Monday, 20 July 2015

Harvey Benge

Harvey Benge is a local camera artist with an international reputation for making photo-books in New Zealand. He recently gifted to the Gallery’s E.H. McCormick Research Library his entire photo-book production to date.

You can access an alphabetical list of Harvey’s books here and a chronological list here.

Harvey has generously offered to further gift his photo-books as he publishes them. The Gallery is currently the only museum where his complete photo book oeuvre is publicly available.

Harvey Benge's first book was Four Parts Religion Six Parts Sin (1993). That publication ranged over Auckland's urban spaces overlaid as it is with advertising, murals and graffiti. That book sign-posted how Harvey is interested in images that work as urban narratives.

On Sunday 21 June, as part of the 2015 Auckland Festival of Photography, the Gallery hosted a conversation between Harvey and me that focused on his photo books. We recorded Harvey's talk where he made fascinating comments about his four decade long involvement with camera media. Listen or download the talk

Please note that this conversation contains some language that may offend. 

One of the books I admire for its immediate mystery is Aide-memoire (2000). The cover reproduces a snapshot image of a boat that Harvey found during his frequent travels. In speaking about such snapshot and vernacular images, Harvey noted that he has never been interested in any affirmation of nationalist imagery.

Harvey Benge’s blog is read extensively. It probably receives more hits than any other locally produced blog dedicated to issues within photography. The blog is not really about Harvey's own artwork but serves a portal for introducing the art of others and for networking issues central to photography.

One of his most recent books is Any Lonely Person Write to Ponsonby. The book's title is carved into the succulent on the cover. The photograph was made many years ago and was rediscovered by the artist when he reviewed his early images.

A display of Harvey Benge's photo-books is currently on display in the E.H. McCormick Research Library's display cabinet on the Gallery's mezzanine level.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Report from Venice: All the World's Futures

La Biennale di Venezia: the 56th International Art Biennale All the World’s Futures (9 May–22 November 2015) 

Entrance to the Giardini
Just days after the opening of the 56th Biennale biting criticisms of curator Okwui Enwezor’s Central Pavilion were already appearing. It seems that the oldest international showplace for contemporary art is also the most feverishly pitched and vulnerable to judgement. The Biennale, established by a decree from the mayor of the city, opened for the first time in 1895 to great public acclaim and a whopping 224,000 visitors. Today it seems the curator never has enough time. They are expected to surprise, delight and challenge with a wealth of ‘fresh’ artists and, given the Biennale’s importance in the art calendar, are seemingly also charged with recasting the entire conception of a biennale. The curator must miraculously conjure all of this in the floating, historical, utterly charming and mostly non-climate-controlled environment that is Venice.
Okwui Enwezor being interviewed by Lynn Freeman for Radio New Zealand at the Arsenale
Being a Venice Vernissage virgin this was my first date with the heady triad of press launches/official opening/opening parties in fabulous palazzo settings. These are held by each of the national pavilions and also include the countless collateral events and associated projects – not to mention the literally thousands of professional meetings taking place across that fragile, impossible, sinking and magical city. View the Biennale map

It should be said at the outset that the New Zealand Pavilion with Simon Denny’s impressive work SECRET POWER forged a notable presence amid the sea of art at this year’s Venice Biennale . . . more on that later.

Okwui Enwezor described his approach to curating the Biennale in the following way:

‘Rather than one overarching theme that gathers and encapsulates diverse forms and practices into one unified field of vision, All the World’s Futures is informed by a layer of three intersecting Filters, namely: Garden of Disorder, Liveness: On Epic Duration and Reading Capital. The three Filters represent a constellation of parameters, which will be touched upon in order to imagine and realise a diversity of practices.’

Enwezor’s sweeping and layered exhibition achieves in showcasing many artists unfamiliar to the Biennale’s primarily European audiences and in providing a central focus to politically strident works that engage with the trauma and hypocrisies of our time. This, along with the intentional density of the layout, may prove uncomfortable for some.

