What does it mean for New Zealand artists to exhibit on the world stage, when globalisation seems to be coming apart at the seams? Metro visits Europe’s two leading contemporary art exhibitions, Documenta and the Venice Biennale, to find out.
What does it mean for New Zealand artists to exhibit on today’s world stage? Metro visits Documenta and the Venice Biennale.
As the long gondola approached, oared by almost 20 people, two seated women came into view. Lisa Reihana, wearing huge sunglasses, basked in the wan haze of the Venetian sun, and in the adulation and excitement of the friends, photographers and patrons waiting for her on dry land. Alongside her, New Zealand’s Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, was cloaked in a korowai.
For Reihana, as well as her collaborators in this enterprise — New Zealand at Venice commissioner Alastair Carruthers, Auckland Art Gallery (AAG) director Rhana Devenport, and Reihana’s partner and sound designer James Pinker — this was the culmination of a long journey. Reihana’s massive video work in Pursuit of Venus [infected] ( iPOVi) had finally reached one of the world’s biggest art events, the Venice Biennale. It was recognition for an artist who, for almost 30 years, has been one of the major figures in postcolonial art, not just in New Zealand but internationally.
The two women stepped off and into the waiting crowd. iPOVi was playing nearby — in the Tese dell’Isolotto, a building in Venice’s vast Arsenale complex, where in times past so many of the cityrepublic’s ships were built and launched. The symbolic parallels being drawn between Venice and Aotearoa were crystal-clear: the gondola as waka, with Reihana and Reddy at its prow; a work about James Cook’s voyages screening in one of the great launching posts for global exploration; the woodframed, pitched roof of the Tese dell’Isolotto vaguely evocative of a wharenui.
Reihana and the Governor-General readied themselves to enter the building, surrounded by other dignitaries, and the powhiri began.
Reihana’s participation in the Venice Biennale drew an enormous amount of media attention in New Zealand. This followed the hugely successful run iPOVi had at the AAG in 2015. Since then, there’s been a combination of inevitability and anticipation about how it would go at Venice, as New Zealand’s official contribution to the Biennale.
What has been drowned out in all this excitement is that this European summer, several New Zealand artists have also been included in an exhibition arguably even more important than Venice: Documenta. Held only every five years, it’s a massive, curated show that normally takes place in Kassel, Germany. This year, its curators are staging it in two venues:
its German home base and Athens. The Athens leg opened first, a month before Venice, with a work by Christchurch-based artist Nathan Pohio included. Later in the summer, the Kassel exhibition would present work by Pohio, Wellington’s Mata Aho Collective and the late Ralph Hotere.
The decision to hold Documenta in Athens has been a talking point ever since its didactic title, Documenta 14: Learning from Athens, was announced by its chief curator, Adam Szymczyk, in 2014. The debate is largely because Athens, right now, is thoroughly fucked. Fucked by debt, by unemployment, by vicious austerity cuts, by the influx of desperate migrants from Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East. And well and truly fucked, if you ask some Greeks, by Germany specifically — the European Union powerhouse driving the Greek bailout and the draconian financial conditions placed on its citizenry.
The main concern — pointed out by everyone from the Greek economist and former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to groups of young, unemployed Greek artists — was that Documenta would become poverty porn for international art worlders like me, who swan in, cry a few liberal tears while we’re there, then head home to our infinitely less-fucked-up cities, leaving Athens in exactly the same mess.
But this risk was also the art world’s opportunity, and it’s what makes this Documenta — and, in fact, this year’s Venice Biennale, too — so important.
Over the past 15 years, the international art world
has become a theatre of extraordinary privilege, its gatherings floating on a market that many commentators believe to be at least partly fuelled by global money laundering. The art market’s ability a decade ago to come through the global financial crisis comparatively unscathed (unlike, for example, Greece) was depressing proof that, despite aspirations for art to operate on a higher moral plane, the contemporary scene is underpinned by big money, and big capital.
This year, then, the art world has three opportunities — Venice, Documenta, and another major event called Skulptur Projekte Münster — to look at itself hard and really test its relevance as a space for progressive thinking.
We are, unhappily, living in the Trump era and witnessing the vulgarian decline of the neoliberal capitalism and globalisation that have been so heartily embraced for the past 30 years. The art world today is as much a product of that economic system as the current US president is. And, frankly, it has a lot of ethical catching-up to do. But Szymczyk’s Documenta is a noble attempt: a sincere and serious exhibition which proposes that genuine economic change and political revolution might actually be possible.
