Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The hardest words to say…

Tony Albert, Sorry 2008, Found kitsch objects applied to vinyl letters,  
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Image courtesy: QAGOMA
My Country includes artworks that directly comment on Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 Apology to members of the Stolen Generations and their families. Tony Albert’s Sorry, 2008, spells out the climax of Rudd’s speech in large black type, but reverses the word to read YRROS and in doing so calls into question the effect of the Apology. For Albert, ‘Sorry is just a word which means nothing if it is not backed up by real outcomes.’ The objects that decorate this text – ashtrays, plates and other pieces of Aboriginalia – were picked up by the artist in second-hand stores. They show a persistent representation of Aboriginal bodies in items of Australian home décor and tourist souvenirs. Male figures dominate – a figure holding boomerang and spear faces off against a kangaroo on a cork beer mat in one of many examples of that ethnographic stereotype, the ‘noble warrior’. Stereotypes such as this, authored by someone else, erase individuality. They do not reflect the realities for the Stolen Generations, or those before them. Covering arguably the most important word of Rudd’s Apology in the material which helped build a generalised and damaging perception of Aboriginal people offers uncomfortable visual evidence of why the Apology was necessary.

A group of works in the exhibition bring the realities of those generations and families affected by racist laws and practices to light, bridging the gap between collective and individual histories and emphasising the personal with artworks which embody specific familial stories and practices. Some of these works relate to the body, recalling objects that were worn or carried, and convey a sense of everyday realities – their physicality evokes the spirit of the individual and their daily struggles.

Dale Harding, Unnamed 2009, lead and steel wireCollection: Queensland Art Gallery | Image courtesy: QAGOMA
Dale Harding’s Unnamed, 2012, a lead breast plate inscribed with his grandmother’s new name – ‘W38’ – connotes the harsh treatments and the specific use of ‘king plates’ as a method of identification. The rust and weight of the object with its alphanumeric code symbolises the dehumanising process of classification and control; its decayed surface suggests a forgotten or buried history. Looking at the breastplate gives us a sense of connection with Harding’s grandmother, and we empathise with the indignity she would have felt being forced to hang the large, heavy plate around her neck and having her name replaced by a code.

Wilma Walker, Kakan (Baskets) 2002 (installation view)
Individual stories are powerfully communicated in works which convey a sense of the physical presence of the body. Wilma Walker’s Kakan (Baskets), 2002 recalls the baskets made by her mother. As a baby, Walker was hidden in baskets like these to avoid being forcibly removed from her family – to avoid becoming one of the Stolen Generations. Looking at the baskets’ bulbous forms we can easily imagine her tiny body curled up inside and covered by leaves. 

Foreground Wilma Walker, Kakan (Baskets) 2002,
background Tony Albert, Sorry 2008 
(installation view)
One of the most striking moments in the exhibition is the presentation of these baskets in front of Tony Albert’s Sorry. Here, the life of someone personally affected by a state policy in practise confronts Rudd’s Apology, as interpreted by Albert. Walker’s handmade baskets, infused with the memories of her early life and with the making traditions of her people, evoke a sense of intimacy and human frailty and contrast the brittleness of the mass-produced Aboriginalia in Sorry. Both works remind us of trauma suffered and together create a confronting reminder about the need to honestly face historical facts.

In the exhibition’s final room Bindi Cole’s response to the 2008 Apology is writ large in emu feathers attached to letters. The sensual and protective qualities of I forgive you, 2013 – its layers of soft plumage – look capable of absorbing shock, which in forgiving one must do. Like Wilma Walker’s baskets, I forgive you was made by hand, each feather stuck down individually to create each word of the powerful sentence. In contrast to the critical position of Albert’s Sorry, and its seeming rejection of the Apology, Cole’s feathered forgiveness is empowering – reconciling differences and opening the door for future relations. According to Cole, ‘forgiveness is about taking your power back . . . no longer allowing that thing that hurt to live inside you.’

Julia Waite, Assistant Curator, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Bindi Cole, I forgive you 2012, Emu feathers on MDF board Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Image courtesy: QAGOMA

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Anyone with interested in contemporary art must have read books by uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. I asked our librarian Tom Irwin to research holdings of his books in New Zealand libraries. He found 137 entries. All can be inter-loaned via your local library.
Click here for New Zealand library holdings of Obrist's books.
One of my favourite Obrist books is do it – the compendium. This is a publication that affirms connections between life and art. It is humorous and engaging. For instance, Ben Kinmont suggests that we “invite a stranger into [our] home for breakfast.” 

"In 1993 I was at Café Select in Paris with Bertrand Lavier and Christian Boltanski discussing instruction works and how-to manuals and then we had this idea: what would happen if we started an exhibition that wouldn’t ever stop?" -  Hans Ulrich Obrist

Obrist’s book marks the 20th anniversary of his collaborative art project.  Artists prepare texts which become instructions for others to make artworks. Over 50 do it projects have happened in many locations.

Dwell has prepared a slide show about the publication.

Another profiles the book and quotes Louise Bourgeois.

hereelsewhere reiterates the life/art reality of the do it project

Brainpickings has a terrific response to Obrist’s book noting that Nairy Baghramian recommends “Following Gertrude Stein, every now and then sit with your back on nature.”

