Friday 28 September 2012

Janet Lilo: the poetics of home

Gallery Guide Zara Sigglekow responds to Janet Lilo's work in Home AKL. Zara Sigglekow is a photographer with a developing interest in curatorial practice. She recently curated a contemporary photography exhibition, Presence in Absence, at Black Asterisk gallery.

Charles Baudelaire, the French art critic and poet, wrote in 1846:
‘The life in our city is rich in poetic and marvelous subjects. We are enveloped and steeped as through in an atmosphere of the marvelous; but we do not notice it.’

Janet Lilo’s video work Beneath the Radar in the current exhibition Home AKL brings to our attention to what we, according to Baudelaire, often pass by. The city and communities Lilo inhabits are artistically refigured and communicated in semi-documentary style.

Janet Lilo, Beneath the Radar (scenes 1-3), 2012
video, commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2012
courtesy of the artist
Lilo focuses on her local urban Pacific community – seen, for example, in the hip-hop figures that grace the screen like graphics from a music video. Yet aspects of the work communicate a broader regional experience extending beyond her Pacific community. The volcanic cones that dot Auckland feature in and act as vantage points from which to film the expanse of suburbia and the city. Like earlier New Zealand Landscape artists, such as Rita Angus, characteristic geographical features (here of volcanic hills and suburbia) are highlighted and linked to our notions of local identity. This is enhanced by the symmetrical layout of the video: the pieces of landscape are mirrored reinforcing their visual prominence. Digitally altered fluorescent colours of sky and land, which change later to luminous blue tones with twinkling lights at dusk, add a sentimental and ‘marvelous‘ atmosphere. The steady flow of cars, another characteristic of Auckland, appear soothing, an impressive feat.

Janet Lilo, Beneath the Radar (scenes 10-12), 2012
video, commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2012
courtesy of the artist

Three months ago, on the same wall in the gallery sat John Fergusson’s work Dieppe, 14th July 1905: Night, as part of the Degas to Dalí exhibition. A group of fashionably attired folk stroll the streets in the city fireworks erupting in the night sky. This work was part of the avant-garde backlash (of which Baudelaire was part) of artists who found their inspiration and subjects from the city and landscape around them, rather than historical, literary or religious scenes. The painting is a record of time and fashions and reveals a particular beauty of the period.

As I see it, Lilo continues the tradition of painters of modern life (the school to which Baudelaire and Fergusson can loosely be ascribed) albeit in the contemporary medium of video. Turning her eye to the city and communities around her, Lilo transforms what often seems banal, due to the everyday viewing of our city, into the marvelous, and reminds us of our unique place of home.

Janet Lilo, Beneath the Radar (scenes 13-15), 2012
video, commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2012
courtesy of the artist
- Zara Sigglekow

Monday 24 September 2012

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson passed through Auckland on 24 February 1893 on his way to Sydney from Apia aboard the S.S. Mariposa. He met Sir George Grey here but I haven't found a photograph showing them together. RLS wrote of this meeting “What a wonderful old historic figure to be walking on your arm and recalling ancient events and instances! It makes a man small, and yet the extent to which he approved what I had done—or rather have tried to do—encouraged me. Sir George is an expert, at least he knows these races: he is not a small employé with an ink-pot and a Whitaker.” RLS departed Auckland on 28 February. 

I discovered Edinburgh has a photo-portrait of Robert Louis (pronounced Lewis) Stevenson - it's wonderfully casual. Taken in late July/early August 1889 at Butaritari in Kiribati by Joseph Strong. From left, the sitters are Nantoki, Fanny Vandegrift Stevenson, Natakauti and RLS. This is one of the important images of RLS's Pacific life. It is also one of the rarest portraits of the artist, ranking with those made by Sargent and Nerli.

While plenty has been published about the writer RLS (13 November 1850 – 3 December 1894), there is little about how he appeared to others. Looking at the many photos and paintings produced of him, I reckon he comes across as a Scots dandy. He dressed more casually than 19th century expectation. Some people considered RLS nonchalant, insouciant, in choosing attire that showed him to be a dapper artist.

After arriving in Samoa on 7 December 1889, RLS frequently wore no jacket, a habit he initiated after visiting Hawaii and Kiribati (Gilbert Islands). The Pacific's heat was better for his health. To local colonials RLS's appearance was surprising. Immigrant Germans and Brits went about with boots and woollen serge jackets, preferring rampant perspiration to airy comfort. RLS only wore his boots on formal occasions.

If you compare Joseph Strong's photograph with two portraits by John Singer Sargent, RLS shifts from wearing his silk velvet smoking jacket to an open cotton duck shirt. While both oil paintings are intimate they do not express the relaxed casualness of the Samoan image. Exceedingly thin and of delicate health, Stevenson is shown by Strong as totally relaxed. Just as you see in family snapshots. Sargent's portraits are among the best he made of any artist.

