Elf on a shelf drops in on Quasi and makes a new bestie.

Art on a shelf: 2019 in review

A conversation between editors about what made an impression in New Zealand visual arts in 2019. We unpack the highs and lows, and the exhibitions both naughty and nice. Warning: includes light interference from Elf on a Shelf. 

After six months of The Spinoff Art, co-editors Megan Dunn and Mark Amery pause for pavlova and reflect on the best and the worst of 2019. Then slip up over a banana skin on their way out. 

Culture wars: Theo Schoon, #timesup and the mic drop moments 

Mark: “Is it time Gauguin got cancelled” ran the recent New York Times headline about museums reassessing exhibiting the sexually dubious French painter. I picked this up after Bill Manhire noted the NYT’s use of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s poem Two Nudes On a Tahitian Beach, 1894. It has a great opening line: “Gauguin, you piss me off.” 

Deep in the Pacific in 2019, in the so-called culture wars the artillery started to roll in over the fields of our art history. With protests over Theo Schoon, and in the midst of a McCahon centenary celebration, we talked about it a lot. And how painful it was that all the calling-out took energy away from wider attention being drawn to brilliant contemporary art (as Shannon Te Ao beautifully noted). As the whakatauki says, ka mua, ka muri. Perhaps we need to get better at putting our past before us to go forward?

Curator’s Tour of Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art, July 27, 2019 in Wellington (Photo: Elias Rodriguez)

Megan: Theo Schoon: Split Level View Finder pissed many people off. Who shows are given to, who gets the air time and why they get that air time matters… however, Schoon’s own story as a gay Dutch immigrant is also complex. I attended some of the weekend talks on Schoon and was blown away by the speakers. Artist and curator Nathan Pohio gave a Ngāi Tahu perspective on Te Wai Pounamu rock drawings… Pohio’s sadness was palpable. The Ngāi Tahu people had their land sold out from under them, their access to the caves cut off. Pohio has had to first encounter the rock drawings through Schoon’s photographs. 

Next, John Perry, the former director of the Rotorua Museum, spoke about Schoon. It was transformative to hear from someone who actually knew Schoon, who, for what it’s worth, died in poverty. Perry – a true eccentric and wonderful speaker – read aloud from Schoon’s last will and testament. It was a mic-drop moment. 

What were the mic-drop moments for you? 

Groundswell: Avant-garde Auckland 1971–1979 (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2019

Mark: A little sad that in such a tumultuous year some timidity and institutional insulation sees a lack of mic-drop moments for me. Artist and critic Terrence Handscomb wrote on Eyecontact, “We saw at Ihumātao more convincing urgency, passion and intensity than anything that has been seen in New Zealand art for some time.” He notes the importance of art student-led activism – so maybe we’ll get bolder in public space.

It was deeply ironic that Auckland Art Gallery began 2019 with a great show of politically active avant-garde work but it was from some 50 years ago – Groundswell (“Fuck Museum Art!” ran the headline on one pamphlet artefact). Then they had a show from the long-running Guerrilla Girls from the US. What was absent? The present! So much creative energy outside the building. Might our public institutions be more relevant by actually being more responsive? Their public programming often better reflects that.

Elf on a Shelf drops into Groundswell at Auckland Art Gallery to decide who has been naughty and nice. Results: inconclusive.

Megan: If anyone dropped in to see what condition our condition was in this year it was the giant hand. The art world thought it was all over in 2016 when Warren Feeney published “Ten reasons Why Christchurch Art Gallery’s Quasi must go”. And Quasi did go… to the roof of City Gallery Wellington, but then he went viral. And Walking Boy walked in to Potters Park. The public responses to both these sculptures are a reminder that art brings the politics of the viewer into sharp view. 

(Left) Hoda Afshar, Portrait of Behrouz Boochani, from the series Remain, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. (Right) Hoda Afshar, Portrait of Shamindan & Ramsiyar, from the series Remain, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. From exhibition The Shouting Valley, Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland

Mark: Good point: that provocation of the individual artist continues to provide lightning rods for the many. Interesting, meanwhile, to look at art world responses to Ihumātao and Manus Island respectively. For both art world and government, Ihumātao seemed too close to home.

