Back and Beyond and Here
By Mark Amery
The saddest thing about the much-maligned Parade exhibition that opened Te Papa wasn’t the show itself. Rather, that since Parade (best known for its pairing of a McCahon and a fridge) the museum has seemed increasingly cautious about putting out the national art collection in a lively way at the forefront of its displays to tell stories.
Other art institutions with major collections nationally, such as TheNewDowse and Christchurch Art Gallery have with nifty thematic shows and interactive devices continued to show that making art accessible to a wide audience doesn’t necessitate dumbing its context down, or keeping its presentation restrained and separate. In fact exhibitions designed principally to appeal to children and families have often been most energetic and lively introductions to contemporary art around.
Two of my favourite Wellington group exhibitions this year have been cases in point, both reveling like Parade in finding new ways of working rather than following a set of preordained rules for exhibition presentation. Monsters at new underground venue Mygalaxi in Dixon Street was a rich, bright and anarchic assemblage of strange eye-popping creatures, programmed neatly as a lead up to Halloween. Created by a host of local artists who rarely get shown in public galleries, the amount of talent and ingenuity on display was impressive.
And now we have the Museum of Wellington City and Sea exhibition Back and Beyond and Here, subtitled ‘New Zealand art for the young and curious’. The exhibition features a selection of work from the similarly themed Gregory O’Brien book Back and Beyond, which followed his award-winning Welcome to the South Seas.
Curated by Jacqui Knowles and O’Brien, the exhibition is not only a great introduction to painting for young people but, drawing exceptional work from private and public collections, it manages to also be a long awaited exploration of Wellington art and artists, and of this city’s sense of place.
The ‘Here’ added to O’Brien’s original title is the expression through art of New Zealand as “an exciting, energetic, go-ahead sort of country, where everything is moving and changing all the time”, with Wellington at its centre. Selected from the original book is art by Wellington artists, from Wellington collections or inspired by Wellington, which expresses the wild energy and verve swirling around this place, just as O’Brien’s selection of Wellington poetry with Louise St.John Big Weather did.
The exhibition retains one of the key strengths of the original book in not only bringing together a wide canon of major Wellington work, from the now overlooked landscapes of Helen Stewart through to Elizabeth Thomson’s moths, but it being full of the curator’s own distinctive history-smudging taste.
Seen anew a brilliant painting like Douglas K Mac Diarmid’s The Immigrant from 1945 seems utterly contemporary, whilst the naïve style of Megan Campbell’s beautiful take on the cultural domestication of the country by the colonials is neatly paired with Tony De Lautour’s painting on a handsaw. The paintings by Euan McLeod, John Walsh, and Jane Pountney, to name three are national treasures.
The exhibition borrows the strong poetic sections of the Back and Beyond book, giving it shape around key resonant themes about the New Zealand experience. This is a show about national and local identity, but one that is opened up by the creative imagination.
What really raises the bar here however is O’Brien’s collaboration with Knowles and the Museum. The exhibition design is stunning, drawing you into interaction with the artwork across white floors and walls with graphic ripple motifs and brightly-coloured edges to the beautiful wooden seating and design features. Generous space is provided for clever table areas for childrens’ activities, which centre the exhibition design, rather than clutter it.
Commissioned for the exhibition are songs by Robin Nathan, one for each section, which you listen to on well-positioned headphones. With richly orchestrated melodic pop and folk songs Nathan captures the spirit of the work and O’Brien’s bigger themes. A Wellington cultural treasure and great storyteller herself, like O’Brien she speaks to young people with an easy and natural intelligence and good humour.
Perhaps most radically, the paintings have been moved to a lower, young person’s height. As an adult I actually found this physically engaging rather than annoying. As a consequence the work has been mounted behind Perspex, which is also surprisingly unobtrusive. This is balanced by the provision of sample swatches of the types of materials used by the artists for visitors to touch – just one of several clever physical interactive tools here designed to get ‘young people and the curious’ thinking about the physical construction of painting.
Back and Beyond and Here, Museum of Wellington City and Sea, until 29 May 2011