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|New Zealand Roundup
by Tessa Laird
|New Zealand is made up of a North Island and a South Island. Dunedin, near the bottom of the South Island, boasts the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, which recently mounted a major retrospective of Bill Hammond, one of New Zealand's better known contemporary artists.
The Hammond survey, dubbed "23 Big Pictures," traced the development since the 1980s of his cartoonish interiors and figures, which have become progressively more exquisite, as the hard-edge of the comic strip has made way for the Japoniste curlicue. The show is accompanied by a sumptuous monograph featuring essays by Chris Kraus, Justin Paton, Gwynneth Porter and Priscilla Pitts.
Hammond became most famous in the '90s for his portraits of humanoid figures with bird-like heads, resembling Egyptian deities, or the walking experiments of Dr. Benway, William Burroughs' evil physician. Hammond's mythical creatures, however, most clearly bring to mind New Zealand birds either extinct (the Huia) or close to extinction (the Kiwi).
These are portrayed as individuals coolly awaiting their demise, playing pool and smoking cigarettes. With his characteristic oozes and drips, Hammond creates a kind of evolutionary death row, or a purgatory for interspecies offspring. Chris Kraus calls it "Eric Fischl on a very bad day," but I would be tempted to suggest Kenny Scharf on ketamine.
Closer to the top of the South Island we have Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand and home to the Physics Room, a contemporary art project. Christchurch suffers from a reputation for conservatism, and the Physics Room does its bit to disperse some of the so-called "swamp city's" Anglophile stiff-upper-lip tensions.
The exhibition that opened the new year perfectly exemplified this impulse towards irreverence. Upon entering Sean Kerr's "Face to Face: The Minimalist Massacre Part II" I was greeted by the earsplitting sound of a volley of gunshots. After recovering my composure, I noticed a rack of CD-Roms, each bearing the name of an antipodean modernist master -- formalist abstract artists like John Nixon, Colin McCahon and Stephen Bambury.
Still not really understanding the meaning behind this work, I chose a CD named Julian Dashper, loaded it into the computer, and headed further into the gallery, only to see a monitor sporting an image of one of Dashper's target paintings.
It was only when someone came through the front entrance of the gallery, setting off another round of shots, and the art work was "shot up" before my eyes, that I realized what Kerr was up to. A long time fan of sensor technology, Kerr was making anyone moving in and out of the gallery directly responsible for a "minimalist massacre", giving the target-painting school their just desserts. A satisfying way to vent any urge for vandalism in a safely digital environment!
Wellington, at the base of the North Island, is the country's capital, and has more than its fair share of good art. At the time of writing, the Wellington International Arts Festival was in full swing, although this is geared more to the performing than the visual arts. "Viva la Vida," an exhibition starring Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and all the usual Mexican suspects, has been reigning supreme at the Wellington City Gallery, with record attendances and catalogue sales.
Meanwhile, however, the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University offered a very different kind of stimulus. Rather than the color, passion and pain of the Mexican masters, Adam staged New Zealand's first Joseph Kosuth installation. Called Guests and Foreigners, Rules and Meanings (Te Kore), Kosuth's work was a site-specific comment on the literature and culture of New Zealand.
This is Kosuth's sixth station of a worldwide journey that has stopped in Chiba City (Japan), Istanbul, Dublin, Frankfurt and Oslo, in each instance using texts from the specific location. In New Zealand, Kosuth has reflected ourselves back to ourselves, highlighting issues of biculturalism between Maori (the indigenous Polynesians of New Zealand) and Pakeha (the white people of colonial European descent).
Kosuth perhaps didn't realize the sensitivity of these issues to New Zealanders, and debate has raged in the arts community as to whether his work was imperialist appropriation or an act of cultural deference. To coincide with Kosuth's presence at the Adam Gallery, Christina Barton curated a concise show in the adjoining gallery called "Language Matters," showcasing a number of New Zealand artists who use language in their work for a variety of reasons.
The standout in this exhibition was Terrence Handscomb's interactive CD-Rom Space Invaders -- Black Satire and the BBS. Handscomb's project for the past ten years has been to shock and dismay his public with images of talking anuses, flying turds, victims of road accidents and close-ups of penile implant surgery. His inclusion in this exhibition surely has less to do with viscera and more to do with his intelligent use of the computer interface as a medium for language games. The CD-Rom tool bar offers options like "Penile Pride", "Failure management" and "Litigate." His disturbing images of deformed children, however, earned him an R18 censorship rating. Thanks to Handscomb's incessant pushing of the boundaries, it is now law for all moving image components in New Zealand art galleries to be seen first by the Chief Censor for a rating!
As long as we're on the subject of shocking or disjunctive views of the body, I have to mention Ava Seymour, whose installation at Anna Bibby Gallery, dubbed "I'm So Green," featured couples clad in latex body suits and shown in compromising positions and unlikely locales (such as the White House's Oval Room -- this done before Monicagate). The natural granddaughter of Hannah Hoch, Seymour is adept at the unsettling art of photomontage, but eschews the political specificity of the Dada era for broader tropes of sexual misdemeanor.