In such a heated year of call-out culture, with our visual culture dominated by social media, art provides a more reflective space to tease out complexities through exploring new visual strategies. The agency art has is spatial rather than polemic – providing space. Then the conversation (for better and worse) begins. For me the Gus Fisher Gallery exhibition The Shouting Valley in Auckland illustrated this. Great to see this reopened nimble university gallery create space in the culture for political discussion.

Art’s agency was further highlighted by the arrival of author Behrouz Boochani, liberated from Manus Island, into Aotearoa, thanks to Word Christchurch. He was hosted by a literary festival and then Gus Fisher Gallery and City Gallery Wellington for talks as part of exhibitions he had a part in.

City Gallery Talk: Hoda Afshar and Behrouz Boochani, November 17, 2019 in Wellington (Photo: Elias Rodriguez)

Megan: Yes, seeing Boochani and artist Hoda Afshar in conversation with Murdoch Stephens at City Gallery was another highlight. They discussed how journalistic images of refugees in the media desensitise audiences. Afshar’s Remain portraits, seen in The Shouting Valley, arose out of a need to humanise the experiences of refugees, creating empathy. 

The backstory to this collaboration was fascinating. Afshar came to Manus Island pretending to be a tourist. She and Boochani and other detainees then worked together to create a film and the Remain photographs. 

Originally for his portrait Boochani wanted to wear an octopus on his head and look out through its tentacles – the octopus was going to represent the Australian government. But on the day of the shoot, the fisherman couldn’t find an octopus. So he opted for fire because of its Kurdish symbolism. 

Mark: I’m not sure whether this qualifies, but someone probably dropped something: Gregory Burke getting the Auckland Art Gallery job, then stepping down over misconduct allegations in Canada. For a moment it looked like someone whose name artists here knew, with dynamic international experience to boot, might get to head a New Zealand public gallery. And then, boom. 

Dane Mitchell, Post hoc, New Zealand Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2019

Megan: Not a mic drop, but a strange act of serendipity when the close of Dane Mitchell’s pavilion Post hoc at the Venice Biennale coincided with the acqua alta flooding. Post hoc was an installation based around lists of lost ephemera, from black holes and fossils to galleries now lost in space and time. The pavilion was set in a marine science building. Upstairs, in an abandoned library, list after list of vanished things printed out non-stop for the seven months. Mitchell had also installed several ‘Frankenpines’, stealth transmission towers disguised as pine trees, across Venice. The trees broadcast an automated voice reading from  Mitchell’s inventory of loss. After the recent flooding, photos emerged of a real tree upended, next to an upright ‘Frankenpine’… now that we’re post Post hoc, Venice as another item on the list of vanished things laps ever closer. 

Mark: And speaking of climate change and Gauguin piss-off,  selecting a fa’afafine from a Pacific Island to represent us next at Venice felt like smart cultural diplomacy. 

Megan: It will be good to see what Yuki Kihara does in 2021, providing Venice isn’t underwater. But what – beyond what we covered here on The Spinoff Art – did we see and love this year?

Brent Harris, Peaks (to the river), 2019

Megan: Hands down my number one show was Peaks, by Brent Harris, at Robert Heald Gallery. A New Zealand-born artist, Harris has been based in Australia for many years, and now he arrives back on the local scene, with staggering mythic, Pop-tastic paintings that read like an AO version of the Moomintrolls. The disembodied red gloves, the seedy views of Mount Taranaki, and what is Snufkin doing in that yellow hat? A primal part of the psyche has been tapped. Peaks springs from the same fertile zone of the collective subconscious as Aldous Harding’s The Barrel. There’s only one thing left to do: show the ferret to the egg. 

I also adored Meg Porteous’s photography show Tears in Rain at Hopkinson Mossman. It reminded me of the granular soft, feminine imagery of David Hamilton. But Porteous’s images of youth and young womanhood have switched the narrative from 70s soft porn to something less sentimental. Her self-portrait, NZ Surfer, is vicious and sweet. A kick in the teeth. 

Meg Porteous, NZ Surfer, gash gore of the month (reject), 2019

Mark: Agreed. Loved that Meg Porteous show – a smart, affecting take from a new lens on Rear Window and the difficult politics of the selfie. And Aldous’s Zoo Eyes music video by Martin Sagadin deserves a shout-out of its own for its contribution to clowning and puppetry in a South Island Vigil landscape.

