The quiet curator: Bruce Phillips' time heading Pakuranga's Te Tuhi gallery

by Anthony Byrt / 15 June, 2017

Bruce Phillips.

After more than seven years at Te Tuhi, Bruce Phillips has moved on, leaving the Pakuranga institution in excellent shape.

Just before Bruce Phillips left his job as curator at Pakuranga’s Te Tuhi, I stood with him outside the gallery and watched a pig being cooked over hot coals. Turning the steel pole, which was shoved through the beast from its rear end to its mouth, was the artist Kalisolaite ’Uhila. It was a performance, but it was also dinner. And the pig was starting to look, and smell, bloody good.

The meal — complemented with chop suey, taro and beans — was to mark the opening of ’Uhila’s exhibition Pigs in the Yard II, the latest event in his relationship with Te Tuhi, and with Phillips. They first worked together in 2012, when ’Uhila staged Mo’ui tukuhausia, a performance in which he lived homeless around Te Tuhi for a fortnight. The work was so powerful it was nominated for the 2014 Walters Prize, for which ’Uhila famously extended the original action, living homeless around central Auckland for three months.

“It was his real desire to connect and understand what it’s like [to be homeless],” Phillips says of ’Uhila’s work. “A lot of us artists and curators come from middle-class backgrounds, and we have very liberal and lofty ideas about what art can provide to society. But we don’t always take the time to actually try to walk in someone else’s shoes and see things from another perspective.”

It was an enormous test for Te Tuhi, which involved huge amounts of planning and consultation with community groups, local businesses and police. It also laid an early marker for Phillips’ seven-year tenure at the Pakuranga institution: a blending of  cutting-edge contemporary art and community action.

Phillips is one of the quiet guys of the New Zealand art scene: slight, soft-spoken, quietly thoughtful. But that hasn’t stopped him from making sure Te Tuhi is up there with our edgiest galleries. And he’s never given in to the urge to simply reflect the tastes of Pakuranga’s relatively affluent base. “One of the great things I’ve learned at Te Tuhi is how specific, complex and challenging the notions of public and community are,” he says.

Like Artspace, Te Tuhi is an independent charitable trust, which, Phillips explains, “allows us to take on projects with a certain amount of calculated risk. We’re mindful of being accessible, but also of supporting artists. At least half of our programme is new work. And often, it’s a big break for artists. We pour in our meagre resources to help the artists reach a new level in their career.”

The track record is pretty exceptional. ’Uhila made the 2014 Walters Prize shortlist. The winner of the 2016 Walters, Shannon Te Ao, also has very strong connections with Te Tuhi and Phillips. More recently, Phillips has given space to talented emerging artists like Charlotte Drayton, Hannah Valentine, Yona Lee and Talia Smith. Te Tuhi also awards the no-strings-attached $5000 Iris Fisher Scholarship every year to an artist enrolled in a postgraduate art degree. And its “Project Wall” and annual billboard project on Reeves Rd are crucial testing sites for young artists.

Under Phillips’ curatorial direction, Te Tuhi hasn’t just reflected its local community but built new, diverse ones within the art world, in ways similar venues — with the exception of Artspace under Misal Adnan Yıldız — struggle to do. It’s never become insular, and it’s never shied away from exploring some of contemporary Auckland’s defining questions, particularly around race, class and property.


Artist Kalisolaite ’Uhila in the shipping container featured in Pigs in the Yard 11.

Arguably the biggest test of this was in 2012, when Phillips curated a group exhibition called Between Memory and Trace. Its centrepiece was a work by the relatively unknown young Aucklander Luke Willis Thompson (two years later, Thompson would beat ’Uhila for the 2014 Walters Prize), which consisted of three garage roller doors. The sculpture sounds innocuous enough. Except the doors were the same ones that had been tagged by the teenager Pihema Cameron in 2008. Not long after the boy had marked the doors, he was dead: the owner of the property, Bruce Emery, saw Cameron and his friend vandalising his property and pursued them with a knife. Emery was convicted of Cameron’s manslaughter.

