End of western civ

by Aaron Kreisler / 30 December, 2006

===Auckland===

It's been a bookish year for the art world and most of the art that interested me had something of a literary bent, kicked off in style with Kiosk at Artspace. A travelling show curated by German publisher Christoph Keller, Kiosk was a veritable candy-store of obscure rarities of the art publishing kind. Happy punters spent many hours in the gallery-cum-reading-lounge, thumbing through thousands of zines, catalogues and artist's books, eyes glazed with wonder.

A perfect addition to the Kiosk collection would have been Human Problems by Francis Upritchard, released last month. In one of the spunkiest artist monographs of late, or perhaps ever, the winner of the Walters Prize 2006 has showcased her entire cabinet of curiosities in a clothbound book that's every bit as quirky as her works. Accompanied by the rantings of an apocryphal anthropologist (penned by Hari Kunzru), Upritchard's goofy, gloomy artefacts spell nothing less than the end of western civilisation.

Starkwhite imported Los Angeles sci-fi bibliophile Andy Alexander, whose giant digital mural urged us to "READ MORE WORK LESS". Such impeccable logic is hard to refute, especially when sugar-coated by Alexander's faux-Victorian, cartoon-cute style. Rainbow-coloured books good enough to eat completed Alexander's ensemble, an exhortation to civilised, psychedelic, literary behaviour.

Also at Starkwhite and more bookish than anything else I saw this year, was Ann Shelton's A Library to Scale. Huge gleaming photographs of the collected notebooks of Taranaki historian Fred Butler filled the walls, transporting the library to another location. A paean to the drive to collect, Butler's books were jewel-like in their colour and clarity, like so many butterflies or insect carapaces. The combined presence of his meticulous work was staggering, mesmerising and inspiring.

Similar adjectives might be sprinkled upon John Reynolds's Four Walls, Three Layers, Two Marks, One Light at the Auckland Art Gallery. As part of the gallery's tribute to itself before major refurbishments, Reynolds covered the walls in elegant silver tagging - the names of all the New Zealand artists in the gallery's collections. Names emerged out of the gloom, shone temporarily, and subsided again, just like the vicissitudes of fashion. But illuminated or not, these names remain our art-world whakapapa, and Reynolds's tribute was genuinely moving.

There were some works that divested themselves utterly of the word, and these brain-cleansers were refreshingly thing-y. At the start of the year, young sculptors Simon Denny and Seung Yul Oh vied for the crazy tactility and material madness prize at Michael Lett and Starkwhite respectively. Later in the year, Peter Robinson's Ack at Artspace proved he can still surprise, with rooms full of carved polystyrene in oddly anthropomorphic shapes, as if a three-year-old had tried to build Dali's Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) with Playdough. (Perhaps this work was a premonition of the iceberg flotilla off the coast of the South Island?) Though Robinson has been a wordy artist in the past, this work seemed wilfully beyond verbiage. A pleasant surprise in such a bookish year.

by Tessa Laird

===Wellington===

To be honest, I've really been scratching around to remember a single indelible art experience in the past 12 months. In an act of desperation I decided to reread my reviews and it has to be said they did not give me much solace. A lot of what was served up by a number of galleries was lacklustre, jaded or simply overcooked.

Why? It's hard to pinpoint a reason. One could of course blame the lack of rigour in curatorial circles, the cult of art personality over substance, risk aversion in the more established galleries, a level of comfort/mutual appreciation defining artist/curator/institutional relationships - and, dare I say it, a general lack of critical debate in the public realm.

But some of these issues were present last year: have things changed that much? The answer is, of course, no, and maybe that is the problem.

One of the more interesting spectacles this year has been the shifting seating arrangement of people occupying key roles in various galleries in this region. Rhana Devenport took the helm at the Govett-Brewster after it had floated along for 12 months with an at-times haphazard programme. Having said that, it did produce some of the more thought-provoking shows, including Darcy Lange: Study of an Artist at Work and Most-ly Harmless: a performance series. Proof that art historical surveys can deliver a respite from the never-ending hype and lust for the next big thing.

The City Gallery continued to provide serious leverage for Australian art institutions promoting international blockbusters or blue-chip art names. I am not averse to these types of exhibitions and I understand the rationale behind them; I just wonder if this is the best way for an institution to spend its money. Basically, an exhibition like Sam Taylor-Wood and Patricia Piccinini provides an insight into a particular career trajectory and a certain level of intrigue, but there is no sustained relationship and little critical dialogue with the art being produced in this context.

The opening up of one of the main gallery spaces downstairs did signal a possible return to commissioning new projects by emerging New Zealand artists. But unfortunately even these installations seemed hamstrung: the series simply read like a rehash of previous outings, and seriously lacked a vital ingredient - pressure.

Add to this equation the final belated arrival of Toi Te Papa, originally bumped by the second coming of the Lord of the Rings exhibition, with all its bold claims about delivering New Zealanders their art/cultural history, and it all sounds a bit like box-ticking and meeting policy targets rather than the delivery of content.

With this in mind, it seems easier to go to the less encumbered spaces where at least they are more direct about what their primary purpose is, selling art or representing their particular constituency. It still seems as though the most interesting and surprising exhibitions are emerging from art dealers and artist-run spaces where the relationship between artist and director/curator is not complicated by too many competing voices/agendas.

by Aaron Kriesler

===Christchurch===

A good year again for art in Christchurch, with several major exhibitions and events to remind the rest of the country that there is another island entirely to the south.

