Composite image: Paul Henry by Hannah Salmon, Collateral by Dane Mitchell.

The art award that’s been annoying the Waikato (and Paul Henry) for 20 years

A bus stop, a soap dish, beer crates and a pile of rubbish: in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the National Contemporary Art award, we look at the media beat-ups, lessons learnt and collateral damage from the competition’s first two decades.

Congratulations! Ayesha Green is the winner of the 2019 National Contemporary Art Award for her painting Nana’s Birthday, receiving a $25,000 prize. Her work was selected from 52 finalists by guest judge, artist Fiona Pardington. 

And it’s not just Nana’s Birthday. The National Contemporary Art Award (NCAA), held annually at the Waikato Museum, turns 20 this year. 

“It’s not just a little church hall fete, it’s an important contemporary art award,” says Leafa Wilson, curator at Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato. For the past 15 years Wilson has helped administer and install the finalists’ exhibition.“It’s a huge privilege to run the awards. We’ve seen different trends emerge, from the use of digital and electronic formats to the move back towards handmade works in the Bauhaus tradition.”

Over time the sponsors and the acronyms have also changed, but the NCAA has been unafraid about attracting criticism from the outset. An early suite of marketing posters from 2003 proclaimed the award had been “annoying” (and “angering” and “astounding”) “the Waikato since the turn of the century”.

Courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

But in 2009, it wasn’t just the Waikato that was annoyed. Wilson appeared on TVNZ’s Close-Up and went head to head with host Paul Henry. The topic under discussion was that year’s prizewinning work Collateral, which consisted of the discarded wrappings from the other entries and which had been created by proxy, as artist Dane Mitchell then lived in Berlin. “The art was in the artist’s instructions,” Wilson recalls, adding “When it comes to the crunch I don’t have anything to do with the judging or impact on their decisions.” But Henry was incredulous; on TV he organised rubbish “hand-selected with a great deal of aesthetic integrity from around the studio” and stashed in a wheelie bin to be dumped on the floor. Wilson remembers how “people went ape. They lost their rag. They were baffled. But in the art world itself nothing is particularly outrageous.” 

But in the beginning, it all started in a garden…

In February 2000, the inaugural award was presented as part of the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival in the pavilion. The prize was established by the Waikato Society of Arts (WSA) and according to Graeme Henry, the treasurer and convener, there were two motivations: to present New Zealand art to New Zealand public, and to give New Zealand artists the opportunity to have their works viewed by a “competent judge”.

The first judge, curator Gregory Burke, awarded $10,000 to Gavin Hipkins for The Oval, a photograph of a soap dish. “Art awards are a blunt instrument,” says Burke now. “However, Gavin once noted to me that artists have a very short runway for lift-off in New Zealand. So the prize had the particular effect of providing a national contemporary art spotlight to Hamilton and perhaps adding a foot or two of runway for artists.” 

Gavin Hipkins, The Oval, 1998.

Hipkins’ win set a tough standard. So in 2001 the society created a second prize, the New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award, held annually in the pavilion. The National Contemporary Art Award relocated to the Waikato Museum to focus on groundbreaking work chosen by competent judges. 

In 2006 the museum took over administration of the award, but the judging process remained unchanged. Each year, artists submit 1-5 digital photos of their work and the judge picks the finalists ‘blind’. The winning entry is chosen on the day of the ceremony once the finalists’ exhibition is installed. Only once the judge has selected the winner – again ‘blind’ – do museum staff place artists’ names and descriptions beside each work. 

“There’s no predicting what a judge will choose,” says Wilson. “It’s a very personal choice. I have never managed to pick the winning work ahead of time.” 

How many careers lifted off that extra foot or two of runway? We speak to 11 previous prizewinners and a few competent judges about what happened, what it meant and what they can remember. 

Daniel Malone and his work, Perfect Pitch. Courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

Year: 2001

Work: Perfect Pitch

Artist: Daniel Malone

Judges: Jim and Mary Barr, art consultants

What: In 2001 performance artist and hip hop DJ Daniel Malone received the award for his image of a graffiti-covered cricket pitch. 