Performances, lectures and debates are scattered throughout Athens, but the core of Documenta takes place in the newly opened EMST National Museum of Contemporary Art. The first work seen upon entering is Pohio’s Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! — a companion image to the work nominated for the 2016 Walters Prize and which stood so dominantly as a backlit billboard outside the AAG’s main entrance (the billboard version would be installed later in Kassel). In Athens, it is quieter, and more disappointing in its materiality: a large digital print, hung a little clunkily on a high wall. As an image, though, of Maori men on horseback accompanying Lord and Lady Plunket in their motorcar, it is still as surreal as ever — especially away from Aotearoa.
It’s also a work about hospitality and dialogue. Plunket was Governor of New Zealand from 1904-10. Pohio’s found image captures the moment when a group of Kaiapoi rangatira, wearing korowai, meet the Plunkets to escort them onto the Tuahiwi marae — the start of a welcoming process. The work’s placement as a gateway to the exhibition (as it was in the Walters Prize) gives Pohio and his noble riders the opening word in a delicately crafted conversation on the EMST’s ground floor about modernity’s consequences for indigenous rights, resource extraction, and colonial exchange.
Central to this is the work of the late Canadian indigenous artist Beau Dick, who made beautiful customary masks, and explored the cultural and economic function of copper for North America’s First Nations. The curators have spun this out to examine copper’s essential role in world societies: as currency, as coinage, as spiritual conduit, and most recently, as cable and circuitry for the exchange of information. The fact that the ancient Greeks were instrumental in developing coinage as a structure for the exchange of goods and services, and that Greece is currently suffering under the vast conceptual weight of weightless money transferred across information networks,
collapses perfectly the time and space between the ancient, the colonial and the contemporary.
Much of the remainder of the EMST exhibition is framed by the work of the Russian revolutionary Arseny Avraamov, his brilliant 1922 Symphony of Sirens booming through an upstairs space. Sirens, cannon blasts, machine guns, locomotives, plane fly-bys and L’Internationale overlap to devastating effect. Granted, it is a digital reconstruction from 2010, but is extraordinarily convincing given that the original version was staged, live, using the Russians’ entire Caspian naval fleet as its performers.
Nearby, footage from post-revolution Russia plays, showing marches, anti-Western slogans, displays of weapons, carnivalesque costumes, the destruction of capitalist symbols, and people yoked and pulling wagons. I wonder what we’d call these events if they took place now. Extremism, probably. But it happened, and it mattered, and the Russian Revolution showed Europe there was another way: that a feudally based system of gross unfairnesses really could be overcome.
This century-old imagery and sound, though, also highlights one of the biggest conundrums global progressivism faces: how to effect radical change without violence, given that the systems that need changing are themselves so contingent on varying degrees of brutality: economic inequality, climate devastation, war, displacement, cultural erasure, misogyny, and so on. Although it might seem incredibly idealistic, Documenta tries to show, in several different forms, that hospitality, dialogue and empathy might provide a meaningful alternative, and a path to collective action.
Taking place outside Athens City Hall, the British-Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen’s Shamiyaana — Food for Thought: Thought for Change aspired to exactly this. It involved a simple principle: the sharing of a meal in a multicoloured pavilion the artist had designed. Eating together is, after all, one of the most fundamental social contracts we have.
Tickets for two seatings, the first at 1pm and the second at 3, were given out on a first come, first served basis. I joined the queue about 12.15pm. What I very quickly realised was that the line wasn’t filled with art folk, but with unemployed Greeks, elderly people, Afghanis, and entire families of Syrians. I stepped out. The coordinator asked me why, and I said it was because these people clearly needed the food more than me.
She shook her head. “There are plenty of soup kitchens nearby,” she said. “This isn’t that.” She asked me to rejoin, and I did. By that stage, of course, I was much further back. A man next to me saw this all unfold and asked, in English, where I was from. When I told him, he instantly asked if New Zealand was a wealthy, safe country. I nodded. We introduced ourselves. His name was Kamal, and he was Kurdish. He was in his mid-40s, with a shaved head and a few days’ stubble.
