Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 5 Trans-Tasman
Log 5 Trans-Tasman

Wellington Roundup
Tessa Laird


I finally headed to the Kuntree's Kultural Kapital (post-Te Papa) in late May. It was a 'birthday treat' I felt I deserved after suffering Cantabrian cultural deprivation for so long. But it was an underwhelming pilgrimage, despite a fine inauguration with Ian Wedde's address at the City Gallery regarding the Sale of the Century.

I guess I was used to arse-licking Garden City Style, or the "Ignore them, We're Aucklanders" style of no-debate, but I never expected Wedde to get up in the City Gallery auditorium and trash the Sale. Diplomacy, evasive tactics, maybe, but no, he told it straight: "I don't believe in this type of exhibition, I don't support a linear view of art history, I'm not going to give you a neat little paper tracing links between these artists and the New Zealanders who've been influenced by them (as I was asked to do). Instead, I'm going to over-utilise a robust metaphor of my own invention, which you can easily grasp, then I'll lose you in a cloud of rhetoric." Or words to that effect. The metaphor in question was that Sale was a "Chrysler" and Wedde liked "Fords." This titillated the audience no end, and believe it or not, there was intelligent(ish) discussion afterwards, although one chap did insist on knowing why there wasn't a "Worrel" on display (his own unique pronunciation of "Warhol"...and I thought wilful perversion of that moniker was a trait peculiar to the Curnow clan!) Mark Amery, bless his cotton socks, cut to the chase, and told Wedde that he didn't have much of a right to beef over Chryslers when Dream Collectors at Te Papa was unanimously received as a dog's breakfast. This good natured banter continued and I left the auditorium with a warm glow and stepped out into the increasingly sci-fi Civic Square, (Blake's Seven? Doctor Who? Definitely BBC...nothing expensive or American). With Neil Dawson's latest gift to the nation, the rather pretty ferny ball hanging above and the rain pelting down, I went off to sample one of the multitude of new bars that the capital has to offer (check out the decor wars and the proliferation of Jim Speers' artworks as barware!).

So far so good. But then, I saw Krishnan's Dairy, a solo play about an Indian dairy owner staring the very talented Jacob Rajan. Which wasn't bad, but somehow disappointed all my expectations of Wellington as being Theatre Central, not to mention my Bollywood-fed expectations of something with at least a little spice. (If you want to read a further report of this play, I let it all hang out at www.physicsroom.org.nz/2cents/dairy.htm).

So far, so ambivalent. Oh, but there was an interesting group show at Peter McLeavey Gallery called What we do here. In fact I gather the reason McLeavey had jammed his walls with such an eclectic range from his stable was a specific poke at Dream Collectors and its resemblance to a canine morning meal. Peter Robinson made special plaques for the artists in his best "sell out" style. My personal picks of the bunch were Simon Endres' Mono, with the word in black velvet on black board, but I wasn't so enamoured with the Cherrie-esque baseball bat that was its companion piece. I did love a tea-tray in the sky by John Reynolds, sporting the bat insignia he had so much fun with a couple of years ago. Unfashionable, perhaps, but y'know, cute and fruityS

And then there was Te Papa. Oh boy. Where does one begin on a topic that's already been talked about far too much? I made my trip so late, I'd already imbibed for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the compulsory art-punter stance: we don't like it because it's shallow, and we're not, right? I was so sick of all the knee-jerk bashing of the beast, just because they don't have an acquisitions programme featuring yours truly and assuring me my place in the national canon, blah blah blah. We all know the story.

So I was determined to damn well love the place. And I damn well nearly did.

For a start, coming in through the atrium was impressive. First stop, the marae, and I loved walking up the steep ramp through Jacquie Fraser's wonderful wire works. I didn't even mind Cliff Whiting's toonish whare whakairo. In fact, I thought it was kinda nifty. But I was sightseeing with an architect, so things got serious quickly. He was doing a lot of fist-shaking about doors that led nowhere and doors which didn't open, and kept talking about the "loop" or lack thereof, along with lots of derogatory stuff about views, and the sea, and then pointed in disgust to visible paint-specs on a window, and accused Te Papa of hiring Jim Speers as their handyman. I think he may have been justified in all these grievances, including the latter. But I was still determined to have fun, and did so, particularly with Lisa Reihana's video installation which combined strangely surreal portraits with stilted scenes from a period drama, all in the best possible drop-dead-funky Maori STYLE.

