Antidotes to Celebration

Ka Kata Te Po - Photography by Brad Boniface. Courtesy of Te Manawa Museums Trust
MAUI PAST - Norm Heke
MAUI FUTURE - Norm Heke
Haka Peepshow. Photo by Justin Spiers.
Mark Amery considers the role of the arts during the Rugby World Cup.

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By Mark Amery

I like a good party. I’m all for the celebratory, the joyful, and the comforting. I love things that are well constructed and finely made. Yet when it comes to art, I’m also looking for something more.

Art that endures is often initially unfamiliar. It challenges our way of looking and thinking, enlarging our view of the world. It is a valuable companion to celebration because it acts as an antidote. Just as a society’s ego starts to swagger, it expresses its conscience. It’s a space for an expression of the complexity of feelings and thoughts that run behind every well-worn slogan.

Naturally I’m musing here on the role of the arts during the Rugby World Cup. The Real New Zealand Festival (“celebrating all things New Zealand”) is a welcome platform, ensuring the dynamism of our arts are also on display. Yet if we only couch the arts as a carnival, we risk neglecting its other roles.

At present artistic clichés abound. The Academy of Fine Arts is even hosting a group exhibition entitled A Game of Two Halves: The Art of the Cliche. Full marks for tackling the subject head on. At every turn international visitors are comforted that we are obsessed with rugby at every level. We, the media, are all too happy to feed them portraits of All Blacks as saints and mountains. Highly enjoyable and well executed some of this work may be, but don’t expect it to leave a deep impression.

I’ve even begun to feel thankful to City Gallery and Te Papa for Oceania. An exhibition that in usual circumstances for the art-follower would seem overblown and overly-familiar can compete as a heavyweight with all this flag-waving, offering an ocean of different, distinctive perspectives. To see at City Gallery in Shona Rapira Davies’ sculpture ‘Nga Morehu’ women advance with such strength in karanga towards the figure of a naked female child, emoting unresolved feeling from the past, feels like it’s providing balance to our pride in those men in black on every television set.

More alarming in Wellington is the lack of major new contemporary visual art on display, questioning the views being fed to us. I’ve ended up looking outside of Wellington. Oh to be in Dunedin, where Rachael Rakena’s Haka Peepshow in the Octagon has caused a storm of controversy. Presenting a 3D peepshow of four different haka (representing difference from what we are overly familiar), the film is presented inside a large, inescapably phallic black form that is based on the Rexona deodorant bottle endorsed by the All Blacks. Rakena states that the work "considers the sexualization and co modification of Maori and indigenous sportsmen through the use and exploitation of their masculinity and their culture, in the media". In a world full of phallic shaped public sculptures by men this one beautifully strikes a nerve.

In Invercargill Rakena has been projecting up large onto a building a video work, Ka Uhia (Let it be known), featuring members of the New Zealand women’s rugby team. She mixes the visual tactics of art with those of the television advertisement and billboard to raise awareness of a team that have won four consecutive women’s rugby world cups.

I travelled to Palmerston North last week and saw a gallery version of the work (part of the exhibition Wahine at Thermostat gallery). Nearby, at Manawatu museum and gallery Te Manawa I felt like I‘d hit the epicentre of rugby and art matchmaking when the gallery attendant encouraged me to see a harakeke-woven rugby ball by weaver Adrienne Spratt in the Te Wananga o Aotearoa exhibition Ka Mate Ka Mate. More pertinent to this world cup, however, felt the giant rugby ball outside the New Zealand Rugby Museum (also within Te Manawa), made out of plastic beer bottle caps.

In the gallery is a sculpture that offers everything currently absent in Wellington in terms of major new public work. Hemi Macgregor, Saffronn Te Ratana and Ngataiharuru Taepa’s large severe and beautiful installation Ka Kata Te Po is a response to the Urewera raids of 2007, and the suppression that followed. It not only expresses feelings of anger and disempowerment in its powerful play between a figure and abstraction, it elevates and opens these things out to help people move forward. I’m reminded of Ralph Hotere’s Black Phoenix in Oceania, a work that conveys beauty through a bold aggressive poetic rejuvenation, born from the ashes of destruction and anger in the 1980s. Both continue to trouble and charge me up with their entwined expressions of darkness and light. The Te Manawa installation closes today, so here’s hoping it makes Wellington soon.

It’s notable that all these artists are Maori. Maori continue to innovatively employ art to express the complexity of concerns that lie below the use of their culture as set dressing for the promotion of New Zealand.

In OMGs at Pataka Norm Heke has rather ingeniously used lenticular technology (an image transforming into another as you walk past it) to depict Maori Gods as they have been depicted, and how they might be now. Tu, the God of war, is now a Terminator like figure who could be straight out of Weta workshop, clad in the shell of the weta exoskeleton. Tane’s body has become a damaged set of network cables. Tane and his brothers are MPs under the Tino Rangatiratanga flag.

Heke’s use of digital technology is dazzling, but the work is strong illustration rather than great art. It dramatically heightens familiar images and ideas to provide quick-to-follow storytelling. They’d make spectacular billboards.

Oceania, City Gallery Wellington and Te Papa, until 6 November

OMGs, Norm Heke, Pataka, until 27 November

Written by

Mark Amery

29 Sep 2011

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media. He is co-curator of public art programme Letting Space.

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