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The Exhibition as Trojan Horse

The Presidents - a touring exhibition by David Burnett at Expressions, Upper Hutt
Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, with their interpreters, during their first summit, Geneva, 1985. Image: David Burnett from The Presidents.
Shadows of Shoah, photography and design by Perry Trotter, Shadows of Shoah Trust
Mark Amery considers the political sensitivities of gallery programming on a visit to Expressions Gallery in Upper Hutt.


International touring exhibitions are often Trojan Horses for political agendas. Nothing surprising in this - diplomacy is often the currency that enables them. The question always to be asked is: whose paying for them? Sometimes these can be meaningful exchanges. At other times they can be more disturbing. 

It’s telling how institutions respond to the temptation of having their rooms filled for them. It can bolster or compromise. Indeed, you can tell a lot about the health of a public gallery by looking at their past exhibition programmes: noting the periods when they’ve most been reliant on touring exhibitions, and when they’ve had the clouts to follow their own curatorial noses or enter genuine international partnerships.    

Notable in New Zealand in recent decades has been the cultural work of Germany’s Institute for Cultural Relations and Goethe Institut. Post-war culture has been a principal way Germany has asserted a global peace-making identity. Group exhibition demonstrates diversity and the bringing together of many different voices in peace.

Currently at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington is Linie Line Linea, an excellent Institute for Cultural Relations exhibition of drawing by contemporary German artists. It’s an example of where the agenda of a gallery and organisation meet well. Yet interesting work isn’t the only thing that makes a strong exhibition. This is a show that is so diverse it’s hard to find strong binding threads. The absence of conversation with New Zealand artists strongly engaged in drawing (something the Adam has supported well in the past) is also felt. As is so often with big touring group shows, it feels like a stop-gap while the host gallery musters energy for something else. 

Recently we’ve seen an increase in international artist residencies, and in particular exchanges with Asia. Currently touring nationally is Visiting Asia (at Hastings City Art Gallery until 17 July), another big diverse, vibrant group show, this time of New Zealand artists sharing their impressions of the countries they’ve visited on residence. 

Again, it’s an exhibition full of interesting morsels but unsatisfying in its breadth. It’s made possible through the growth in residencies enabled by Asia New Zealand Foundation. When I saw this big exhibition at Pataka Porirua I was struck by how its pick and mix diversity negated any critical political commentary these artists had.

Up the Hutt

Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, with their interpreters, during their first summit, Geneva, 1985. Image: David Burnett from The Presidents.

An interesting aspect of New Zealand’s relatively small size is that exhibitions that you might, in bigger cities, find in smaller galleries in the city centres, are sometimes to be found in towns on our outskirts. 

Which brings me to Upper Hutt. A 45-minute train ride from the Wellington CBD finds you a short stroll from the excellent gallery and theatre complex Expressions. (It’s also noteworthy with the school holidays on, that next door are a fine public library and the region’s best children’s playground and swimming pool.)   

Last winter Expressions hosted an exhibition in its foyer of Pope Francis’s 2014 visit to Israel, including photographs of His Holiness meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Shimon Peres. The exhibition has been touring internationally care of Israel’s embassies.  

I didn’t get to see the exhibition, but those images I have seen online don’t suggest the exhibition was selected on its artistic merits. Was it selected then on its relevance to the people of Upper Hutt and the Wellington region? 

A politically-charged choice, made all the more political by the current programmed exhibitions: photojournalist David Burnett’s photographs of United States presidents since JFK, and Shadows of Shoah, New Zealand photographer and composer Perry Trotter’s multimedia project presenting the experiences of Holocaust survivors.

Any political implications are unfortunate because these are two strong exhibitions I’d encourage you to visit. The US Ambassador’s home may be just down the road in Lower Hutt, but The Presidents is being toured by the Australian Centre for Photography and US government funding is not declared. It’s a fine portfolio, with some great informal portraits of Presidents en-route and on the campaign trail. 

There are some weaker images here, peppered in to complete the set of presidents (a blurred JFK) and present key points of the story (a sweaty Nixon on resignation, the Clintons en-route to a helicopter at the time of the Monica Lewinsky revelations). Perhaps unsurprisingly little is revealed of these presidents as people. Rather you are left to consider the PR machine they are a part of, from Jimmy Carter atop a child’s chair in a supporter’s kitchen, elbow on fridge top, head nearly touching the stucco-ed roof, to Larry King, Bill Clinton and Al Gore having their hair and make-up done ahead of a TV interview. The latter looks straight out of a comedy sketch show. 

A fuller portfolio can be found on Burnett’s website (indeed some of the finest images here are of candidates rather than actual presidents). Many of these images suffer in exhibition quality from being blown up bigger than they were ever intended to be. Yet in an age when such photographs are pervasive on the internet and in newsprint, there remains something powerful about sharing a fine small gallery with others looking at these images on the wall.  

Shadows of Shoah, photography and design by Perry Trotter, Shadows of Shoah Trust.

From Christchurch’s cardboard cathedral to the tiny Waikato town of Tirau, from the Auckland War Memorial Museum to a Presbyterian church in Invercargill Shadows of Shoah has toured the country to more diverse venues arguably than any other museum installation. It’s a beautifully realised immersive cyclorama experience of slide shows of text, images and music. 

Entering the darkened circular structure, you make your way around three minute presentations of the experiences of survivors - children at the time of the Holocaust. The work is all the more powerful for the interviews being contained in slides of five to fifteen words of text rather than audio, next to black and white portraits of these individuals as interviewed today. The focus becomes on their wisdom rather than their pain. “Do I believe in God?” asks one survivor. “That is difficult.”

Powerful too is a focus on stories that value kindness and generosity shown in a time of tragedy, both German and Jew. The humanity is very moving. While the accompanying piano composition is overly sentimental, nevertheless the whole experience is beautifully designed, operating much like a living memorial. 

Shadows of Shoah is a response to continuing anti-semitism, but its great power is not that it’s political, but rather that it creates a sacred space that feels open to all. That might also explain why the charitable trust behind the exhibition doesn't declare online who its donors are - sometimes knowing where the money comes from gets in the way of the experience.


Written by

Mark Amery

20 Apr 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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