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, 8 March 2008

Commune Creatures

Ideologies create, distort and blind reality. We become aware of this the moment there is disagreement between people of different beliefs or backgrounds. Beyond any confusion or anger of such a clash the realisation dawns that there are many peculiar and beautiful ways of seeing the world, even though we might disagree. Being human we all have an innate desire to believe that there are laws or principles that explain our existence and purpose. Such is our yearning that these idealisations of the world or life actually influence what we understand to be real. The most successful ideologies are those that have small progressive rewards bound in reality whilst leading to something ultimately unattainable. This formula together with a sense of community is evident in any of the world’s most popular religions or philosophies. This is also the reason why so many paradigms and doctrines have survived despite having histories of leaders and followers that have fallen short of the beliefs. Throughout history artists have played their part in creating or promoting ideologies. From didactic midlevel altarpieces to the design of 20th century utopian modern architecture artists have had an integral role in translating the ideal into visual and physical form. However, within our post-modern age - where truth is perceived to be culturally relative – artists have sort out new roles and subject matter. One fashion, for instance, within contemporary art of recent years has been to parody or reveal the short comings of ideologies.

A new body of work by Taranaki born artist Francis Upritchard - currently on exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery – explores the quandaries of ideologies by romanticising the failure of hippie utopianism. The exhibition is entitled Rainwob I – perhaps a humorous coined term combining the word rainbow with mob to describe a cloister of hippies. Rainwob I consists of a collection of various clay figures, ceramic creations and a few found objects that are arranged upon a giant 10m x 3m plinth that also functions as a couch at one end. The result is an odd diorama that suggests both a surreal landscape and a nostalgic 60s or 70s domestic interior but is neither one nor the other. Encountering the work is like discovering a stark white ethereal world within which boldly rainbow rendered naked people exist. The figures are neither happy nor sad but possess some sort of odd Zen state of being. Their genteel presence is communicated via temperate gestures glazed over facial expressions - but also their ill proportioned and structurally impossible bodies. The fashioning of these figures is intriguing since at first glance they appear badly formed but on closer inspection you notice that the hands feet and faces of the figures have received a great amount of sculptural skill and attention. Being the most sensitive and expressive areas of the body this over emphasis suggests that these figures have a heightened sensual existence. As the viewer implicitly associates the hands, feet and face with touch, emotion and communication.

Their emancipated and oddly proportioned physicality combined with their placid bliss like stupor also brings to mind a commune of 1960s hippies – as depicted in Dennis Hopper’s film Easy Rider - where wildly passionate young white Americans took to the country to live off the land only to fall victim to the lack agricultural knowledge and skills or a relapse towards male centred gender roles and domineering mind games. It is as if Upritchard’s figures are entranced in a higher state of being that has blinded them of their physical plight.

Elsewhere, in the installation also draws on hippie idealism. Positioned at the far end of the plinth is a painted tree branch erected so that it resembles a tree. Painted in sequential radiantly coloured stripes, as in a rainbow, the tree has a sort of cosmic appearance perhaps holding some mystic powers like the fabled tree of life. Neighbouring the tree are two mushroom or clam shaped domed forms that have bubble skylights and cushioned fabric interiors that appear to be dwellings. They resemble the clay houses and geodesic domed structures favoured by alternative types of the 60s and 70s for their ecological and philosophical rational. Viewed from the front end of the plinth and in comparison to the scale of the figures in the foreground, the dwellings appear to be far in the distance like in a landscape painting. Placed near the tree also supports this illusion. Once you walk around the plinth however the forced perspective collapses creating odd and confusing scale relationships with the other objects on display. Adding further confusion is the couch and lamps at the front of the plinth. Mixing the domestic scale objects with the figures leads us to view the installation as a lounge setting rather than a visionary landscape. The conglomeration of these incongruous perspectives suggests how ideologies create a certain outlook on life that once viewed from a different angle are revealed as being illogical and befuddled.

