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.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Godzone's modernism

Long Live The Modern: New Zealand’s New Architecture 1904-1984
Curated by Bill McKay and Julia Gatley
Gus Fisher
17 October – 22 November 2008

I’m one of those people who, though it's not a major interest, when it comes to architecture, likes the tactile experience of exploring certain buildings, treating them like installation art or walk-in sculpture. However in gallery shows about architecture, I tend to get bored with photos of buildings, working drawings and plans. They seem so removed from the bodily experience they help to create. Yet modernist architecture is something I take seriously, as part of any modernist project – applied arts or fine. I happen to love grids in any shape or form, and am intrigued by Bauhaus design and all the early Dutch and Russian modernist painting types - so I enjoyed Long Live the Modern (which is really about promoting a book) for its connections with those. Yet it could have been better.

It is not that it is all head. There is a visceral experience, and it comes though the eleven models in the main exhibiting room, positioned on high plinths. They are the true stars of the exhibition, even though they serve as sensual freestanding sculpture and tend to outshine the buildings they are based on. That is a cruel irony, for devoid of irritating distractions like landscape forms, nearby vegetation, local weather conditions, social functions, working inhabitants etc, they in miniature consequently seem cleaner, purer and more focussed.

Nevertheless they don’t save the show from being slightly staid. The stationary images are good for detail, but they don’t capture the sensation of being in the featured modernist spaces designed by architects like Tabor Donner, Miles Warren, Peter Beaven, James Beard, John Scott and others. The show could have been expanded further, using more uptodate exhibition technology. Projected films or animated graphics, simulating viewer movements, would have been useful in demonstrating movement around and within these pristine, usually elegant spaces. And because it is a general survey, the exhibition doesn’t dwell sufficiently on each building - apart from an eye–of–God view from outside.

Architecture is a time-based art, akin to film as we move through its internal and eternal spaces getting pleasure from its surfaces. The static wall documentation displayed here is good enough, and easily suits matching a lavishly illustrated book like Gatley’s, but as a gallery display it really doesn’t do the sensation of bodily experiencing Kiwi modernist architecture justice.

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