Media headline: That was the media headline

Controversy rating: 8 wickets

Where is the artist now? Short answer: Poland. Long answer: Malone was a founding member of influential artist run space Teststrip (1992-1997). His last local exhibition was The Annals of Everyday Life at Mercy Pictures in Auckland earlier this year.

What the judges say now: “We were keen to keep the Award out of the Art Society tradition and in the recognition of leading edge contemporary art. Daniel Malone’s work Perfect Pitch stood out because of its wit and sheer scale.” 

Dave Stewart, Hyperreal Toolbox for the Reinvention of a Transglobal Empire in a Parallel Universe, Courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

Year: 2002

Work: Hyperreal Toolbox for the Reinvention of a Transglobal Empire in a Parallel Universe

Artist: Dave Stewart 

Judge: Zara Stanhope, then curator of Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Art, now curator at the Queensland Art Gallery|Gallery of Modern Art

What: Diana Witchel in the NZ Herald: “Auckland solo dad and former plasterer David Stewart wins the $10,000 Trust Waikato Contemporary Art award with a controversial installation of five beer crates full of homebrew. Really, you couldn’t have made it up.”

Media headline: “Is it art or is it a load of old shite?” Paul Henry, Radio Pacific 

Controversy rating: 10/10

Where is the artist now? Still making art and last sighted in Whanganui on residence at Glasgow Street Studios, creating a work aiming to raise awareness of motorcycle deaths.

What the judge says now: “Dave’s work was audacious but also an insertion of the real world into the white cube, a disruptor that also felt very at home in the context. Audiences have been seeing everyday objects in art galleries since Duchamp so I didn’t feel that the work would be a shock but rather indicate that art can have a tongue in cheek humour.” 

Rohan Wealleans, To the Moon and Back, Photo courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

Year: 2003

Work: To the Moon and Back

Artist: Rohan Wealleans

Judge: Tobias Berger, then director of Artspace, Auckland, now the head of arts at Tai Kwun arts centre, Hong Kong

What: A yellow rectangular painting with layers or skins of acrylic paint in its centre flayed and curled back to reveal a flesh-coloured interior. “I was just attracted to this huge bright vagina,” said Berger. He also told media he chose Wealleans work out of the 50 finalists because, “All these layers of paint made me think about time and sexuality … art and sex being some of the oldest pursuits given to humankind.” 

Media headline: ‘Sponsor opts not to buy winning vagina painting’, the New Zealand Herald

Controversy rating: 10/10

Where is the artist now? New Plymouth. 

What the judge says now, “The National Contemporary Art Award had great winners and was always open to very new and experimental art. The day after the prize, I think the local headline was something like, ‘Giant Vagina wins prestigious art award’. I read it just before I received a call from the police who had found my car in the river. It was stolen the night before and I hadn’t even noticed yet.” 

Donna Sarten, Lest We Forget. Photo courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

Year: 2004

Work: Lest We Forget

Artist: Donna Sarten

Judge: Dr. Sophie McIntyre, then Director of Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, now course coordinator at the Faculty of Creative Industries, Queensland University of Technology

What: McIntyre gave the award to three artists (why can’t cricket World Cups be like this?), Sarten sharing the limelight with photographer Geoffrey Heath and sculptor Joanna Chow. Sarten’s photographic installation depicted the ‘mounted’ heads of five men, each representing an army private from WW1. Her ‘hunting trophies’ were arranged in the shape of a crucifix to allude to post traumatic stress sisorder, shell shock and Field Punishment No. 1.

Media headline: ‘Three winners at this year’s awards’, The Big Idea

Controversy rating: 1/3

Where is the artist now? Donna Turtle Sarten has gone on to build a public art practice with partner Bernie Harfleet. The pair create installations that highlight important social issues. In Max and Bella and friends they planted 10,000 pinwheel windmills to represent the five percent of New Zealand adults who have experienced psychological distress in the last month. 