Francis Upritchard’s Rainwob I is a quaint and fascinating work which has many more aspects to discover. In particular is the distinct personality of each figure and the interrelation between them. The installation’s couch – which you are allowed to sit on – also adds a welcoming and fun experience of the work. Exhibition closes 18th of May.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Blood, Grids and Taonga

Ann Shelton' s photograph : Arena, Te Ngutu O Te Manu/Beak of the Bird, South Taranaki, 2004 Diptych, C type prints1150 x 1450 mm each

Stories of peace and pain are etched into the land of Taranaki. Like the perilous volcanic forces that both toil silently beneath our feet and vocally loom in frightening geography everywhere we look – so to is the history of human habitation in Tarainaki. It is important that we are aware of this history – so that latent grievances can be addressed and elapsed moments of peace celebrated. Art can be a powerful tool to aid the telling of difficult histories. Being specialists of both technique and spirit, artists can use the various materials and media to reveal deep pious like revelations of the human condition. Artists can transform otherwise dry modes and methods of visual documentation. Painting and photography, for instance, can be used plainly as scientific documentation to visually record the facts. An artist, however, can creatively manipulate the possibilities of these mediums to communicate thought and emotion – and express what science cannot.

Puke Ariki’s new exhibition Taranaki Whenua: life-blood-legacy provides a great example of how the subjective possibilities of art can be used to add depth, insight and experience to a history fraught with conflict. The exhibition explores Taranaki’s geological and colonial history with particular emphasis on the conflicting philosophies and agendas of land ownership between Maori and Pakeha. The exhibition welcomes the viewer with large angled walls that jut out in different trajectories. This exhibition design transforms the usually cavernous low ceiling exhibition space into a dynamic warren that invites you to explore and contemplate. As you make your way through the exhibition text panels, data projectors, slick glowing plasma screens, historic artefacts and artworks narrate various stories or rouse thoughtful contemplation. Of the most emotional and thought provoking is the display of a plough used by the people of Parihaka in the late 19th century. The plough is mounted so that it appears to be slicing through a sloping white platform representing the land. The slice of the plough is emphasized by an incendiary ruby light – a bold display that both transforms a rural tool into a historically potent icon and reinforces the great sacrifice of the Parihaka passive resistance movement.

Elsewhere artwork provides similar enrichment. Such as Ann Shelton’s photographic dyptich entitled Arena, Te Ngutu o Te Manu/Beak of the Bird South Taranaki. The photographs depict Te Ngutu o Te Manu/Beak of the Bird - the location of a Maori village and site of the eminent victory of chief Titokowaru over the British army in 1868. The photographs focus on a monument commemorating those that were killed in that battle. The monument is also believed to mark the spot were the famous hired gun and Commander Major Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was killed. Shelton has chosen to display an identical pair of the image hung in opposing orientation – like a water reflection. This hang references how the creation of history is much like the science of a photographic image. A photograph is first upside-down and back to front due to the laws of refraction – when a photograph is printed this process is reversed. This presents a philosophical quandary as to which is the correct orientation of reality. Therefore, Shelton’s dualistic presentation of a historical location guides one to contemplate the reliability of history. However, before one learns the history of the monument and land the dual imagery alone holds a lingering presence. The stark white cross monument is framed by a visually haunting milieu of a lush grass field and a foreboding parameter of naked winter trees. The freshly mown lines in the grass create a surreal forced perspective that both draws you in and forces you back at knife edge as the two images converge. This perturbed contention is also present in the trees. In the above image the skeleton branches appear to extend heavenward while in the inverted image they seem as roots attempting to grasp Hades. Arena, Te Ngutu o Te Manu/Beak of the Bird states no simplistic historical fable but rather visually leads viewer to dwell upon the lingering disturbance of war and the past bias of Taranaki’s colonial stories.

There are many other artworks that are used to both aid the narrative of the exhibition and to contribute additional insight and complexity to the topics. Those that perform this best are Fiona Clark’s aerial photographs of polluted waters between New Plymouth and Waitara caused by industrial waste and sewage – photographs that were later used to support Te Atiawa’s Waitangi Tribunal claim in the 80s. Others include ink and acrylic works by Bevan Ford, enigmatic black and white photography by Laurence Aberhart, and a very brusque banner work by Don Driver. The exhibition is also enhanced by a catalogue which is full of essays and images providing further insight and depth to some of the issues raised.