“I remember debating the incident with a family member,” Phillips says, “and it struck me how deeply dehumanisation can occur. It’s an issue that’s so pertinent now, with everything that’s going in the States, and the ways people become silenced and objectified. People can vanish because they’re labelled a certain way. So I understood the potential potency of Luke’s work.”

As much as Thompson’s piece was the doors themselves, Phillips explains that “Luke was really interested in the transaction — that a public organisation like Te Tuhi would obtain these doors for a fee, and that would in some way speed up renovations on the property. So it would be a means of saving this trace and enabling things to move on, rather than being an open wound. People still debate [Thompson’s action], and I think that’s what makes it really interesting.”

Phillips has never shied away from controversial projects such as Thompson’s, saying that he “gravitates towards the more challenging works to resolve, both institutionally and in what implications it has for contemporary art”. He’s also produced international projects with the likes of African-American artist William Pope.L, who staged a theatrical piece that explored the connections between questions of racism in America and New Zealand, and a large-scale video installation by the ferociously anti-capitalist Spanish artist Santiago Sierra.

For now, Phillips is based in Wellington, where he plans to take some time out for research and writing. He’s left a big hole behind him. He won’t be out of the action long, though: his next major project is to curate the visual arts component of New Zealand’s presence at the Edinburgh International Festival later this year. It’ll be a new commission by a New Zealand artist, which he describes as “complex, and multi-faceted, and poetic”. Despite every effort on my part, he stays completely committed to Creative New Zealand’s press embargo. “I just wish I could talk about, but I can’t,” he says, laughing. 

That’s how Phillips is: when it’s announced, he’ll no doubt let the artist take the limelight, and make things happen behind the scenes. Contemporary art curators are often a bombastic lot. But Phillips shows that sometimes, it’s the quiet ones you have to watch.


This is published in the May - June 2017 issue of Metro.

Get Metro delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now


/MetromagnzL @Metromagnz @Metromagnz



MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


The Man Who Invented Christmas – movie review
85037 2017-12-14 00:00:00Z Movies

The Man Who Invented Christmas – movie review

by James Robins

A charming drama captures Dickens as he creates his Yuletide classic.

Read more
Electronic music duo Sachi on how they create their beat
84710 2017-12-14 00:00:00Z Music

Electronic music duo Sachi on how they create thei…

by India Hendrikse

Electronic duo Sachi, aka Nick Chrisp and Will Thomas, were plugged by Diplo back in 2015. Now, the 19 year olds are poised to be the next big thing.

Read more
Christmas dinner: Everything you need for a three-course festive feast
85039 2017-12-14 00:00:00Z Food

Christmas dinner: Everything you need for a three-…

by Lauraine Jacobs

There’s something for everyone in the family this Christmas dinner.

Read more
The unsung heroes of Auckland's restaurant kitchens
84948 2017-12-14 00:00:00Z Dining

The unsung heroes of Auckland's restaurant kitchen…

by Kate Richards

Nothing happens if the dishes don’t get done.

Read more
Where to see Christmas lights in Auckland, plus more festive activities
85033 2017-12-13 15:52:06Z What's on

Where to see Christmas lights in Auckland, plus mo…

by India Hendrikse

The Paperboy agenda. Your guide to what's on now and later in Auckland!

Read more
They're only 19 but electro-pop Auckland duo Sachi is aiming for the top
85016 2017-12-13 15:21:46Z Music

They're only 19 but electro-pop Auckland duo Sachi…

by India Hendrikse

They've been plugged by mega-producer Diplo, and now Auckland duo Sachi is gearing up for the next level.

Read more
How music is therapy for neo-soul singer Bailey Wiley
85010 2017-12-13 14:37:24Z Dining

How music is therapy for neo-soul singer Bailey Wi…

by India Hendrikse

After performing with Syd Tha Kyd in the US, Bailey Wiley is back recording her upcoming new album.

Read more
Four summer festivals in Auckland you won't want to miss
84999 2017-12-13 14:02:06Z What's on

Four summer festivals in Auckland you won't want t…

by India Hendrikse

Start booking your tickets: These summer festivals will be full of sunshine, good beats and good people.

Read more