“do it is a kind of Catcher in the Rye for the curatorial world; it is a transformative mandatory read that connects a blur of dots into a cohesive and inviting image of both the art universe and the universe of ideas.”  - Douglas Coupland

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Recent acquisition – Petrus Van Der Velden

Stanley Andrew
Petrus Van Der Velden
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 2013
Not many people know Petrus Van Der Velden and Vincent Van Gogh were friends. They were intimate enough for Van Gogh to write about Van Der Velden in three letters to his brother Theo. I had their friendship in mind when, recently, I acquired for the Gallery's collection the final photo-portrait of  Van Der Velden made by Stanley Andrew at Wellington during 1909.

Andrew was Wellington's most active official portraitist prior to World War I and 95 of his negatives are held at Wellington's Alexander Turnbull Library. Artists like Eileen Duggan, Anna Pavlova and Dorothy Kate Richmond were recorded by Andrew. Yet, it appears that Petrus Van Der Velden was the earliest artist to commission a portrait while Andrew was a photographer. He began his career using a quasi-pictorialist, almost moody style. Later he refined this expressionist approach into one with a deeper focus and less gradation in overall lighting. This results in a more flattering response to your subjects and they often don't look their age.

I was attracted to the portrait of Van Der Velden not only for its physical quality but because it reveals the difficulties and strain that living in New Zealand as a full time artist had been for him. He had a tetchy temperament and did not like the fact that the art scene here was nowhere as modern as what he knew in the Holland which he had departed from.

Modern art reached New Zealand with the arrival of James Nairn and Van Der Velden in 1890. Both were full-time artists and they wanted to maintain a serious and professional career. Van Der Velden was determined and opinionated but we simply do not know, as Rodney Wilson has noted, why the painter immigrated to New Zealand.

The Canterbury College School of Art in Christchurch refused to give him employment, not a surprising decision due to its insular suspicion of outsiders. Consequently, Van Der Velden became an itinerant immigrant – living 8 years in Christchurch, 6 years in Sydney and 9 years in Wellington.

The first image here is the vintage print that Auckland Art Gallery has recently purchased, with the original photographers' tinted paper and strawcard mounting mattes. It is signed at left by the photographer and has the Stanley Andrew blind-stamp at the lower right hand side of the print.

Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand
S.P. Andrew collection (PAColl -3739) reference 1/1-014987;G
Here is a cropped contact print of the variant Stanley Andrew portrait made at the same time. It is taken from the negative held in the Alexander Turnbull Library in the National Library of New Zealand. He appears more animated than the  portrait which we acquired, but his head appears to large for the body and is distorted in scale.

Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand
S.P. Andrew collection (PAColl -3739) reference 1/1-014988;G
This is an entire uncropped scan of the negative of the portrait that the Gallery has acquired. Note how the hands have been cropped out to give provide more prominence to the artist's face. It is almost heroic in its final cropped version. I believe that he made this version for his family's own use and not for any form of self-promotion.

Am I correct in noting that Petrus Van Der Velden was a friend of Vincent Van Gogh? Or was he simply one of his acquaintances? I keep coming back to the conclusion that he was a friend; especially judging from tone of Vincent's comments about Petrus included in three letters that he wrote to his brother Leo.

On Wednesday 1 November 1882 Vincent comments on seeing two drawings by Pieter (Petrus) in the magazine De Zwaluw.

On, or about, Saturday 21 April 1883, Vincent notes: "I met Van der V. once, and he made a good impression on me at the time. I was reminded of the character of Felix Holt the radical by Eliot. There’s something broad and rough in him that pleases me greatly — something like the roughness of torchon. A man who evidently doesn’t seek civilization in outward things but is much further inwardly, much much much further than most people. In short, he’s a true artist, and I’d like to get to know him for I would trust him and I’m sure I would learn from him."

On, or about, Wednesday 11 July 1883, Vincent writes "I saw Van der Velden once last year — at De Bock’s one evening when we looked at etchings. I’ve already written to you that he made a very favorable impression on me at the time,although he said little and wasn’t much company that evening. But the impression he immediately made on me was that he was a solid, genuine painter."

All of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters have been translated into English and are available to read online.

On 9 July 1896, Lawrence Jones of Dunedin reproduced the following early portrait of Petrus Van Der Velden. (I am grateful to the wonderful blog Early Otago Photographers for this image). Van Der Velden was aged 59 years and about to become a New Zealand citizen, but he was not prospering as a fulltime artist and had almost halved his fee for private life classes (based on 13 sessions of 2.5 hours each). There is a vast difference between this first portrait of Van Der Velden in New Zealand and the final one which we have acquired.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Meanings We Share

Bindi Cole, I  forgive you 2012
Two exhibitions at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki give prominence to histories and ideas in which viewers can find shared commonality with the art. Numerous artworks in both My Country: Contemporary Art from Black Australia and Five Māori Painters convey deep and strong connectedness to place and people. These exhibitions from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand cross cultural boundaries, and indicate that no matter what our background is, as viewers we can connect with the ideas found in the art.

