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Generating A Public Hum

Image: David St George. Courtesy Auckland Art Gallery
From Sip My Ocean, Pipilotti Rist, Museum of Contemporary Art. Image: Ken Leanfore
From Sip My Ocean, Pipilotti Rist, Museum of Contemporary Art. Image: Anna Kucera
Mark Amery on relevance, Pipilotti Rist, and the saving of Auckland Art Gallery


Relevance. Every individual body needs to feel a response letting them know what they are doing has impact and meaning. On such warmth, such support we thrive.

For artists and art institutions alike, feeling a community of support in a small country can be tough—the number of those who understand the need to invest in the new, the experimental, is smaller. Increased global networks doesn’t make up for local support such as funding and the feeling of people being in and around a space. Just because a local ecosystem is small, doesn’t mean it’s easier to get a response to your hollers; history shows us that conservatism can follow.

And yet, it’s also been shown in New Zealand that sometimes the reverse—a freedom to reinvent, reflecting local as well as global conditions—can occur. It requires leadership; standing tall and reflecting our cultural distinctiveness and global connections.

There is currently a welcome campaign, Save Our Gallery, rallying around Auckland Art Gallery (AAG) for more funding. The gallery has received dramatic cuts in council funding in recent years, despite having increased gallery space and a growing population to serve. The gallery’s annual operational budget has fallen from $9 million in 2014–15 to $6.9 million for the current year. By way of comparison, as noted here by patron and one of the campaign's founder Jenny Gibbs, Auckland Museum received $28 million from Auckland Council and the Museum of Transport and Technology $11 million.

With decisions soon to be made about Auckland City’s long term plan, Save Our Gallery are calling for help in sending a collective message to Auckland Council and Regional Facilities Auckland to increase funding. As well as the opportunity to make online contributions, there’s a giant scroll to sign on the gallery forecourt on 16 February, and direct written submissions can be made by 23 February to the council Finance and Planning Committee. [On 1 February, shortly after this article was published, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff announced a proposal to increase the gallery's budget by $2 million a year for ten years.]   

In January AAG introduced a $20 admission fee (with concessions) for international visitors. New Zealanders now have to show proof of residency. What a sad state of affairs.

Institutions like this play a major role in sharing the complexity of our view of the world, with the world. Their permanent collections express the character of living on this land. This is our gift to visitors, part of the gateway we have collectively built. So get behind Save Our Gallery.

Yet, as part of the deal, ask in return of the gallery about its own long term plan—what, with resources in place, is its vision for the future? What is missing from the campaign is a keener articulation of what we are saving it for. Specifically, what ideally would we like to see this gallery do in reflecting our place in the world?

Public galleries need to feel the warmth of their relevance to their communities now more than ever. That doesn’t mean just imported historical blockbusters (they’re smashing, a necessity, but we’ve had two at the AAG in the last year), and collection shows recognising our art history (something the gallery does very well). Right now, in Auckland, I think it starts—funding willing—with empowering, commissioning, and showing artists who can make a public hum about the things that matter to us and reflect our distinct contemporary state.

That contemporary public hum shouldn’t just rely on the likes of the incredible Chartwell Trust, whose collection is held with the gallery. Indeed it’s a hum felt quietly throughout Auckland in dynamic, smaller public galleries and artist run spaces—from the nearby AUT St Paul Street and Artspace out to all points of the compass. Art is connecting things, with artists responding in new ways to our place in the world—reflecting this new “Asia-Pacific Century”, as curators Emma Ng and Ioana Gordon-Smith put it in an exhibition programme at Te Uru last year. This hum is a quiet one because connecting this vital work and the conversations that ensue with a wider public isn’t happening yet in our bigger institutions. The vitality of much great contemporary New Zealand art remains in a slipstream. That’s one thing I’d ask more funding for. 

Relevance is something that transcends numbers—it’s a feeling, a glow around a vision. You could feel the hum of relevance at AAG visiting Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) in 2015, or getting caught in the whirl of interest around Kaisolaite ‘Uhila quietly living homeless in and around the gallery in 2014. You might feel the start of it touching Arnold Manaaki Wilson’s pou out front of the gallery, or Lonnie Hutchinson’s oak kowhaiwhai inside. How can the activities of the gallery connect up these feelings in even more connected ways?

Across the Ditch

I spent early January with family in Sydney. A city of four million, that’s three times bigger than Auckland. In terms of art presentation that scale shows. It’s Sydney Festival time. German Katharina Grosse has a giant painting installation in the cavernous Carriageworks, our own Lisa Reihana’s first survey exhibition Cinemania was premiering at Campbelltown Arts Centre, Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist was a huge hit at the Museum of Contemporary Art and at Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) there was Rembrandt and other masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum. Last year the State Government provided AGNSW with $244 million towards its expansion (known as the Sydney Modern Project). Like a Kiwi magpie, in the Australian Galleries presently sits an impressive polished stainless steel Captain Cook by another New Zealander Michael Parekowhai, looking out dissolute at the warships bobbing in Woolloomooloo Bay.

So size matters. But only to a degree. The AGNSW is a far larger gallery than the AAG yet last year Auckland’s had over 520,000 visitors. At a third of the population Auckland’s numbers stack up well. By comparison, in the 2016-17 year AGNSW’s visitation across both its main site, the Brett Whiteley Studio and regional tours was recorded as 1,591,355. Those included the strongest visitor numbers to the main AGNSW buildings in recorded history. Next to Auckland’s $6.9 million operating budget, AGNSW last reported annual operations costs of $45.7 million.

Auckland has invested in recent years in the development of smaller public galleries across the wider city. We can relish in our smaller size, our nimbleness. Yet as we approach Auckland Festival time, we can reflect that Auckland central still doesn’t have the space to showcase installation and sculptural work of scale that can really galvanise an urban population. There’s no MCA or Carriageworks in Auckland for the big contemporary blockbusters. No City Gallery Wellington equivalent which might be taken over for a full immersive Yayoi Kusama show or even a Cindy Sherman. And no dynamic spatial and curatorial equivalent to Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery—too difficult to access to get the public its shows might deserve—to take on the vitality of Simon Denny’s 2014 The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, or Luke Willis Thompson’s upcoming NZ Festival show. In 2017 in Auckland it was in their gallerist’s spaces that both of these artists had significant shows. 

Transforming Spaces

Public galleries need to provide a gateway for contemporary art for a wider public; those wow experiences that get new public over the threshold, and start to enable a taste for and better understanding of the potential of contemporary art today. So I end this column with a report of a real trip of an exhibition: Swiss Pipilotti Rist’s Sip My Ocean at Sydney’s MCA.  A show where a feeling of relevance starts with the body.

A complete sensorial delight, work from across the career of this moving image artist is mixed like a cocktail in room-filling installations that dissolve the hard edges of the white cubes with high-key colour and light, flowing as one kooky, immersive journey.

An all-ages crowd pleaser it might be, yet Rist experiments beautifully with how projection can be employed to heighten our sensory engagement with nature and our environment, including our own bodies. A sensual experience where you might luxuriate in the wonder of the world it is in part like one big public love-in, complete with carpeted cushioned areas and beds, images swimming over walls and on lily pad screens in the ceiling. What stands out for the hardened gallery goer is the care taken by artist and gallery in the development of a new gallery experience. The ambient soundtrack follows us through the spaces, washing over us, as we navigate around screens and curtains into different chambers.

In the installation ‘Your room opposite the opera’, reached through a maze of long curtains, fourteen individual works from 1994 to 2017 have been placed in conversation within a darkened apartment space. Like some domestic Fantasia or David Lynch dream, furnishings become animated with projections from, through, and onto them—a painting on the wall animated by a projector secreted in a wardrobe; a liquor bottle full of images of flowers projected from within a cigar box. Enormously luxuriate, seriously kooky, and often very funny in its playfulness: it’s liberating to be swimming in such an intuitive rather than cerebral space, akin to being inside abstract expressionism.

Rist explores in imagery and gallery space how she might collapse and expand space. There is somewhat in the gallery the sense of surreally being both inside and outside of a body, the imagery breaking things down into organic matter one moment and expanding cosmically the next. Below these far-out colourful surfaces are the personal political complexities of owning and accepting one’s own body, embodied in the gleeful freedom of Rist as the work’s performer and conductor. Or perhaps we might leave this dreamlike reverie with increased sensitivity to our surroundings, gifted a childlike openness to wonder.

Part of the MCA’s International Series, shows like Sip My Ocean, take time as well as money to happen: investment over time in relationships with the artist, their galleries, benefactors, and a public. Rist had previously visited and proven popular at the MCA during the 2014 Biennale of Sydney.

Meanwhile opening 24 February at Auckland Art Gallery as part of Auckland Festival is Julian Rosefeldt’s 13-channel film installation Manifesto, featuring the remarkable Cate Blanchett. Commissioned by AGNSW and Australian Centre for Moving Image Melbourne in 2015 it has been touring internationally since, and last year was adapted from art installation to feature film. Aucklanders, do your gallery a favour and buy a ticket. Consider contributing to Save our Gallery. Encourage and enable Auckland Art Gallery to fully reach its potential. 

Written by

Mark Amery

31 Jan 2018

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.