What Sarten says now: “I was completely shocked to have won. I was in my first year of my masters at Elam and I didn’t even know what the Contemporary Awards were. I got $3333.33. I’m not sure if winning changed my approach to how I worked, but it did strengthen that I wanted to continue making art around injustices.”

Sriwhana Spong, Nightfall. Still images courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

Year: 2005

Work: Nightfall

Artist: Sriwhana Spong

Judge: Heather Galbraith, then senior curator at City Gallery Wellington, now professor of fine art, Whiti o Rehua School of Art, Massey University

What: For the first time, a video work took out the top prize. Galbraith described Nightfall as, “haunting and mesmerising, it takes us on a nocturnal journey around a garden, where torchlight stumbles across and illuminates exquisite assemblages…” Nightfall was set to a version of Cat Stevens’ ‘Here Comes My Baby’ and elicited cinematic flashbacks to The Blair Witch Project and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. 

Media headline: Sriwhana Spong wins Waikato National Contemporary Art Award, The Big Idea.

Controversy rating: Nil.

Where is the artist now? Spong now lives and works in London. In early 2019, her exhibition Ida-Ida was presented at Spike Island, Bristol. Her new film work castle-crystal is currently part of the Edinburgh Art Festival 2019

What the artist says now: “I never thought a video would win, so I was quite surprised. The prize was $10k, which I spent very sensibly on my student loan and an eye operation. The film was an exploration of what it means to be estranged from one’s heritage (in my case Indonesia), and played in the murky waters of self exoticisation.”

What the judge says now: “The year previous, judge Sophie McIntyre had split the prize money between three works. While I was respectful of this decision, I knew I wanted to make a singular award, in part so that that money could have a tangible impact on the artist – hopefully paying off debt or buying an artist precious research and making time. My choice wasn’t guided by courting controversy, I was totally beguiled by Spong’s work.”

Locust Jones, Lozenge of Dawn. Photo courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

Year: 2010

Work: Lozenge of Dawn 

Artist: Locust Jones

Judge: Rachel Kent, chief curator, Museum Of Contemporary Art, Sydney

What: The first time a judge from an Australian institution picked a winner, the award went to an Australian based artist. Curious. While the award’s judging is ostensibly blind, the process has long raised eyebrows as each judge is likely to be familiar with the work of many artists who enter. 

Jones work consisted of four handmade papier-mâche orbs – three collaged with world news headlines referring to the internet, climate change, and the ‘Predator’ drone fighter planes above Afghanistan. The fourth orb featured imagery of politicians, protestors and soldiers.

The possibility of an Australian bias in selection escaped media inspection. Instead, The Waikato Times managed to stir up some controversy by talking to Hamilton artists including Mark Curtis who said the winning work, “…looks like some nasty craft project.”

Media headline: ‘Something out of the orbinary’, Waikato Times

Controversy rating: Sucky.

Where is the artist now? Jones is represented by Sydney dealer Dominik Mersch. In 2013 he exhibited alongside Barry Cleavin at Christchurch Art Gallery. Jones’ 24HR News Feed was a 100-metre long wall drawing, “a response to an overload of news, politics and media misinformation”.

What the artist says now: “I was on a residency in Seoul when I won the prize in Waikato so I was kind of oblivious to the media blitzkrieg and the disgruntled artists. But I was made aware of it from some correspondence with [artist] Roger Boyce who alerted me to [a] blog by a guy from Auckland.”  

Andre Hemer, Blue Poles. Photo courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

Year: 2011

Work: Blue Poles

Artist: Andre Hemer

Judge: John Hurrell, artist, critic and editor of art reviews website Eyecontact

What: Blue Poles was a wall-painting of a QR code which, when scanned by an iPhone or barcode scanner, provided visitors with a hyperlink locating the exact position of Jackson Pollock’s famous painting Blue Poles, valued at approximately $40 million, and housed at the National Gallery of Australia.

Media headline: ‘Barcode Artwork A Winner’, the Waikato Times

In the article, Hemer said, “I’m very interested in the reactions of the techno-phobic nanas who may be frustrated by my work and just see it as an abstract painting.”