It wasn't until I hit Parade that I got really (typically) upset. I mean, yeah yeah, woe is me, the Northland Panels all squished up on a tiny wall next to a fridge. My heart pumps custard. But in the flesh, I was pissed off-it wasn't good enough, not for me and not for Joe Public. I think the worst part was definitely the vinyl-cut captions pasted over the walls and the "Nice One Stu" thumbs-akimbo everywhere. Postmodernism seems to have been institutionally interpreted as allowing for simultaneous duality, hence Te Papa's monotonous-dichotomous "you decide" pull quotes, that in fact only ever allow for an either/or situation, and NOT a multitude of readings at all.

This magazine-style presentation, turning everything into a soundbite, or 'side bar', might work, that is, if a museum was a magazine. But it can't afford to keep changing every week (if only...what a utopia that would be!) so in five years time, it'll be the same old catchphrases, which take less than 60 seconds to digest, and a bunch of plastic thumbs gathering dust. What an awful thought.

I hate the over-mediated nature of much of Te Papa, and this is the same way I ended up feeling about the Museum of Sydney, to whom Te Papa obviously owes a great debt. Some of the coincidences are truly astounding. Compare, for example, Fiona Foley's and Janet Laurence's Edge of the Trees sculpture outside MOS and the Voices of the Treaty display inside Te Papa by a team of architects and designers (not a bona fide artist in sight). They look similar, they address similar issues, they both possess a sound component. Then there are the holograms of ship folk telling you their life stories. And everywhere, little drawers you can pull out. Not drawers with specimens neatly catalogued, but miniature art diaries of sorts, painful in their subjectivity. In Sydney, these collected fragments, overlayed with textual bytes of po-mo and po-co information, exemplified an intrusive museum experience, one that had been mediated by artists every step of the way, so that all my aesthetic and theoretical decisions were made for me in advance, and in the end I was but a hapless pawn, unable to impose my own vision on what I saw, and, in effect, having the least 'interactive' experience of my museum-going life.

Te PapaMuseum of Sydney
left to right:
Voices of The Treaty
Te Papa
Edge of the Trees
Janet Lawrence and Fiona Foley
Museum of Sydney

This had a profoundly depressing effect on me then, and I found I felt the same after forty minutes in Te Papa. The museum is no longer a place of meditation, it's not a haven, it's not sacrosanct in any way. It just gives us what we know already, only more so. Sure, there's something for everyone...to hate. Everyone has their own little bete noir at Te Papa, and mine was in the Polynesian section where there was a glass case with "Typical headgear worn by Polynesians" or some such caption. Next to the Samoan ceremonial headdress and the Cook Island women's white church hat, was a Chicago Bulls cap. However anthropologically accurate this might be, I just cringed. How the hell is the poor Polynesian visitor who happens to be sporting a Chicago Bull's cap in Te Papa going to feel? "Oh, look, I'm an exhibit! So, that's what us Polynesians wear, huh?" I mean, why don't they have the "Warrick Freeman jewellery as worn by pakeha arts administrators" section? Enough of Our Place. Though it did make the very unremarkable nature of Sale of the Century kind of pleasant, and I even found myself inexorably attracted to the Bryce Marden, not usually my bag at all (and yes McCahon did come off better in this company than in the motley crue on show at Parade).

Just to make sure no stone of Wellington culture was left unturned, I even checked out some (lord help me) contemporary dance, namely, Isadora's Tribe, an annual outing for wannabe's of all ages and abilities. Well, Mark Amery loved it, and some of the dancers have won scholarships to study overseas, but all I can say is STUDY HARD and don't feel you have to race home. I mean, really! Give me Aikido any day.

On this note, I returned to the relative peace of Christchurch to see a fantastic piece of theatricity, at the Court Theatre of all places. It was William Congreve's Way of the World directed by Elric Hooper, and it was wonderfully slick and sophisticated with all its artifice in all the right places. But foolishly, I left this cultural haven for Wellington again where the unremarkable (or worse than) continued with maybe one of the saddest Visa Gold's seen in recent years. The poor selection was made almost comic by the fact that a list of some of the artists who didn't get into the final reads like a who's who of who's hot in NZ art today, check it out: Judy Darragh, Daniel Malone, Gavin Hipkins, Kirsty Gregg, Terry Urbahn, Margaret Dawson, Marie Shannon, ME, (but that's beside the point). The winner, Colin Luxton, is someone who had only shown at the High Street Project and owes a little more than a nod to bursary art fave model artist Frank Auerbach. But hey, we all knew it had to be a trad-style male after the last two winners, right? Still, it was a little odd to see judge John Reynolds back such conservative choices, even if he was in the company of Alexa Johnston and Sydney Morning Herald reviewer and seemingly rabid art-hater, John McDonald.

