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That Looks Gorgerous

The best art of 2004.

AUCKLAND by Tessa Laird

The art moments that stuck in my mind were also those that stuck in my craw - hard to digest, they took place early in the year, but proved impossible to forget.

I never made it to the Govett Brewster's Mediarena, a massive survey of contemporary Japanese art, but I did attend some satellite events, including the rock duo Gorgerous in March. Infectiously fun, Gorgerous perform with "Love Arms" - instruments that play keyboard loops, but look like espresso machines, chainsaws, even scooters, and need to be strapped to the body. The singer sported Elvis quiff, kimono, cowboy hat and G-string, and yelled the obligatory, "AuckRAND, we ROVE you!" But their performance was eclipsed, I thought, by the artist who showed videos before Gorgerous took the stage.

The tiny, shy Tadasu Takamine, a former member of Dumb Type, told the story of Kimura-san, a handicapped man he cared for on a voluntary basis. Kimura-san couldn't talk or walk or perform basic duties, but he and Takamine had developed an understanding. One day, Takamine found a box of sex toys in Kimura-san's closet, and it transpired that the handicapped man had sexual needs like everybody else.

Naturally, Takamine told the audience, he started "masturbation duty". He showed us a video of the procedure, and you could have heard a pin drop in the formerly boisterous bar, while Kimura-san gurgled with delight, and Takamine's voice-over pondered the implications of his act and of our subsequent voyeurism. Kimura-san had "given permission" for the video to be disseminated throughout the world; the idea, said Takamine, gave him great pleasure. The piece was, tacky puns aside, extremely touching; it stayed in my mind for weeks, upstaging the Auckland Triennial Public/Private, in its fearless remapping of acceptable boundaries.

Francis Upritchard and Rohan Wealleans showed together under the umbrella title Albino at Ivan Anthony in April. London-based Upritchard will be having her first solo at Andrea Rosen in New York next year; she's the brightest young New Zealand art star of the moment. But her work undermines any notion of glamour - her manky renditions of simians, jawbones and ancient pottery are like junk found in the attic, or in the back room of a dilapidated museum.

In Albino, Upritchard's "Baboon Head on a Rug" had me swooning, the blood-red cloth brought to mind the bandages of saintly reliquaries. Upritchard imbues her objects with the aura of ritual, sacrificial objects, despite their innocuous origins as tennis racquets and lumps of Plasticine.

What made Albino all the weirder was Wealleans's sudden urge to go tribal. The artist famous for winning the Waikato Art Award with a "big vagina" of layered paint, was suddenly carving Pasifika clichés (frangipani, etc ...) into his painterly surfaces. Seemingly, a tongue-in-cheek dig at the tokenistic branding of Auckland as the largest Polynesian city in the world, Wealleans's homage to tapa cloth came off as well, kind of stupid and weirdly brave at the same time. I thought Wealleans would be opening a can of indigenous whoop-ass, like Dick Frizzell and his tiki debacle. But no one seemed to notice.

WELLINGTON by William McAloon

The popular and political storm that blew up around the selection of et al as New Zealand's representative at the next Venice Biennale might have been the big art story of 2004, but it was a curiously old-fashioned one. Indeed, it was almost an exact remake of the 1978 controversy surrounding New Zealand's gift of Colin McCahon's Victory over death 2 to Australia (and remakes, as we know, are seldom as good as the original). The selection was vindicated when Robert Storr - director of the 2005 Biennale - awarded the Walters Prize to et al in October, but I don't recall any "We got it wrong!" stories running in the media, or any belated withdrawal-and-apologising from Parliament.

Off the front page and outside the House, it was largely business as usual in the capital. The Judy Darragh survey at Te Papa, sandwiched between Signs and Wonders and Toi Te Papa, proved an exception to what has generally become the rule about art's place at Our Place. Disappointment remains the default setting. Far more impressive and substantial was the National Library's exhibition Handboek: Ans Westra Photographs, now touring the country.

City Gallery's survey of Rosalie Gascoigne's work was engaging, and at moments it sang with the lightness and clarity that are hallmarks of her best sculptures. The Plischke show was also rewarding, but would have benefited from greater context and a stronger presentation. Prospect 2004, the gallery's headline show for the year, was a confused affair, weighed down by its own hype and some seriously poor choices on the part of the curator.

Ronnie van Hout's survey I've Abandoned Me made a welcome visit to Wellington, as did the touring Frank Carpay show. The Adam Art Gallery's Concrete Horizons offered an intriguing glimpse of recent Chinese art, making it one of the few international exhibitions initiated by a Wellington gallery this year. The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth had no such reticence in that regard, with two local-international surveys - Bloom: mutation, toxicity and the sublime and Gridlock: cities, structures, spaces - and Mediarena, a dazzling exhibition of recent Japanese art. The highlight for this out-of-town visitor, though, was the serenely beautiful work of German video artist Marcel Odenbach.

