Start Rebuilding

'Shaka’ - Rob Cherry, 2015.
‘Superstar’ Seraphine Pick, 2015.
‘Lace Dress 2’ (detail), Janet Bayly 1979/2002
‘My Father's Studio, Three Months After His Death From Cancer’, Chris Corson Scott, 2013
‘The Philanthropist’s Stone’ Scott Eady, 2015
Mark Amery writes on visual art in Wellington and 2015 trends - from Eleanor Catton to the blimmin flag.

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The most surprising yet telling refrain of 2015 could be heard at Wellington’s Bar Bodega. A packed crowd chanting, Cobain-wryly along with album of the year-ster Courtney Barnett’s ‘Depreston’: “If you’ve got a, spare half a million, you could knock it down, and start rebuilding.“

In my memory, property has never been so talked about yet so out of reach, for so many.  

And so it was - a year when the politics and ethics of how we’re living crept in bitingly around the edges of art-making. Just this week I added another wry song to my 2015 mixtape: Jenny Hval’s ‘That Battle is over’. “You say I’m free now,” sings the Norwegian musician, “that battle is over, and feminism is over and socialism is over. Yeah I say I can consume what I want now.” Yeah right.

We Are All Together

In fact the words socialism and feminism kept popping up in relation to shows at the country’s smaller public galleries. Whether it was the national tour of the  work of the Wellington Media Collective 1978 to 1998, We Will Work With You! or Enjoy Gallery’s late year exhibition Enjoy Feminisms with its accompanying excellent online journal of essays, Love Feminisms.

Combine the two: female collectivity produced some of the most interesting shows of the year. There was the welcomingly wayward rock moves of art and music collective Phantasing’s shows Rocked Stars at The Engine Room at Massey, and Physics Room Christchurch, which gave birth to the ‘Instant Fantasy’ video.  And in an entirely different dimension, the wonderful weaving together by Jo Torr, Maureen Lander and Christine Hellyar of history, craft and fabric in Telling Tails at the National Library. At this end of the year Toi Wahine opened out notions of identity for a new generation of Maori women artists with a vacant space exhibition and workshop space in Porirua.

This was a year strong for the work of Maori women artists and curators:  Lander, Bridget Rewiti at Enjoy and 30 Upstairs, Lonnie Hutchinson, Areta Wilkinson and Chloe Cull at the Dowse, and Fiona Pardington at City Gallery.

A bold, painterly coagulation of feminine ecstasy and anxiety fed through the popular consciousness of the internet and art history, Seraphine Pick gave us the solo show of the year with White Noise at the Dowse. While I’d argue Pick overstretched it in places to fill the galleries with big work (work that would never usually make it past the first dealer solo show to the public gallery), the accompanying book is a stunner.

You could see that the curatorial reassessment of a wealth of 1970s and 80s women artists working in photography and video was going to come – such is the strength of work and the inexplicable way so much practice has not lived past its initial moment (no wonder the reassertion of feminism). But all the same Sandy Callister did a beautifully sensitive and thoughtful job as curator in Fragments of a World at Adam Art Gallery with the work of Janet Bayly, Minerva Betts, Rhondda Bosworth, Jane Campion, Alexis Hunter, Joanna Margaret Paul and Popular Productions. The telling wistful innocence and strength in a black and white film of a young boy (or is it girl) finding themselves before the camera, set to a loop of nostalgic melody in Popular Productions’ ‘the story of’ has taken out residence in a wistful corner of my brain.

Quite how then new book and exhibition New Zealand Photography Collected from Te Papa can omit photographers Bayly, Christine Webster and Margaret Dawson, among many others, is beyond me.  

Joanna Margaret Paul continues to get reappraisal. A 2015 moving image highlight for me was Shannon Te Ao’s ‘Untitled (Epilogue)’, one of six responses commissioned from contemporary artists to Paul’s work by Circuit. In Te Ao’s beguiling work, a stately procession of pot plants appears faintly from velvety darkness, lit in different colours as Te Ao reads her lines.

Te Ao understand the emotional power of the oblique space between things. A kind of performance poetry with props and set-ups, extending what we expect a camera to do, he provides a gentle melancholic sense of solo communion that sees the screen as an interior space of longing. Te Ao’s major work at City Gallery ‘Two Shoots that Stretch Far Out’ was another highlight. I could watch these works again and again. And I did.

The National

Another old Ism was back on the table - nationalism. Simon Denny’s 2015 Venice project reflected how surveillance became such a predominant concern in 2014 - the subject of Modelab’s excellent stealth-like Surveillance Awareness Bureau project in Grey Street mid this year.

Meanwhile the selection this year of Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) for Venice 2017 following its popular and critically well-received showing at Auckland Art Gallery, reflected our heightened awareness of the tensions around the fluidity of our own borders. Our questioning of what being ‘us’ in terms of the Pacific and the Globe might now mean. As we watched the reception to Reihana’s commentary on cross-cultural trade, collaboration and the transmission of infection, the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations rolled on and the refugee crisis grew.

The complexities of nationhood today were constantly making themselves felt, and the results weren’t comforting. Any illusion that an intellectual and artistic environment now sits comfortably at the heart of our sense of self was broken by the flag referendum: it's shameful lack of artist and designer input, and the resulting selection of a piece of design that graces the sale of plastic plates.