I asked him if he had work here in Athens. He smiled. “Look around,” he said, pointing at boardedup buildings around the square. “No work here. Not even for Greeks.”
Kamal had been living in Greece, essentially stateless and invisible, for three years. With no official status, he had no access to financial support, and relied on the charity of churches and other refugee support groups.
When we got to the front of the queue, he insisted I take a ticket ahead of him. We got two of the last spots for the 3 o’clock meal. We went our separate ways for a couple of hours, and when we reconvened at a table with an Eritrean guy who spoke no English and a tired-looking Greek dude who just wanted to eat his lentils, rice and chopped salad unmolested, Kamal and I picked up our conversation.
He spoke five languages, and had worked as an engineer in theatres, on stage design and mechanics.
“Look around,” he said, pointing at boarded-up buildings. “No work here. Not even for Greeks.”
But with Turkey’s growing conservatism, he hadn’t been able to find work for several years. His papers clearly identified him as Kurdish, and he said Turks wouldn’t hire him because they thought he’d make trouble.
So he’d decided to try his luck in the European Union. He’d paid someone 300 euros for a map that would get him into Greece undetected. Despite this, he was arrested on the Greek side and detained for four weeks. Then, on the 28th day, they let him out. “There were too many of us,” he explained.
I asked him why they hadn’t sent him back to Turkey. He shrugged. “Because I’m Kurdish,” he said, pointing out that though the Greeks might not want him, they also have a massive antipathy to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s treatment of the Kurds.
His goal was to get to Germany or the Netherlands. “Very liberal,” he said. But he was also subject to the Dublin Regulation, which determines where in the EU someone can apply for asylum. Usually, it is the first country a person enters, which is why Greece and Italy have been so hammered by the migrant crisis.
Without papers from the Greeks, Kamal couldn’t go anywhere, at least not legally. He’d finally established that his chances of getting those papers, given the numbers Greece is dealing with, were next to zero. So, instead, he was going to try to get someone to smuggle him on a boat to Italy during the summer — one step closer to northern Europe, where his invisibility would start all over again.
The volunteers cleared our plates and brought us the dessert: a dry pastry dusted with sugar. Kamal looked at it and smiled. “It’s usually better than this,” he said.
We ate it anyway.
The Tese dell’Isolotto is, for its marine and meeting-house references, an ideal building for Lisa Reihana: Emissaries. There was also a fair amount of pragmatism in the choice of venue — Reihana needed a long room so that iPOVi , the exhibition’s centrepiece, could fully unfurl. Reihana was able to avoid many of the building’s most idiosyncratic and difficult quirks, simply by building a long wall onto which iPOVi was projected: more movie screening than installation.
This was telling. The title, Emissaries, suggested we were going to experience something different from iPOVi at the AAG. There had been much talk in the build-up about new photographic elements. In the end, these boil down to a couple of large photographs: one of an actor playing Joseph Banks, and the other the Chief Mourner — two key characters in iPOVi. They are like playbills for a bad cosmic pantomime, overblown and corny. There are also a few observational instruments — old telescopes and so on — near the entrance. Both aspects barely register; the success of the exhibition hangs entirely on the new and improved version of iPOVi.
The film has been expanded and enriched since it was screened at the AAG. New scenes have been added, and the technical glitches that troubled it have been ironed out. The soundtrack by James Pinker has also been developed.
The most important new sequence involves Australian Aboriginal performers. In collaboration with Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney,
Reihana filmed members of the Koomurri community, their presence helping to close the narrative circle, reminding us that the secret secondary purpose of Cook’s 1769 Transit of
Venus voyage was to discover the southern continent, Terra Australis. It also helps to disrupt the comfortable “Pacificness” of the rest of the project, and is an antidote to the fact that the original French wallpaper that iPOVi is based on had pushed darker-skinned figures into the background.
Reihana has also introduced waka and Pacific
boats, drawing further connections with the Venetian location, and, indeed, with her and the Governor-General’s arrival at the Arsenale. Stranger, though, is the decision to “double” a sequence involving Cook. In the new version, Cook is played by a woman. In her catalogue essay, Devenport writes: “The video panorama … raises questions about cultural forgetting, visceral power and sexual identity. The radical introduction of a transgender Captain Cook references Pacific peoples’ confusion as to the explorer’s sexual orientation… The 32-minute loop becomes 64 minutes with the inclusion of this barely discernible yet fundamental flip.”
