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Denise Tiavouane
The Modern Dance
instalation view
at Asia Society

Sofia Tekala-Smith
Savage Island Man with Pure

Michel Tuffery
Povi Tau Vaga

W.D. Hammond
Placemakers 1

Ruth Watson
Lingua Geographica

John Pule

Lisa Reihana
Native Portraits n.19897

Michael Parekowhai
Poorman, Beggarman and Thief (detail)

Pacific Overtures
by Joyce Caruso Corrigan

The artists are restless in "Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific," on view at Asia Society on Park Avenue in Manhattan, Feb. 18-May 9, 2004. Billed as the first major New York exhibition of its kind, it features work by 15 artists from Samoa, Hawaii, Fiji, Niue, Torres Strait Island and New Zealand -- and they're ready for their international close-up.

Back home, the show is a big deal. New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark held the press conference that announced it, and a rugby team's worth of press corps flew to New York to cover it. And while its content may be local, its artistic language is global -- the artists, all art-school trained, work in video, installation, sculpture, photographs and painting in a way that reveals at least a passing acquaintance with the likes of Warhol, Twombly, Nauman and Koons.

One Maori painter employs rock lyrics, while an indigenous photographer does a feminist take on native fertility symbols. Asia Society curator of contemporary art Melissa Chiu, an Australian native who has been working at the museum since 2001, professed surprise that none of the artists had previously been given a forum here. "A lot of people aren't quite sure -- beyond Hawaii -- what Pacific means," she said. "We specifically chose artists with established reputations in the region who are sophisticated and who engage with international ideas. It's been harder for the Island artists -- than, say, the mainland Maoris -- who've just found their voice in the last 10 years. But we wanted to hear from them, too."

Tipped off by the show's title, the viewer is none-too-shocked to discover that today's Pacific paradise is not all sun-drenched beaches, exotic birds and muscle men in grass skirts. Actually, there are muscle men in grass skirts in Modern Dance, an installation by New Caledonian artist Denise Tiavouane -- but their bodies are constructed of endangered bamboo stalks duded up with raffia skirts, their heads a bunch of dried fir leaves. Get a good look, says the artist, because the trees are disappearing (thank you, excessive nickel mining) as are the traditional dancers (because of modernization).

Also fusing old and new with somewhat disturbing results is artist Sofia Tekela-Smith, who was raised on the Polynesian island of Rotuma. Her giant photograph, Savage Island Man with Pure, depicts a handsome black man with a traditional body ornament -- the Cowrie shell, the symbol of female fertility -- only here it's in his mouth. Savoring tradition or choking on it?

While on the subject of gagging, note Wellington-born Michel Tuffery's life-size Pop Art bulls, which are constructed of hundreds of colorful, used corned beef tins. The artist highlights the product's "nutrition" label, which lists the criminally high fat and salt content -- most likely a contributing factor to the obesity problems among the Islanders.

Earthly paradise is also upended in the fantasy landscapes of W.D. Hammond, who is one of the most senior of the established artists of New Zealand. His damp, dark, mildewed Placemakers I -- all dripping paint -- is populated with bird-people dressed in fashions of the 19th century, the golden age of imperialism.

The Westernization of the indigenous is a theme that seeps through "Paradise Now?" But for the most part the tone isn't in-your-face. In fact, it feels remarkably non-partisan. Says Chiu, "This art is certainly not just about identity politics. There's a sense of humor. Artists -- particularly in New Zealand -- accept biculturalism and feel they're consciously making history by deliberately merging the Maori and the modern West. We definitely made a point of including not only artists of color but those -- like Ruth Watson -- of European ancestry."

Watson makes Hockneyesque photo collage maps using images of her tongue (Lingua Geographica) as well as a tear-shaped sculpture called Oceanography out of salt water, rust and pollutants. For her part, she has said she feels completely native -- as a 4th generation New Zealander -- and completely disconnected from her Irish, English and Scottish roots. But her subject matter, the great Pacific in all its power and endangered glory, is something every artist of this region relates to, and deals with at some point.

Strewn with ships, sharks, Christian Churches, Bob Dylan lyrics and a blotches of red paint one assumes stand for blood, John Pule's large Larry Rivers-style canvases plunge viewers under the sea and back in time. Born on the tiny island of Niue, Pule now lives in Auckland and seems to attempt to reconnect with his island heritage by creating a personal mythology. Tofua was the name of the ship his family emigrated on.

"One of the key things about this show is that most of the artists are in diaspora," says Chiu. "A lot are working in studios in the major cities. They're removed from paradise, as it were, and so are recreating childhood memories as a way of restoring themselves."

Native Portraits, the video installation by Auckland-born Maori Lisa Reihana, was originally commissioned by the National Museum of New Zealand and is a wry send-up of those ethnographic photographs of "natives" in Western dress. Racial stereotypes abound -- but the treatment is loving, not scorching, as is often found in contemporary work by African-American artists like Michael Ray Charles and Kara Walker. Here the traffic cop in his caution yellow vest still sports traditional Maori facial tattoos, and why not? This is the modern Maori's life.

If there's a mascot for "Paradise Now," it's Kapahaka, the series of 15 six-foot fiberglass figures by Maori Michael Parekowhai -- the only work commissioned for the show. They stand in a line up in the lobby and then lead the viewer to the museum's next level. While sending up the brute bouncer image of the Island native (in fact, the artist's brother modeled for it), these Sumo-size security guards could also be seen as a playful comment on the super vigilance one needs in New York.

Some wonder if the figures -- "kapahaka" is the name given to the Maori traditional performing arts -- aren't really there to protect the art. It was only the delicate 8th century Indian sandstone Ganesha, suddenly sharing the lobby with these avant-garde goons, who didn't seem so sure.

"Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific" includes works by Mohini Chandra (Fiji/United Kingdom), Shane Cotton (New Zealand, Maori), Downwind Productions (Hawaii), Bill Hammond (New Zealand), Niki Hastings-McFall (New Zealand, Samoa), John Ioane (New Zealand, Samoa), Michael Parekowhai (New Zealand, Maori), Peter Peryer (New Zealand), John Pule (New Zealand, Niue), Lisa Reihana (New Zealand, Maori), Sofia Tekela-Smith (New Zealand, Rotuma), Ken Thaiday (Torres Strait Islands), Denise Tiavouane (New Caledonia), Michel Tuffery (New Zealand, Samoa) and Ruth Watson (New Zealand).

JOYCE CARUSO CORRIGAN writes on art and culture.