Many artists in both exhibitions make art as a way of ‘keeping culture strong’ or passing down culturally specific ideas and practices to younger generations or others in their communities. Alick Tipoti, senior artist from the Torres Strait Islands north of Queensland, is the creator of one of the first works to greet visitors to My Country. Tipoti’s print illustrates the seafaring culture that is historically part of the Torres Strait Islands people. However, his image, Kuyku Garpathamai Mabaig, 2007 also resonates with the classical warrior figures from ancient Greece, Rome and other places. Tipoti employs a marvelous technique in his linocuts, which he has developed on the basis of formal art training, and has led to his works winning accolades such as the Telstra Art Award. However, for Tipoti, the songs that he sings in the presence of such artworks are equally as important as the images for passing on cultural knowledge.

Vernon Ah Kee’s large scale portraits draw the viewer into a close and personal engagement with the life-like figures. A man and child look directly at us from Ah Kee’s canvases in My Country, beautifully rendered in charcoal and conté. Strength of character is evident in the gaze of the sitters. Ah Kee has made more than 30 such images of his relatives, based on early 20th-century photos now stored in national archives and libraries. In Neither Pride nor Courage, 2006 Ah Kee depicts his great grandfather, who was photographed by anthropologist Norman B Tindale as part of scientific studies of the genealogy of Australian Aboriginal people. Ah Kee revives the documentation of the relative he never knew with the intention of reinstating his grandfather’s humanity. The artist also adds the face of a new generation – his son – in a drawing redolent with persistence and hope for a future that will be different for Indigenous and white populations in their relations with each other.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye is one of the senior artists with works in My Country. Kngwarreye has now passed away but her work set a precedent for Australian Aboriginal women in remote locations in the creation of art that explored the application of traditional ideas and forms in conventional media that was new to Indigenous artists at the time. As with works by the artists in Five Māori Painters, in her paintings Kngwarreye has synthesised ancestral stories and historic cultural meanings with aspects of contemporary life. Kngwarreye described works such as Wild Potato Dreaming, 1990 as ‘containing the whole lot, everything’, recalling the worldview expressed by Robyn Kahukiwa. Kahukiwa’s art is imbued with the Māori belief that the past lies before us; the present day connects to the past.

A number of artworks in My Country can be thought of as political, in the ways that artists reflect on contemporary events or assume that art has a role to play in producing the world today. A final work is important to note in reflecting on the connectivity between viewer s and art in My Country and Five Māori Painters. Visitors to My Country leave the exhibition with their senses filled by Bindi Cole’s installation and video I forgive you, 2012. Cole, like several other artists in the exhibition, reflects on the apology that was made to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008. Although Indigenous Australians continue to hope for ongoing change beyond this apology, which they feel has been slow to occur, Cole’s work asks the viewer to reflect on attitudes of forgiveness toward others at a personal level. Cole’s I forgive you generously reflects on the individual rights and responsibilities of pardoning others, a moving point on which to leave the intersections of these two exhibitions.

– Zara Stanhope, Principal Curator, Head of Programmes

Image credit:
Bindi Cole
Wathaurung people
Australia VIC b.1975
I forgive you 2012
Emu feathers on MDF board 11 pieces: 100 x 800cm (installed, approx.)
Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation

Monday, 31 March 2014

Changing The Story: How do we understand contemporary indigenous art today?

Five Māori Painters catalogue cover
My generation of Māori artists, writers, curators, historians, cultural practioners, critics, and art observers harbour stories about the 1996 keynote address delivered by Professor Hirini Moko Mead at the inaugural Toioho ki Apiti Māori Art Conference, hosted by Massey University, Palmerston North.

The much anticipated conference was the mastermind of teachers and artists Robert Jahnke, Kura Te Waru Rewiri and Shane Cotton. Together they trail-blazed the first kaupapa Māori Art School driven by Māori values and principles, based in and supported by the Māori Studies department at Massey University, under the guidance of Professor Mason Durie, around the time of the conference.

The conference exhibition carried its own title: Ko te hapai o ki muri ko te Amorangi ki mua and was presented at Manawatu Art Gallery. The exhibition comprised a mix of heritage and contemporary art disciplines, by emerging and senior artists.
Ko te hapai o ki muri ko te Amorangi ki mua catalogue cover 
The conference represented the first real attempt to provide an overview of Māori art and gather together a diversity of artists who also displayed a range of innovative practice, known as contemporary Māori art. I was fortunate to travel to the conference and contribute as an exhibiting artist through the agency of Kura Te Waru Rewiri. My artwork from this time no longer exists but the memory of the conference endures, in particular Hirini Moko Mead’s keynote presentation.

I gained insight into the field of contemporary Māori art which has continued to give me cause for reflection on where we are today as contemporary people continuing to pioneer a contemporary Māori arts movement. I did not know then that I would become a curator in a fine arts museum and work alongside the architects and prime movers of Māori and New Zealand contemporary art.

The exhibition I recently curated Five Māori Painters, is the platform for a symposium Changing The Story: How do we understand contemporary indigenous art today? hosted by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki on Saturday April 12. The symposium is also an opportunity to reflect on Mead’s infamous keynote address, with his encouragement, as a focus for this one-day event and to ask how what we have learned since his groundbreaking lecture.

– Ngahiraka Mason, Indigenous Curator, Māori Art

Further information:

Changing The Story is free and open to all,  however people are encouraged to register via Eventfinda as there is limited capacity at the venue. Among the symposium participants are Kura Te Waru Rewiri, Fiona Foley and Robert Jahnke.

The launch of the publication Five Māori Painters – which includes in-depth essays on artists Kura Te Waru Rewiri, Star Gossage, Saffronn Te Ratana, Emily Karaka and Robyn Kahukiwa, as well as two essays on paint materials and techniques – will close the symposium.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Haymaker V2.0 and He Tangata, He Tangata

Arnold Manaaki Wilson: Pou Ihi | Pou Whenua | Pou Tangata 2014
I recently curated a tribute exhibition to Arnold Manaaki Wilson (1928–2012) entitled Arnold Manaaki Wilson: Pou Ihi | Pou Whenua | Pou Tangata.

The exhibition features sculpture and painting. Fine arts trained Wilson experimented extensively with traditional Māori imagery blending Māori aesthetics and form with European approaches to fashioning art which he produced in the early period of his art practice from 1954–1964.

Arnold Manaaki Wilson, Ode to Waikaremoana 1976
Underpinning Wilson’s art is his Tuhoe epistemology, which values the process of self-knowledge and the production of cultural understanding. With this in mind, Wilson developed an impactful yet modest body of work shaped by his upbringing, the wisdom of forebears and the influences of a changing contemporary world. A correlation between his legacy and how this aligns with the way his art practice functioned more widely across all strata’s of society is a focus in the exhibition. The specificity of his making produced a discourse that helped the local development of contemporary Māori art and the universality of his practice was to communicate this experience to the world. In this way, his legacy cuts a clear pathway to the realities of contemporary art practice today.

Arnold Manaaki Wilson, He Tangata, He Tangata 1956
 Among the first group of sculptures by the artist to enter the Gallery’s collection in 1992 was his 1956 sculpture He Tangata, He Tangata.

Shane Cotton The Haymaker Series I-V 2012
He Tangata, He Tangata is the subject of a painting by Ngapuhi painter Shane Cotton in a five-part, nine-meter long painting entitled The Haymaker Series I–V. Made in 2012 during a time of reflection by Cotton who has pictured through one component of the painting a tribute to a beloved kaumatua and contemporary forebear. The series title literally refers to Wilson as someone who made the most of his opportunities while he had the chance – which he did. Philosophically the title also references a time when everything one did was important to ones survival and timing was everything.

As a mid career artist Cotton possesses canniness regarding timing and survival. He gathers to his series a collection of signature images that has brought him to this point in time. His starting point is Haymaker V2.0 in which He Tangata, He Tangata stands erect at the centre of the picture plane.

Shane Cotton, Haymaker V 2.0 2012

Painted wooden rods penetrate the body of the painted sculpture attached to these are iconic images positioned at the tips of the rods. The range of iconography include the apex of another Wilson sculpture Ringatu (1958), a backward tumbling bird, a rock skull, a manaia figure, a framed nineteen century landscape – at once perched on a plinth of Jasper Johns targets.

Arnold Manaaki Wilson, Ringatu 1958
One could say that Cotton is expanding his painting footprint to comment and reflect on several generations of contemporary art practitioners local and international while simultaneously historicising the moments he has chosen to highlight. He has mapped a terrain that supports the proposition that he too has made the most of his opportunities – and he has. We can speculate also that Haymaker V2.0 allows the artist to turn things around many times over tossing ideas to flummox and draw forward alternative ways of relating to contemporary Māori art practice today. His base point of reference regarding Haymaker V2.0 is to pay tribute to a senior Maori artist.

– Ngahiraka Mason, Indigenous Curator, Māori Art

Further reading: 

Wilson was a pioneer for contemporary art and he chronicled this part of his life in the book Te Mauri Pakeaka: A Journey Into The Third Space published in 2006.

Image credits:
Arnold Manaaki Wilson
Pou Ihi | Pou Whenua | Pou Tangata 2014
Installation view, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Arnold Manaaki Wilson

Ode to Waikaremoana 1976
acrylic on canvas
Courtey of Wilson Estate, Auckland

Arnold Manaaki Wilson

He Tangata, He Tangata 1956
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki 
purchased 1993

Shane Cotton

The Haymaker Series I-V 2012
acrylic on linen
2400 x 9000mm
Courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett, Auckland

Shane Cotton

Haymaker V 2.0 2012
acrylic on linen
2400 x 1800mm
Courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett, Auckland

Arnold Manaaki Wilson

Ringatu 1958

Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki 
purchased 1992

Friday, 21 March 2014

Remembering Alexis Hunter

Yesterday, I read letters Alexis Hunter wrote from London during the 1970s to a friend in Auckland. They were vibrant, opinionated, perceptive, engaged writings. They made me recall how strategically she always used titles for her series: Violence: Destruction of Evidence; Dialogue with a Rapist; Identity Crisis; Approach to Fear; Voyeurism; Effeminacy; Sexual Warfare; Masculinisation of Society; Oh No!.

It is unsurprising that Alexis stated ‘it was too hard to be a feminist artist on your own; the criticism was too great to bear’. In 1972 she joined Artists Union Women's Workshop in London and the group was a terrific support to her as an artist. For her, art was political and conceptual. Alexis realised early that a viewer’s perception was essential in a feminist perspective.