Devenport’s use of the term “sexual orientation” here is unusual, and arguably inaccurate. It’s an unconvincing leap from confusion about Cook’s gender because of his clothing to the contemporary idea of sexual orientation — as in, whether he was gay, straight, or somewhere in between. When I asked for clarification, the New Zealand at Venice team responded that this was “a subtle artistic (as opposed to historically accurate) gesture which alludes to how some Pacific people may have perceived Cook”. The use of “transgender”, and suggesting the flip is “barely discernible”, isn’t very convincing. Cook doesn’t come across as a transgender figure in iPOVi. He is obvious first as a man, and, in the second iteration, as a woman in Cook’s clothing. This might seem pedantic, but the accuracy of language here, and the accuracy of describing what is actually seen, is so important, because it’s essential to understanding what iPOVi is trying to make us think and feel and do.
Devenport writes that Reihana’s “project is not a digital recreation of the wallpaper; rather, it is a radical” — again, that adjective — “reclamation from a trans-Pacific perspective.” “Pan-Pacific” would be more accurate, and this, for some, is a central problem of this work. Several Pacific artists and curators — particularly younger ones — have privately voiced concerns about Reihana’s appropriation: what it means to co-opt, for instance, Tongan or Tahitian or Aboriginal performers into her larger vision. In an age when the specificities of identity are becoming more important, particularly for groups who have been “othered” or marginalised by colonisation, the danger of “Pan-Pacificness” as a concept is that it might well be just as flattening of cultural difference as the original wallpaper was.
The central debate about iPOVi should, therefore, hinge on whether Devenport’s claim is accurate: whether Reihana’s reclamation has really done anything radically different from its original source — whether, in animating the wallpaper, she has given the performers their own power, their own agency. As a Pakeha writer who has already had a loud and contentious say on this, I think it’s up to the people more directly affected to publicly discuss what Reihana’s representation does to and for their respective cultures, and what it means to have that play out on an international stage like Venice.
That we are still arguing about these things is kind of surprising, given how much has been published in New Zealand about iPOVi (two books, and a vast number of media articles). So the response it received at Venice was always going to be intriguing. So far, it has followed a pattern: it has been disproportionately British. Two of the UK’s more conservative media organisations, the Times and the Telegraph, have lauded it. And two of Britain’s oldest cultural and scientific institutions have become directly involved.
Devenport’s use of the term “sexual orientation” here is unusual, and arguably inaccurate.
At the opening, the artistic director of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Tim Marlow, announced that iPOVi would be in the academy’s
2018 Oceania exhibition — a show, if you want to talk about potentially traumatic dates for the South Pacific, that will coincide with the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage. And the Royal Society — the institution that launched Cook’s voyages — became a sponsor, making a small financial contribution and giving Reihana’s team access to historic artefacts, including a clock from Cook’s voyages, the ticking of which is now part of iPOVi’s soundtrack.
Dr Julie Maxton, the executive director of the Royal Society, gave a speech at one of the opening events in which she said: “It is one of the Royal Society’s ambitions to ensure that science of the past and present is recognised as being at the very heart of human culture. What better expression of that could there be than in experiencing Lisa Reihana’s explorations of our common heritage in Venice, one of the great geographical centres of cultural exchange. On behalf of the Royal Society, I am delighted to be able to be here to commend her innovative work which represents New Zealand in such a powerful way.”
Those italics, obviously, are mine. Because it’s perplexing. Whose common heritage is Maxton referring to? Who is the “our” here? How does she define that, from her office in one of the oldest, and, historically, most imperially aligned institutions in Britain? And how exactly, to the Royal Society’s eyes, does iPOVi represent New Zealand, when it presents what is obviously a fictional Pacific arcadia?
In the catalogue, the German curator Jens Hoffmann writes that: “Reihana looks back centuries after to this time [of Cook’s voyages] as a moment of ‘infection’ — the moment of first contact, a moment when things began to change inextricably, not only through the exchange of disease, but through many other levels of trade, influence and destruction.”
Hoffmann’s statement suggests iPOVi critiques the consequences of contact. As a result, the new collaboration and enthusiasms of two British institutions directly involved in the “discovery” and subsequent destructive exploration of the South Pacific (Royal Society) and its artistic (mis)representation (Royal Academy) in the UK, at a time when Brexit has reignited a British nostalgia for the days of Empire, are unsettling. This embrace, it has to be said, has been reciprocal: New Zealand at Venice commissioner Alastair Carruthers was instrumental in getting both institutions involved with Emissaries.
