideologies of either revolutionary or governmental propaganda.

artwork by Bae Young-whan

For instance, rather than erecting banners to rally supporters some Korean artists have opted for persuasive interventions that draw attention to overlooked social problems. This is apparent in a series of photographs that document a project by artist Bae Young-whan. The project was undertaken in the Chungcheong nam-do province were the roads are too narrow for a sidewalk so children are forced to walk single file too and from school along the road markings. Not surprisingly there has been a high casualty rate. To draw attention to the alarming danger that children are subjected to Bae designed brightly coloured helmets with bubbles on stems (wobbling about a metre above their head) that make their presence visible to motorists. I doubt that Bae’s project solved the problem – at best a temporary band-aid remedy perhaps. It would have however drawn attention to the problem that could only be solved by legislative control of road planning. The helmets would also have made an artistic statement to local motorists. The random assortment of bright colours could be seen as representing the individuality of each child. Likewise the bubbles – being thin membranes that can burst easily – suggest the fragility and dependence of children on adults for protection and care. The bubbles also draw attention to the precariousness of the children’s situation not unlike a balloon blown by the wind. Accompanying the photographs are the actual helmets that visitors are encouraged to wear around the gallery.

New Town Ghost by Minouk Lim
images courtesy of the Govett-Brewster

Other work is more reactionary as apposed to actively trying to solve an issue. One is a video work entitled New Town Ghost by Minouk Lim. The video features two musicians on the back of a small truck driving down the streets of Seoul. The two musicians, a young man pounding aggressive beats on a drum kit and a staunch young woman belting out rap lyrics in Korean. The lyrics - in poetic ambiguity and rife with angst -tell us (via subtitles) about the societal discord and rupture caused by the rapid urban economic development that has taken place in Korea over the past three decades. Which has caused hundreds of thousands of Seoul’s low-income inhabitants to be relocated to make room for industry. The particular redevelopment that this video is staged will be causing the closure of many small businesses only to be colonised by multinational companies. The video footage features the vocalist standing with a militant pose arching her back and clasping a megaphone receiver as if she is commanding the glass towers of corporate wealth to fall. This performance is not a protest rather a random happening that would have taken streets of people by surprise. Furthermore, a protest usually has a singular purpose or message whereas the aims of this performance are deliberately allusive. What is tangible, however, is the emotion of the people that live at the whims of a lustful inhuman machine of corporate power.

This exhibition highlights the many examples (far too many to include in this review) in which artists have freed themselves from political idealism and are challenging societal change within South Korea. Despite the different geographic, historical and cultural context that this exhibition grapples with it also touches on many understandable and relevant concerns of our global age that non-Korean New Zealanders will be able to relate to. Failing that there is plenty of information accompanying this exhibition – a whole gallery space has been dedicated to a reading and research area. If anything this exhibition will definitely activate the knowledge and geopolitical awareness of anyone who walks through the gallery door.

Activating Korea: tides of collective action
closes on 25th November 2007

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Curiouser and Curiouser

artwork by Jared Bryant

Clear order is a dull illusion. Before the dawn of modern science, known as the pre-enlightenment, it was a European pastime (of the affluent class during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries) to compile collections of wonderful and strange cultural objects and natural specimens from faraway lands. These collections stored in shelves and cupboards were called a cabinet of curiosities – they were called this because the world and life during this period was a mystery and only explainable through spiritual beliefs. This all changed, however, when modern science became the popular mode of thought and so vanished the bizarre cabinets - replaced by collections ordered in rationally and objective categories.

Today the closest collection that most people have to the curiosity cabinet is common garage junk – the obvious difference being is that this collection is an unwanted residue. A residue that we tend to shed at this time of year in an almost ritualistic attempt to create order out of apparent chaos. When the complexity of reality confounds us we seek solace in the simple by creating stacks and piles, categories and compartments, boundaries and grids. However, life is not black and white – it is a screaming jungle of vibrant colour. Or as I found out last Saturday the brilliance of life could be a fluorescent pink pair of sneakers dangling from a gallery spotlight, row of beer bottles smeared in paint, box of bananas made out of wool, fence paling sprouting from a bucket of paint or pristine circles of blue and red powder precariously dusted on the floor. This is not the description of a curiosity cabinet or junk in a garage but artworks in an exhibition by The Cavendish Banana Company. The exhibition is called Trudy’s Motorbike and is currently on show at the Lesley Kreisler Gallery.

The company’s representatives Eugene Kreisler and Jared Bryant are the artists responsible for this baffling assortment of objects. Either from spending time with a particular artwork or by observing the relationships to those around it - these objects are symbolic of life’s contradictory complexities and overlooked everyday splendour. For instance, the quirky simplicity in Kreisler’s painting entitled ‘Thunder’ is significant of both sincerity and disillusionment. It is made out of a large circular canvas with a roughly painted black zigzag. Attached to the bottom of the canvas are brightly coloured threads that dribble onto the floor. The work resembles an American Indian dreamcatcher amulet believed to lure good dreams and repel or ensnare bad ones. These days the dreamcatcher is reduced to a meaningless kitsch object that you can buy from the $2 shop. Kreisler’s dream catcher however, is deliberately blown out of proportion and made in an odd fashion giving it a strange appearance. It could be symbolic of either a sincere homage to the noble mysticism of the American Indian or an ironic critique of how it has been reduced to a tacky souvenir. Or even the muddled and surreal imaginings of a deep sleep.