At the dealer galleries, there were memorable exhibitions by Ben Cauchi, Shane Cotton, Luise Fong, Simon Morris, Elizabeth Thompson and Yvonne Todd. Two new dealers opened in the capital this year, as well as another artist-run space. Show is the initiative of Jennifer Gillam and Eugene Hansen, and it's aptly named. They show work that they like, and they do it well. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

CHRISTCHURCH by Andrew Paul Wood

Nationwide, this has been a generally pretty weird year for art. It revealed works by Ralph Hotere and et al inspired by Paul Holmes's unique journalistic style, and saw ex-cricketer Adam Parore re-invent himself as an art consultant. These are indeed strange days. Hold me, I'm frightened.

Christchurch enjoyed several highlights, and many of those were part of the SCAPE Urban Arts Biennial 04, including such gems as &: Ampersand - a celebration of 12 years of the High Street Project, showcasing a number of the emerging artists who have shown there over the decade.

Also part of SCAPE was Victoria Bell's Installation No 38: The Peacock Fountain at the CoCA gallery. This was a great, glorious, raucous upholstered simulation of a notoriously garish piece of exquisite Edwardian baroque ironwork in Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Bell has just been awarded the Olivia Spencer Bower fellowship for 2005 and she certainly deserves it.

HOME/GROUND has to be my favourite of the SCAPE shows. It was a bright, lively coming together of installations by Australasian artists of Asian and/or PI ancestry. If curator Felicity Milburn can generate this much heat for a festival, why can't she for the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu? Hopefully, we will see progress.

Of the non-SCAPE related events, the mid-year Tony de Lautour mid-career survey (1984-2004) at the University of Canterbury's SOFA gallery in the Arts Centre stands out as a moment of art historical importance. For the first time it was possible to see why de Lautour is one of the outstanding heirs of Canterbury painting.

In October, the Physics Room showed Interior World, a joint installation by the stellar Seraphine Pick and ascending star Oli Perkins. Perkins (selected this time last year by the Listener as the best young artist out of Christchurch) has been awarded a scholarship to study at the Chelsea School of Art in London.

Artists Julia Morison and Helen Calder opened a gallery called 64zero3, which promises to alter perceptions about dealer galleries forever.

These are a few of my favourite things ... The self-hamstringing brickbat "huh?" awards go to: (1) the University of Canterbury for effectively signing the death warrant of SOFA, despite several years of kick-ass shows of international quality. Obviously, they haven't been paying attention to Victoria and Auckland; (2) the Christchurch Art Gallery for being the only major institution not to have hosted Ronnie van Hout's I've Abandoned Me, despite his being a star and a former Ilam student. Go figure.

DUNEDIN by Bridie Lonie

Selecting work to review is more about what words can do than what is best or worst. This little city has an unnatural number of artists who show in galleries with very rapid turn-arounds. And being attached to the art school means that I'm aware of the younger artists biting the heels of the old, filling galleries, coffee bars and shop windows with new work. Some of the highlights are theirs. For instance, sculpture students filled the old Manhattan Dance Lounge with derelict sculpture of monumental proportions, and enlisted such unlikely acts as an unamplified Scottish baritone who sang bravely on while some hundreds of people did what people do at openings, at full volume. Another highlight was the Fringe Festival's Ghost Train, a midnight journey through a warehouse-become-tunnel with tableaux of unspeakable acts which were both funny and revolting.

For much of Dunedin's audience, the most significant exhibition is Jeffrey Harris's (reviewed this year by David Eggleton); his Dunedin Public Art Gallery exhibition has been complemented by smaller shows at Marshall Seifert and Milford Galleries. The persona of the artist is a durable commodity. Harris's central theme of a self excoriated by love and hate, its too solid flesh filleted like netted salmon, is something the 19th century bequeathed to artists who seem unwilling to give it up. The newer work is in that awkward space between image and sign, visceral in some way that I don't like but the punters do. But Harris's mid-career etchings with their complex scenarios are intriguing and at times beautiful. The protagonist's bewilderment in the face of all that life throws at the young remains for me a key image for the 1970s, exemplifying the narratives common to poetry, paint and print in that decade.

The review of Ralph Hotere and Mary McFarlane's parallel exhibition at the Temple Gallery provoked an invitation to see Hotere's studio, modified so that he can continue to work. A style as material-bound as his must change under such circumstances; this exhibition seemed to indicate a dryer, terser mode.

Sara Hughes's exhibition at the Hocken Gallery remains in my memory vivid and rich, a sampler of the sorts of things one can do while connecting digital and painted media and a demonstration of the value of such residencies as her Frances Hodgkins Fellowship. Hughes's work is plotted carefully, requiring a knowledge of symmetry that is much more complicated than simply rotating tessellations in a programme. Whatever holds the eye in an image, simple symmetry isn't enough; the variations in a pictorial field are what make it durable.

A work that I didn't review but which also remains in my mind is Bekah Carran's Welcome to Paradise, just finished at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, a very dystopic view of dreams, with a beautifully made apple tree beside a grey/fluorescent park bench in a nightmare light. In contrast was Phil Dadson's Polar Projects, that optimistic exploration of Antarctica, his inverted, bobbing canoe a passage into the centre of an auditory universe where rocks are viable life forms.