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Our world of art

Te Papa has invited the public to ‘discover our world of art’ in their new purpose built gallery, Toi Art.

We sent a curator and an artist to investigate and report back on their discoveries.

Toi Art entrance, Détour (installation view), Michael Parekowhai, 2018. Photograph by Maarten Holl. Photo courtesy of Te Papa.

The curator: Helen Kedgley

The bold rehang of Toi Art at Te Papa certainly created a buzz on opening night and when I returned a few weeks later the galleries were still buzzing. No longer marginalised in a claustrophobic attic space, the newly renovated galleries are now on the fourth floor directly opposite the café. Now there will be no missing Toi Art at Te Papa: even the fluorescent red lifts are covered with messages urging visitors to head to the galleries.

The kaupapa of the rehang is ‘to create new ways of thinking about how art operates in Te Papa’, and Michael Parekowhai’s newly commissioned project, Détour, in the ‘threshold’ gallery certainly sets the tone. Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s portable exhibition-in-a-suitcase, Boîte-en-valise, Parekowhai has created his own ‘portable’ exhibition, but massive in scale. Using bespoke scaffolding Parekowhai has suspended a selection of treasures from Te Papa’s collection, allowing the viewer to see both sides of the paintings. Works by Colin McCahon, Theo Schoon, Frances Hodgkins, Gordon Walters, Christo, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Claes Oldenberg hang alongside some of Parekowhai’s recent works. My favourite is Marcel Duchamp’s magical box containing miniature reproductions of his ready-mades. Parekowhai’s giant plastic elephant is suspended on top of the scaffolding (the elephant in the room) while Constable Plum Bob and two enormous, grinning monkeys sit on park benches beneath the scaffolding. Détour is a funny, irreverent, subversive work and I loved it.

Nearby, two temporary exhibitions complete the vast space. The first, Lisa Walker: I want to go to my bedroom, but I can’t be bothered, is a delightfully funky retrospective of the work of the world-renowned jeweller, installed on pastel plinths in large glass cases. Nearby a vibrant, uplifting retrospective exhibition, Pacific Sisters: Fashion Archivists, celebrates the twenty-six-year history of the collective of Maori and Pacific fashion designers, performers and musicians. The exhibition is superbly designed with lightboxes, wall quotes and large-scale back-lit photographs giving coherence to the extraordinary range of Pasifika costumes, film, video, photography and performance art.

Upstairs, the theme of cross-cultural exchange continues. While there is no doubt that Maori and Pacific art sits at the centre of this rehang of the national collection, the focus is widened to embrace cross-cultural conversations between Maori, Pacific, pakeha and international artists (interestingly moving beyond Te Papa’s previous focus on biculturalism). Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand, explores questions of art, identity and cross-cultural exchange, and features a large salon-style hang of historic portraits of Maori, Pacific and European subjects. The second exhibition, Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa, investigates abstract art from a New Zealand and indigenous perspective.

The show is beautifully installed with lots of generous space around the works and minimal but excellent support material. What really impressed me was the clever selection of artwork stimulating dialogue across cultures. Colin McCahon’s iconic Koru, 1,2,3, for example, sings alongside Papua New Guinean artist Brenda Ke’s exquisite work Wo’ohohe Ground. Ingenious juxtapositions create connections between artists across time and space such as Len Lye’s magical video, Tusalava, made when he travelled to Samoa to study tapa design in 1929, paired with Julian Hooper’s recent paintings. Three of Ngataiharuru Taepa’s recent works exploring Maori kowhaiwhai sit alongside Richard Killeen’s painting Pacific Plywood (1977), inspired by Pacific manulua motifs, and Filipe Tohu’s hanging sculptures. Lonnie Hutchinson’s dramatic work Te ora me te mate (life and death) (2017) hangs beside a striking Fijian tapa and a stunning Ralph Hotere painting, Orange on black (1968).

Nearby in an exquisitely colour co-ordinated room, Julian Dashper’s vibrant Drumheads echo Richard Killeen’s circular painting Hanging Lace (1975) and Annie O’Neil’s crocheted circles, Rainbow Country, of 2001–07, all enhanced by the jaunty sounds of Len Lye’s sensational videos Color Cry, Kaleidoscope and A Color Box created in 1952. Elsewhere in another beautifully designed black-and white-themed room, a magical dialogue is created between the work of Reuben Paterson, Gordon Walters and renowned English Op artist Bridget Riley.

The previous narrow staircase that led to the atrium has been replaced by a generous, beautifully designed stairwell. The old stairwell now houses Tiffany Singh’s exquisite new work, Indra’s Bow, created entirely from natural materials. Unfortunately, however, the pre-existing fifth-floor walkway remains in place, cutting awkwardly through the entrance gallery.

There is no doubt Te Papa’s repositioning of contemporary art is a success. Twenty years after the contentious Parade exhibition, Te Papa is finally letting the art tell the story.

Tūrangawaewae Art and New Zealand, installation view, 2018. Photograph by Michael O'Neill. Photo courtesy of Te Papa

The artist: Sam Trubridge

Te Papa’s new gallery Toi Art represents a fresh direction for the museum, examining and mirroring cultures with a reflective gaze, creating a dialogue between the twinned concepts of ‘Toi’ and ‘Art’. Temporary exhibitions include Parekowhai’s fusion of curator and artist Lisa Walker’s irreverent jewellery, and the radical fashion of Pacific Sisters. Upstairs, longer-term exhibitions provide contemplative studies of New Zealand and Pacific art.