In a different vein but equally curious is a series of paintings placed on the floor. Brandished across the surfaces are passionate strokes of thick paint slapped onto otherwise clean stretched white canvases. On top of each painting is either a beer or energy drink bottle. Studying the expressionist gestures brings to mind the analysis of hand writing or body language as a judge of personality. Similarly with the placement of the beer and energy drink bottles makes one think of the influence that substances have on our behaviour. Behaviours that interestingly contradict the advertised images for these beverages.

Like a murky dream were one thing morphs into another, directly opposite Kreisler’s painting ‘Thunder’ is a different work that shares some uncanny formal similarities but in miniature form. The work, by Bryant, is a tiny white handcrafted skull that is bleeding a redeeming rainbow of dazzling colours. Accompanying the skull are equally troubling works including one depicting a small body trapped in a web like lattice of paint. Close by is a painting that sports the slogan “PILL POP ‘N’ PUBLIC’ and another that simply reads ‘FAKE’ in bold 3D letters. The combination of all these works point to the beguiling nature of pop culture commercialism, the trappings of societal expectations and the fear of conservative normality.

One of the great things about this exhibition is that it could easily be viewed as one large amazing artwork, it is after all produced by one entity: The Cavendish Banana Company. In all its entirety and disparity Trudy’s Motorbike suggests to us that life is not clear and rational but rife with complex beauty and nonsensical relationships. Exiting the exhibition though a green, yellow and blue striped fly curtain I felt as though I had witnessed both the mystical significance of the cabinet of curiosities, and the meaningless accumulation of the garage. Trudy’s Motorbike is a precious art experience full of bewilderment and brilliance.

Trudy’s Motorbike closes 29th September 2007
The Lesley Kreisler Gallery
Gill Street above Portofino Restaurant

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Wondering About Wilderness

Images courtesy of Govett-Brewster

It is easy to assume that nature is clearly definable but as we well know in Taranaki ‘nature’ can be perceived, experienced and thought of in many different ways. For instance, Mt Taranaki, by its foreboding presence and seismic murmurings, reminds us human occupants that life here is tentative (approximately 50 years until eruption so geologists tell us). However, from the air this looming giant looses its majesty appearing to be held captive by a circumference of grassy pastures. Similarly, while walking along clear cut paths through Taranaki’s goblin like forests we could view nature as charted and containable. Or, as a fuel resource when we witness oilrigs that suck and fleer oil and gas. Nature in Taranaki can be simultaneously perceived as a sightseeing reserve, sporting playground, site for industry, a placid backyard garden or a terrifyingly sublime wilderness. Depending on your particular worldview further classifications could be made, since ‘nature’ is culturally and politically relative.

The current exhibition New Nature at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery explores these and other contradictory preconceptions of ‘nature’ and our interaction/relationship with it. The exhibition takes place in and outside the gallery. One artwork can be found on the coastal walkway near Egmont Street. If you have come across an odd black object in that vicinity which serves no rational purpose then it is quite possible you have already experienced it. Standing roughly six feet tall and perched at the end of a wooden platform is an ominous looking black pod. Extraterrestrial in appearance this pod appears as though it might have flown and landed there. At first glance it could also be taken for an electrical substation or scientific device – it even emits electronic buzzing and crackling sounds. Although, the sound often changes from something mechanical to resembling jovial electronic music for a 1980s computer game. A few feet away from the black pod is a wind turbine busy generating electricity. Obviously powered by the turbine the pod could be seen as a type of dwelling. One could imagine a scientist (or even a small green alien) crouched in there with a cup of tea and computer studying data from the surrounding wild coastline.

A nearby sign informs us that the pod is an artwork entitled GROUNDHOG made by a collective called I-TASC (Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation) a group who individually are involved in the fields of art, engineering and science. GROUNDHOG is a replica of a pod which I-TASC has planted exactly 7,721 km away in Antarctica – currently equipped with weather recording technology to collect data that will aid their design of a mobile Antarctic dwelling. Some of the sounds emanating from the GROUNDHOG pod are recordings from this weather data. Other recordings are music made by members of the I-TASC group while they were in Antarctica. The stark contrast between the geometric and high-tech appearance of GROUNDHOG and the wild bolder clad coastline draws to mind the common assertion that ‘nature’ is something distinct from human habitation.

The collision of science, technology and nature is also a topic grappled in a series of objects by artist Joe Sheehan exhibited inside the gallery. Resting in a display case is a remote control intricately carved out of black jade. Rupturing the surface of the jade are growths of quartz crystal jutting out in various places. Crystals have long been imbued in mystic religions and science fiction as having similar invisible energies and properties like infrared technology used in remote controls. For me the work signifies scientific endeavours to harness or understand the sophisticated deign of nature to develop new technologies. While also suggesting the futility of such a pursuit as nature’s resilience and adaptable prerogative will ultimately foil human attempts of control. Accompanying the remote are other objects carved entirely out of pounamu and other types of greenstone from around the world including a fully functioning cassette tape.