I found the Central Pavilion in the Giardini attentively curated; its works were positioned with considered enterprise, such as the placement of three wonderful painters in concert: Ellen Gallagher, Huma Bhabha and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. The Hans Haacke room of sympathetic works, the heady intensity of the paper-strewn Thomas Hirschhorn space, the haunting Marlene Dumas room of skull watercolours, Isa Genzken’s lively unrealised models, John Akomfrah’s video meditation on the sea, and Wangechi Mutu’s metaphysical video and sculptural work all provided rewarding foci. As an extension of the Pavilion, Enwezor located a series of arresting sculptures by Raqs Media Collective throughout the main thoroughfare at the Giardini that deconstructed the idea of the monument.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Central Pavilion, Giardini

Hans Haacke, Central Pavilion, Giardini

Marlene Dumas, Central Pavilion, Giardini

Raqs Media Collective, Central Pavilion, Giardini

Raqs Media Collective, Central Pavilion, Giardini
Certain artists were allocated a major presence in the Central Pavilion including the intriguing Fabio Mauri, whose work provided an impactful portal to the Giardini exhibition. Artists such as Australian indigenous painter Daniel Boyd, photographer and media artist Chris Marker, painter Huma Bhabha and time-based artist Samson Kambalu, among others, were present in both the Giardini and Arsenale venues – all are exceptional artists.

The ARENA, a large blood-red performance space, designed by Ghanaian/British architect David Adjaye, held central sway in the heart of the Giardini’s Central Pavilion space with Isaac Julien’s Das Kapital Oratorio and Olaf Nicolai’s backpack audio work among a dozen or so performative projects that require time and scrutiny. It has been said that the scarcest resource of the 21st-century is human attention. The opening of Venice Biennale in its striding, panting, agenda-driven glory is testament to that observation. Enwezor’s thronging array of works over two sites also reminds us of our own role in real-time editing as we navigate through the swarm of knowledge on offer and the urgent questions of our time.

ARENA, Central Pavilion, Giardini

Isaac Julien, participating artist in Central Pavilion, Giardini
Yet the Venice Biennale is much more than the Central Pavilion. The country pavilions are driven by a different momentum – nations jostle to present timely (not always new) work in unexpected ways; to be uncompromising in selection, brave in reach and, importantly, to be noticed (which is known as achieving ‘cut-through’ in the profession).

One thing I found interesting at this year’s Biennale was the number of country pavilions that riffed off the architectural forms of the pavilions themselves. This is perhaps a reflection on the site-specific nature of much of today’s art practice. It’s interesting how the Architecture Biennale is full of art projects and the Art Biennale is crammed with architectural interventions. Perhaps one feeds into the other in this potent site which is constantly at the service of the still hale and hearty international ‘national pavilion’ model.

The crowded intensity of Enwezor’s Central Pavilion was counterpoised with often airy and indeed somewhat empty pavilions in which artists play with a lightness of touch and work with light itself as it was allowed to enter. Oversized cylindrical semi-kinetic structures were installed above head height (Szilard Cseke in the Hungarian Pavilion); walls removed (Heimo Zobernig in the Austrian Pavilion) or broken through (André Komatsu in the Brazilian Pavilion); windows replicated and stacked within a soundscape (Camille Norment’s elegant Rapture in the Nordic Pavilion); while other artists located small careful gestures in largely empty spaces (Danh Vo in the Danish Pavilion and the subtle mediations on impossible cities by Marco Maggi in the much talked about Uruguay Pavilion). Interestingly, this aesthetic continues at Punta Della Dogana over the Grand Canal at Salute. There, Danh Vo has curated Slip of the Tongue from the Pinault Collection, creating a restrained installation of some materially explorative work including modest sculptural contributions from Vo himself.

Camille Norment, Nordic Pavilion, Giardini

Danh Vo, Danish Pavilion, Giardini
One of the most memorable in this architecturally spacious vein in the Giardini was Pamela Rosenkranz’s seductive and synthetic Swiss Pavilion, Our Product. One enters an empty room awash in artificial green light. From there a narrow walkway leads to a luminous fleshy pink-hued space waist high with water reflecting the architectural structures above. For me, this appeared like an ethereal, elemental reversal of the materials in Walter Di Maria’s The New York Earth Room, 1977.

