Neon Lights, New Blood and Safe Rooms: Lingering on our Favourite Art Moments from 2017
Incoming Visual Arts Editor Lucinda Bennett and Editor-in-Chief Lana Lopesi attempt to whittle this year of art into something concise and coherent.
We are almost to the end of this turn around the sun and the time for buying new diaries and filling them is here. But before the year is out, there’s time to pause and reflect on all the things we saw and felt during 2017. Both of us spent time in different parts of the country (and outside the country) this year, so our round-up is necessarily determined by the limits of time and space. Nevertheless, here is a selection of our most cherished art moments from around Aotearoa in 2017.
Lana Lopesi: I’m going to surprise myself here, I think I have to start with public art! The two pieces I am thinking of in particular are Michael Parekowhai’s (Ngāti Whakarongo, Ngā Ariki) The Lighthouse on Auckland’s waterfront and Janet Lilo’s (Ngāpuhi, Samoan and Niuean) Don’t Dream It’s Over on Karangahape Road, also in Auckland. I’ve written about both of these pieces before here and here, so I won’t ramble on for too long. What has really captured me about both of these works is the combination of very familiar iconography, the state house and bananas, with very important and poignant messages about housing and social media consumption. The works also share a third component of highlighting areas of significance around Tāmaki Makaurau. Coincidentally, they are also both centred around light, rendering them beautiful and accessible day and night.
Lucinda Bennett: My list also starts in an unexpected place for me – Christchurch. Having never visited the city before, I found myself there a couple of times during 2017 and both times was floored by the exhibitions I caught at The Physics Room. First was Auckland artist Charlotte Drayton’s Like stepping from concrete to carpet, which reconfigured the gallery space into something like a show-home, evoking ideas around aspirational architecture and interior design as tied to class. Always a lover of an affective art experience, entering an apparently empty Physics Room and feeling like I’d been there before (I really hadn’t) was peculiar and haunting. Later in the year, with Drayton’s modifications still in place, I caught Still, like air, I’ll rise, an exhibition toured from ST PAUL St, Auckland. With a title taken from Maya Angelou, it’s unsurprising that the exhibition dealt with themes of decolonisation and defiance in the face of racism and oppression. I was particularly obsessed by Skawennati’s (Kahnawake Mohawk Territory) TimeTraveller™ machinima work, which took the form of nine episodes that looked as if they could have been cut scenes from a video game. Based around a sunglasses-like-device which transported characters to significant moments in First Nations history, TimeTraveller™ is a history lesson, a love story and an optimistic vision for a future of Indigenous sovereignty.
LL: Aotearoa art audiences don’t get exposed to much of the First Nations new media art being made in Turtle Island, which is very unfortunate, but for a first introduction for many I couldn’t think of a better work than TimeTraveller™. I probably shouldn’t fangirl too much more over Lilo, but while we’re on the subject of public art galleries I also want to mention her social media honey pot of a work Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner (a somewhat familiar line borrowed from the film Dirty Dancing), commissioned for Shout Whisper Wail! The 2017 Chartwell Show at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. The installation – which proved very popular among Instagramming gallery visitors – combined the Whitney Houston lyrics “somebody who loves me” (suggesting that we are all searching for love) with references to public space, creating a work which I have previously described as a “lively, intelligent meditation of the boundaries between our public and private lives, and the ways we manipulate our private lives for public consumption on social media.”
LB: Both of the standout exhibitions I saw at larger public institutions this year were from artists I’ve long admired. Auckland-based artist Marie Shannon’s survey exhibition Rooms found only in the home at Dunedin Public Art Gallery is one of those exhibitions that makes you wonder why it hadn’t been done before – such is the significance of Shannon in the canon of New Zealand photography. I found myself laughing out loud and against my will, reading a description of a dream the artist had about getting mustard on the white bits of her partner’s Christian Dior polo, or observing the grubby bit on the curtains where a black cat must have slipped through, day after day. Shannon’s work, as always, was touching in its intimacy and filled with unexpected humour.
Australian artist Nicholas Mangan’s Limits to Growth at The Dowse (also a survey) was affecting in a different way. The highlight for me was Ancient Lights (2015), a two-channel digital film projection powered by an off-grid solar power supply. This was one of the most beautiful AV installs I’ve seen, elegantly turning the distribution box and profusion of cords into a feature of the work – fitting, given the work is about the energy-giving properties of the sun. While one channel looped golden images of tree-rings, footage of a sparkling solar plant in Spain, and smoggy sunsets (among other things), projected on the other side of the room was a ten-peso coin spinning perpetually, mesmerizing as it sped up and slowed down. It made me feel anxious and awed all at once, thinking about the immense power of the sun and the significance of harnessing and storing this sustainable form of energy.
