Visual Arts Review: The 5th Auckland Triennial
Auckland Art Gallery and various venues
Until August 11
Although the curator, gallery PR and the mayor begged us to be wowed, overwhelmed and deeply moved by our Triennial experience, my initial reaction was simply relief that something which was so long in the making (it had been delayed from March) had managed to rise above the sheer banality of their opening speeches.
That doesn’t sound like I’m setting the bar very high, but within the context of the international art scene, the Auckland Triennial is hardly up there with Biennials in Venice, Istanbul or even Sydney. Comparisons are pointless.
So despite curator Hou Hanru’s desire for this thrice-yearly outing to become a key part of the international art circuit, New Zealand remains small but interesting. Luckily the 5th Triennial fits that bill nicely.
The exhibition title If You Were to Live Here is loosely based around the idea that by viewing the works on show, Aucklanders will look at their city in a different way.
A Triennal is like a degustation menu for art and you can gorge yourself and suffer appropriately, or you can pick and choose your favourites. It’s tricky for this show because it’s spread across so many venues but, inevitably, it’s the places that give themselves over to the show completely which succeed. So St Paul Street Gallery, Artspace and Fresh Gallery are all bursting with terrific work, as is Silo Six down at the Wynyard Wharf.
Through no fault of their own, Auckland Art Gallery and Auckland Museum simply can’t provide the same punch given their exhibitions have to compete with everything already on show.
That said, there are some great works in AAG. Hou Hanru displays the international curator’s usual affection for video-driven art work, and there are lots of screens at AAG — not all of them successful. So do catch Amie Siegel’s Black Moon, a crisp commentary on the death of the American dream, thanks to the GFC, and the vulnerability of women who get blown around by economic circumstances.
Unfortunately, the video works that you pass on the way to Siegel’s piece will test your patience for this format.
It’s a relief to turn “square eyes” to exhibits that involve actual objects. If you really do want to look at something that’s been made, then Michael Lin, Atelier Bow-Wow and Andrew Barrie’s RAM (workers’ house) is a triumph of simplicity and political statement, yet it’s a beautifully executed piece that you can enjoy in its own right.
It’s a small and perfectly formed house, but it’s also barely enough space for a human being to exist in — echoing the living conditions of many itinerant workers who are forced to work on building sites in China’s giant cities. Was the mayor being ironic when he referred to the work as a source of inspiration for Auckland’s housing woes? The fact that he followed his remarks with a singalong of “Pokarekare Ana” makes me doubt everything.
But moving on, literally, out of gallery space and into the stairwell, Saffronn Te Ratana, Ngataiharuru Taepa and Hemi Macgregor’s powerful installation Ka Kata Te Po, a commentary on the Tuhoe raids in 2007, is good to see, but a long time coming to Auckland given it was first exhibited in 2011.
Also arresting is Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro’s commentary on consumerism and material culture — a kitset house set up as though someone is building it while trying to live in it at the same time. All the detritus of modern life is evident, but will it ever get finished? There are echoes of Daniel Malone’s fabulous piece from the Chartwell Collection and it has the same sardonic humour.
The much-anticipated Claire Fontaine collective’s piece is a series of neon phrases in a range of languages that you’d expect to hear all over Auckland, except English (geddit?) and it translates as Foreigners Everywhere. It’s adapted from a 2010 work but this version feels like it’s been dialled in from Europe and lacks the depth and insight that I thought this group would offer.
The giant version in Maori set on the roof of the Gus Fisher Gallery, on the other hand, is far more successful, as is the video work there by Anri Sala, which comes with a performance element, a live saxophonist. Tahi Moore’s videos however look so out of place in the gracious foyer that I struggled to overcome my horror at the treatment of such an elegant space, but maybe that’s the intention.
Do make time to get up to Karangahape Rd and visit Artspace’s shows, as they are only on for six weeks. Angelica Mesiti’s Citizens Band, a four-screen video work, is a tour de force, a moving, visceral commentary on diaspora, memory and longing. You can take the person out of Mongolia or Algeria, but they carry their country with them and resist conforming to their new homes.
The other exhibits similarly feel like a tight fit to the curator’s brief, especially Janet Lilo’s take on neighbourhoods and their cultural and social mix.
The curator for the Triennial also gets to divvy up the artists across the various venues, which seems very random. Luckily it works a treat at the newly revamped Fresh Gallery in Otara. This is by far the most successful representation of the curatorial direction.
Keg de Souza’s fale made from plastic tablecloths sold in the Otara mall is brilliant as is the colourful and energetic “poster”, which combines the work of Wayne Youle, Emory Douglas and Rigo 23. These guys have nailed the concept — just as Otara has nailed its strong identity in Auckland. If you were to live here, but came from somewhere else, this really is what you would experience. Don’t miss the work at this venue.
Discussions have already begun on when, if and how another Triennial will be staged. A visiting Australian critic couldn’t understand why we don’t just concentrate on showcasing New Zealand art to the world, especially Pacific art, which gets little or no airtime out of Aotearoa.
I’m inclined to plump for the international aspect, but I’d love to see some painting and sculpture too and less of the self-conscious video work. There are a couple of months left for all this to be discussed in The Lab — a special area for the talkfest that accompanies the show set up in precious gallery space at AAG. If you have an opinion, they want to hear it. After all, you do live here.