Pamela Rosenkranz, Swiss Pavilion, Giardini
In contrast, a small number of pavilions offered intensive sensory immersion: Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho’s futuristic sci-fi projections for the Korean Pavilion, The Ways of Folding & Flying which inverted the building’s exterior membrane into an extended screening site; Chiharu Shiota’s astonishingly beautiful and popular installation, The Key in the Hand for Japan; and BGL’s hyper-excessive accumulative installation for Canada which combines humour and repetition with an extravagant use of ordinary materials.

Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho, Korean Pavilion, Giardini

Chiharu Shiota, Japanese Pavilion, Giardini

BGL, Canadian Pavilion, Giardini
The United States Pavilion deserved its long queues at the Vernissage with a marvellously resolved, inventive and moving series of installations, projections, assemblages and performances. They Come to Us without a Word by the 78-year-old Joan Jonas examines rhythms of ritual and the authority of objects and gestures.

Joan Jonas, US Pavilion, Giardini
Australia celebrated its new $7.5 million black box in the Giardini (opened by Cate Blanchett and the Minister for the Arts George Brandis), which was designed by respected Melbourne architectural firm DCM and primarily funded from private sources. In the new space over 1300 works comprised Fiona Hall’s vast and manifold walk-in cabinet of curiosities, Wrong Way Time in the new space, a project that continued the artist’s intensive investigation of our fragile natural environment and what she calls ‘the madness, badness and sadness’ of today. Just days after this two-fold achievement, the head of the Australia Council, who successfully managed and fundraised for the new pavilion project, was informed by the Arts Minister of an immediate reduction of near $105 million from its annual budget (amounting to around a 50% cut) to be transferred for distribution to the arts from the Minister’s own office . . . interesting times.

New Australian Pavilion designed by DCM, Giardini

Fiona Hall, Australian Pavilion, Giardini

Fiona Hall, Australian Pavilion, Giardini
Over to the Arsenale, the Byzantine-style enclave of former shipyards and armouries, where the long pathway to the left of the Corderie was draped in mammoth, dark-stained hessian coal sacks in a work that addresses supply and demand of raw commodities, exchange and value by Ibrahim Mahama, one of 12 African artists in the Central Pavilion. Enwezor’s Central Pavilion in this site was less carefully articulated and is wrought as a rather disorientating assortment of cubicles that both gave little room for work to breathe and offered a platform for unexpected synergies. That being said and noted by many people during the Vernissage, there are certainly spacious and powerful moments such as Katharina Grosse’s vast painterly dystopian installation Untitled Trumpet; the mercurial Qiu Zhijie’s room of objects of wonder, Chris Ofili’s chapel-like space of painted walls and works (that is a microcosm of his New Museum solo exhibition of 2014) and a superb room containing a suspended canopy of tiny scrolling video portraits by the brilliant Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman accompanied by the late Chris Marker’s seminal PASSENGERS featuring 134 photographs taken in the Paris Métro.

Katharina Grosse, Central Pavilion, Arsenale

Kutlug Ataman, Central Pavilion, Arsenale
Unexpected highlights for me were Argentinean artist Mika Rottenberg, whose work comprises literally thousands and thousands of pearls and a quirky video, projected in a too-tiny room; and the fascinating multi-channel video by Melbourne duo Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, whose Zaum Tractor explores the early 20th-century Futurist language Zaum and was filmed among the retro-modernist political architecture of regional Russia.

Mika Rottenberg, Central Pavilion, Arsenale

Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, Central Pavilion, Arsenale
The final work in the Arsenale’s Central Pavilion is Rirkrit Tirivanija’s absorbing on-site brick-making workshop project, recast from its original presentation in Beijing. The politics of labour, its market and value systems play a key role throughout this exhibition.

I am reminded of Nietzsche’s remark; ‘We have art in order not to die of the truth.’ The Central Pavilion exists as a ferment of art and ideology that addresses the precarious, messy, poignant, overwhelming, beautiful, treacherous and hopeful world in which we live today.