New Zealand chose, very consciously this time, to send a work to Venice about the history of representation of this part of the world. Representation is always about agency and control. And this is a moment when global inequality, the migration crisis, the displacement of Pacific people due to climate change, the need for institutional decolonisation, tino rangatiratanga and republicanism are defining questions for New Zealand’s progressive politics.
So yes, it was weird, in this context, to have the Royal Academy and the Royal Society involved.
And yes, it was strange to see and hear Dame Patsy Reddy speak so ebulliently about iPOVi. This is not a personal criticism of the Governor-General, who has long been a supporter of the arts. It is the presence of the office itself, specifically in relation to the work, and alongside the Royal Academy and Royal Society,
So yes, it was weird, in this context, to have the Royal Academy and the Royal Society involved.
that I question. Reddy’s whakapapa goes back to the first Governor of New Zealand, the naval officer William Hobson. And his goes back to Cook.
As I listened to the opening speeches from Marlow and Reddy, I thought back to Pohio’s image of Plunket, another of Reddy’s predecessors, in Documenta. Pohio’s work is about representation, too. It is also, like iPOVi, based on historical imagery. But it stands for the collision and traumas of our colonial experience. Its strangeness remains irreconcilable. It still has a disruptive power — here, now — and resists coming to stand for a nation. And in Documenta, it found its peers, entering a dissonant, enabling, productive conversation about contemporary indigeneity.
In Venice, with so many vestiges of the old Empire clinging to the sides of Reihana’s boat, I couldn’t say the same for iPOVi.
After lunch, Kamal and I walked away together to the edge of the square, and shook hands. We took opposite directions, and I heard him call my name. I turned, and, smiling, he touched his chest and blessed my son, who I’d told him about over lunch.
What mattered above all was our mutual recognition. We had seen each other. We were invisible to everyone else, background visual noise in a massive city. But we’d shared a recognition. It was the framework of contemporary art that had allowed this to happen. What this did, even after we parted, was tune me in to how many people in Kamal’s situation I was passing on Athens’ streets. Suddenly, I saw them.
The most pressing crisis Europe faces, I realised, is not the hateful rhetoric of people like Marine Le Pen or the stupidities of Brexit, though those are terrible things, too. It’s the dual condition desperate migrants like Kamal experience, of statelessness and invisibility. Almost every aspect of our lives is governed by the belief that free trade and the borderless movement of goods are essential to our wealth and success. The movement of people, though — or, at least, people from certain places — not so much.
And this is why the migrant crisis poses such a threat to capitalist order: because it is an anonymous mass driven not by want — the dominant Western desire for goods, for wealth, for more — but by the basic human need to survive. This desperation is already a revolution, which will change how we think about and see each other forever. Nostalgia for an Arcadian past when borders were secure and people stayed where they belonged is pointless. This is the new reality, and we all created it.
After Kamal had disappeared, I did what I’d first planned to do that day. I went up to the Parthenon, the ancient structure missing its beautiful marble frieze, which instead sits — still — in the British Museum in London, as part of the collection named the “Elgin Marbles”, after the Englishman who stole them in the early nineteenth century.
There were very few other tourists around, so I had almost a free run of this temple, built for capricious gods who determined the lives, successes, hopes and disasters of the mortals living in the white city below. The afternoon was a blistering blue, the view perfect across the city and out to the horizon, where the Mediterranean and the sky met and where, not far beyond, overpacked boats, now that the calm weather had arrived, were already capsizing.
After an hour, I walked back down the hill and into Athens. The next morning, I would go to the airport with a passport, a couple of credit cards and a few hundred euros in my pockets. I was headed to Italy. Kamal, I knew, wasn’t. Not yet.
ABOVE— Lisa Reihana and her video work in Pursuit of Venus [infected].
Nathan Pohio’s Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun!, a large digital print, is the first work seen on entering Documenta in Athens.
ABOVE— From Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected].
LEFT— Shamiyaana — Food for Thought: Thought
for Change involved the sharing of meals in a multicoloured pavilion.
RIGHT— New sequences from Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected].