Making Temporary Turns

Masques Blaine - Western DPAG
The new Toitu Otago Settlers Museum extension
Scott Eady - Sons of a clouded sky'
Masques Blaine - Western DPAG
In his current rounds visiting New Zealand cities to take their cultural temperature, Mark Amery writes from Dunedin.

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Dunedin is distinctive visually among New Zealand major cities for its stability. While others streetscapes have been knocked about by the boom and bust of the financial market, or shaken in other ways, this Edinburgh of the South, our country’s largest 19th century city, has grown more slowly, retaining its rich built heritage. Striking architecture in a grand landscape. 

This also has its frustrations. The city’s visual identity remains historical, colonial in base, while the world gets on with getting ever more diverse around it. 

The popularity of an innovative theatre project like Farley’s Arcade in this year’s Dunedin Fringe paid testament to Dunedin’s engagement with its history: Farley was a Victorian era entrepreneur who like other settlers capitalised on the gold boom. His Arcade in 1862 was described as “the wildest place in town” - perhaps for the creators reflecting Dunedin’s now celebrated wild, experimental cultural edge. Yet, juxtaposed in the play with settler Dunedin, is the story of the local Maori community, disorientated by the loss of their stream Toitu. 

For all its love of heritage there is little permanent visual reference in the city to mana whenua - as a place of Ngai Tahu. An exception is the outstanding new Toitu: Otago Settlers Museum. Formerly known simply as the Otago Settlers, it reopened with extensive renovations and new displays late in 2012. With a stunning redesign, it’s a new highlight visiting the city. Not only are Ngai Tahu now upfront in name, they’re also front and centre of the visitor experience as you enter - before you make it into the preserved famed Smith Gallery of stern Presbyterian portraits, still hung Victorian salon style. 

Another recent shift is the re-energisation of Vogel Street and surrounding warehouse precinct. Here a growing street art trail has its focus and the annual October Vogel Street Party is now well established as a showcase for creativity. How such initiatives balance making it easier for Dunedin artists to be part of the city (they’ve long found collective space in this district) and gentrifying for those with money (often driving artists out in the process) might be key. 

In all this it should be noted that I write as a visitor, rather than an informed citizen. And as a visitor I’d say most of Dunedin doesn’t need street art. There’s relatively little that needs covering up. 

Yet contemporary culture needs its visual space.  We need to grow up knowing that things have the power to change, rather than just have the comfort that something’s always stay the same. 

A notable relative absence from the streets of Dunedin compared to Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, and even smaller cities like Whanganui and Napier is public sculpture. There is the Otago Sculpture Trust, but it’s telling that it’s been formed by artists not financial patrons, as in other centres. It’s also telling that the website has a menu item named “public art controversies”.  It’s clearly in the business of advocacy.

Again, you might argue, the beauty of Dunedin’s spaces might not need much. Yet a key site like the Octagon cries out for things that ground it in the present: the likes of a plinths project, say, that in keeping with contemporary art practice allows itm to constantly change. The potential for that was shown by a work in that “public art controversies” section: Rachael Rakena’s excellent Haka Peepshow in 2012. 

What is highlighted to the visitor is the overground/underground binary way of visual culture in Dunedin. While the permanent cultural environment is built well and secure (institutions like the Fortune Theatre, Dunedin Public Art Gallery and, more recently, Blue Oyster Art Project Space) there remains a vital, strong arts scene of resident artists alongside students working in ephemeral, often site-specific experimental areas of theatre, sound and projection. Artists are well schooled at operating independently here. In making temporary turns. 

Perhaps however the visibility for the work is shifting, thanks to the work of strong umbrella organisations like Dunedin Fringe, Puaka Matariki Festival and Lines of Flight experimental music festival. From a distance they appear to be thriving, and strongly community-led.

The most recent permanent sculptural addition to Wellington is a 2015 work by Dunedin artist Scott Eady that would have spoken strongly in the artist’s hometown: The Philantrophist’s Stone features a gold nugget atop a tall Corinthian column. In its clash of aesthetics it smartly questions the relationship between money and power in city-building.  

In Dunedin Eady is instead one of four Dunedin artists appearing in Ridiculous Sublime at Dunedin Public Art Gallery until 24 October. The show is somewhat uneven, struggling a little with its title, but Eady’s work holds it together,  clearly still thinking about comic turns on public sculpture. Like some kitsch backyard suburban play on a Victorian Fountain, giant bronze zucchini atop stools and beer crates spout water into clam shaped plastic paddling pools. Rude jokes that poke fun at the erect male nature of public sculptural tradition aren’t new for Eady, and here things have gone flaccid. Biggest vegetable competitions and trips to The Warehouse, perhaps this is our culture today. These works aren’t deep (Eady’s paddling), but they surely would have had far more resonance outside.   
  
Across the floor recent artist in residence Blaine Western has in ‘Grammars’ produced an exhibition about making exhibitions: a smart, richly absorbing and disorientating play with works from the gallery and Otago museum collections, adding recent artists work (an excellent Otago Daily Times feature). It does a remarkable job in challenging our expectations of the way objects should be presented in museum space. 

Downstairs Western has found a way to bring conversation about Dunedin’s built heritage into the gallery, while also emphasising the gallery’s strong role as a conservator. Laid out on bars and the floor are plaster models of ornamental arches and columns. On the walls are black and white photographs of restoration tools and stonework in the process of restoration. 

It’s a dry but visually striking display, where intelligent spatial design in the white and glass cube space sees the objects and images operating in the space themselves like a visual score, or punctuation on a page. ‘Masques’ actively opens out conversation about how our built environment frames our spaces, and about what we choose to preserve and what we allow to slowly fade away.  

 

Written by

Mark Amery

19 Oct 2016

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

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