Christchurch Art Gallery revealed some of its awesome potential in exhibitions like the Julia Morison survey show loop around a loop (if the catalogue alone doesn't win some major awards there is no justice). It's also the only New Zealand venue for the Giacometti show put together by the Gallery of New South Wales from the collection of the Maeght Foundation in France.

As far as I know, works by this seminal modernist haven't been seen in New Zealand since the hyper-hyped Masterpieces from the Guggenheim at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 1997. I doubt whether this much art of this kind of historical significance has been here in a decade - and it may not come again for another. More to the point, suddenly the photographs in the art-history books make sense. For all the Mohammeds who never made it to the mountain, Christchurch brings the mountain to you.

Then, of course, there was SCAPE. This year the biennial of art in public space reached a milestone. It wasn't entirely perfect, but then, what on earth can you really compare it to? And given its scale (especially relative to Christchurch), it shows no sign yet of becoming bloated, flatulent or arthritic. The calibre of the national and international artists was a revelation and a joy.

I rather wish, though, that more use had been made of Cathedral Square (aside from Johannes Gees's austere but compelling laser/SMS projection Menetekel ) as the ultimate Garden City space deserving to be subverted. At times one did get the slight impression that curators Natasha Conland and Susanne Jaschko had relied perhaps too much on dipping into the freezer and defrosting some usual-Auckland-suspects and Transmediale leftovers. And who was the audience, the public or the arty-glitterarti? Too much the latter, I'd say. Otherwise I couldn't be happier and will refrain from any more borax-poking.

Back in April I wrote about Christchurch artist Robert Hood. I am very pleased to note that he has won the Olivia Spencer Bower Award for 2007. Chosen from 132 applicants, Hood becomes the 20th recipient of the award and receives $30,000 and a studio flat in the Arts Centre of Christchurch so that he may focus exclusively on his practice for a year. Bravo! His work can be seen in the exhibition Out of Erewhon: New Directions in Canterbury Art at Christchurch Art Gallery to February 4.

It has been a bumper year for younger artists. Tim Main delighted and surprised at the CoCA gallery with large floral Gothic rose windows (very Christchurch) carved from wood. CoCA have recently rebranded. From the logo they would now appear to be a division of Microsoft Xbox. Ri Williamson's Ianuae at the Jonathan Smart Gallery was also exceptional and bodes well for the future.

Finally, I call upon the art world to declare a fatwa on Oliver Driver and the Gibson Group. The madness must stop.

by Andrew Paul Wood

===Dunedin===

This was a year when art materialised in all sorts of nooks and crannies. Many exhibitions seemed intent on showing that, glutted by consumerism, we exist in a permanent state of stupefaction, emotionally disconnected despite the ubiquitous connective powers of technology.

An afterimage of Ricky Swallow's cardboard replica of an 80s ghettoblaster - The X-Bass Woofer - in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery's Reboot stayed with me. He located the Galactic Imperium of an early Star Wars movie in the shape of a shabby object that seemed to have solidified out of grey dust. Two exhibits to jump out from the show The Op-Shop were Reuben Paterson's rummage pile of old and worn-out - but glitter-dusted and therefore sparkly and precious - shoes; and Michael Morley's collection of vinyl 45s, remade as artworks with their vintage grooves painted.

At the Marshall Seifert Gallery, Aidan House took on the absurdity of existence with an assortment of forlorn animals. He offered the morbid anatomy of two-headed mutant sheep, and cat and mouse skulls moulded out of white wax and placed in bell jars. Oil paintings by Simon Kennedy at the same venue also had whiffs of the morgue, invoking the existential and the festering. James Robinson's wintry paintings at Milford Galleries, assembled out of stones, sticks, nails, wool and gloopy paint, produced an inner chill.

The gloomsters didn't have the party all to themselves. Rather more joyous were the paintings of Philip Trusttum in his colour-pulsing Lets Go Lego, which offered cartoon munchkins in police and firefighter uniforms, inspired by his grandson's toy collection. And there was more playfulness in Kerrie Poliness's Black O Wall Drawings, where cosmic string games unpacked from a set of instructions went up on a wall to bemuse your optical perceptions.

The warty excrescences of compacted paint carved out by Rohan Wealleans at a variety of venues offered fun, as did the ragbag artistry of Judy Darragh thrown up onto a big wall in the form of expanded foam squiggles. Along at Moray Gallery, Janet de Wagt provided joyous abandon through landscape oils oozing with sap and fermentation, in which, beyond the foliage, you risked being slapped by the wind and splashed by showers of rain.

In Astray, at the Temple Gallery, Cathy Tuato'o Ross turned the blotched panes of an old glasshouse into something silvery and beautiful through the alchemical powers of photography. In the travelling Go Girl, Fiona Clark, photographing Seventies gay liberation activists, showed how the crossdressing, genderbending disco diva era has evolved, for some, into the hard-won domestic ordinariness of life today.

Amid crowding eclecticism it's impossible to acknowledge everything remarkable this year, but I'll conclude by pointing to two quiet exhibitions: Thomas Elliott's Grain, with its oil paintings depicting armies of troglodytes in hoodies engaged in mysterious tasks, and Jude Rae's Victoria Chambers, a suite of charcoal drawings that quarried the gloom in an old office building for seams of light and breathed new life into faded, almost-invisible surroundings.

by David Eggleton

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