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Perhaps my most memorable inauguration into the Christchurch art scene was the day I met Peter Robinson, who, with uncharacteristic zest, insisted I escort him to Scorpio Books where he began leafing through international art magazines. As if by chance, the copy of Frieze he was thumbing fell open at a page featuring an illustration of one of his own works. When I gave him his due congratulations, and even offered to buy a copy, Robinson insisted on signing the page with much aplomb in front of a rather bewildered teller.

I enjoyed this impromptu performance. After all, I wouldn't be interested in art if I didn't appreciate egoism as an endearing form of self expression. In the course of this morning, the artist was deliberately dropping major hints about his art practise, and as a would-be reviewer, I was rabid for clues. Later, though, alone with my Frieze, I found a clue to the Robinson oeuvre with perhaps even more relevance than this unscheduled reconnaissance. That was an article called "A colouring book" and subtitled "Niru Ratnam charts the shift from race to colour." A photograph of Freddie Mercury as the young Gujarati boy he once was provided a poignant encapsulation of the idea that artists change races to satisfy audiences.

Robinson has done this at least twice in an effort to satisfy an audience who like to mix a little cynicism with their PC. What made his work work in the past were the layers of irony he encrusted into paintings with the texture of severe dermatitis. Turn back the clock a little more, though, and we see a much more earnest representation of what a Maori artist ought to be and produce.

Robinson's latest move to reclaim his Pakeha heritage out of the debris of first a serious and then a "virtual" Maori identity leaves a lot to be desired. One of his debut forays back onto the other side from the "other" side was a window work at Teststrip, Auckland, in March this year. Robinson filled the Karangahape Road window with a large black painting. In the centre of the dark rectangle was a white swastika, and at the bottom was Robinsons signature along with the words "Pakeha have rights too."

It seems a large part of this "becoming pakeha" involves exchanging formerly bustling surfaces which resembled tribal and/or 'naive' art, for white cube minimalism. What worked so well before, the sense of being overwhelmed by language and its never ending implications, has been superseded by a series of one-liners. Seen in each others' company, in the erudite cocoon of the Peter McLeavy Gallery, Wellington, the works might have struck me as clever. Obviously, Jenny Harper, Head of Art History, Victoria, was enamoured enough of the work that she bought the original smaller swastika piece to hang in her office. Seen in the context of a seat of intellectual power, the work is no doubt intended to be an ironic comment on the dominant discourse of white art history the world over. But it can also be read as supporting and being supported by that very domination. It is highly unlikely that Harper would have bought the work had it been executed by an all-white artist. Robinson gives kudos to racist sentiments by brandishing a bogus Maori identity.

In its isolation on K Road, Pakeha have rights too looked like nothing more than Robinson plumping for a role in Dumb and Dumber. Within a day of this work's appearance, the window had been graffitied, the white sign and white words crossed through with white spray paint. While a politically correct vandal silenced a wilfully perverse artist, K Road's coloured population wandered past with characteristic indifference.

I was one viewer, though, who found it difficult to slough my personal baggage when confronted by this bold if facile assertion from one of the country's "ones to watch." If the degree of effrontery given is the yardstick of good art then I guess this work was just smashing. It certainly had me fuming months after viewing, and, on picking up a copy of the Listener, April 19, I saw that it had thrown Justin Paton into a similar conundrum. Paton, though, despite the fact that he mentions the word "career" four times, still portrays Robinson as if he were the protagonist of an Alan Duff novel, with "pugnacious, back-against-the-wall despair," Robinson "shakes on his chains loudly, angrily." Paton is talking about a small town South Island boy who now teaches at Christchurch's most exclusive school, and gets called "sir" all day everyday. If having a 32nd of Maori blood is a cause for pathos, then lord help the real ones.

Meanwhile, Robinson's rudely over-simplistic art work had me nursing my own bloodlines. Just who, did he suppose, fell under the rubric of "Pakeha"? Artists who have drawn the short and plain old vanilla straw? As one of these nebulous "Pakeha" creatures I roundly if predictably objected to being associated with the swastika.

I take the term Pakeha to be specifically applied to the white natives of this country, most of whom have British heritage. The Union Jack as a signifier of colonialism would have made more sense than the very symbol so many New Zealand patriots died fighting against. (Old prejudices die hard; only this year the Christchurch RSA voiced indignation at the council's plan to plant cherry trees, for reigniting memories of that old enemy, Japan.) And while fascism employs many guises, I feel it is at least worth making an Anglo-Germanic distinction as it is, say, making the distinction between various iwi and hapu, a game Robinson has played to the hilt, albeit with his wananga firmly in his cheek.

For me, the swastika is much more complex than an iconographic summation of all that is evil via its brief appropriation by the German Nazi Party. It also enjoys much more frequent reproduction and veneration as a symbol of good luck among Hindus, who no doubt have always outnumbered Nazis and contemporary artists put together, and probably always will.

That the work in question so patently ignores these complexities and instead settles for the most guaranteed-result shock-tactic in the book adds up to an intellectual insult, both to Robinson fans and general passers by. What grates most is I feel Robinson is only operating on an art-political, rather than social-political platform. No great crime, but given the window space and the propaganda aesthetics, I'd expect to be hearing more than "keep watching me!"

The work only works, in effect, if you are conversant with Robinson's oeuvre extant and understand the break he is making from self-imposed exile as an Artist Of Colour. The painting's outsize signature, and the seeming complete about face from his earlier crowd-pleasing ironic-polemics, all scream "career move" rather than of using art as a conduit for social ideas. Robinson, having gone just about as far as he possibly can with 3.125% gas in his tank, so now he's switching to a different fuel, and this one is branded "KKK."

Robinson is enjoying a renaissance as being an enfant terrible after being every curator's ideal (Claytons) Maori artist. He also enjoyed playing a game of chicken with the Teststrip gallery, which has a reputation as being 'cutting edge.' Would they have the guts to display such fascistic sentiments in the middle of a multicultural boulevard? Yes, they would. But would Robinson have the guts to make a trip up to Auckland for the opening? Would he, effectively, stand by his work, be available to answer for it and be prepared to take responsibility for damages, verbal or physical, incurred because of his artwork? No, he wouldn't.

As an act of bravery, the work becomes roughly equivalent to a crank for the perpetrator but ineffably juvenile. Unfortunately the response of the spray-canned censor didn't manage to up the ante of an already base set of sentiments, and effectively closed-shop on further debate. The simplistic level of the protest reflected the level the work itself managed to engage the viewer on, and that was one of reactionary behaviour all round.

Living in a town where racist attacks on immigrant groups is a regular item in the newspaper, I wonder how exactly Robinson can get a good joke out of artistic use of the swastika. Certainly, it makes an apposite regional export, but this is assuming we all have the good fortune to be in a position to read the piece from an ironic perspective. If I were a Somali with a worse case of baseball-bat blues than Derrick Cherrie, the chances of this would be NIX.

My final observations continued in a juvenile vein, as I wondered if Peter Robinson's residency in Aachen might have scrambled his brains to the extent that all white people seem German, at least to the 'black boy' Robinson still insists he is. That, and working in Christ's College, seem to have affected both his politics and his palette (the uniforms are black and white stripes, like early Frank Stella paintings with all their fascistic connotations). Beyond that I can only hope that Robinson's formerly astute works are on a temporary vacation, and that we will shortly witness his return to a more complex cunning.

Tessa Laird