The Global Engine
Mark Amery writes on the exhibition reflex, figment at Wellington’s Massey University and the university’s residency programme.
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The number of artists visiting New Zealand on university and tertiary-based residencies feels like it’s been growing exponentially over the last few years. So too, from the number of support letters I get asked to write, the study and residency opportunities for New Zealanders overseas. Globalisation continues apace.
In Wellington a significant programme launched with Massey’s College of Creative Arts in 2014, operating with great gusto as part of the city. The Te Whare Hera Wellington International Artist Residency sees artists stay for a three to six month period in a studio cum apartment in the quite remarkable spot of the end of the refurbished Clyde Quay Wharf. There have already been three residents.
In a reverse kind of form of colonisation, the last Sasha Huber was here to (with Ngai Tahu carver Jeff Mahuika) un-name the South Island Agassiz Glacier. Fellow Swiss born 19th century geologist Louis Agassiz has been criticized for his advocacy of racial segregation.
Huber and partner Petri Saariko have been strongly involved with the local arts community, as the rather fruity collaborative video work Healers: Action, Dance! attests. Recommended is the online publication by Enjoy Gallery of Rongoa Remedies, a gathering of Wellington artists’ knowledge.
The next resident has arrived, Uruguayan Martin Sastre. Back in 2003 Sastre set up the ‘Martin Sastre Foundation for the Super Poor Art’ with the slogan, "Adopt a Latin American Artist". The aim? To sponsor artists who don’t have the economic means to access international circuits.
More recently Sastre created ‘U From Uruguay’ a perfume made from the essence of flowers grown by the country’s President Mujica on his farm (check out the advertisement for what at one point was the world’s most expensive perfume here). Mujica is known for having donated 90% of his salary to build social housing. This is an artist with useful inspiration to impart our artists in being political, clever and witty to boot.
Massey has put far less resource into gallery infrastructure. Compare to the fully staffed major galleries at Victoria University (Adam Art Gallery) and AUT in Auckland (St Paul Street Gallery). Since 2009 Massey’s Engine Room Gallery has focused on how it serves students, and has been the site for some strong exhibitions. It has lacked the resourcing to be managed and better promoted to the public outside the university. The gallery website for example remains something of a work in progress, something out of whack with the funding provided to wider university marketing. Surely resourcing a showcase for your university’s work well should be a priority in looking good in the public eye?
The current exhibition, with the annoyingly reductive poetic title of reflex, figment is curated by Associate Professor Heather Galbraith (former head of school) and comes highly recommended. A welcome return to exhibition making for this excellent curator, Galbraith’s theme is the mercurial and sensorial nature of our triggers for memory – the ways we might capture and remember our intangible rememberings. And how liable they are to be embellished.
A small show of nine works, the theme would have been better teased out by something bigger. Yet this is an outstanding collection of work, particularly impressive given it’s a functional mix of the work of Massey lecturers, a few other stellar New Zealand artists, and a couple of strong video works from Australia (Richard Bell) and the UK (Jeremy Millar). It has been created in conjunction with a symposium Triggering Memory and will travel to Syracuse University, New York in 2016. In terms of global circulation, it is a show built in part for the traffic of the work of the university’s excellent staff.
Two of those Kura Puke and Stuart Foster with ‘Tira Taonga’ have created a magnetic work through the 3D scanning of a taonga, a Taranaki tauiha or war canoe prow that travelled previously to America as part of the Te Maori exhibition. In this video work the prow appears out of the darkness, intensely lit in a shimmering array of colour. It proceeds to dissolve into light, like a deep after-image, a sparkler’s trail in the night, before materialising again out of this fuzzy crystalline state. This emergence is accompanied by what sounds to me like a karanga followed by a waiata, calling the work back. Making the spirit visible, the work strongly evokes the way words and object connect back through the immaterial to the past. The taonga will return to New York through song and light.
Puke and Foster are boldly, nicely paired with two recent collaborative works by Karl Fritsch and Gavin Hipkins. Metals encrusted with gaudy fake jewels are literally cut into reprinted fading image, like a brand richly but violently rupturing the surface of an image memory. A group of people give the seig heil salute, with the metal on top a curl that references the Kapeu, or Maori ear pendant (as if a visual symbol for listening), and also the gesture of the arms held up in the photograph. In the other work a disused swimming pool is pictured. I learn from the notes that it is from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, with copper and silver planks placed atop like diving boards. Memory pools and may be held by metal, from which we spring.
This holding and springing, the role of the object in conveying the senses, carries through in Dane Mitchell’s ‘Epona’, where a small thin silver spatula-like object protrudes elegantly from the wall. It is for the carrying of a spritz of perfume, which when smelt is said to evoke the smell of a horse stable, the former life of the gallery in Zurich it was first shown. I got the smell of straw. This of course has an edge of the ridiculous in a former engine room on the other side of the world, yet reminds us how potently we can hold onto far flung memories through the senses. The work makes you actively consider how much you’re smelling what you’re told, rather than what you can actually detect. Memories are as much taught as remembered.
A beautiful inclusion in this exhibition is Massey professor Sally J Morgan’s stunning 1992 book-work ‘A Life in Diagrams’. A dynamic experiment in graphic storytelling, Morgan uses an eccentric array of diagrams to movingly convey the trauma felt by her father after being a bomb aimer in a Lancashire bomber in World War Two, and how that memory is now held after his death. The work explores how the most sensitive of memory may be held in the matter-of-fact schema of instructional diagrams and through the act of drawing.
Some diagrams are purely illustrative – rugby formation strategies next to bomber formations - while others are more fanciful. A cross-section of the seams of earth around a hole in the ground is used to illustrate the layers of feelings that have accreted that the artist is mining.
A favourite work at the 2008 Sydney Biennale was Richard Bell’s ‘Scratch an Aussie’. Its well worth the trip up to Massey for alone. Artist Bell, of Aboriginal descent, plays analyst to a group of beautiful young white Australians in gold bikinis and speedos on his couch. They crack dreadful jokes about Aboriginals and, more pointedly, confide their anxiety about how they feel subjugated as young people. Bell and his cast playfully break in and out of their roles, the whole production a delicious meld of fictions and carnivalesque revelry. You laugh and wince simultaneously, aware that these games are played out for real every day.
A further video work, Shannon Te Ao’s ‘A torch and a light (cover)’ is screening on Friday 18 September. Like the beautiful ‘Two Shoots that Stretch Far Out’, currently screening at City Gallery Wellington it takes as its base an English translation of a waiata aroha, a love song.