Friday, 29 April 2011

Campbell Patterson

I have enjoyed the video art of Campbell Patterson since I first encountered his work at art school. He participated in APT6 in 2009 at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

They cleverly made many of the artist’s talk available on Youtube. Here are two links to the fascinating presentation by Campbell about the work that he had on display:

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Saint Bartholomew

Associate curator Jane Davidson-Ladd, who started this blog as a companion to the upcoming exhibition on the Gallery’s architecture, has recently taken parental leave. I have assumed responsibility for delivering Jane’s other babies, her exhibition projects, into the world. Quite a responsibility – but I’m very excited about being involved in this phase of the Gallery’s life as we prepare for the reopening of our beautiful building.

I love Jane’s idea of using this blog to collect stories about the life of the Gallery and all the people and artworks that have contributed to its history. I thought I’d begin my contribution with the story of how I met Saint Bartholomew.

The Gallery’s collection includes pieces that were made over 500 years ago as well as works made last year; and one of my most memorable art encounters came from the sort of startling juxtaposition that can be achieved when such a range of treasures is exhibited under a single roof.

20th Century Modern, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2003

I visited the Gallery in 2003 to see the Picasso painting in 20th Century Modern when I stumbled upon the oldest painting in the collection: Antonio da Venezia’s Saint Bartholomew c1376. It only happens occasionally that you are actually dumbfounded by a work of art, but this was one of those occasions. What really amazed me was not only the incredible age of the object in front of me, but the wonderfully human expression on this venerable gentleman’s face.

Antonio da Venezia, Saint Bartholomew, c1376

In New Zealand, we don’t often get to experience such a weight of history – one of the few exceptions is the feeling of standing at the foot of the almighty Tane Mahuta (who predates Bartholomew in age by at least 600 years). Saint Bartholomew is a painstakingly preserved relic that provides a direct link through human history. While the painting originated in a very different time and place, it still reminds me of how little people seem to have changed over all those years.

Bartholomew wears an unimpressed expression (which seems reasonable, when you discover how gruesome his death was) and the way he has been painted is strikingly similar to the raw, direct style of some of the paintings I had been looking at in 20th Century Modern, such as our own Frances Hodgkins’s lovely Spanish Shrine of the 1930s.

Frances Hodgkins, Spanish Shrine, 1933-5

Friday, 15 April 2011

Lemi Ponifasio

Between 7 and 9 of April, the remarkable New Zealand choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, showed his latest dance piece, Tempest: Without a Body, to acclaim at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Click here to see a Youtube video showing a segment of this astonishing ensemble dance work when it was shown in Sydney in 2010:

Tempest: Without a Body is a political work about apocalypse and terrorism. With a duration of 90 minutes, it is wonderfully overwhelming. ‘Seeing it’ does not describe what one’s attendance at this dance means to your heart, to your mind and to your body. This performance consumes the audience and builds upon their immediate reactions to the work’s vast power.

Tempest delights, irritates, confuses, challenges, beguiles and overtakes all of one’s senses. It is a sensate implosion on lots of levels and these subcutaneous layers reach far within you in an insistent manner. This art cannot be ignored and it does not care whether you like it. As a shamanistic vision and palling invocation of the demon brother, it is a searing revelation of expressionist physicality.

I reckon Tempest is terrifying to both attend and view. It confidently uses ugliness as a fuel to beauty. The fact that the performers are miraculously vascular and athletically sprung like Olympic heroes brings their lives as performers closely proximate to our breathing. We feel our breath at this performance as we gasp and stutter with the action. It is a delight and a danger, a spectacle and a signpost.

Tempest: Without a Body is a harbinger that shows how hate consumes fear with a greed born of its own love for itself.

All images © Lemi Ponifasio / MAU

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

When paintings get itchy feet

Have you ever wondered how works of art get moved around from place to place? It’s not as simple as wrapping them up and popping them in the post! Exhibitions Project Coordinator Judith Cooke experienced the whole process last month when she accompanied a historic painting from the Gallery’s collection on its journey to Melbourne. Read her tale below:

Eugène von Guérard's Lake Wakatipu with Mount Earnslaw, Middle Island, New Zealand, 1877-79, goes to Melbourne

Recently I accompanied the Gallery's von Guérard painting Lake Wakatipu with Mount Earnslaw to Melbourne where it will be shown with its pair Milford Sound (on loan from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney). Von Guérard visited the South Island in January 1876, visiting Milford Sound and Lake Wakatipu. On his return to Melbourne he worked the two grand paintings. Lake Wakatipu and Milford Sound were exhibited in 1877 at the Victorian Academy of Arts and then at International expositions in Paris (1878), Sydney (1879), Melbourne (1880) and London's Colonial and Indian Exhibition (1886). In London, the paintings were sold into private hands and eventually returned to Australasia when they were purchased by the Mackelvie Trust in 1971 (for permanent loan to the Auckland Art Gallery) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

These two large canvasses will hang side by side as the finale works of the NGV's exhibition Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed. Opening on 16 April, this is the first major exhibition of von Guérard's work since 1980 and will travel to Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. The catalogue includes Auckland Art Gallery curator Jane Davidson-Ladd’s recent research on the source of the waka. The curators and NGV are thrilled that the Gallery has made the work available for loan and tour.