Rirkrit Tirivanija, Central Pavilion, Arsenale
It is always rather confusing at this point in the Arsenale as it’s unclear where country pavilions begin and the Central Pavilion ends, especially given that the spaces shift every year. This year there is considerably more space for country pavilions with more sites located in the Arsenale, such as that used by Charles Lim Ye Long’s strong installation for Singapore in a newly renovated space. Elsewhere, Voyage Trokomod is a strong work by the always impressive Heri Dono for Indonesia; it is a commentary on Western hegemonies and post-colonialism, which merges a Trojan horse with the komodo dragon. Two rather over-produced offerings represent Italy and China.

Tumbling out of the dark corridor spaces of the Central Pavilion one enters a small room inhabited by cage-like sculptures – Speculating on the Blue by Flaka Haliti for Kosovo. Then the mood shifts dramatically as one enters a disarmingly misty and cool watery space: the Tuvalu Pavilion. Crossing the Tide by Taiwanese artist Vincent Huang offers a sublime and potent meditation on the effects climate change is having on Pacific communities; in this work only sea and mist exist and the walkway sinks disconcertingly underfoot.

Flaka Haliti, Kosovo Pavilion, Arsenale Vincent Huang, Tuvalu Pavilion, Arsenale

Vincent Huang, Tuvalu Pavilion, Arsenale

Heri Dono, Indonesian Pavilion, Arsenale
Unusually, the Central Pavilion resumes in the farthest reaches of the garden at the rear of the Arsenale with an open and expanding invitational performance space metres from the water organised by Lemi Ponifasio from MAU, the only artist from Aotearoa to participate in the Central Pavilion. Installed nearby is a beautiful sound installation by Emeka Ogboh in a tiny historical octagonal building. Also in the garden is a charming, vividly coloured open-air library by Australian Emily Floyd, who continues her examinations of contemporary manifestos and socially-minded cooperative action; and a delicately hewn garden installation by Sarah Sze (who consumed the US Pavilion in 2013), which requires attentive visual detective work to reap its subtle rewards.

Lemi Ponifasio, Richard Bell and friends, Central Pavilion, Arsenale
Yet the Venice Biennale is much more than the Central Pavilion. Beyond the Giardini and the Arsenale lie a wealth of country pavilions, official ‘Collateral’ projects and unofficial art events. Simon Denny’s SECRET POWER in the New Zealand Pavilion is located smack-bang in the middle of San Marco, in a space that has not previously been used for this purpose – the astonishingly beautiful and historically important Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library of St Mark’s). The library is one of the oldest surviving public manuscript depositories in Italy, holding one of the greatest collections of classical texts in the world. Its establishment is a story of political negotiation, power and passion for knowledge. Its founding gift, in 1468, came from the Byzantine humanist scholar, patron and collector, Cardinal Bessarion. Bessarion was an illustrious Greek scholar who contributed to the revival of learning and international exchange in the 15th century. It is also home to a spellbinding array of ceiling paintings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, whose content speculates on the acquisition of knowledge. Denny’s intensively researched project has at its core the 2013 PowerPoint released by Edward Snowden and examines, particularly, the Five Eyes Alliance (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). These congested cabinets of faux reliquiae from the visualisation – adopted by and circulating within the current information economy – offers an investigation of the shared disquiet concerning information, knowledge and public and private realms. An article in the Guardian discusses Denny’s investigation of how the National Security Agency (NSA) used images to communicate its methods internally and looks at the way this forms the basis of his investigation. The project is expanded with an installation at Marco Polo Airport where Denny recasts the elaborate ceiling paintings from the Biblioteca Nazionale onto the floor, literally inviting visitors to walk through history. One of the aspects that I found so intriguing about this obsessively interrogative project is its blatant yet dispassionate contemporaneousness, its investigation of the agency of current new modes of aesthetic language invented by the information economy for its own purposes. Daniel Birnbaum homes in on this aspect of the work in his Art Newspaper commentary, one of many more sympathetic and less hostile reviews published a month or so after the opening.

‘I have never seen contemporary paranoia and conspiracy theory so perfectly packaged. We speak loosely about “contemporary” art, but Denny’s contribution is perhaps the only work fully worthy of that evasive term.’ ‘Venice Verdicts’, The Art Newspaper no 269, June 2015, p 88.

Entrance to New Zealand Pavilion at Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library of St Mark’s)

Simon Denny discussing his installation, SECRET POWER

Simon Denny, New Zealand Pavilion

Simon Denny, New Zealand Pavilion

Simon Denny, New Zealand Pavilion

Simon Denny’s floor installation at Marco Polo Airport
The Philippines Pavilion was curated by Patrick D Flores and is presented among an accumulation of exhibitions at the European Cultural Centre, Palazzo Mora. It was a pleasure to see Jose Tence Ruiz’s effusive work again as well as a thoughtful multi-screen work by Manny Montelibano. Elsewhere Jump into the Unknown continues the Nine Dragon Heads project that originated in South Korea in 1995 and is project co-managed by New Zealander Ali Bramwell (who also exhibits). Dansaekhwa is a highly satisfying Collateral exhibition showcasing artists alongside a partner solo exhibition of seminal painter and sculptor Lee Ufan . The Dansaekhwa (single-colour) modern movement from 1970s–80s in South Korea links with, although differs from, the Japanese Mona-ha movement.

Jose Tence Ruiz, Philippines Pavilion

Lee Ufan, presented with Dansaekhwa
Across the water at the Magazzini Del Sale, where Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena installed their project Aniwaniwa in 2007 as a Collateral Event, is AES&F’s 001 Inverso Mundus (Inverted World). Inverso Mundus weaves images of baroque opulence, medieval ideograms and illustrative references, alongside faux torture devices, mysticism and commentaries on current disparities of wealth distribution into a metaphoric fiction of painterly and digital carnivàle.

AES&F, Collateral event

Author and AES&F
Historical exhibitions on offer include the excellent Rousseau show in Palazzo Ducale and the Nuovo Oggetivita (New Objectivity – Modern German Art in the Wiemar Republic 1919–1933) at Museo Correr in association with LACMA, an impressive exhibition which examines the volatile artistic output during a potent time of enormous political and social upheaval, alienation and experimentation that challenged sociological and sexual norms.

I will end with a note of admiration for the Museo Fortuny at Palazzo Fortuny, which is entirely independent of the Biennale. The current exhibition Proportio (Proportion) continues the tone set by the game-changing Artempo. Where time becomes Art in 2007. A major source of inspiration for David Walsh’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart. The recent exhibitions crafted under at Museo Fortuny induce an intoxicating air of contemplation, time-shifting and regardful looking. Three floors of the Palazzo Fortuny are inhabited by architectural models, drawings, furniture, ceramics, historic and contemporary art works, textiles, silver bowls, Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo’s own sumptuous scenographic murals along with lingering soundscapes from discretely placed time-based works. This inspired constellation of human production spans time, material form and intentionality.

Jidang and Otto Boll in Proportio, Museo Fortuny
It is 120 years since the first Art Exhibition was launched in Venice as a gesture of civic aspiration, the 2015 iteration hosts 89 participating countries – 29 in the Country Pavilions in the Giardini, 31 in the Country Pavilions in the Arsenale, and the rest scattered throughout Venice – as well as 44 Collateral events by non-profit organisations accepted by the curator. I have outlined one personal take on this enormous enterprise; anyone who visits the 56th Venice International Art Biennale will encounter an abundance of concerns, sensibilities and experiences. There are multiple worlds on offer in Venice, you choose.

Grand Canal, Venice
– Rhana Devenport, Director

 All photos by the author

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Charles Heaphy 1820–1881

During the making of A Pioneering Spirit I was asked to provide an opportunity for a post-graduate student from the University of Auckland’s Art History Department. From my first meeting with Jacqueline Henderson I appreciated her curiosity for this early period in New Zealand’s art history. 

Surveyor, explorer, writer, company propagandist, topographical artist and draughtsman Charles Heaphy became Henderson’s focus, based on the works I selected for A Pioneering Spirit. Heaphy arrived in 1839 for employment with the New Zealand Company. He was an agent in the Company’s plan to systematically colonise New Zealand by surveying the land that his employers would sell to new settlers. Heaphy’s drawings, lithographs, watercolour paintings, charts and coastal profiles were used to promote the New Zealand Company and Heaphy would also file reports on his first-hand experience of life in the ‘colony’. After a 12-year service with the company Heaphy settled for life as a senior civil servant.

Heaphy’s story is as pioneering as the lives of individuals and families who came to improve their lot and contribute to the building of a ‘new nation’. Heaphy’s art illustrates aspects of both history and art history which continue to be unpacked by a new generation inspired by ‘the rise of New Zealand’.

– Ngahiraka Mason, Indigenous Curator, Māori Art

Charles Heaphy 1820–1881

‘. . . let man trouble himself little about the decadence of England but think about the rise of New Zealand . . .’
        – Anthony Trollope, The New Zealander

The period between 1840 and 1907 marks the arrival of British colonists to Aotearoa New Zealand. This colonial era was characterised by swift change which resulted from cross-cultural transformation and shifting boundaries.

Examining three artworks by Charles Heaphy which are included in the exhibition A Pioneering Spirit at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki reveals the idea of coming from ‘elsewhere’, the forming of relationships between Māori and Pākehā, and the establishment of a sense of belonging. The pictorial narrative Heaphy offers adds a unique perspective on a specific time in our ‘national’ history, right at the point when the relationship between Māori and the British was transforming New Zealand culture into a distinct antipodean identity.

Charles Heaphy was an English-born New Zealander. As a young 19 year old Heaphy departed Plymouth, England bound for New Zealand aboard the Tory on 9 May 1839. The Tory’s journey took four long months and the vessel set anchor in Queen Charlotte Sound on 18 August. Heaphy accepted the role as official draughtsman for The New Zealand Company, which required him to portray New Zealand in the best light possible to entice potential clients back in Britain. As such, he produced a large body of artwork which captured the hopes and desires of first wave colonials to New Zealand.

Although mainly recognised for his watercolours, Heaphy’s extensive oeuvre included working with pen and wash, lithographs and many sketches. The quaint illustrations of New Zealand life provided The New Zealand Company’s prospective clients with a sense of the familiar while encouraging the possibility of creating a new life unshackled by the traditional British system. Still apparent today is Heaphy’s ability to impart a sense of charm. In particular his landscape paintings retain an idyllic quality whereby the promise of a ‘better place’ remains as appealing today as it did over a century and a half ago.

Recognised, as one of Heaphy’s most famous images, A Sawyer’s Clearing in a Forest of Kauri, 1845 unapologetically represents New Zealand as a land full of economic prospects. As if from a scene out of Grimm’s fairy tales its progressive narrative is tempered only by the naïve sensibility which Heaphy’s style conjures.

Charles Heaphy, A Sawyer’s Clearing in a Forest of Kauri, 1845 
Dwarfed by the magnificent Kauri forest the gentlemen, dressed in civilised work attire, denounce any niggling doubts of a savage environment. Together, almost as if swaying to a tune they harmoniously labour undaunted by the huge task ahead. However, the enchanting illusion lay in stark contrast to the reality of working the dense New Zealand bush in the mid-19th century.

Heaphy’s artwork was typically shaped by the various employment positions he held. The first 12 years he worked for The New Zealand Company as a surveyor, explorer, writer, company propagandist, topographical artist and draughtsman; and then in 1848 he moved to Auckland where he took a role as a civil servant in the Survey Office. Early pioneers had to be resourceful, adventurist and determined to survive.

When he was 30 Heaphy began courting Kate Churton, the 21-year-old daughter of Reverend Churton. The couple married on 30 October 1851. Old St Paul’s, 1853 is a watercolour painting in memory of Heaphy’s father-in-law Reverend Churton. Immediately, the eye is drawn to the obelisk. The monument not only celebrates the first vicar of St Paul’s but also reflects the good relationship between father and son-in-law. In addition, the church setting highlights the importance placed on religious values in society and the Christian education of Māori. Clothed in traditional dress the group of Māori focus on a kneeling man reading from a book, most likely the bible, while two Pākehā men casually look on from the side. A didactic sense of salvation lingers while at the same time an unsettling conflict borders the scene with a garrison of soldiers walking in formation towards the entry point of the church highlighting impending British control. The political tension although evident is nonetheless characterised in a peaceful setting.

Charles Heaphy, Old Saint Paul’s, Auckland, 1853 
The arts can be a means of visually measuring cultural significance – be that visible or in Heaphy’s artwork, largely invisible. The dearth of Māori figures invigorates the perception of the ‘empty’ land. Equally, the Māori presented are affable, welcoming and compliant. As such, the narrative offered by form, facture, composition and perspective leaves behind a pictorial residue indicative of the Imperial British worldview.

Heaphy became the first ‘New Zealander’ to be awarded the Victorian Cross for coming to the aid of a fellow soldier in a skirmish with local Māori at Waiari, near Te Awamutu. It is the highest military award for gallantry in the face of the enemy available to British and Commonwealth soldiers. On many levels our first ‘hero’ is problematic both politically and socially; however, historically his work marked a distinctive point in the production of New Zealand’s cultural and political identity.

The desire to be seen and not forgotten – to be visible and not invisible to the world – meant early pioneers such as Heaphy looked back to Britain as a cultural anchor of identity while establishing themselves within a new society. It was a generation of transition in a liminal space where two cultures collided and altered one another. Over time Heaphy introduced a Māori narrative. The Driving Creek, Looking South, 1862 not only depicts the Gold rush in the Coromandel but also tensions over land.

Charles Heaphy, The Driving Creek, Coromandel, Looking South, 1862 
As the colonials scurry about the countryside in their eagerness to find gold, seated in the middle of the scene is a group of Māori. Here, Heaphy’s subtle style captures the political frictions between Māori and Pākehā. The central figure is an important Māori woman – the daughter of the local chief who had recently died. With rifle in hand, she silently yet poignantly delivers a Māori narrative by staking a claim to her land. The inclusion of her pictorial voice reflects Heaphy’s own observations, and might be seen as a moment in which the New Zealand Company propagandist, unwittingly or not, represents a real site of tension at the time – changing ideas about land ownership.

The voyage out to New Zealand transformed the British identity in terms of location, language and culture. Many first-wave colonists, including Heaphy, struggled to reconcile the notion of ‘home’ even though they ended up spending more than half their lives in New Zealand. Through his artwork, Charles Heaphy plays a significant role in identifying the journey of the colonial New Zealander and remains an integral actor in the construction of New Zealand’s cultural identity.

To commemorate his name, the Heaphy track, located in the Kahurangi National Park on the upper west side of the South Island, remains one of New Zealand’s great walks, and his artwork currently hangs in Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki as a celebrated figure in New Zealand’s history. 

– Jacqueline Henderson, Intern

Friday, 10 April 2015

Robert Ellis and Billy Apple

Robert Ellis visited the Gallery this week to view Billy Apple's exhibition The Artist Has To Live Like Everybody Else for the first time. I had earlier gone on a tour of the show with Billy where he told me about the genesis of many of the artworks. The public enjoyed meeting him as we were walking through.

During the mid 1950s, Billy attended night classes at Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts on Great North Road. In 1958, he met senior lecturer Robert Ellis and they put together an art portfolio of Billy's figurative drawings and design work which was then submitted with Robert's support to London's Royal College of Art.

In September 1959 Billy started the College's graduate Diploma course in graphic design. He was assisted by a New Zealand government bursary under the aegis of the National Art Gallery, Wellington.

During the last year we hosted Robert Ellis' Turangawaewae exhibition, which coincided with the publication of a major monograph on his work.

For a superb and long-time selection of artist photographic portraits I recommend those taken by Jim Barr and Mary Barr on their Over the Net Studio site. They have made freely available one of the best sources for artist portraits in New Zealand.

– Ron Brownson, Senior Curator, New Zealand and Pacific Art

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Michael Parekowhai: The Promised Land

28 March – 21 June 2015, Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane 

The word ‘retrospective’ comes from the Latin retrospectare, meaning ‘look back’. It must be quite confronting for a ‘mid-career’ artist working powerfully at full speed to be offered the opportunity of a retrospective: how to arc back in time, how to weigh up the balance of historical works, and how to present such a march through years of work while articulating a fresh perspective with necessary urgency. Michael Parekowhai: The Promised Land at QAGOMA is a fascinating and indeed spectacular response to this challenge. It is a knockout retrospective.

The exhibition appears to bend time as it spans the artist’s practice from 1989 to 2015. Conceptualised by the artist and beautifully curated by Maud Page, Deputy Director, QAGOMA, this exhibition is a tour de force that tips the notion of a historical assemblage of works on its head as 25 years of Parekowhai’s practice is summarised in a polished offering of absolute cohesion. It is described as an immersive environment for viewing art: a ‘memory palace’, and indeed the experience of being in GOMA’s vast, incredibly tough ground floor gallery space is transporting. Parekowhai is a consummate spatial thinker and his one-person incursion into this space is both fully confrontational and manipulative of the gallery itself while being acutely mindful of the audience’s experience.

The space is divided into thirds, which you move though as if in a Buñuel film or a de Chirico painting, experiencing a series of moody, intimate and unexpected encounters. In a somewhat voyeuristic state you enter through the back door of a two-storey coral coloured house (based on a dwelling in Sandringham, Auckland) to find a forlorn and gargantuan Captain Cook cast in stainless steel. Entitled The English Channel, 2015, Cook is found with friends, sitting on a model-making table, perhaps mid-voyage, exhausted and wondering where to from here.

The next space, what the artist calls ‘the homefront’, is entered through a massive Cuisenaire rod wall. This small entrance channels visitors out into a panoply of domestic-scaled rooms inhabited by perfectly attuned groupings of work that span time and references with alacrity. The strategem is an immensely canny one: to recast early works as if anew, making them, as the artist says, ‘a little sharper, a little speedier’. This tight, maze-like configuration tumbles you through claustrophobic non-museum spaces with rapid-fire surprise tactics. Visitors discover photographic images and sculptural works embedded in these prosaic rooms. Ideas take on disguises and double entendre abounds as Parekowhai alludes to religiousness and the military as well as the anxieties and obsessions of place and contemporary living.

On the first public day of the exhibition, in conversation with Page, the artist spoke about some of the drivers for the project: illumination, time, pace, sound and navigation. Memory collides and is warped with the immortalisation of moments: a lemon tree in a plastic bag is cast in bronze and humble golf balls on lurid Axminster carpet become a portal to the night sky view of Matariki (Pleiades) constellation from the Southern Hemisphere.

The third and final exhibition area is described by Parekowhai as the open space – the ‘back yard’ – with a particular reference to Australia’s vast geography. A voluminous space populated by the magnificent He Kōrero Pūrākau mo te Awanui o Te Motu: Story of a New Zealand River, the ornately carved red Steinway grand that featured in Parekowhai’s contribution to the 54th Venice Biennale 2011. Scattered around are cast bronze school chairs – the piano is for playing, and the chairs for sitting. The room is bathed in a coloured glow emanating from Rules of the Game, 2015, a flashing neon sign that reads ‘CLOSED’. The tension between rules and games are teased out here as Parekowhai navigates how to deal with the regulations of the institution, not breaking the rules exactly, but leaning up against the boundaries. It’s only at this moment that you look back, as any retrospective itself does, and see the second Cuisenaire rod wall. Gigantic and gaudy, it renders the viewer toy-like in scale. I know this is the exhibition’s endgame; however, I paused and watched people linger here, entranced, trying to rationalise it as Ravel-type torrents of piano sound washed the space and leaked back into the rooms, back to the watery liquid-like flow of Cook’s coat.

And the title? The Promised Land, 1948, is a rare self-portrait in which the artist, Colin McCahon, juxtaposes South Island landscape with biblical allegory and places a lit candle – a symbol of vanitas which connotes the transience of human life – at the composition’s centre. This painting, too, is divided into three intersecting spaces. Discussing his retrospective’s title, Parekowhai emphasised that the question was not ‘What is The Promised Land?’ but ‘Where is The Promised Land?’ 

Auckland will soon see a related work by Parekowhai, an ambitious public art project conceived for Queens Wharf. Meanwhile, three works by Parekowhai – Kiss the Baby Goodbye, 1995, Bill Jarvis, 2000 and Jeff Cooper, 2000 – are currently on display at the Gallery in the rehang of the contemporary New Zealand collection. 

– Rhana Devenport, Director