Parekowhai’s Détour includes works by art greats like Man Ray, Christo, Marcel Duchamp, and Natalia Gontcharova alongside New Zealand artists Frances Hodgkins, Theo Schoon, and Colin McCahon. Parekowhai plays artist and provocateur by juxtaposing works and constructing systems for their presentation. Scaffold framing and perspex cases float items in the space, allowing us to explore the backs of canvases, walk around objects, and climb through an art jungle-gym. Hodgkins’ liquid ripples of paint are hung next to Schoon’s photos of bubbling mud-pools, and a proto-cubist portrait by Gontcharova sits alongside drawings of Māori tatau.

Parekowhai’s own works include grimacing statues of giant bobble-headed monkeys swinging off the furniture and clever visual puns – ‘the elephant in the room’ and ‘forest for the trees’ – but also subtler narratives. Set into the foot of a blank wall, for example, a tiny model shop-front, based on Christo’s technical drawing for a pink store-front with draped windows, is barely noticeable. Inside this miniature, Parekowhai rewards the inquisitive eye with relics from the first US moon-mission, gifted to the people of New Zealand by President Nixon. It is an ambivalent and captivating encounter with history, shadowed by the failures of Nixon’s leadership and brightened by a gesture of inclusivity.

Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists is a stunning collection of more than twenty ensembles made over the past three decades. It provides much-needed recognition for a body of work that brings together fashion, performance-art, dance, video, and activism. Through their mash-up of traditional garments and materials with radical fashion and synthetic low-grade materials, the Pacific Sisters create rich dialogues between Pacific tropes, contemporary concerns, and a focus on the future that could only come from our ‘liquid continent’. Cowrie shells are suggestively strapped in front of groins, video-tape is woven into an inky black korowai, there are tapa-cloth jeans and crop-tops, and through it all the fervent tāmurē drumming overlaid with house music beats. As well as challenging the image of the demure Pacific ‘dusky maiden’, this audacious collection of beautifully constructed outfits liberates materials from the world of tourist boutiques and ‘cultural performance’, and others from landfills. Hundreds of lolly-wrappers make up one dress, while tusks, mother-of-pearl, and natural fibres are just as likely to feature. Anathema to the conservative colours and patterns of contemporary fashion, the Pacific Sisters encourage us to look at new ways of dressing and acting up.

Lisa Walker’s exhibition I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered applies a similarly irreverent approach to jewellery, also juxtaposing lowly objects and materials with their valued counterparts. There is a jar containing a pearl and a fart. An old laptop is turned into a pendant. A Tip-Top ice-cream tub full of plastic fruit is unceremoniously hung on a string to become a necklace. Walker applies a measured use of crudity, kitsch, and detritus to elevate objects, while also poking fun at the role of jewellery on our wrists, necks, fingers, and earlobes. There are visible adhesives, aggressive manipulations of materials, and often the pendant string is used as framing device to thrust an unusual object or material into the world of accessory. Photographs of these items being worn capture their ‘models’ unaware – often friends at parties sheepishly flaunting these oversized accessories around their necks or wrists. Like the Pacific Sisters, Walker liberates materials from familiar worlds, while also questioning the medium she works in.

Kaleidoscope and Tūrangawaewae are longer-running exhibitions from the Te Papa collection. Tapa cloth from Papua New Guinea and Fiji is presented next to video by Len Lye and paintings by Bridget Riley, provoking questions around the origins and ‘discovery’ of abstract art practices. With work by Angela Tiatia, Janet Lilo, and Tiffany Singh the curation also celebrates young New Zealand artists and new media. Narratives connect across exhibitions, with Tiatia’s Hibiscus Rose Sinensis and Robyn Kahukiwa’s Ko wai au? Who am I? – both of which fix the viewer with a gaze that reclaims the Pacific female body from Gauguin and other image-makers since. Singh’s installation Total Internal Reflection is also a brave addition, dedicating a whole room to a glade of colour-changeable lighting, where visitors gather as if in a park, enjoying the summery brightness of the space and its lush spectrums. A wall of 17–19th-century paintings and artefacts wonderfully captures the frisson of colonial contact and the question of what is alien: is it Captain Cook leaning on a rock with a telescope held casually in one fist? is it the settler family with their sheep and nine patterns of tartan? – or is it the Whanganui chief Taketake with his carved, painted face? As if to complicate this uncertainty, there are two mirrors hung amongst the ornate frames, one carved with deep koru, the other gilded and corniced.

Te Papa has often seemed an awkward environment for contemporary art, but this collection begins to redress these problems. A powerful gaze peers out through all five exhibitions, challenging assumptions of European primacy in art historical canons, asserting Aotearoa New Zealand’s own toi art practices while asking keen questions about where it has come from and where it might be going.

Kaleidoscope Abstract Aotearoa installation view, Toi Art, 2018. Photograph by Maarten Holl. Photo courtesy of Te Papa.

About the authors

Helen Kedgley

Currently a freelance curator, Helen Kedgley was Director of Pataka Art + Museum from 2012 until 2015. As Senior Curator there she had curated over 80 exhibitions, many of which have toured nationally and internationally. She is a graduate of Victoria University, Massey University, the Ecole National Superieure des Beaux Arts and the Ecole du Louvre.

Her international museum work includes the Science Museum in Oxford and The National Gallery of Zimbabwe. She has served on many arts governance and advisory boards and has been invited to judge numerous art awards both in New Zealand and overseas.

Sam Trubridge

Sam Trubridge is an artist, performance designer, and director of transdisciplinary performance company The PlayGround NZ, and of The Performance Arcade: an annual festival of performance art on Wellington Waterfront. He creates solo performance art works, installations, and theatrical productions.

First published Art Zone #74


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