LL: Something also worth pointing out are two new art spaces to join the Karangahape Road area, Mokopōpaki and captcha. New blood is always a much-needed breath of fresh air for the entire arts community and these two new spaces, while very different from each other, have definitely added some life (and some youth) back into the strip.
LB: An exhibition I didn’t get to see in the flesh but watched hungrily via social media and through the accompanying publication was Indo-Fijian artist Quishile Charan and Samoan-Tongan artist Salome Tanuvasa’s Namesake at Enjoy in Wellington. It’s been really exciting to witness a resurgence in textile practices over the last year, and Charan’s embroidered works for this exhibition are a particularly beautiful example of textiles in the space of contemporary art – especially in the way her works make reference to family, communication and tradition.
LL: I really fell back in love with painting this year in the work of Auckland-born artist Christina Pataialii which was on show in The Tomorrow People at The Adam Art Gallery, Wellington; Slow Jamz Till Midnight at Blue Oyster, Dunedin and in Rematerialised at DEMO, Auckland. Spending time with her works felt like a real reinvigoration of my interest in that form which comes in part from the combination of skilled painterly language and an interesting reflection on markers of pop cultural and national identity.
LB: I loved Pataialii’s Blue Oyster show! I thought the exhibition title was really evocative, too – it’s meant to reference a late night R&B radio show where lovers would request songs and do shout-outs to one another. Pataialii’s paintings are always so dynamic and disruptive, but there was a real sweetness and soulfulness to this group of work.
Having spent most of the year in Dunedin, I was very attentive to – and appreciative of – the programme at The Blue Oyster. Without a doubt, the most thought-provoking show I saw there was Auckland-based Ammon Ngakuru’s A Shelter for Amnesic Relatives, which manipulated the architecture of the gallery in an incredibly minimal way to create a truly impactful and unsettling experience. Ngakuru’s work is currently concerned with American survivalist culture, and this exhibition dealt with one of the greatest and most disturbing obsessions of these groups: the safe room. Ngakuru also showed at RM this year alongside Auckland-based Nigerian painter Ruth Ige, whose work also featured in DIRT FUTURE at Artspace. At first glance, they looked to me like abstractions in the style of Etel Adnan, but with a darker palette. Upon closer inspection, Ige’s paintings are clearly suggestive of bodies, of portraiture even. Centring around the experiences of the black body in spaces both familiar and strange, her work teeters between figuration and abstraction to explore the censorship of self and obfuscation of feelings that can occur for people of colour when occupying spaces where they are the minority. There’s so much more to be said about these paintings, and Ige expresses their potency and function as tools for empowerment on her site.
LL: Lastly, while I was not able to see any of the amazing exhibitions overseas this year, it was a significant moment in our country's art history to have such strong Māori representation internationally. Of course, I am talking about Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tū) at Venice, and the first three representatives from Aotearoa, Ralph Hotere (Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa), Nathan Pohio (Kati Mamoe, Ngāi Tahu, Waitaha) and Mata Aho Collective, ever to go to documenta. So great!
LB: I’d like to finish with a mention of all the thoughtful video content we’ve seen this year. At ST PAUL St, lei-pā – curated by our very own Lana Lopesi with Ahilapalapa Rands – was particularly video-heavy in a way that didn’t feel burdensome at all. I particularly enjoyed Chinese artist LI Jinghu and Sydney-based Samoan artist Angela Tiatia’s works. I was also impressed by the offerings from the Projection Series at The Govett Brewster. I managed to catch American artist Martine Syms’ A Pilot for a show about Nowhere (2015), the final film in the seventh instalment of the series entitled First as fiction, then as myth, curated by Tendai John Mutambu. And finally, a list of top-notch video work wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Shannon Te Ao (Ngāti Tūwharetoa), whose work from the Edinburgh Art Festival is currently on show at Te Tuhi. Entitled With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods, this is another example of a carefully considered video install which works to enhance an already wonderful piece, this time by prompting the viewer to move around the screen in a way that echoes the swaying circle traced by the two women dancing slowly within the work.