Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Building a Future

Architecture for the Nation: New artists show 2008
Curated by Brian Butler and Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers
14 June – 19 July 2008

This show debunks the traditional notion of architecture to make it something principally collective like national identity. It posits the idea that “architecture has little to do with the construction of a shelter or dwelling. It is an arrangement of social thoughts.” An interesting concept to confuse its qualities with that of nationhood. Next time it is stormy, cold and wet, and you are caught in an icy downpour, just stand underneath ‘an arrangement of social thoughts’ and you will stop feeling miserable.

Despite the nuttiness of the wording of the introduction, the six artists are worth looking at.

Richard Frater’s has two sets of sculpture. One is a couple of twisted, wonky hoses forms that look like massively distorted hula hoops. They are lines suspended in space that are deliberately devoid of refinement. Their ugliness makes them funny – like say the works of Francis Upritchard – so that grotesque charm in fact reinvents beauty. Their lack of gracefulness is their point.

Out in the ARTSPACE office Frater has rearranged the ‘drop-in’ reading room to present a texturally rich carpet work with an ear motif. His way of commenting on contemporary art’s ‘arrangement of social thoughts.’ Strange looping tapeworm forms made of knitting wool are scattered over the floor, making the work beautifully rhythmic like a painting or piece of music but creating something that also suggests William Burroughs’ notion of language being a virus.

Rangituhia Hollis has a line-up of four DVD projections, butted together in a row to explore iwi identity. They represent his pepeha, a matrix of interlinking communal references such as relatives playing piggyback in the local swimming pool, his first student flat, animations of ancestral axes flying around a room and dancing in clusters, and virtual eels being jettisoned out of the window of the Waipiro Trading Company to cruise over the rooftops. Hollis has a flair for editing and image movement. There is a nice restless energy that underpins the excitement of his videos. He has an excellent text by Anna-Marie White accompanying his entry in the online catalogue.

Alexandra Savtchenko uses the neon signage on top of the Newcall building (on the Khyber pass Rd, Symonds St intersection) where the gallery she exhibits in is set up. She has removed the two ‘C’ letters from the top of the tower and transported them to ARTSPACE so you get ‘cc’ (‘carbon copy’ or ‘closed circuit’) there and ‘new all’ when you look at the building out of the ARTSPACE office window. A lovely poetic link to the social and utopian vision of the show.

Ash Kilmartin’s concise pencil drawings on long sheets of paper are single-point perspective, tilted orthogonal diagrams of walls with deep apertures - but with peculiar vertical parallel lines. You have to stand close to see them. They are like the anamorphic charcoal drawings of Mike Parr or the nineties paintings of James Ross in that they are deliberately optically unresolvable. They border on incoherence. This riveting, intelligently supersubtle work is based on two modernist buildings she has photographed, examined and documented. There is a superb mini-essay by Sam Rountree-Williams about it in the catalogue.

The two works by Simon Lawrence use seemingly disparate components with which the viewer needs to make connections. One is a map of the world, showing countries and dominant land formations, that is leaning against the wall. Nearby on the floor are some china animals (a squirrel and a kangaroo), a ‘Chinaman’ puppet head, and two photographs of a rabbit and elephant. The work seems an ironic dig at anti-Asian racism.

Lawrence’s main piece of sculpture is a variation of a work he showed last year in Christchurch Art Gallery in the Another Destination show. It has a flash-gun that fires regularly on a timer, and thin taped-together plastic tubes that extend up from a reversed vacuum cleaner to the ARTSPACE ceiling. They have paper streamers that move when the machine is turned on. There is also a video of a long spiralling shot from a moving helicopter, circling above a big city at night. The movement of the air near the ARTSPACE ceiling relates to the moving aerial camera pan on the video, and the flash to the twinkling city lights.

This work also has a social interpretation, the flash implicating the gallery visitor, the video the wider community, and the air in the tubes, breath from conversations bearing thoughts. It is cunningly ambiguous.

Tuafale Tanoa’i (Linda T)’s contribution is an ongoing programme of interviews made on the site in a back gallery that is used as a studio. She chats with various Māori and Pacific island artists and media personalities, such as Fiona Clark, Edith Amituanai and Paora Maxwell, and plays the conversations on a bank of monitors that have user-friendly headphones and accompanying armchairs. Tanoa’i is good at picking charismatic thoughtful individuals who hold the viewer’s attention, and who have a vision for this country’s future.

Architecture here (and so the gallery itself) is clearly a metaphor, a structure for the construction of a harmonious society, like a whare or church that shelters its communities from destructive elements, and this work is a key component in understanding the exhibition’s title. The exhibition overall is cohesive but with stimulating variety. The six artists have provided a particularly interesting group of works to spend time with. Don't miss it.

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