Whenua is a Portal
Manawa mai tēnei i Ahuone mai
Manawa mai tēnei i whenuatia
Manawa mai tēnei he kapunga oneone
Tēnei te mauri
E whakaata mai nei e
Verses and Visions of Ship Nails and Tail Feathers
The ways that we curate history can make all the difference in the ways we value each other now. As I round the corner on a decade spent working in heritage and curatorial collection management, my beloved museum wrapped in its gothic stone cloak is under decant. It seems the tide is always high, and my mind needs to revel in the freedom of writing in a foreign tongue about that which matters to me. So here is a collection of verses and visions, data and drama about art and artefacts intended to counter what I would describe as the lingering monocular view of histories and heritage material.
“If you think about it, digital, it’s something you play with string, your fingers and a language of computers, strings of binary code. The interplay of old and new. ”
Cut It Out
Make no bones about it, Ink on Paper: Aotearoa New Zealand Printmakers of the Modern Era is an exhibition I have long wanted to curate. I acquired my first print direct from Ralph Hotere when I was an art history student here in Christchurch many years ago. Hotere was the artist that piqued my interest in printmaking, but it is the Aotearoa New Zealand printmakers of the 1910s through to the 1950s that I love the most. Ink on Paper focuses on a generation of artists that were at the forefront of the medium when, following the printmaking revival in Britain, printmaking in Aotearoa was increasingly becoming accepted as an art form rather than simply a method of reproduction.
It’s among the best-loved paintings in the Gallery’s collection, celebrated for the connections and conversations it generates between different generations. People who, as children, encountered Petrus van der Velden’s Burial in the winter on the island of Marken [The Dutch Funeral] (1872) in the neoclassical spaces of the old Robert McDougall Art Gallery now bring their own grandchildren to Te Puna o Waiwhetū to see it.
In the late 1980s, a significant shift for photography in Aotearoa New Zealand was identified in two art publications. The essays and images in these books showed how artists were utilising new strategies, breaking away from the prevailing documentary photography tradition that was, and still is, widespread in Aotearoa. Six Women Photographers (1986) was edited by artists Merylyn Tweedie and Rhondda Bosworth for Photoforum; and Imposing Narratives: Beyond the Documentary in Recent New Zealand Photography (1989) was the catalogue for an exhibition curated by Gregory Burke for City Gallery Wellington. The artists included in both publications questioned in various ways the assumptions and rules of image making, manipulating the media and making a political move from the standpoint of taking a photograph, to making one. No longer was a photograph considered a truthful representation of reality. Instead, photography was seen as a product of, and a participant in, current social and cultural values.
James Oram: By Spectral Hands
In the American psychological thriller Severance, the employees of Lumon Industries undergo a surgical procedure that separates their work and non-work memories. The uncanny plot unfolds into what feels like a terrifyingly accurate portrayal of the power that corporations exert over our lives, and the integration of the self into capitalism. In this fictional world Mark and his co-workers willingly join the corporation, blind to what it is they do as part of the Macrodata Refinement team. The series offers insight into how data has become a core part of capitalism, despite the over-abundance of information in a system founded on scarcity. Further, Severance’s data sorters must categorise and file the numbers that appear on their computer screens based on their emotional response to them, rather than applying logic, thereby integrating their feelings to the digital realm.
A Fireside Whodunnit
Father’s Tea entered the collection as an unexpected and welcome gift in 2020, together with a small portrait sketch and a larger interior scene by the same artist, both signed ‘EC’. Given by the granddaughter of artist Elizabeth Graham Chalmers (1870–1951), the paintings were old and well-travelled, needing the kind of care that galleries can provide. Father’s Tea also presented an intriguing puzzle around authorship, which has only recently been firmly re-established. As our research continued into 2021, local conservator Olivia Pitts undertook cleaning and repairs in preparation for its inclusion in the 2021–22 exhibition Leaving for Work. This included the removal of old varnish, infilling, and repainting areas of loss, and saw its strength vibrantly reinstated. Completing the restoration was the expert repair and re-gilding of the original ‘Watts profile’ frame by framing conservator Anne-Sophie Ninino.
Impasse after impasse
"Reinventions can be local, low-key, small scale and subtle in their specific effects."
Allan Smith, 1995
Among the selection of paintings that make up Delirium Crossing, Barbara Tuck’s Iris Gate stands apart. Painted in 1999, it is the earliest work in the show. Rather than the single square paintings that follow, this is a set of six rectangular canvases. Though small in scale, they are notable for their gestural vigour and looseness, their coloured grounds looking stubbornly like painted surfaces upon which figural elements float like collage fragments. No airy atmospherics, vertiginous perspectives, intricate tracery: ‘landscape’ has yet to appear. Equally, recalling earlier works, Iris Gate departs from the shaped, multipart, laser-cut aluminium paintings for which the artist became known in the early 1990s. Against the flow of art history, it marks a return to convention, in both format and facture, a backwards move to rectilinearity and the brush.
It is mid-winter, and Cheryl Lucas is making work right down to the wire. The survey Shaped by Schist and Scoria opens at the end of August, and she has been working without a break since being awarded the Creative New Zealand Craft/Object Fellowship in 2019. This timespan, which will be inevitably thought of as the start of the Covid years, saw Lucas develop a new body of work that responded to a deep need, personal and societal, for protection while continuing to take risks. Protection from contagions, from financial hardship, food insecurity, the cost of living, global warming, economic recession and the violence that invariably attends disasters, big and small. Protection from whatever is coming at you. But not to deflect it, to integrate it, to use it as fuel. Grist to the mill.