Anna Knox spoke to the curator of a new exhibition of Guy Ngan’s work at the gallery in the heart of his home.
Artist Guy Ngan and the art establishment never seemed to care much for each other. But a new exhibition raises questions about that mutual disregard.
Ngan lived in Stokes Valley, Upper Hutt, for more than 60 years where he built his family home – itself a work of art – with his wife Jean. He contributed over 40 works of public art to Aotearoa, including Forest in the Sun, which was commissioned for the Beehive’s opening, sold a prolific number of works to private New Zealanders, and was the director of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts for a decade.
Yet he was reticent toward galleries, and didn’t set foot in the Dowse, the Hutt City’s gallery, for 20 years. Ngan died in 2017 both beloved and ignored. Now, a retrospective exhibition at the Dowse showcases a broad body of his work and explores his identity and place in New Zealand art.
There’s a sense of apology from the art world to Ngan for overlooking him. But would the artist have been concerned about that? I spoke to the exhibition’s curator, Sian van Dyk, about sculptures in sheds, curating Guy’s work, and the changing way we value art.
When did you first encounter Guy Ngan’s work?
In 2006 I was studying in Palmerston North where it was discovered that one of Guy’s public sculptures had made its way — as the suburban myth goes — into a farmer’s shed. The Sculpture Trust saved it and put it up on the library wall where it still is today. Then I came to Wellington to see a City Gallery show and Guy’s work was there too, so I thought he was really well known.
And how did this show come about?
Our previous senior curator, Emma Bugden, used a group show in 2014 to re-engage with Guy because we were under the impression he was not very happy with the Dowse – he hadn’t set foot in the Dowse for 20 years. She went to visit him and his wife, Jean, in their home. And then he came and visited here. They started working on a show together, but he was just becoming too unwell and asked to pull out, and we left it at that. Then after he passed away in 2017 his daughter Liz came back to us and asked if we’d still like to do the exhibition, with her full support.
Guy didn’t set foot in the Dowse for 20 years? Do you know why?
Not really. But his relationship with the idea of public galleries was tenuous because he was very interested in making public works (outside of gallery spaces), and he wanted to really connect with people.
Habitation is the name of the exhibition. It’s also the name of the series of sculptures in the centre of the space. Is that Guy’s title?
Yes. He started making these works, and then with time, started to give them the name “Habitation”. If you look at the object list you’ll see they’re just numbered. He numbered everything, which reflected how pragmatic he was.
There are over 200 Habitation sculptures! He was prolific. How did you choose which pieces to showcase? As a curator, how do you make decisions about what matters?
There are always thousands of stories you could tell. When I curate a show like this I think – what is the Dowse story? What reflects our characteristics as an institution, our whakapapa, our history, and what story can we tell that no-one else can? I felt a very strong connection to the Habitation works. His daughter Liz had also talked a lot about their house as an organism. So the house, and these sculptures were a beginning point. For me, an exhibition is a second in the universe, it’s there for such a short time and it’s about providing a starting point for people to want to know more.
The first thing the Habitation sculptures evoked for me was a sense of security and containment, of home. They had an immediate calming effect on my mind.
It’s great that you got that sense of connection with home because everything in this room is very much tied up with his home that he built. I think they’re very well-resolved works. There are some lovely descriptions people have used with regards to his home – ‘ordered chaos’ – there was so much stuff in there, but it still had that sense of calmness.
Annie Lee’s photos of Guy’s house, which are part of the exhibition, are such a contrast to the relatively sparse arrangement of works. They’re jam-packed with objects, books, plants. It’s such a biographical insight.
Yes, two of the major themes in the show are place, belonging and identity, and the connection between the man-made and the organic. The photos of the home are in the centre of the exhibition space to show where those ideas started happening.
In her essay which also features in the book that accompanies this exhibition, Emma Ng writes about “filtering Ngan’s work through the tastes of curators (likely Pākehā), in order to shape it into an appealing oeuvre for dominant art-world tastes.” She says that “Ngan would likely have had no interest in subjecting his work to such a process.” As his curator, what impact do you think your identity and your thoughts on identity have on your curation?
I identify as Pākehā, but I’m actually South African, so I live with a huge amount of white guilt. And I believe really strongly in trying to lift up alternative voices, and that’s why we invited Emma to write in the book. I spoke with a lot to people who cared for him and knew him really well. I spoke to Yan Wang, a professor of Chinese Studies at Victoria University, and we did things like talk about Guy’s seal and incorporated that into the title of the show. I really wanted to draw from his Chinese heritage and show how that influenced his style of modernism.
I imagine it’s something to be constantly negotiating. Our art galleries are historically pretty Western-centred institutions.
Yes, even the way he sort of slipped out of mainstream art histories, which were very Pākehā centred, and some of the criticism he received from some of his exhibitions showed how people had no interest in understanding his background. Even by having this show, and talking about his background, we are wanting to take a better step. And Liz Ngan, his daughter, is the silent curator in this show. She let me take the lead and was very generous in sharing information, but she read through everything and oversaw it.
In Ng’s essay, there’s also the argument that Ngan has been overlooked, partly because of his Chinese heritage. She says that: “Despite his prolific output, Ngan received scant attention from major public galleries and little critical writing engaged with his work,’ and that ‘as a result, his practice has not been brought into Aotearoa’s art historical fold for proper consideration’.
I whole-heartedly agree. And that’s another reason why we wanted to have a show. When I wrote to public galleries to ask who had his work in their collections, almost nobody did. So I had to piece together his oeuvre by looking at auction records, which I’ve never done before.
But his public works are well-known?
Yes, the public works are actually part of the overlooking. Makers of art history have historically had a tendency to be very focused on galleries and this idea of taste-makers. And Guy was reticent to show in art galleries. And at the same time, these public works are commercial. That combination of drawing on his heritage, and being an artist that was very focused on public art saw him being excluded.
Do you think Guy was concerned about this? Did he ever talk about this exclusion himself?
No. Absolutely not concerned. He did what he did, and followed his own path and didn’t care about trends, and drew from what was true for him and really believed in everyday people connecting with art.
Has the way his work is valued changed over time?
It’s this strange dual world. He’s been connecting with New Zealanders for 70 years. I would say thousands of pieces are in private collections. There’s a real value in him having stayed true to himself and bringing his own cultural inflection to what he made and everyday New Zealanders connecting with that. And I think the way that art institutions are changing, a lot of people are very aware that they’re Pākehā led, and we want to bring as much cultural diversity into our spaces as we can, though at the same time you don’t want to look like you’re speaking for other people.
If Guy could see this exhibition, and people appreciating his work, what would he make of it do you think?
I think if he could connect with people, he would be happy. I hope he would feel really pleased that we’ve brought in his home and talked about how important it was to the rest of his work, and the interconnection of everything, his history, the environment.
Why do you think it’s important for people to come to the exhibition?
He was a New Zealander, and a person who made work about being here, and everybody can learn something from that.
This content was created in paid partnership with The Dowse Art Museum. Learn more about our partnerships here.