ART CITY

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — AN­THONY BYRT

Tak­ing stock of Auck­land’s, and New Zealand’s, con­tem­po­rary art world.

The past 10 years were enor­mous for New Zealand’s con­tem­po­rary art world. Metro takes a look at where we are as the new decade be­gins, and some of the things that need to change to make Auck­land a gen­uine player on the in­ter­na­tional art stage.

There­are days in the Auck­land art world when I won­der how a city of one and a half mil­lion peo­ple pulls this off. There’s the joy and ram­pant kook­i­ness of plac­ing Michael Parekōwhai’s The Light­house on our water­front, or let­ting Ron­nie van Hout’s gi­ant boy stride through Pot­ters Park, or con­fus­ing the hell out of ev­ery­one with that crazy tan­gle of noo­dles on Do­min­ion Rd, by Se­ung Yul Oh.

There’s the re­built, vastly im­proved Auck­land Art Gallery. There are the last three artists we’ve sent to the

Venice Bi­en­nale — Si­mon Denny, Lisa Rei­hana and

Dane Mitchell — each of them, in their own way, a tri­umph. And since 2010, a suc­ces­sion of fan­tas­tic con­tem­po­rary artists — Dan Arps, Kate Newby,

Luke Wil­lis Thomp­son, Shan­non Te Ao and Ruth Buchanan — have won the bi­en­nial Wal­ters Prize.

Then there are the days when I think, “What the ac­tual fuck?” Cri­sis is too strong a word. But the art world has some ma­jor stuff to work through if we’re go­ing to keep nur­tur­ing and build­ing a scene wor­thy of an in­ter­na­tional city. Here’s my take on the good and the bad, as we en­ter the new decade.

We’re re­ally good at ex­port­ing tal­ent and am­bi­tion.

The next Venice Bi­en­nale, in 2021, will mark 20 years since New Zealand first par­tic­i­pated in the world’s most im­por­tant art event. Venice has been a cru­cial part of the in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of our scene, but it’s just one el­e­ment. New Zealand — by ne­ces­sity, re­ally — has one of the most out­wardly look­ing art com­mu­ni­ties in the world, and as a re­sult, we’ve be­come an ex­porter of se­ri­ous tal­ent: Denny, Newby, Buchanan, Thomp­son, Fran­cis Upritchard, Fiona Con­nor and Sri­whana Spong, to name a few. Zac Lang­don-Pole, who seems to win a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional art award ev­ery other month, is an­other.

We have to keep sup­port­ing this ex­pa­tri­ate am­bi­tion, through res­i­den­cies and Venice and Cre­ative New Zealand fund­ing. One hugely wel­come re­cent ad­di­tion to this sup­port is the Gas­works res­i­dency in Lon­don, which gives an emerg­ing New Zealand artist sev­eral months, funded, in one of the world’s great art cities.

This year’s Syd­ney Bi­en­nale,

which opens on 14 March, is go­ing to be a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment to re­flect on the state of con­tem­po­rary Māori and Pa­cific art on the in­ter­na­tional stage. The artists from here are Rei­hana, Emily Karaka, John Miller and Elis­apeta Heta, Kulimoe’anga “Stone” Maka and the Fafswag col­lec­tive. It’s the big­gest and most cu­ra­to­ri­ally fo­cused New Zealand con­tin­gent to head to Syd­ney for years, and it could be a turn­ing point in how we think about the in­ter­sec­tions be­tween colo­nial­ism, class and cli­mate change as we move into the 2020s.

There’s some ex­cel­lent art pub­lish­ing go­ing on. There’s been as­pi­ra­tional talk for years about how the dig­i­tal space might sup­port the growth of New Zealand art crit­i­cism. The Spinoff has found the best model so far. Its rel­a­tively new art sec­tion is over­seen by two ex­cel­lent art writ­ers in Me­gan Dunn and Mark Amery, who are balancing in­ter­views, es­says, listicles and se­ri­ous re­views from a di­ver­sity of voices, with a real en­ergy and cul­tural bite.

Most of our gal­leries and mu­se­ums, small and large, have been pump­ing out pub­li­ca­tions, and the three big univer­sity presses — Auck­land, Vic­to­ria and Massey — have all put out ex­cel­lent art ti­tles in re­cent years. Damian Skin­ner’s bi­og­ra­phy of Theo Schoon set off a much-needed and healthy shit­storm last year. And there were two ma­jor McCa­hon pub­li­ca­tions in 2019, by Justin Pa­ton and Peter Simp­son (Simp­son’s sec­ond vol­ume will be out this year).

This at­ten­tion, at length, on ma­jor art his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and older artists is hugely im­por­tant. The Auck­land and Christchur­ch Art Gal­leries have just co-pub­lished a sub­stan­tial tome on Louise Hen­der­son. But the big mod­ernist story of 2020 is go­ing to play out at Lon­don’s Royal Academy, when it stages a solo ex­hi­bi­tion of the works of Rita An­gus — an ex­tra­or­di­nary recog­ni­tion for an artist from this part of the world. There’ll be a se­ri­ous mono­graph to ac­com­pany it, too.

The Auck­land Art Gallery needs to fig­ure out what it is. The change of di­rec­tor­ship with Rhana Deven­port’s de­par­ture (re­placed by an­other Aus­tralian, Kirsten Pais­ley, af­ter New Zealan­der Greg Burke with­drew) and the ar­gu­ments about whether the AAG should have an ad­mis­sion charge have caused plenty of dis­com­bob­u­la­tion at our largest in­sti­tu­tion. 2020 is the year the AAG needs to get it­self sorted, be­cause right now, it’s a con­fus­ing place. On the one hand, it can stage an ex­hi­bi­tion like its beau­ti­ful 2019 Colin McCa­hon show: a per­fect ex­am­ple of rel­e­vant, rig­or­ous cu­rat­ing. On the other, it can host Den­mark De­sign: a turn­stiles-mo­ti­vated show that con­trib­utes noth­ing to how we un­der­stand our place in the world in 2020.