I knew Alexis briefly and her engagement with both cameras and xerography fascinated me. She saw lens-based reproduction as a potent tool and an imaginative basis for drawn and painterly adaptation.

During 2006, with the assistance of the Norwich Gallery she presented her ambitious exhibition Alexis Hunter – Radical Feminism in the 1970s. The artist’s book, which accompanied the project, included memorable texts by Lucy R Lippard and John Roberts. Lucy, a keen art commentator, recalled how Alexis saw the tensions between ‘romantic love and sexual hatred’.

Alexis passed away some weeks ago and her death caused me to recall her approach to art making and remember her insight and rigour. In the 1970s she would have described herself as a radical feminist artist so it is not a revelation to say that her stance was often misunderstood back home in New Zealand.

What brought Alexis to mind is her six-part painting The Object Series of 1974–1975, which she gifted to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 1990. I have shown this huge painting, which measures just over seven and a half metres, twice. Firstly in the summer of 2003–04 and then again during 2008. On the second occasion it was one of the first artworks visitors experienced when they entered the Gallery, and I often observed people lingering and looking at it carefully.

By 2003, these panels were already a generation old, dating as they do from soon after Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and a decade later than Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos. Like these films, The Object Series has a fond regard for the look of biker culture. To my eye, Alexis’ biker guy is more a male figure performing ‘biker boy lookalike’ than images of a wannabe biker than an authentic biker. He has more superficial style than seeming authenticity. This inherent campness of a feminist trope is what gives this mural its enduring frisson of male fetishism. In a century’s time the figure will have become almost a de trop retro-symbol of bikerness.

Looking back I find that in 2003 I made notes on this six-part mural: The Object Series is an essential sequence in the feminist history of New Zealand art. The artist stares at a young man and objectifies him with her eroticising gaze. His staunchly masculinist posture, grubby clothing and street-wise physicality render his male sexuality as the territory of working men, muscular labourers and bike-boys.

Hunter’s male scene mirrors the hip strategies of early 1970s magazine advertising. This man is a close-up site of visual pleasure for a female’s gaze. Bits of this man are focused upon and sight-lined – forearm, groin, shoulder, hand and feet. By investigating what it means to gawk at a stereotypical bloke, Alexis Hunter represents a grisaille panorama of fetishised masculinity. The painting is an uncompromising exposé of a woman staring at a man with a commitment to feel that her eyes are entirely set upon him.

In 2008, I prepared some further notes: This early work by Alexis Hunter complements her photo-narrative sequences. It is an example of feminist rejection of the power of the male gaze to objectify women in art, in advertising and in life. By painting what she described as ‘passive, seductive men’ Hunter turns viewers into the viewed and demonstrates a disconcerting loss of male identity.

In 2014, I wonder if I see the deliberate objectification of the painting more clearly. They are six paintings searching for masculinity’s presence. They see this male as being ‘other’, of being different, of being an alien gender reminding us who is doing the looking when we are looking. This mirroring of Alexis’ gaze as a commodification of maleness is more humorous than it appeared four decades ago. It echoes just how denim and leather jeans are marketed now, it reflects sexuality as a marketing tool reinforcing that we try to become what we desire by inhabiting a surrogacy of wish fulfillment. Lucy Lippard put it succinctly when she noted, ‘Fetishism and a hint of S&M lurk just beneath the surfaces of Hunter's photographs…’

I reckon Alexis would like the fact that The Object Series retains its skill at provocation. She once said to me that we would one day see how good her six-part painting was but added, in a knowing way, she was glad it was all there in black and white.

Alexis Hunter (1948–2014) New Zealand/United Kingdom

Image credit:
Alexis Hunter
The Object Series 1974–1975
oil on canvas
1015 x 7600 mm overall, in six parts
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki
gift of the artist, 1990

Thursday, 20 March 2014

New Compositions – Tusalava

Len Lye, Tusalava, 1929 (film still). Courtesy of Len Lye Foundation from material preserved and made available by the New Zealand Film Archive Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua. 
On 15 March at Mangere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku, I was fortunate to witness a fascinating performance that expands contemporary inter-disciplinary arts practice in Aotearoa while re-energising our consideration of one of New Zealand’s most influential and maverick artists. Here is the back-story . . . when Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki re-opened in 2011, the Whizz Bang Pop exhibition included Len Lye’s Universe, 1963 from the Edmiston Trust Collection, not surprisingly the work quickly became a beacon for visitors who were captivated by its fluid, sexy movements and quirky self-generating soundscape. Triggered by electro-magnets and informed by the artist’s audacious experimentations with movement, Universe remains one of Lye’s most beautifully resolved sculptural works. Two other versions exist in public collections, one in the Len Lye Foundation’s collection at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and the other, a smaller table top version entitled Loop (the work’s original title, until a child suggested Universe to the artist), at the Chicago Art Institute.