Opening on the same night across town, though, was maybe the one really brilliant art experience I had during my sojourn, and that was the prolific Gavin Hipkins' latest offering, The Coil at Hamish McKay Gallery. Alongside more of his photograms of white circles on black grounds-like undissolved lifesavers in an x-ray of a human gullet-there was a set of what could have been pearl necklaces or maybe just sink chains. Whatever, they were beautiful, and floated on the walls like poisonous jelly fish in clouds of their own ink.

But the real reason I was in Wellington this time, was, of course, for the Culture Shocks conference, which provided another excellent forum for the country's museum staff to mingle and gripe about how terrible this latest get-together was. For those who had spent the last six months running down Engaging Practices, that conference was now being held up as a paragon of virtue, while Under Capricorn has slipped into mythic status. Of course, there were loads of grizzle-worthy cock-ups, namely a host of no-shows, and a really loose, I mean REALLY loose thematic connection between speakers (Dean Hapeta and Dave Dobbyn got wedged in between Andrew Ross and Meaghan Morris!) Unfortunately, the remaining highlights of the conference were sadly underutilised. Some of the memorable bits for me:

  • Paying attention during Cliff Whiting's address and writing down "the marae is a computer" only to be informed by Gwyn Porter that Cliff has gone all digital with his metaphors-he used to say "the marae is a piece of string."
  • Thinking that Japanese video artist Takahiko Iimura was doing a live exploration of "Japanese Bowel Sounds." Actually, it turned out to be Japanese Vowel Sounds, but the effect was pretty similar.
  • Really enjoying Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's paper for persuasively arguing Te Papa's case (well, someone's got to do it), eg, "information is not knowledge, and performative is a positive term," and "contemporary art has opened up a space where confusion is pleasurable" etc. But I was unable to get out of my head all the while the new Max Gimblett theory (yes they are husband and wife) formulated by friends and I over a curry. Namely that MG's paintings of quatrefoils (cookie cutters) complete with ejaculatory brush work are in fact homages to the "sticky biscuit" game so beloved of private school boys (if you don't know, you don't want to know, suffice it to say it's not quite as bad as what pugwash means).
  • Overhearing Judith Tizard saying, after Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett's paper "Black Box/White Cube: The Museum as a Technology", "I still want Rajah back" (the stuffed elephant that was recently 'retired', in the mafia sense of the word, from the Auckland Museum).
  • Maureen Lander telling everyone about her "green box" after Barbara K-G's paper.
  • Overhearing a James Belich look-alike in the audience burst into laughter when Hans Peter Schwartz, perhaps inappropriately, talked about "Ze final solution" with relation to digital museums.

In a discussion with Gwyn over one of the coffee breaks, we kept coming back to the fact that Te Papa just wasn't "Our Place", and yet, all the speakers kept on intimating that the younger you were, the more you'd be able to relate to it. So, not exactly spring chickens but considerably more youthful than most of the assembly, we were still dead unimpressed. Why? We decided that this is what happens when baby boomers hit their point of maximum power. Suddenly, all these aging hippies are in control of everything, which is why we are suffering this scourge of airy-fairy PC warm-fuzzy authority, an authority that like Mao's cultural revolution seems to want to keep us all in a paradoxical state of constant change. If there is one thing I am hungry for in my life right now, it's for at least one institution in this country to remain absolutely untouched, for one building where I can experience complete stability, no matter how anal that desire sounds. For me, the changes that have taken place at the Auckland Museum are equivalent to a death in the family. I marvel that people of other racial heritages are encouraged to cherish tradition, whereas "being Pakeha" seems to be all about bulldozing the past or re-packaging it into bite-size lumps. Instant and disposable nostalgia is all we're allowed these days-the sublime be hanged.

I find I'm increasingly attracted to these ideas over the continual deconstruction that is required by our current theoretical environment. After all, compulsory iconoclasm is oxymoronic. Which probably has something to do with the proliferation of bars in Wellington at the moment; countless forgetting chambers where youths get to take time out from their overwhelmingly 'progressive' lives.

Tessa Laird
Spring 1998



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room