On the back of the discussion, Wellingtonian Bronwyn Holloway Smith won the National Contemporary Art Award in the Waikato for her national flag for the first pioneer city on Mars, while also beginning work with Massey on the mural legacy of E Mervyn Taylor. Work from a time when nationalist storytelling was handed to our artists to work on walls with. At stake today: the relationship between design and our collective sense of self.

It was Eleanor Catton back in January who reminded us of the depth of division in our sense of self. "I feel uncomfortable being an ambassador for my country,” she said at the Jaipur Literary Festival, “when my country is not doing as much as it could, especially for the intellectual world." She also spoke of “neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture”. “Traitor” was broadcaster Sean Plunkett’s response. “Jingoistic national tantrum” Catton replied.  

Jingoistic nationalism is a term perhaps most associated with how the public got behind the war effort at the beginning of World War One. It felt appropriate again. The unthinking way with a bundle of money the arts generally commemorated that war’s centenary, with little public consideration of what our current position to global conflict should be. A bouquet then to the National Library of New Zealand for its exhibition and lecture series World War One: A Contemporary Conversation. Pity we weren’t having it more on a wider public level.

Lots of flag waving and celebration of our dominance in rugby, yet little of our artists’ successes overseas. Luke Willis Thompson at New York’s New Museum, Denny’s solo show at MOMA PS1, Tracey Tawhiao and George Nuku in Paris, Michael Parekowhai’s big survey in Brisbane, to name a few examples you may not have heard about.

Consolidation

It hasn’t felt like a year of new growth in Wellington; more one of consolidation. Adam Art Gallery and City Gallery have been constantly stimulating under the senior curatorship of Tina Barton and Robert Leonard respectively. The Specious Prescient at the Adam (reviewed here) was easily the finest group exhibition of the year. Andrew Beck was key to that show and his solo at Hamish McKay was outstanding. Meanwhile, as excellent as Susan King was at City Gallery paired with Te Ao, it was the showing of her incredible early work at Robert Heald Gallery that deserved wider public attention.   

The Young and 30 Upstairs continued to be the private galleries I found the most joy in, with interesting ways of putting artists in conversation with each other. The bringing together of Ed Bats and Don Driver at The Young was genius, and at 30 Upstairs Abby Meakin and Jade Townsend smartly extended what painting can do in conversation with the colour saturation of today’s retail environment.

Bartley and Company had consistently strong shows I thought, with standouts from Andre Hemer (a painter really hitting his straps) and Julia Morrison, and I appreciated the mature strength in big solo shows of the work of Elizabeth Thomson and Max Gimblett at Page Blackie. And a shout-out to the witty surreal collage work of Rob Cherry at Suite (a gallery which gained great new premises in Upper Cuba Street this year) - an excellent example ‘Shaka’ recently cut through the crap in my Twitter feed.

Photospace boldly hosted the standout large format work of young Auckland photographer Chris Corson Scott across all three of its spaces, fresh from his debut at Trish Clark Gallery. A few exceptional works demonstrated his very strong eye for three-dimensional composition and colour, but it was the suite of works concerning the absence in the family of his late father Ian Scott that really got me. Later in the year I was also really moved in the same small space by the tender, raw and intimate, honest and unconventional portraits by Tim J Velling of his dying father.  

Working in New Ways in Public Space

This was also a year in Wellington for public work that really extended our thinking about how art can work in public space. Litcrawl had a terrific second year packing crowds into unusual spaces for an evening of multiple literary events. The light art festival Lux meanwhile has reached popular critical mass but has stopped surprising.

Denise Batchelor’s video of a mad caged owl in a container at Performance Arcade troubled and enchanted, and her work of a beetle in Wellington’s first public screen for video work, opened this month in the formerly unloved dark Mason’s Lane off The Terrace. A terrific new box for artwork. The Common Ground festival in Lower Hutt had a great first outing, notable for Tim Barlow’s terrific reinstatement with local young people of the city’s beloved Elbe’s Milk Bar.

Also beautifully positioned and effective in speaking closely to its environment was Johanna Mechen’s video work nestled in a bank of a stream as part of the inaugural Upstream walk of artists’ work in Central Park. Upstream also featured a terrific work by Kemi and Nico, whose Miniature Hikes project (which I kicked off the year writing about) remains a highlight.

Kedron Parker’s sound work in a pedestrian tunnel marking the passage of the Kumutoto Stream became the city’s first permanent public media artwork, and she accompanied it beautifully with a temporary installation of a curtain of stream water in a shop window in Woodward Street. In Berhamphore I was very proud to help produce with Letting Space Siv B Fjaerestad’s Projected Fields, extending the role field painting might play in terms of a sense of public ownership of a park.

In a city littered with strong sculpture the Wellington Sculpture Trust pushed the language of the plinth really well this year. I’m thinking here not only of Glen Hayward’s work outside Te Papa, which has aged really well, but also of the smart pounamu studs in the pavement by the cenotaph by Joe Sheehan, and, principally’ Scott Eady’s giant gold nugget turd with giant cheap electric birthday candles stuck in it, atop a blue classical column. ‘The Philanthropist’s Stone’ is a pop punk gesture that daringly and successfully upsets old cultural codes and speaks to the spit and the style polish of lower Cuba Street, both its history and its contemporary spirit, the role of public sculpture and the tensions inherent in philanthropy. One person’s gold nugget is another person’s turd.

Finally for an excellent look at the visual arts in Auckland in 2015 I direct you to Pantograph Punch and this piece by Victoria Wynne-Jones and Francis McWhannell.

Written by

Mark Amery

23 Dec 2015

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

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