Graeme Lay wrote a fine tribute to RLS in 1996. He notes why RLS named his home 'Vailima' - a fact many non-Samoans don't know. Lay's essay is informative, and I hope that the current owners of Vailima will soon make it available to visitors. If they do, I promise to write about the reasons Fanny Stevenson chose to decorate Vailima with siapo. I will even offer to give a curator's tour of Vailima, a pleasure I undertook decades ago.
Graeme Lay

attributed to Joseph Strong
Robert Louis Stevenson 1889
Edinburgh City Libraries and Museums and Galleries, item 20206

John Singer Sargent
Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife 1885
oil on canvas
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville

John Singer Sargent
Robert Louis Stevenson 1887
oil on canvas
The Taft Museum, Cincinnati

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is one of the most provocative artists living. I adore his work because of its vitality and committment to critical world issues. His artwork sets up controversial conversations between the past and the present, the like of which has been almost unheard of in China’s art history.

Whether it is repurposing Han ceramics or Ming furniture or reviving ancient bronze traditions, Ai is a maverick interventionist. His sculpture, video, installations and writings reveal that he is an artist of conscience and humanity.

Last week he wrote a review of London’s Hayward Gallery exhibition Art of Change: New Directions from China. Ai makes trenchant comments about that exhibition which deserve our attention:

How can you have a show of “contemporary Chinese art” that doesn’t address a single one of the country’s most pressing contemporary issues?....

Anything that calls itself a cultural exchange is artificial when it lacks any critical content.

Here is Ai’s review.

Here are research links about Ai and his artwork

Ai Weiwei with Sunflower Seeds 2010
Photograph taken at the time of Ai’s installation of 100 million lifesize sunflower seeds made from porcelain, at the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.

Photo by Tate Photography.
Courtesy of the artist.

Coca Cola Vase 1997
Vase from Neolithic Age (5000 – 3000 BCE) and paint
Courtesy Tsai Collection, New York

Monday 17 September 2012

Don Binney (1940-2012)

Don Binney, Kotare Over Ratana Church, Te Kao, 1963
oil on board, courtesy of a private collection, New Zealand
After Milly Paris spoke yesterday at Art + Object about her life-long committment to New Zealand's artists, she invited everyone present to stand and remember the life of Don Binney. It was a quellingly silent and sad moment, everyone understood that Don has created so many paintings that cherish life.

Don would have understood Milly's spontaneous gesture of affection for him as an artist. It signalled what Auckland and Aotearoa New Zealand shares in the losing of an exceptional citizen. Certainly, we are now mourning one of our most humane and concerned artists.
Marti Friedlander, Don Binney 1965
gelatin silver print, toned with gold, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Marti Friedlander, with assistance from the Elise Mourant Bequest, 2001

Milly, and her late husband Les, were 'early adopters' of Don's remarkable art. He spoke about this in 1989 while looking back to that crucial period between 1965 and 1975 when his exhibitions would sell to people who concurred with the innovative ecology expressed by his artwork. His vision for New Zealand's fauna and flora was shared by a supportive coterie, they believed in what he was showing us. He noted that 'one's creativity was reinforced by an inquiring, literate and relatively homogeneous art scene. As often as not, a painting would be bought by another teacher, artist or writer as a gesture of support...'

Witness the outpouring of feeling that occurred when Dick Scott gifted Don's painting Kotare over Ratana Church, Te Kao to Christchurch's earthquake appeal in order to raise much needed funds. This was a gesture of support that Don himself applauded. That wonderful painting  has been famous from the moment it was first exhibited. Dick had first seen it at Auckland's Ikon Gallery, acquiring it in October 1964. It was then shown in the important exhibition Contemporary New Zealand Painting at London's Commonwealth Institute and then, on its return, in Ten Years of New Zealand Painting in Auckland (1967) at this Gallery. This was the moment when Don became a renowned contemporary New Zealand artist. He was one of the first living artists to become well-known.

Don Binney, Tui over kauri, Te Henga, 1966
oil and acrylic on board, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Wellington, 2003
Don Binney thought a lot about what his art meant to others. He took his vocation as a painter seriously and he spoke about it with a voice replete with erudition and hard-won experience. His vocabulary in one-to-one conversation was no less impressive than when he was speaking to any spell-bound group. He savoured words like accents of local colour and never cared if his choice of words was considered arcane. Don laughed when I said autochthonous while in conversation with him. He rejoindered 'Ah Ron, you have read Ruth Ross's great essay on our New Zealand soil!'

Don was a seriously impressive speaker about the necessity of art. He noted once that 'the act of painting is a concrete expression of a continuing personal dialogue with my environment . . . Any good drawing or painting is to my mind an external gesture towards, or celebration of, those truths upon which we focus to sustain and extend our spiritual priorities'. He was a truly committed painter and one that we cannot forget.