In "I'm So Green," Seymour introduced a new, more primal set of signifiers. These amorphous rubber-wearing folk are crowned with heads made out of the carapaces of crabs, or the inverted skulls of humans magnified 20 times, along with ribs-akimbo as makeshift tribal headdresses. There are odd conglomerations of livers sporting toes, and eyeballs being pierced by forks while severed penises play the rolls of tongues or worms.
In Seymour's world, the body has come out of a meat grinder to create a set of new and alien forms, which stand to attention along a black and white skyline, a sort of "forest of the subconscious," literally, a "gray area." As with the paintings of Bill Hammond, it's as though a parallel process of evolution is being described, where inter-species miscegenation is the norm.
Photography has also been top of the bill at Artspace Auckland, first with Australian star Tracey Moffat, and more recently with New Zealand's Gavin Hipkins, whose "The Habitat" is a set of photos of university architecture throughout the country. Another paean to modernism or the demise thereof, Hipkins' photographs are starkly beautiful and reveal a certain amount of humanity in these careworn spaces.
Many of Hipkins' subjects are buildings covered in vines, as if to naturalize the harsh lines of their Brutalist architecture. A smashed window is the end note to this show, and the glass has been held in place by tacky threads of hot glue, forming an irregular spider's web in contrast to the right angles and rectangles of the original architecture.
The Auckland Art Gallery played host to a touring show which originated at Monash University in Melbourne. "Close Quarters" included six Australian artists and six New Zealand artists in an effort to further foster the Trans-Tasman dialogue. The show featured Destiny Deacon, Ani O'Neill, Natalie Robertson and Symrin Gill, among others. Perhaps most notable in terms of the aforementioned cross-cultural dialogue is the Australian Mikala Dwyer's homage to the late New Zealand artist Colin McCahon. McCahon's most recognized work is the massive painting Victory over Death which spells out "I AM," and which has had numerous imitators, not least Australia's Imants Tillers. Here though, as if to acknowledge a cultural debt, the three large letters that Dwyer has fashioned out of perspex and put on a fun-fur rug, spell out "I.O.U."
Meanwhile, in a country that continues to make large-scale fiscal reparations to its native Maori people for land wrongly confiscated, L Budd continues her exploration of holocausts, both national and international. "Close Quarters" featured her dark, brooding installation called Studies for Apology. Long strips of black on white walls, turntables playing dirge-like sounds, and chalk scrawls, continuously rubbed out and re-drawn, map out a guilt-ridden psyche that attempts self-correction through re-education.
It is perhaps understandable that this kind of intricate and ongoing engagement with local issues was missed by Kosuth on his brief visit. "Close Quarters" isn't all earnest soul-searching, however. The Australian-Malaysian artist Symrin Gill contributed a set of gold-plated mango pips, titled simply "Some of my best friends suck mangoes," injecting some humor into her quest for a South-East Asian cultural identity.
The North Island boasts several other burgeoning cities. In particular, the city of New Plymouth is home to one of the best galleries in the country, the Govett-Brewster, which has always enjoyed an international reputation, not least because it is also the seat of the Len Lye Foundation. Unfortunately, when I was there recently, all the Len Lye sculptures were in Paris at the Pompidou Centre, but I was lucky enough to catch a show called "DRIVE, Power, Progress, Desire," curated by Greg Burke and Hanna Scott.
Tracing the trajectory of the car and its place in the collective imagination, "DRIVE" featured a plethora of international artists, including Julian Opie, Sylvie Fleury and Ed Ruscha, as well as locals such as Ann Shelton, Judy Darragh and Colin McCahon. The show covered all aspects of vehicular obsession, from the concept of the car as a sexual icon (eg. Darragh's "sperm" encrusted machine) to the concept of being "on the road" as some kind of spiritual voyage (e.g., Australian David Noonan's epic video of a man and woman driving in opposite directions.)
The show also features a huge (if not awkward) installation by Sarah Lucas, in which giant photographic prints of parking lots jostle with a real car that has had its windows smashed. The curators also entered into the populist spirit by organizing vintage car rallies to coincide with the show, a point that has won them great favor in the provincial seat of New Plymouth.
Far more remote than New Plymouth, but perhaps with even more ties to the International scene, is the small town of Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands, several hours north of Auckland. This was the home of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the famous Austrian architect, painter and print maker, who died on Feb. 19 at age 71. His last major art project was the recently completed Public Restrooms in the center of Kawakawa. With smashed tiles and glass reminiscent of Gaudi, the restrooms sport Hundertwasser's architectural signature -- a grass roof.
The local town was very sorry to see the eccentric and beloved Hundertwasser go, and public outpourings of grief included bouquets being left at the site of this fanciful building, as well as thrown at his hearse. Hundertwasser was buried on his own estate and leaves a legacy of poignant artworks promoting peace and harmony with the environment.
Hundertwasser hadn't been fashionable in the New Zealand art circuit since the '70s, particularly as he refused to get drawn into the "bi-cultural" debate, but remained firmly pan-cultural in his aspirations. He even designed an alternative flag for New Zealand, a green fern frond (his omnipresent spiral) on a white ground. The beauty and sincerity of his work goes beyond national boundaries, and it is a compliment to this country that he chose to live a great part of his life on these beautiful islands.
TESSA LAIRD is a freelance art critic from New Zealand.