By Mark Amery
From the Mahara Gallery in Waikanae to the Sarjeant in Whanganui, Tawhiti Museum in Hawera to Puke Ariki in New Plymouth, travelling between Wellington to Taranaki you are rewarded with a terrific string of cultural treasure houses. The latest is a wee gem, Patea’s Museum of South Taranaki.
Taonga are strongly displayed in a new home whose traditional wharenui-inspired contemporary design should see it become a lynchpin of this region.
Currently on display is an exhibition of recent Taranaki photographs by Laurence Aberhart. It’s being toured around the necklace of galleries that surround Mount Taranaki by the Govett-Brewster. The photographs’ subjects will be long familiar to Aberhart followers - principally different views of the mountain and sea looking out from across memorial and gravesites. Familiar they may be but Aberhart is as poignant and elegant as ever. Marking history and memory, it is as if he captures breathes of the spirit of this much-trampled land.
It has a bit more competition these days but the Govett-Brewster remains this country’s leading contemporary art gallery. That’s principally because of exhibitions like their current, featuring nine artists from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is their fifth major exhibition focussing on artists from Asia, with a mandate to retune our global art radar and establish some new relationships within the region.
The too-clever title Sub-Topical Heat indicates that these artists are less interested in exploring and dramatising their own cultural identities, as the underlying tensions inherent in the fluid interchange across borders between different cultures and countries. Their work both speaks about universal concerns – globalisation and environmental depletion – and from distinct perspectives. Often in the work very different cultural layers pass over each other, like transparencies. This leads to fresh and rich new explorations of combinations of media, but there’s also a tendency for some work - like Sheba Chhachhi’s Edible Birds and Sharmila Samant’s Mrigajaal - to present a complication of different layers that visually and conceptually don’t quite gel.
The sense of artists dealing with a life full of competing visual codes pervades the exhibition. In Live True Life or Die Trying Naeem Mohaiemen, like a sharp photojournalist tweeter, focuses on the society of two different protest rallies: their human absurdities and hypocrisies; and the necessity yet inadequacy of activism. His is a fascinating path through social and political complications, yet in this work it feels like he hasn’t found quite the right way to present it.
Alongside an outstanding collection of artist’s books published by Raking Leaves (the book here proves a media with a new found interactive power) the work I find most resolved and satisfying is that of Bani Abidi. Two of her videos stage large socio-political public events, and with her focus on people she satisfyingly walks a fresh line between absurdity and melodrama, theatre and documentary.
The exhibition's centrepiece however is NS Narsha's Nations, 192 hand-painted flags of countries of the United Nations draped over a similar number of old treadle sewing machines, sourced from people in the region.
The machines are spun together by a colorful cobweb of thread, and arranged as a maze that you must navigate, seeing the world in a new unfamiliar non-hierarchical order. It's a world reimagined by the artist, who has painted the flags based on old outdated designs found in a children's textbook. In this way the work powerfully expresses the sense of growing up trying to make sense of an inherited global order, and as part of the globalised manual labour force to someone else's design. The work takes personal power back to the individual, and as installation using local materials invites us to consider its relevance to New Zealand. Even here though there remains an odd tension between the layering of the artist's painting and the Taranaki machines they sit on - the work would have been all the more powerful visually and conceptually if locals themselves had got to sew the flags.
The exhibition leaves the impression of South Asia as a place where art has been starting to find strong new legs. The way these artists from post-colonial countries deal with keen socio-political concerns has never felt so pressing and pertinent. It leaves me wondering why by contrast curatorial frameworks for New Zealand artists seem generally so apolitical. It’s as if we are under some global art market thumb. I longed for these South Asian artists to be placed in gallery dialogue with New Zealand artists like Leilani Kake, Rachael Rakena, Shigeyuki Kihara, Fiona Jack and Natalie Robertson, exploring some similar ground. For all its flaws you won’t find a more vital big exhibition in New Zealand than this.
Sub-Topical Heat: New Art from South Asia, Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, until 11 November 2012
ALSO NOT TO BE MISSED
Finding a mesh of different codes in the weave of pattern, Peata Larkin’s distinctive tukutuku and digital-inspired paintings get ever stronger, trading their previous fleshy painterliness for a greater complexity and elegance.
The Net, Peata Larkin, Bartley and Company, until 13 October