I studied the Kotare over Ratana Church, Te Kao closely again last week. Isn't it one of the key New Zealand paintings of the 1960s? It has become again an icon of New Zealand's 1960s painting. Along with Rita Angus's Fog, Hawkes Bay, Gordon Walters's Painting No 1 and Colin McCahon's Here I Give Thanks to Mondrian?

Don Binney himself enjoyed asking such quirky questions of about our art's history and how we regard it. There was, in recent years, the realisation that maybe the art community did not give him as much affirmation as they could have. This could be said about other artists of his generation also.

In 1971, Don contributed to the important Earth/Earth exhibition at the Barry Lett Gallery. The text that he prepared on that occasion is one of the most important of his published statements. It repays a close reading as the original catalogue is rarely encountered. I attach it here.

Don is survived by his wife, Phillipa and daughter Mary. To all of Don's family, the staff of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki extend our heartfelt aroha.

Moe mai i to moenga roa.

Don Binney, Sun shall not burn Thee by day nor moon by night 1966
oil and acrylic on canvas
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 1966

Friday 14 September 2012

Reclaiming Representation

Gallery guide Shahriar Asdollah-Zadeh returns to the blog with a look into the artworks of Angela Tiatia in Home AKL.

Pacific artists working in Auckland are in search of art that can represent their identities and new national consciousness. Home AKL at Auckland Art Gallery is asking critical questions related to this: What is contemporary Pacific art? How should it be critiqued? How does Diaspora affect art making? Why is there a need to reclaim representation?

Pre-conceptions about what Pacific art ‘should’ look like are being broken down. These pre-conceptions result from positioning artists of Pacific heritage as ‘others’. The use of new media and imagery that does not rely on clichéd visual representations of Pacific people has helped to break down pre-conceptions, and Pacific artists seek to ‘reclaim their representation’ in order to counter those imposed on them. The movement to reclaim representation attracts a new audience. The audience can relate to the works on a personal level and it can engage with the audience’s lived realities.

Angela Tiatia is a Samoan artist living in Auckland and Sydney. She has two artworks in Home AKL, both of which work to reclaim representation through acts of subtle protest. Her research-based art practice, which incorporates the video, internet and found objects, makes an important contribution to the exhibition. Material Culture, 2012 collects photographs and objects from online auction websites such as eBay. These were located over a year by typing in keyword search phrases like ‘sexy hula girl’ and ‘hunky Polynesian man’.

Angela Tiatia, Material Culture (detail), 2012
found photographs and objects, commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2012

What is presented within the two glass vitrines is a collection of historical photographs. They range back over 100 years, maybe longer. Most photos collected are homogenised depictions of Pacific life from a tourist’s point of view or created for a tourist market. A majority of them are snapshots of tourist interactions with ‘locals’. Material Culture critically views cultural signifiers, underpinned by the idea of otherness, which are used to create the representations of Pacific people.

Angela Tiatia, Material Culture (detail), 2012
found photographs and objects, commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2012

Tiatia’s video performance, Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis also looks at issues of representation. The hibiscus flower, a Pacific icon, is a focus of the performance. The flower along with the combination of Tiatia’s partially clad body serves as an ultimate point of reference similar to the phrase ‘Hula girl’.

Angela Tiatia, video still from Hibiscus Rosa-Sinensis, 2010
courtesy of the artist
Tiatia slowly eats the hibiscus, literally consuming the stereotype. Her eyes, looking directly at the camera, challenge the audience to question the legacies of colonialism placed upon Pacific women. The work is humorous and subtle, unusual and effective. Definitely, the audience ends up watching this video more than once.

Read Shahriar's previous posts on Home AKL here.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

One year on

It’s been an entire year since we opened the doors of the newly restored and expanded Auckland Art Gallery!

Crowds enter the Gallery on opening day
I've been enjoying reading back through the archives of this blog to see the years of hard work that led up to this moment, right from the moment we closed our doors and emptied the galleries. A webcam kept the public (and staff!) up-to-date as demolition began. In 2009 we let people see into the future with an animated ‘fly-through’ of the Gallery. In early 2010 we looked back at the progress to date with a nifty timelapse video. Finally work drew to a close and on 6 June 2011 we were able to announce an opening date!

But before that could happen, we had to start moving everything back in… Being allowed to explore the newly restored building was an exciting and humbling experience. The moment when the first painting was hung in the developed galleries was momentous. Finally we took over the new office spaces and the Gallery and its Māori dimension commissions were blessed in a dawn ceremony.

And finally on 3 September 2011 we opened, with fanfare and fun and performances and street art and crowds. Hearing the feedback from visitors in those opening weeks never gets old:

In the last year we’ve:
  • Held 32 exhibitions
  • Seen the gallery spaces taken over by dancers, string quartets, blues bands, and hip-hop crews
  • Released multiple publications
  • Won 12 awards for our beautiful building
  • And welcomed more than 677,000 visitors through our doors! 
Thank you to everyone who's visited us in the last year. It's exciting every day to see people experiencing the galleries and our collection, and we've got plenty of surprises in store for you, so stay tuned...