Registrar Anne Harlow and I met on Sunday morning at our off-site store where the crated painting was picked up. Waving goodbye to Anne, I stuck to our crate like glue as it was trucked to the airport for palletisation onto a dedicated pallet.

After a few hours of waiting around in the bond store keeping the crate well in view, it was eventually loaded into the freighter (Boeing 747) as ‘last on and first off’ (see pic of its location in the plane below). No race horses on this flight fortunately!

In Melbourne the crate and I were met by Global Specialised Services and an NGV registrar. After a smooth and quite speedy clearance I travelled in the truck with the crate to NGV Australia in Federation Square where we were met by members of the exhibitions and registration team. Here the crate was carefully unloaded, receipted and left to acclimatise in the gallery for 24 hours.

Unpacking the crate

Checking the painting's condition

Installation was delayed thanks to a small hold up with some display case construction. On Wednesday morning the crate was opened, the painting unpacked, condition reported (no change) and installed. Once it was safe on the wall, my job was done. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the safe transit of Lake Wakatipu to Melbourne.

- Judith Cooke

Monday, 11 April 2011

Big words

Bill Pearson, in his essay Fretful Sleepers, noted that New Zealanders did not like big words. They did not like to use them and they did not like to hear them. I realised this recently when I used the word amanuensis in an illustrated lecture I gave to Ian Wedde’s inspiring new course on art writing for the University of Auckland’s Department of Art History. The students had obviously not heard that word uttered recently or maybe even at all.

I was talking about the fashion we have for art writers to function as advocates. I used some writings by David Sylvester to illustrate this point. His conversations with Francis Bacon are probably some of the most acute questions ever spoken to a twentieth century British artist. We do not have many such conversations between artists and writers published in New Zealand. Is this fashion or fear?

Back to big words! For a heady selection, I recommend:

They email words daily and they are always left field. Here is today’s word: apastron (noun) In astronomy, that part in the orbit of a double star where it is furthest from its primary. 'Apastron' comes from the Greek word for 'star.'

Example: "Consequently, neither star can approach or recede from this point without the other affecting a similar motion, they must be at periastron and apastron together, and any acceleration or retardation of speed must occur simultaneously with each." - The Astronomy of Milton's 'Paradise Lost'

View previous words of the day:

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Gordon Walters

We sometimes forget how much New Zealand’s art has changed since the 1950s. In 1955 there were no dealer art galleries in Auckland. The Ikon and Argus galleries had yet to open. Auckland Art Gallery Director Peter Tomory described New Zealand’s art scene as being in a watertight situation. When he wrote that he was thinking about the beginning of the twentieth century, not mid-century. Put it this way, the 50s were not generous to modernist art. In 1993, Gordon Walters was invited by Landfall to write a short essay about his early life as an artist (Landfall, April 1993, number 185, pages 21-23). It is a fascinating and notable piece as Gordon is tells a tale that is not complimentary to the 1950s art scene.

Here is a short quote from Gordon’s memoir: “…at about this time the Auckland City Art Gallery had begun its series of annual travelling shows of contemporary New Zealand art. Unfortunately, though, Stewart McLennan, the Director of the National Art Gallery, saw to it that these did not come to Wellington. He boasted that the one thing that he had achieved as Director was to have kept McCahon out. And still at the end of the Fifties he was saying to Woollaston, ‘We are watching your work’.”

Image credit: Theo Schoon, Gordon Walters, circa 1947
Black and white photograph, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, gift of Theo Schoon, 1983

As the time draws near

High in the Gallery’s clock tower, horologist Michael Cryns has been spending the last several weeks fighting some formidable opponents. A slight, softly-spoken man, he’s battling the effects of the elements, and even time itself. It’s likely most people won’t ever see the results of his painstaking labour… but they’ll certainly hear it.

Last year this blog featured the story of how Michael came to work on the Gallery’s historic clock, and an update when a piece about him aired on TVNZ. This year, as we draw closer to reopening, he’s back on the scene to prepare the clock for its big moment.

