Lacklustre Auckland art scene outshone by the regions

by Anthony Byrt / 15 March, 2019
Night Revels of Lao Li (2000, detail), by Wang Qingsong, from New Networks, Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Night Revels of Lao Li (2000, detail), by Wang Qingsong, from New Networks, Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

While the Auckland art scene seems at a low ebb, galleries in the regions are stepping up to the plate.

In 2018, a shoulder-shrugging fug seemed to settle over the Auckland art world: a lack of blockbusters at the Auckland Art Gallery; a lot of dreary, over-curated thematic exhibitions in other public spaces; an absence of intelligent, regular exhibition reviewing; and a dealer scene that felt, too often, like it was simply going through the commercial motions.

There were some highlights, sure — Ruth Buchanan winning the Walters Prize, Susan Te Kahurangi King’s wild, brilliant drawings at Artspace (which only just survived the heavy-handed exhibition design), Kalisolaite ’Uhila’s performance work at Michael Lett — but on the whole, things were a bit… meh.

It’s a worry for a city that has so long prided itself on being the beating heart of New Zealand’s contemporary art scene. But it’s also helped turn attention onto the clever programming happening in other parts of the country. And over summer, there was a slew of contemporary shows that help fill the gaps opening up in Auckland’s art life.

New Plymouth’s Len Lye Centre is widely celebrated as a success, but one side-effect is the dent it’s put in the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery’s programme. This matters, because a healthy GBAG has always been a bellwether for the overall wellbeing of contemporary art in New Zealand. Thankfully, a major exhibition opened in December that got the GBAG back to its ambitious roots: a significant survey of one of South Korea’s most important artists, Haegue Yang. Triple Vita Nestings highlights two things. First, the breadth of Yang’s material investigations, from found objects to the carefully handmade, to videos. And second, her singular ability to load those objects with a kind of anthropomorphic thrum, so that they come to stand in for the people — politicians, writers, herself — whose histories she places at the heart of each piece.

Further south, in Lower Hutt, the Dowse Art Museum is presenting its biennial exhibition SOLO 2018. Unlike so many biennials, SOLO — thankfully — gets the curators out of the way of the art; the only “theme” is that all of the artists are Wellington-based. Among this year’s highlights are Dave Marshall’s bonkers figurative paintings, like a mix of early Renaissance art, and Matt Groening, in which he explores hardcore religious communities with a pure and completely surprising mixture of horror and symbolic hilarity.

And then there is one of the most ambitious installations to date by one of New Zealand’s most under-rated artists, Sonya Lacey. Lacey has long been focused on the increasingly obsolescent technologies of print media. In Weekend, she washes newspaper clippings until their images and words dissolve, then turns those transformations into moving-image works: one, a massive four-channel video; the other, a 16mm film. For all its slow elegance, Weekend is ultimately a work about class and lost industry, inspired by footage Lacey shot in a disused swimming pool in London, where Fleet St’s blue-collar printers and typesetters would bathe and relax after sending the day’s news to press. It’s a stunner, and should surely be in jurors’ minds for the next Walters Prize.

So, too, should Steve Carr’s spectacle Chasing the Light, at Christchurch Art Gallery (CAG). A major new commission, this is Carr — one of New Zealand’s best video artists — at his cheeky, meticulous best. The work is a series of scaled-down drive-in movie screens, subtly back-lit, on which we witness silent revelations: fireworks filmed by a series of drones. It takes a while to realise that it is, in fact, the same display shot from multiple views: a kind of Cubist shattering of the night sky, underpinned by Carr’s characteristic bodily humour. Because this is, in fireworks parlance, a “false finale” — the explosions in a public display that come before the real money shot — leaving us with a permanently deferred, slightly disappointed release.

At the same time at CAG, Simon Denny is presenting his first major exhibition in the South Island, a restaging of 2017’s The Founder’s Paradox (a disclaimer: I worked as a researcher and writer on the project). This is the enterprise in which Denny goes deep on Peter Thiel’s techno-libertarian ideology, mapping it as a series of bespoke board games. It is also the exhibition that Thiel himself visited, showing up unexpectedly in Auckland for the first time since the Herald broke the news he is in fact a New Zealand citizen. For this redux, Denny has decided to amplify one of the most intriguing aspects of the original Auckland show — the inclusion of work by his art-school mentor, Michael Parekōwhai. The Founder’s Paradox is Denny at his sculptural best, I think — creating profoundly weird, timely things that hold a dark mirror up to our times.

Meanwhile, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is presenting New Networks: Contemporary Chinese Art. It draws together 23 works from New Zealand and Australian collections by major Chinese artists, including Xu Bing, Ai Weiwei and Yang Fudong. In recent years, several collecting institutions in this part of the world, including the Auckland Art Gallery, have begun consciously re-orienting their (albeit meagre) acquisitions budgets to the Asia-Pacific. Aggregating some of these purchases into a single show is a good chance to reflect on the consequences of that shift — particularly as China exerts more soft power in the region, and its artists become crucial forces of resistance and dissidence. 

Smaller regional centres are chipping in, too. The Hastings City Art Gallery, which has had a new breath of contemporary life under its director, Toni MacKinnon, offered up Abject Failures — an exhibition that includes work by Auckland-based powerhouses Imogen Taylor, Dan Arps and Campbell Patterson. And Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery has a new exhibition by Conor Clarke, of work made while she was on the Tylee Cottage Residency there — still one of the more generous gigs in the New Zealand art world.

It's a relief to see so many places around the country stepping up to the plate, consistently showing that contemporary art still matters deeply to New Zealand’s cultural life and how we understand our place in the world. So, over the summer, don’t just pass through: stop. By visiting, and looking, you’ll help them hold the Auckland art world’s feet to the fire. And we’ll all be better off for the pressure.

This article was first published in the January - February 2019 issue of Metro.

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