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.

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.