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Auckland needs a dedicated contemporary art museum

May 27, 2016 Art

Above: Works End, by John Reynolds, at the Julian Dashper & Friends exhibition.

Anthony Byrt has a capital idea 

At Victoria University’s Adam Art Gallery, 12 video screens hang about a metre above head height. The room is painted dark grey and lit by the soft, glacial haze of low-wattage fluorescent tubes. On most of the screens, we watch the same man carry out ritualistic art acts: tethered to a 44-gallon drum or bouncing as high as he can on a small trampoline; lifting weights onto a barbell, then slathering them in petroleum jelly and pigment; scaling a 40-foot wall dressed as General Douglas MacArthur. In the most recent work, a women’s American football team hauls an enormous graphite rock around the walls of a museum, leaving a scraped line in their wake.

The videos are all parts of Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint series. Barney is best known for two massive projects: The Cremaster Cycle, made around the turn of this century, and his recent River of Fundament, an almost six-hour film that the Adam presented as part of the 2016 New Zealand Festival. Drawing Restraint is the glue that sticks it all together: a collection of staged exercises Barney began almost 30 years ago while at Yale.

It started with a pretty simple art-school idea — Barney, a college football player, wanted to adapt resistance training to an art context. If it could help sportspeople develop muscle, then surely, he speculated, it could strengthen an art practice too — that scenarios in which he or his performers faced a physical restraint would toughen up the art. Three decades on, he’s still searching for perfection.

Still from Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 20, 2013.
Still from Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 20, 2013.

It’s pretty esoteric stuff. But Barney’s quality is without dispute; he is one of the most important artists in the world. He had designed the Drawing Restraint installation specifically — and only — for the Adam’s space: the latest evidence that, under the directorship of Christina Barton, the Adam has transformed from an Athfield-designed jewel to a national art treasure.

Auckland doesn’t yet have a world-class, dedicated venue for contemporary art. Wellington has two.

The Adam had brought me down to Wellington to talk about Barney, whom I’ve long been obsessed with. At the same time, there was an excellent example of art-history-made-real at City Gallery Wellington. Curated by Robert Leonard, Julian Dashper & Friends examined the legacy, influence and relationships of one of New Zealand’s most important postmodern artists. Upstairs from the Dashper exhibition was a tapestry by Turner Prize-winner Grayson Perry. A show by French artist Camille Henrot, who won a Silver Lion at the 2013 Venice Biennale (awarded to the most promising young artist at the event), had just finished.

There’s no question that Auckland has the country’s largest and most diverse art scene. It has the most art dealers, the most art schools, the most collectors and, of course, the most artists. But it doesn’t yet have a world-class, dedicated venue for contemporary art. In the Adam and City, Wellington has two.


Auckland has plenty of good contemporary art institutions. There is the Auckland Art Gallery (AAG), which, under Rhana Devenport’s leadership, is re-orienting itself to be a significant Asia-Pacific player, in much the same way as Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. There’s been a notable upswing in Asian exhibitions at the AAG — including last year’s Yang Fudong show and The Story of Rama. On May 7, it opens a blockbuster survey of South American contemporary art.

The AAG’s regional approach is augmenting what has been bubbling away in the city for a while. Fresh Gallery in Otara, Titirangi’s Te Uru, AUT’s St Paul St Gallery and Pakuranga’s Te Tuhi all reach regularly into the Asia-Pacific for their programming. In March, Auckland Museum, the Mangere Arts Centre and AUT hosted the Pacific Arts Association’s international symposium, a meeting of Pacific-focused artists and academics from around the world, and timed to coincide with the Polyfest and Pasifika festivals.

These are some of the great things happening across the city. But they’re happening through a dispersed network. Try travelling between Te Tuhi, Fresh and Te Uru on a Saturday afternoon, then find a park in town to hit the AAG, St Paul St and Artspace. Impossible. And while having so many venues of a similar scale is great for generating enthusiasm in specific locales, it’s not so good for genuinely critical, cross-community conversations about what contemporary art means to the city. Without a dedicated contemporary art museum, Auckland is struggling to find a place, and a mechanism, for these debates and dialogues to play out.


The Adam and City provide exactly that in Wellington. They’re also writing — in exhibition form at least — our recent art history. Julian Dashper & Friends is one example. Last year, the Adam’s curator, Stephen Cleland, put together a survey of the 1970s work of Bruce Barber, one of our most important performance artists. City was the instigator of major surveys of Yvonne Todd and Fiona Pardington. It was Barton who drove Billy Apple’s 2015 retrospective. The Dowse Museum in Lower Hutt is in on the act, too, with recent surveys of Barry Brickell and Séraphine Pick.

Wellington institutions are also capitalising more effectively on the flow of New Zealand artists moving back and forth between here and Europe. Simon Denny presented his largest exhibition in New Zealand at the Adam, The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom. Later this year, London-based Francis Upritchard will have her first major survey in her home country at — you guessed it — City. The Adam, meanwhile, will present new work by the brilliant Berlin-based Ruth Buchanan, in conversation with two German artists — women of successive generations who provide a crucial backdrop to the feminist themes in her own practice.

The irony of this is that neither the Adam nor City is a collecting institution. It used to be that our art history was written by what ends up in our storerooms. Now, the opposite seems to be the case: that spaces unburdened by the responsibilities of purchase and preservation are the ones with the nimbleness to respond quickly to our ever-changing art scene. It’s always been the case that you need to get on a plane out of Auckland to experience the full breadth of contemporary art. But that’s no longer just about Sydney, or LA, or Berlin. Wellington is a seriously good place to start the trip.


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