I meet Michael at the Gallery and follow him on his daily commute: up five flights of stairs and a ladder to the clock tower’s middle level. Here the four faces of the clock surround the massive clock mechanism. Parts of the clock tower walls are covered in graffiti – I spy scrawls from the 1920s all the way through to this year. Another, even steeper ladder leads to the top level where the bells hang silent.

During the Gallery’s development the original clock mechanism has been turned off, with a motor Michael developed to keep the hands running in the meantime. “If the clock ever has a breakdown in the future we can just plug this back in,” he says.

Each of the four clock faces has its own set of gears. During the last four weeks, Michael’s taken out all the gears and bearings for cleaning and refurbishing. He uses kerosene and steel wool to clean the parts, being careful not to damage the surface, which still has its original lacquer.

“Cleaning is a massive job – so much grime accumulates over a hundred years. Although I overhauled it about 15 years ago, some is still there. But it’s very satisfying work, because you can see where you’ve been."

Looking at the array of gears, cogs and unidentifiable metal parts strewn around his work station, I have to wonder – does he ever pull a clock to pieces and then forget how to put it back together? “Yeah, that happens from time to time,” he chuckles. “I just puzzle it out. But once you’ve worked on a clock for a while, it becomes fixed in your memory how the bits go.”

Graffiti adorns the walls

The Gallery clock is one of only a few from the nineteenth century left in New Zealand – the Auckland town hall clock, which Michael also looks after, is another. So if he had to pick a favourite, which would he choose?

“This one, because it’s more original, more complicated and it does more – it has more chimes. It still has its original escapement (timing mechanism), while the Town Hall clock was changed to an electric one.”

In the next month or so Michael will be reinstalling the chimes, which play the well-known Westminster Quarters tune. We head up through the trapdoor to the top level to take a look at the bells. The huge hammers, which hit the bells to sound the chimes, have been dismantled and cleaned and are lying on newspaper on the floor, awaiting a fresh coat of paint. Since they’re out of action, Michael gives me a personal concert by whacking the bells with the handle of a brush.

The windows in the bell tower are open to the elements, so Michael’s adding louvres to stop the rain coming in and rusting all the mechanical parts. At the same time he’s been upgrading some of the clock’s peripheral features, including the electric night shut-off system. For years, the clock used to chime through the night. Now it’s been set to sound only between 8am and 8pm, so as not to upset city apartment-dwellers.

The clock mechanism is “about the size of a car, and probably weighs as much as one if not more”, according to Michael. When the mechanics are running, it can pose a danger. “The gears will take your hand off just like that,” he says. “When it’s running, you’d be surprised how fast the parts move.”

At least winding the clock is no longer part of Michael’s job description. The electric winding system – made of old bicycle parts - was installed in the 1950s, but before that it was hand-wound and would only run for about a week at a time. Michael says it would have been an exhausting and time-consuming job to wind it.

"It’s a funny world, isn’t it – people will happily spend time at the gym, but try to find somebody to wind a clock? Oh no.”

The countwheel of the clock, showing its manufacture. (Image: Michael Cryns)

Back down on the entrance level, the massive counterweights have been lowered almost to the ground. Jonno, one of the carpenters working on the gallery development, is helping create an earthquake-proofing system for the weights. It includes an impact platform that will help the weights survive a 6m drop, and they’ll be housed in a series of tubes to prevent them swinging and hitting things. Michael’s also installed new eyebolts to hold them up.

While repairing and maintaining clocks can be a very precise science, some aspects of the job are a little less meticulous. The mass of each of the three weights (about 200kg, 130kg and 70kg) was determined purely by trial and error. "You pile them on ‘til (the clock) goes, and if it goes too fast you take some off,” Michael grins.

It’s this kind of first-hand knowledge and experience that makes Michael a real asset to the Gallery – and to Auckland. And he’s keen to get future generations involved in the care of his beloved clocks.

"I would love an apprentice. I’m not sure how I’d go about it, but I would like to pass on my knowledge,” he says.

In the meantime, there’s still plenty of work for Michael to be going on with. Every 5-10 years he does a large-scale overhaul and makes a few peripheral upgrades at the same time. “The more I look, the more I find to do.”

Monday, 4 April 2011

Haraldur Hamar

It was brought to my attention the other day that I, like Haraldur Hamar, can raise one eyebrow. Hamar is the impish subject of one of Raymond McIntyre’s most penetrating and confrontational portraits. An Icelandic writer and snappy dresser, Hamar had a penchant for nice ties which didn’t escape the attention of this reviewer...
You can read the full review on Papers Past.

Raymond McIntyre, Haraldur Hamar, 1923 Oil on hardboard, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1983

We don't have a lot of information about this enigmatic Icelander in our collection but we'd love to know more! Any tip-offs or leads would be much appreciated. - Julia Waite