All at Sea
For all the Kermadec project’s magic, Mark Amery finds the actual exhibition overblown and unrefined.
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It’s quite some journey. In May 2011 eight New Zealand and one Australian artist voyaged on HMNZS Otago through New Zealand’s Kermadec region. By November the Kermadec exhibition had premiered in Tauranga. It went on to Auckland, and smaller versions travelled to Tonga and Rapa Nui/Easter Island. Next stop Chile.
Located between the North Island and Tonga, the Kermadecs are clearly very special. Extending our vision of ourselves northwards, it calls for the region to become an ocean sanctuary. The way it also extends the role of the artist the gallery is commendable. It comes accompanied by a wonderful book. A range of merchandise features some smart branding - John Reynolds’ adaption of the Naval wake-up call ‘Wakey wakey wakey’, designed to stir us into action.
You can probably tell however I have some big buts coming. “Maybe the voyage never ended and we never got off the ship,” artist and co-curator Gregory O’Brien writes in the exhibition handout. Quite frankly, it looks like it. Bathing in the deep, you get the impression curatorial distance got lost along the way.
As if trying to reflect the abundance and enormity of the Kermadecs itself, the exhibition feels grandiose and overstuffed. For every strong work, there’s one or two average others. Ironically, its own abundance of product reminded me of how we continue to overproduce at our environment’s expense.
While the book provides an engaging confluence of diary, poetry, science, history and art, the exhibition retreats to the big modern gallery hang. More of the experiential nature of the journey, and different storytelling strands could have been bought together. There’s also something funny about the way Kermadec keeps its political agenda under its coat tails (despite a joint statement of support for a sanctuary by the artists) - as if public gallery presentation requires political neutering. All these things could have given the exhibition a keener edge.
There’s also not enough surprise here. Four of the artists have previously had major showings at City Gallery curated by O’Brien. Strong artists, their works struggle nevertheless in comparison to previous selected offerings. Generally things feel overly familiar: more Elizabeth Thomson’s leaf works and Fiona Hall sardine can sculptures. John Pule’s work hasn’t substantially progressed since his survey. Reynolds can be a masterly, musical deployer of text and line; here it’s all rather awkward and makeshift.
It feels as if these artists have been pushed fast to create significant work while their experience was still creatively taking root, leading to the use of familiar forms.
Beyond a few excellent Pule and O’Brien etchings – as if their languages have come happily, lyrically to inhabit the same rock pool - the potential for collaboration between the artists has also gone unrealised.
Yes there is excellent work here. Thomson’s beautiful evocation of the endless mysterious blue, Bruce Foster’s photographic layering of beach plastic as if it were a map on tapa, O’Brien’s own drawings. Phil Dadson’s ‘Pax’, tucked away in a corner, is an exhibition highlight. The photographic work of the least known artist Jason O’Hara, beautifully extends the documentary into poetic and elemental textural evocations of the experience.
Yet, ultimately the exhibition still expresses the situation O’Brien describes the artists on their journey as finding themselves in: in deep water, over their heads.
Kermadec, City Gallery Wellington, until 10 February
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