Len Lye, Universe, 1963, steel, wood, electromagnets, Edmiston Trust Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1995 
However, Lye did not begin making his kinetic sculptures, or ‘tangibles’ as he called them, until the late 1950s. It was, of course, in experimental film where he first made major contributions to 20th-century art practice. His very first film is the much-celebrated Tusalava, 1929, a 10-minute stop-frame animation comprising around 7000 black and white drawings. The work is exceptional for its time, given Lye’s respect for and influence from Indigenous Pacific cultural practices. He greatly admired Māori sculptural and patterned forms while studying design in Wellington, when in Sydney from 1922 he researched Aboriginal art and philosophy and during his stay in Sāmoa during 1924, became fascinated with tapa. Tusalava is a remarkable and radical distillation of modernism within a located Pacific sensibility. The original film score by the Manchester-born Jack Ellitt (a somewhat forgotten pioneer of 20th-century electronic music) was lost and over the years various musicians have created unsolicited or commissioned scores for the film. The most recent, until now, was by British jazz pianist Alcyona for the 2008 Len Lye: The Body Electric exhibition at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham. For Len Lye: Chronosome in 2009 the Govett-Brewster presented three versions of existing scores in sequence within the exhibition, interestingly each was composed to a different print/version of the film and were subsequently run at a slightly different speeds. The film was also presented on a two-sided screen as it had, at one stage previously, been screened in reverse.

Like Lye, Ellitt was living in Sydney in the early 1920s and was part of a thriving ‘Bohemian’ arts community. Like Lye he had embarked upon a project of radical intent in relation to technology and the synergy between art forms and an embrace of the modern that was also filtering across from Europe. Ellitt spoke of ‘sound colours’ and a release from conventional notions of harmony and melodic structures. After Lye moved to London in 1926, Ellitt followed and the two men continued their creative friendship in London (where they lived on a barge for while) in the circle of Robert Graves and Henry Moore. When Lye finally completed Tusalava in 1929, it was Ellitt who wrote the score. With no extant recording, Len Lye biographer Roger Horrocks believes the score was probably in the realm of Stravinsky’s two piano version of The Rite of Spring or Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique for two pianos.

Around two years ago when I was director of Govett-Brewster, James Pinker approached the Gallery and the Len Lye Foundation with the concept of an exhibition exploring Lye’s profound connection with Pacific Indigenous practices. The idea was long overdue and much needed, and it seemed perfect that the project would be occurring in South Auckland.

Len Lye: Agiagiā, an articulate and significant exhibition, curated by Pinker and Paul Brobbel, has been presented at Mangere Arts Centre over the past three months and the performance on the eve of its final day was an inspired and important occasion. It draws its name from a Sāmoan word expressing the notion of ‘natural billowing movement’. Pinker commissioned three Pasifika composers to create scores to accompany Tusalava. Very simply, the evening saw the three scores played consecutively alongside the film, while a lively discussion with the composers and the audience followed the screenings.

Left to right: Poulima Salima, Anonymouz and Opeloge Ah Sam in conversation with James Pinker, co curator of Len Lye: Agiagiā. Photo credit: Anna Rae
Matatumua Opeloge Ah Sam, Poulima Salima and Matthew Faiumu Salapu aka Anonymouz are all strongly connected to Mangere and Sāmoa. Their scores were remarkably different in mood and approach and as each were played, the visual reading of the film shifted profoundly. It was an extraordinary experience. Matatumua Opeloge Ah Sam’s score is joyous and energised; it begins with the beating of the fala (mat in Sāmoan) a sound element that remains present throughout the composition. Ideas about weaving and organic flow, and the positive themes of life, growth and development that Opeloge Ah Sam read in the film informed his treatment. A vocal enters the score in the final stage; the word is matagofie (beautiful). In contrast, Poulima Salima created a dark soundscape that concentrates on his interpretation of the destructive elements that enter the film. It begins with a sample of a projector sound over the titles and soon launches into a work of brooding symphonic beauty. Poulima spoke about Lye being ‘light years ahead of 1929’ and this drove his own urgency to expand his approach and push himself into new compositional terrain, what he described as ‘pushing sound design as landscape’. Finally, Matthew Faiumu Salapu drew on his three modes of working: composer, hip-hop producer and sound engineer, to create a complex spatial work. Faiumu Salapu echoed Lye’s scratching of celluloid (in his later films) with audio scratching while gathering in Maori, Samoan and Australian Aboriginal instruments. The didgeridoo, for example, was present throughout the entire piece at a very low frequency and it was only in the final moments that its sound became audibly distinctive. Faiumu Salapu spoke about how Lye extended the parameters of available technology and that his own intensive engineering of site recordings that he made in Sāmoa was a way to honour and continue this strategy. All three composers spoke about being true to Lye’s stellar imagination and uncompromising and tireless approach to experimentation and the testing of boundaries.

New Compositions – Tusalava is a project that spans two centuries and connects the radical work of a spirited cultural innovator – who was himself greatly influenced by Pacific cultural modes – to today’s moment of intense cross-cultural and cross-temporal influence. The project has not come full circle, 85 years later in an act of reclamation; rather Lye’s Tusalava has become a launching pad for unexpected points of reference and the subtle sensibilities of these three impressive, insightful and wholly generous composers. The process is not circular but expansive.

– Rhana Devenport, Director

Monday, 10 March 2014

Art Lab

This summer I put on my very first Art Lab, which is a holiday programme specially designed for teenagers between the ages of 9 to 13. It’s full day where they can meet other artists their own age and get amongst the art-making scene. I love working with this age group because many of them will be making school curriculum choices in the years to come and thinking about whether Art might play a part in that…

At the time of planning, I was drawn to the materials and ideas behind Xin Cheng and Richard Maloy’s work as part of our summer exhibition Freedom Farmers: New Zealand Artists Growing Ideas. Using makeshift materials, they encourage us to dream and (literally and conceptually) grow our ideas from seed or scrap. I began positioning my programming for Art Lab around the interesting use of found materials in art, sustainability in New Zealand and what it is to have utopian ideals or dreams.