Controversy rating: Ask the techno-phobic nanas. 

Where is the artist now? Hemer is currently based in Vienna. In 2016 he was awarded the New Zealand Arts Foundation New Generation Award, and the Paramount Wallace Arts Award. His work is on the cover of Thames and Hudson’s publication 100 Painters of Tomorrow (2014).  

What the judge says now: “Usually, the judges put far too much work in. My year I enjoyed planning my show with elevation scale drawings of the different walls available, and thinking about groupings.”

Michael Parr and Blaine Western, Parallel of Life and Art. Photo courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

Year: 2012

Work: Parallel of Life and Art

Artists: Michael Parr and Blaine Western

Judge: Caterina Riva, then director of Artspace, Auckland, chose just 19 finalists from the 230 entries – the fewest number in the award’s history. (Riva is now curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.)

What: A cantilevered bus stop became the first and only winning artwork to be situated outside the museum. The bus stop was inspired by Hamilton’s Brutalist architecture of the 50s and 60s and was built by the artists from scratch. The stop sat on a patch of grass, its back provocatively turned away from the street. Parallel of Life and Art was just that – a bus stop frequented by the homeless and other locals.  

Media headline: ‘Waiting for someone to tell us what it means’, the Marlborough Express

Controversy rating: Like most public infrastructure, fairly controversial.

Where are they now? Michael Parr is an architect in London. Blaine Western has recently returned to Wellington after living in Berlin. 

What Western says now: “We left Parallel of Life and Art intentionally open to interpretation. It referenced a moment in art history but also something local, this openness meant that the artwork became a bit of a blank slate; there were a torrent of interpretations in the media that we never intended. We welcomed this at the time, but it massively shaped how I thought about the relationship between the art I made and those that would view and experience it.” 

Bronwyn Holloway-Smith, Pioneer City Flag. Image courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

Year: 2015

Work: Pioneer City Flag

Artist: Bronwyn Holloway-Smith

Judge: Aaron Kreisler, head of fine arts, University of Canterbury 

What: A conceptual off-world colonisation project represented by a flag and a media release, Pioneer City Flag was part of a larger online project dealing with the concept of colonisation on Mars. 

Media Headline ‘National Contemporary Art Awards winner out of this world’, Stuff

Controversy Rating: Is there life on Mars? Maybe. But there’s no media. 

Where is the artist now? Bronwyn Holloway-Smith is an investigative artist and the author of Wanted: The search for the modernist murals of E. Mervyn Taylor. She is currently researching the locations of ‘lost’ public artworks by artist Guy Ngan. 

What the judge says now: “Evaluating something digitally is very different from doing it on the ground with the physical object. I remember walking into the show and having that strange sense of being connected with it through my final selection, but also disconnected because I didn’t do any layout decisions. Bronwyn Holloway-Smith’s Pioneer City Flag stood out because it had a currency that spoke compellingly to the issues that were boiling away politically at the time in regards to the national flag debate.”

2018 National Contemporary Art Award winner Sarah Ziessen in front of her work You and Me. The Weight of History, with Brian Squair of Chow:Hill Architects and Jon Calder of Tompkins Wake Lawyers. Photo courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato.

Year: 2018

Work: You and Me. The Weight of History

Artist: Sarah Ziessen 

Judge: Reuben Friend, director of Pataka Art+Museum

What: Ziessen exhibited two literal coats of paint. Spunkily, they looked like something between contemporary Māori painting and the Split Enz costume department. “I was thinking about race and culture and how we define ourselves,” says Ziessen now, “because at the end of the day, we’re all just flesh and bone… We often judge each other by the colour of our skin, and clothes are like a second skin.”

Media headline:Rotorua artist’s almost avant-garde entry a winner of national award’, Rotorua Daily Post

Controversy rating: Skinny. 

Where is the artist now? Sarah Ziessen lives in Rotorua. “It came on the back of a really terrible couple of years and gave me a good shot to the ego in terms of validation,” she says of the award.