There are, though, big changes in the pipe­line. The much-loved and re­spected long-time cu­ra­tor of in­ter­na­tional art, Mary Kisler, is de­part­ing, and the AAG has cre­ated a new po­si­tion for a Pa­cific art cu­ra­tor. Pais­ley is also bring­ing in the Aus­tralian Ju­liana Eng­berg — one of the most im­por­tant cu­ra­tors ever to have come out of the South­ern Hemi­sphere — on a seven-month con­tract. One of Eng­berg’s jobs is to help the AAG re­think its col­lec­tion hang, which will have a ma­jor im­pact on how the gallery sees it­self, and how its au­di­ences ex­pe­ri­ence it, over the com­ing years.

The art mar­ket in Auck­land is way too pow­er­ful — and far too con­ser­va­tive. Flick­ing through an Auck­land auc­tion cat­a­logue and

read­ing the re­serves, you’d be for­given for think­ing that, some­how, de­spite be­ing a coun­try of just five mil­lion peo­ple, with a Western art his­tory that stretches back only 200 years, we’re ab­so­lutely awash in bril­liant, im­por­tant paint­ings.

With the ex­cep­tion of a hand­ful of great ex­am­ples, this is just not true. It’s a symp­tom of an art mar­ket with a wor­ry­ing con­ser­vatism. A big part of this has been the growth of the auc­tion mar­ket over the past decade, first in the hands of Art+Ob­ject, and now with the am­bi­tious re­brand­ing and re­launch of Webb’s. Auc­tion houses serve an im­por­tant pur­pose. But the speed with which some work is ap­pear­ing on the auc­tion block is ob­scene. Art works — and paint­ings in par­tic­u­lar — are be­ing treated like shares that can be eas­ily traded and flicked, either for a quickand-small profit, or to cut a short-term loss.

This is a global problem, but in a cul­ture the size of ours it’s hav­ing out­size ef­fects. The laws of sup­ply and de­mand are a ter­ri­ble logic to ap­ply to con­tem­po­rary art, be­cause the best of it — the stuff that pushes the con­ver­sa­tion for­ward the most — of­ten isn’t recog­nised as such un­til well af­ter the fact of its mak­ing. In our cur­rent high-turnover, low-am­bi­tion mar­ket, much of that work isn’t find­ing the sup­port it de­serves.

The peo­ple who should know bet­ter — and of­ten do — need to be braver. And a new gen­er­a­tion of col­lec­tors need to un­der­stand that buy­ing the same five artists at auc­tion as their neigh­bours isn’t do­ing any­thing to sup­port the growth of New Zealand art.

Our art his­tory de­part­ments are in deep trou­ble.

It seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive to say that art pub­lish­ing is healthy but art his­tory is not. But at an in­sti­tu­tional level, things are grim. There have been high-pro­file ex­am­ples, like the scrap­ping of the Univer­sity of Otago’s art his­tory pro­gramme and the clo­sure of the Elam Fine Arts Li­brary. But the coun­try’s two most im­por­tant art his­tory de­part­ments — at Auck­land and Vic­to­ria — are in trou­ble, too.

At Vic, the death of Roger Black­ley was a huge loss, and the most re­cent head of depart­ment Ge­of­frey Batchen has just de­parted for Ox­ford. And at Auck­land, re­tir­ing lec­tur­ers aren’t be­ing re­placed: the kind of silent at­tri­tion that fails to gain head­lines but is just as dam­ag­ing as re­dun­dan­cies.

Univer­sity poli­cies and the lean to­wards STEM sub­jects are partly to blame, but not ex­clu­sively. A bunker men­tal­ity, due to fall­ing en­rol­ments, has meant our art his­tory de­part­ments haven’t pro­vided enough tenured space for am­bi­tious young art his­to­ri­ans. The de­part­ments have also failed to make them­selves more widely rel­e­vant to con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, at pre­cisely the time when the kind of close at­ten­tion that art his­tory teaches is so badly needed, as a coun­ter­point to the dis­trac­tion econ­omy that rules our lives.

As we en­ter a decade that will be de­fined by ex­treme ac­cel­er­a­tion — tech­no­log­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal and cli­matic — we need crit­i­cal thinkers more than ever. But right now, there’s a wor­ry­ing shift against them. Auck­land’s art world needs to sup­port the artists and the writ­ers, the cu­ra­tors and the his­to­ri­ans, who re­ally are pre­pared to stick their heads above the para­pet. We have to re­design the ecosys­tem so that risk and brav­ery — and not the last claw­ing scratches of the mar­ket’s in­vis­i­ble hand — shape the things we most value.

FAR LEFT TO RIGHT— Ad­ja­cency (United States v. Slager), 2019, Luke Wil­lis Thomp­son, cour­tesy of the artist and Moss­man, Welling­ton; Gar­den, 1977, by Louise Hen­der­son, pri­vate col­lec­tion, Welling­ton; Fe­fine o Api, by Kulimoe’anga “Stone” Maka.

ABOVE— Un­ti­tled (Con­tained/ Free), 2019, acrylic on printed fab­ric dip­tych, by Dan Arps.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.