Xin Cheng Propositions 2013, installation view, Auckland Art Gallery

On the day, I had students hunting for materials that may have held a past life. They recognised old bike chains in Cheng’s work that held up planter shelves and how she had cut up old tires into strips holding together her bamboo structures.

Richard Maloy Tree Hut #5 2013, installation view, Auckland Art Gallery
But I also wanted them to compare and contrast this work with another, so we climbed up into Maloy’s installation, Tree Hut #5 (2013) and talked about the artist’s use of material waste that he found onsite from previous exhibitions at the Gallery and whether or not he might be considered a sustainable artist in New Zealand? Something that was on my mind, that I wanted to ask the students was, 'So if utopia is like this vision of a perfect world, then do these artworks look perfect or even finished?' What they told me was that the work actually looked quite rough: 'Having exposed nails and miss matched wood.' I agreed and likened the works to being almost like a sketch…and how growing good ideas can begin as a sketch and grow from there.

In the studio, I wanted the students to be experimenting quite literally along the lines of growing something. A growing structure, of your own fancy that you could fill with potting mix, seeds and be able to take home and test out the growing and feeding process. We were using biodegradable and found materials to construct these and the group successfully put forward an interesting range of growers, one even featuring a self-watering showerhead and we talked about the many possibilities for this brief as we went along.

But something curious happened with the group in the second week of the holidays. There was a notable leap in creative thinking and my assistant Vivian and I found the students putting forward some very sophisticated justification for their quite ‘out there’ designs. I really had to think back through my teaching about why this might have been the case and here is what I think may have happened.

During sketch stage, I started talking though my own idea for a growing structure (I was deliberately trying to focus on modeling my creative thinking and problem solving out loud) and I got my co-worker Vivian to do the same. We hammed it up for extra emphasis, 'I was just randomly thinking about making a mini Ferris Wheel for the structure and planting seeds in each carrier so that I could rotate it daily for equal sun distribution…..but another part of my brain started reasoning with me that with the bio-degradable materials we will be using, it might only last a week or so before turning soggy and the seeds would fall to the ground!' I pointed out that this was the creative problem and talked through my ‘Plan B’ for a something more supported by soil which would biodegrade exactly where I wanted, meaning I was much more in control. But Vivian stopped me in my tracks and she talked about her design going for this ephemeral (short lasting) option as she pulled out her sketchbook for a hanging seed bank. 'Just as they germinate it may break down and fall with the seeds scattering and sprouting in a new patch below...and then the cat might eat them and who know where they might end up next Ha!' Anyway, we had lots of students playing with and bending the brief which was just so excellent.

One student spent hours 'Using my new technology skills' to sew together a range of biodegradable, mini calico planting sacks. She asked for more material to be able to do this and I went on a hunt to find what she needed. I told her I could imagine them being a hit at a local market or school fair.
Now by bending the brief, I mean another student did away with soil completely. Explaining that, 'It was a working wind up fan with tiny pockets on each blade and when filled with seeds, it would scatter them randomly.'

The Seed Scatterer 2000! And it really did work. He told us that 'It’s probably best not to use fruit and veg seeds because otherwise you would have fruit and veg growing everywhere and that perhaps grass seeds would be better.' Great sense of humour this boy!
So once again, I have been shown a thing or two by the youth of today and I am super excited for the next Art Lab. It will be up and running next April holidays and you can check out our website for more details. Finally, I would like to say a big thanks to Andrea and Viv for giving me a well-experienced hand with all of this. Thank you!

– Charlotte Maguire, Gallery Educator

Thursday, 6 March 2014

ArtLinks conference – December 2013

A conference that explores cross-curricular programming for secondary students, linking in and through the Arts. An experience that is relevant to a person’s real needs and interests… by being driven by its audience. An experience that feels less like a blind date, and more something that really connects people... That’s what we were trying to create with ArtLinks

I’ve never worked on developing a conference before - and that’s probably one thing that got me through it - not knowing what I was going to be dealing with! The other, very important thing that got me through it was being able to collaborate with my colleague Lee Devenish, Assistant Head of Art from Waitakere College and chairperson of Auckland Secondary Art Teachers’ Association. I cannot over-emphasise how key it was being able to co-develop this event, from concept to fruition.

So I thought I would just share a bit about the conference - what happened and why, and how people responded. Also I’d like to share a bit of our ‘where to next’.

Why did we do this?
  • For all the reasons identified above, and… 
  • Because we passionately believe that learning in and around the Arts is a vital part of a rich, holistic education. Current trends in education don’t seem to support this in our school system. We want to ensure these valuable areas of learning are not only maintained, but continue to expand and develop, and enrich all other learning areas also. 
  • Because we are keen to expand the ways in which we work with teachers in our Schools Programmes. We wish to expand programming and resource options, but feel it makes most sense to do this in conjunction with teachers. So it’s important to spend time face to face with people, and to make the most of opportunities to hear the triumphs, and challenges being faced. We hope that continuing to do this, and to work in conjunction with teachers as we pilot and prototype, will help ensure that our young people get the best possible access to top notch Arts education, and this fabulous public institution and its resources.

  • It took six months to pull ArtLinks together. After completing it, someone casually mentioned it usually takes two years to do something like this, so no wonder it felt like it did! 

What did we do to try to make it as relevant as possible to teachers? 
  • Limited the subject areas allowed to participate this year. We concentrated subject areas to the Arts, English and Media Studies, hoping that this would give us the critical mass required to ensure robust conversation. 
  • Ensured it was by-and-large teachers selecting the topics, and running the majority of sessions. We developed starter ideas for teachers to vote on, or add to for others to vote on. The ultimate idea being that the most popular session topics, would be those that ran. To be honest, that didn’t work entirely. See below for more details. 
  • Set parameters around how sessions could run - sessions had to be participatory and focused on people having ‘take home’ ideas – no dry lectures allowed!

What did we do to try to encourage real connections between people?
  • We invited a diverse group of people, including inviting arts professionals - visual artists, filmmakers, writers, musician, actors, and those working within arts organisations. We were interested in the idea of building a strong sense of community between this group of (hopefully!) likeminded people. 
  • We did an icebreaker. This involved forcing everyone to work in a changing group of other participants, creating tableaus of artworks on display. And there were winners! Fastest to complete, and best photo (see some samples above). It was definitely a conference highlight - everyone was enjoying themselves! 
  • Imposing the participatory session model on everyone - it was all about talking (smiley face) We made sure there were lots of yummy things to eat, and time to enjoy them with others 

How do we plan to ensure the learning ‘lives on’? 
  •  Everyone who participated wrote themselves a postcard identifying what they’d learnt, and what they were wanting to take forward into their work in the following year. We posted these out to people in the first weeks of the New Year. 
  • We audio recorded most sessions. These will soon be added to the Gallery’s YouTube channel and website, along with any worksheets etc that our session developers included in their sessions. We’d love for everyone interested to be able to benefit from what was shared at ArtLinks

What were some of the results? How did people respond?

'I just want to say thank you, thank you for holding, co-creating, and co-facilitating one of the best conferences/gatherings I have ever attended.' – participant feedback

  • The conference itself got a fantastic response from participants. We were thrilled that putting such a diverse group of people in the room together seemed to result in such rich, connecting conversations. 
  • This was especially great because getting to the point of getting people in the room, was a hard job! Our initial idea of getting potential participants to vote on topics of interest just wasn’t possible, as we just weren’t able to get enough response to make that work. In the end, we went with contacting people through a variety of means and asking them individually if they had something they were passionate about and wanted to talk to. Some of these topics aligned with our suggested topics. I personally spent weeks and weeks emailing and ringing people to drum up interest. Really worth it in the end though - I met many very, very interesting and passionate people that I remain in contact with. 
  • Working on an intimate scale - only 70 people total, worked very well. This gentle ‘hot-housing’ meant people really got to know each other 
  • The participatory model - which ended up mostly involving the facilitator sharing their work within a particular area, establishing key questions for the group, then opening the floor up for these to be discussed and others to make links with their own experiences, seemed to work well for our participants Lee and I bringing our diverse backgrounds together in this initiative worked really well. We each were able to bring to the table our unique knowledge, skills and networks to create this eclectic, but connected programme. 

Where to next?

There is obviously an appetite for this - so Lee and I are keen to continue to offer the conference in the future. We both love the idea too that facilitators at future versions of this event might be sharing experiences that came out of conversations started during this particular event! So, we’ve reviewed the feedback, and are in the process of thinking about questions that have arisen, and what we can do with the event going forward.

A few questions of interest we are thinking through: 
  • What subject areas do we involve in this? We really value the relationships that have been formed with the teachers participating this year, and would love to be able to continue with these. However, there are also teachers of a range of other subjects it would be great to involve too. We’re a small venue, so larger numbers wouldn’t be a possibility here. 
  • Topics discussed during ArtLinks involved ways of thinking that could require changes to pedagogical approach and timetabling. How do we get school leaders involved in this conversation too, as people in a position to influence these things within their school settings? 
  • How might creatives across the Humanities contribute further to something like this in future? We had two fantastic keynotes, John Pule (visual artist and writer) and Vincent Ward (painter and filmmaker) who generously shared their practice with us. Likewise, we had a ‘creative careers’ session where other attending creatives could talk about their practice also. However, we didn’t have the opportunity to involve participants in much experiencing of art forms. I had another participant offer to perform her work during one of the sessions, and I had to tell her there wasn’t enough space! Since experiencing the Arts is so vital in valuing both the Arts and Arts education, how do we ensure this is present? Especially when participants may not be ‘experts’ in the Arts, so may be experiencing some of these art forms for the first time. 
  • Are there ways we can better support teachers in sustaining connections made, and in implementing ideas developed during the event? 
  • How might this conference support Maori and Pacifica students in achieving educational success? What relationships does the conference have with issues around secondary-tertiary transitions? 

Whether you came along or not, feel free to comment on anything above, and offer your ideas in answering some of the questions Lee and I are currently considering.

- Christa Napier-Robertson, Schools Programme Coordinator