What the judge says now: “Sarah Ziessen’s artworks utilised paint skins in a way that I had not seen before, exploring the materiality and texture of paint as a painterly and sculptural medium, but also as a medium for discussions around the cultural histories and nuances of painting in Aotearoa… One of the jacket images referenced Māori kowhaiwhai, and the other referenced Gordon Walters’ well-known kowhaiwhai-inspired Ball and Stem paintings.

“As a judge, I liked the idea of cultural attire being something that we adorn on our physical bodies. I also enjoyed the contemplative and earnest investigation of painting in Aotearoa New Zealand. The work felt like it was trying to resolve a missing link in our art history, between Māori kōwhaiwhai and Western abstraction. I was delighted to discover that the runner up artist was also Sarah’s art tutor from Waiariki in Rotorua, Kereama Taepa.”

Judge Charlotte Huddleston with Dane Mitchell’s work Collateral. Photo courtesy of Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato.

But the Spinal Tap award for turning it up to 11 goes to…

Year: 2009

Work: Collateral

Artist: Dane Mitchell

Judge: Charlotte Huddleston, then curator of contemporary art, Te Papa Tongarewa, now director of St PAUL Street Gallery, Auckland University of Technology

What: Collateral was an artwork that realised the public’s worst fears: that contemporary art is rubbish. It consisted of the discarded freight wrapping and labels from the other entries, arranged on a white low-lying plinth as per the artist’s instructions. Mitchell compared his work to Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 work, Unhappy Readymade, which consisted of a set of instructions for hanging a geometry textbook in the wind. However, the genius of Collateral was that it exposed the divisive process of prizes: the creation of one winner and many losers. 

Mitchell says of the work: “In some ways, it was a comment on the context: the aspirations of all of us who entered, the mechanisms at play in the institution in the completion of the work, perhaps it also highlighted the competitiveness, the hopes of those who enter such awards.”

2009 was also the last year long term sponsor Trust Waikato backed the award – apparently, this was unrelated. 

Media headlines: 

‘Waikato Art Award winner just rubbish’, Waikato Times

‘Artist defends his award-winning rubbish’, Waikato Times

Artist fury over Rubbish Award’, New Zealand Herald 

‘One Artist’s Trash is Another Artist’s Meal Ticket’, Animal, NYC

‘Worth Every Penny’, The Global Times 

Controversy rating: 11/10.

Where are they now? Mitchell is the current representative of New Zealand at the Venice Biennale. His installation Post-hoc consists of 290 lists, a vast inventory of bygone things that have vanished from the world featuring everything from extinct species to ghost towns. Across Venice, a network of cell phone tower ‘pine trees’ announce and transmit these lists, while in the pavilion, they print out, at the speed of speech, in an old library. Downstairs, an anechoic chamber records and contains the spoken lists and projects them over an infinite horizon.  

Paul Henry is still in broadcasting. 

What happened to Collateral? “The work was returned to me after the end of the exhibition,” says Mitchell. “Interestingly the museum did not pack the work as they might an artwork, they simply placed it in the box as one might with a pile of rubbish and sent it back to me.” 

Some people think your entry was a stunt? What do you say to that? “I say, rubbish. There is a long history of instructional works, so it was hardly a radical act. I also don’t think the work is cynical, which a stunt can only be.”

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Congratulations to all the artists, judges, sponsors and staff who have annoyed, puzzled, perplexed and astounded the people of Waikato for 20 years. The other winners were: Geoffrey Heath and Joanna Chow (2004), Ann Shelton (2006), Boris Dornbusch (2007), Patrick Lundberg (2008), Dieneke S Jansen (2013), Deanna Dowling (2014), Sorawit Songsataya (2016) and Kim Pieters (2017). For the full list of past winners and their works look here.

As for this year’s media headline? Nana’s Birthday Takes the Cake at the 20th National Contemporary Art Awards. 

20th National Contemporary Art Award finalists exhibition, until 20 November, Waikato Museum 

Dunedin-based artist Ayesha Green with her winning work Nana’s Birthday (A Big Breath).



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