Installation view, Terminus: Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne (Photo: Christian Capurro)

I’ve just returned from Melbourne where at the Heide Museum I finally got to don the VR goggles in Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s National Gallery of Australia commission Terminus. Extraordinary. Phantasmagorical use of new technology matched with incredible vision for an immersive alternative animated world. Though what it all meant, what story it had to tell, or had to say… incredibly it showed in Tauranga first, but there I couldn’t get near the goggles for all the kids. It’s now on a national Australian tour – let’s hope the rest of New Zealand gets to enjoy it thereafter.

Megan: Yes, location counts. I feel aware I’m showing my Wellington-centric bias on art and also my predilection for oddballs and eccentricity. On that note, I really enjoyed Ian Scott: Realist paintings from the late 1960s at Michael Lett Gallery in Auckland.  I’d never seen Scott’s landscape paintings of serene blue skies pierced by white mountains and pointy-nosed airplanes. It’s a missed opportunity for an Air New Zealand advertising campaign! Meanwhile, the epic Motor Rocker is vintage Scott: babes, clouds, well-trimmed bushes – I saw this painting after watching Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Sympatico. Te Papa allegedly turned down the opportunity to own Motor Rocker. I say we give it to Tarantino for Christmas instead.

Ian Scott, Motor Rocker, 1969-70

Mark: On a different visual note, I also wished we’d found room to cover On the Last Afternoon: Disrupted Ecologies and the Work of Joyce Campbell at Victoria University’s remarkable Adam Art Gallery, which took over all the gallery’s deep cavities like a deep-sea rockfish in an underwater cave. Flashes of silver light in black and white depths. If only this immersive show had had even a 10th of the attention McCahon had in 2019. Tour please! 

On the Last Afternoon: Disrupted Ecologies and the Work of Joyce Campbell, Adam Art Gallery, 2019

And other trends?

Mark: Applying cultural knowledge: threading and making together were a noticeable trend in 2019, particularly related to Māori and Pacific Island collective practice. Key trailblazers in recent years have included Robin White, Maureen Lander and the Mata Aho Collective. But this year things started to get more inclusive. The group exhibition Names Held in Our Mouths at Te Uru Waitākere in Titirangi also broke the mould, looking at artists and collectives passing down cultural knowledge. And in what they called an act of love, the Pacifica Mamas adorned the Auckland Town Hall with a giant ei, or flower garland, made of recycled plastics. That felt like a moment.

Megan: Not a trend as such but loads of musical chairs at galleries. Hamish McKay downsized, Hopkinson Mossman lost its Hopkinson and is now simply Mossman, Millers O’Brien is now just Millers, Bowerbank Ninow relocated to Lorne Street, and the auction arm of its business was absorbed by Webbs. Ema Tavola opened Vunilagi Vou, the first art gallery in Ōtāhuhu. Meanwhile, in the public gallery sector, there have been new directors, but more importantly, the recent super-sizing of Courtney Johnston – once the director of The Dowse Art Museum, now the youngest CEO of Te Papa. Courtney is a terrific art advocate so this bodes well.

Another emblem of change: the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery introduced a new role for an “indigenous curator, contemporary art/kairauhī taketake toi onāianei” and Auckland Art Gallery created a new position for a “curator Pacific art”, recently announced as Ane Tonga. These shifts feel like part of a global moment too, calling for changes to leadership structures from within.

Pacifica Mamas, Rakei note Moana Nui o Kiva, Auckland Town Hall, 2019

Missed opportunities: the headlines The Spinoff Art didn’t get to run

  • Aussie rules: Auckland Art Gallery, strewth, that’s four Australian directors in a row!
  • Top 10 works about climate change and how to offset your carbon emissions getting to them
  • Gallery entrance fee introduced, visitors scarper?
  • Why Auckland should be the centre of Pacific art and culture, but isn’t
  • Art your kids will love that the art world hates*

(*On that note, head to Te Papa with the kids for Wonderland. It’s fun, with much memorabilia including creepy props from Jan Švankmajer’s stop animation Alice.)

We could go on. Instead, we’ll take a Christmas break.

The Spinoff Art will return in 2020, older but not necessarily wiser.

Elf on a shelf eyes up Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian but decides not to take a bite.

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