There are many other artworks in this exhibition that explore the concept of nature through other perspectives. In my opinion the exhibition is let down by one or two works that promise great things but don’t quite deliver. One of which is Fiona Hall’s native flax and grass garden on Pukaka Marsland Memorial Hill Park surrounding the war memorial. The concept of the work is well researched and insightful. Unfortunately, due to its lack of visual/physical presence in the location, contrived spiral composition and infant growth it fails to insight debate about war as the artist was intending. The work resembles the result of a garden makeover reality TV episode rather than a well considered artwork. This may change however, once the plants reach maturity. There is a wide selection of other artworks on show including computer animation, paintings, photography, rug design and installations. New Nature is a bold and alluring exhibition that challenges preconceptions and contributes to contemporary ideas on what is ‘natural’ and how we define ‘nature’.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

The Scene in Hamiltopia

In the last 10 years Hamilton has exploded in all directions with new uniform suburban neighbourhoods popping up like clusters of mushrooms after a humid night. It has also grown culturally. Not only does Hamilton hold the infamous hot air balloon festival, show-off themed gardens, holds the National Agricultural Field Days, but in 2008 it will host the V8 Supercar Championship! It’s art scene has also taken off. One of the driving forces behind this is Trust Waikato who sponsors the annual Waikato National Contemporary Art Award and the Waikato Museum of Art and History who hosts and runs the event. Each year the Museum invites a renowned curator to select from over 200 entries and create a list of about 30 finalists that will be exhibited and chose one for the grand prise. Last year it was the Govett-Brewster’s curator of contemporary art Mercedes Vicente, this year it was Dr Leonhard Emmerling, curator of St Paul Street Gallery in Auckland. What the Trust and Museum have cottoned onto is that art doesn’t have to be pretty to captivate us. What matters is that it hits a truth about our lives or existence. For instance, the wining artwork of this year’s award is far from pleasant, down right depressing in fact but it nevertheless gives considerable insight into a common national state of mind.

The work is entitled Resonance by artist Boris Dornbusch and visually doesn’t comprise of anything remarkable, so much so that I didn’t see any point printing a photo of it with this article. Rather the significance of this work is the experience of it. A mans voice Emanates from an old stereo speaker that is sitting on the ground. The voice is that of a anonymous 25 year old man who, as if he is going through a premature midlife crisis, talks about having an unfulfilling job, miffed with the direction of his life, torn between other peoples expectations of him and pursuing his heartfelt dreams. The man also divulges his sincere but hopeless lamentations of New Zealand society and its apparent downward spiral.

A short distance from the speaker is a plinth displaying strangled and kneaded lumps of clay made by the man whilst listening to the recorded interview as if part of some psychological therapy. The strange amorphous objects have the appearance of his mental state in physical form. The clay has been fired and coated in a black gloss enamel paint so visitors can place their hands in his finger marks. I handled the forms tentatively, strangely worried that I might be haunted by this man’s unfortunate state of mind. Listening and interacting with this work puts the viewer in the position of the therapist to make ones own judgement or analysis of his words and emotive expression left in the clay. We have all heard the concerning suicide and depression statistics revealing that this level of disillusionment and despair is common in New Zealand. So even though it is sad to experience, this work ignites many important questions about the societal and cultural ills of our nation. For instance: What do New Zealanders expect to get from life? Why, in a developed and relatively safe country where there is plenty of possibilities for an enriching life, do so many people suffer from such disillusionment?

Other works in the exhibition also pick up on distinct elements of New Zealand culture and identity issues. The most significant of these for me was Geln Hayward’s work entitled Dave’s Big Brain. It is a goats scull carved out of kauri, painted mostly white and on the forehead is a naive biro drawing of a V8 Cleveland motor. The work demonstrates meticulous skill to replicate the scull in perfect detail and proportion (before I read the wall label I thought it was a real skull). It also boasts a fond disregard of conventional taste. For a lot of New Zealanders to paint kauri is a shameful waste of beautiful native wood. Let alone scrawling on it in biro pen like a teenager would graffiti on a school desktop. Looking past its craft the work is also powerfully symbolic. To carve the scull of a lowly introduced pest out of a piece of prised native wood and then painting it so that the identification of the wood is denied could be symbolic of the ecological ramifications of colonialism. The biro drawing adds another level of meaning. The drawing for me distinctly references working-class Caucasian ‘bogan’ culture which gives the colonialist reading a contemporary resonance. A critique of a redneck stereotype/attitude that has survived from colonial times perhaps.

The art award shares some thematic similarities with another exhibition at the Waikato Museum called Existence. Also worth seeing in town is Ramp Gallery at the Waikato Institute of Technology. So when you are next in the great Hamilton for a sports event or spot of department store shopping, complete your cultural experience by digesting a bit of art.