This week at Auckland Arts Festival: March 6th-12th

by Metro / 07 March, 2017
From poignant portraits of Asia to performers twirling from trapezes, there’s a lot happening during the first week of Auckland Arts Festival. Here’s Metro’s round-up to whet your appetite.

Stilt Fishermen, Weligama, Sri Lanka, (1995), by Steve McCurry.

Picturing Asia: Double Take, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, February 25-May 21.

The Western gaze

Lips parted in a slight smile, head tilted toward the sky and skin drenched in an apparent downpour, the late New Zealand photographer Brian Brake’s Monsoon Girl seems to paint the perfect picture of India’s long-awaited rains. In 1961, it featured on the cover of Life, exuding the now-discontinued magazine’s dedication to the Western stereotype of exotic oriental Asia.

The portrait, along with other photos by Brake, is presented alongside American photographer Steve McCurry’s work in Picturing Asia: Double Take. Curator Ian Wedde aims to provide visual insights into not just multifaceted Asia, but how it is perceived through Western eyes. “The exhibition is two Western views of a really extraordinary range of stuff in Asia. Places, locations, times. The interesting thing is that it’s non-Asian people looking at Asia.”

From Brake’s early portraits of communist China in the 50s to McCurry’s black-and-white images taken in 1979, when he travelled with the Mujahideen through Afghanistan and Pakistan, the exhibition showcases an extraordinary and diverse range of work.

Brake and McCurry shared a fascination with Asia, but with 23 years between them, their careers peaked at different times (McCurry missed the golden years of photojournalism magazines like Life), and their style is starkly disparate. McCurry grew up inspired by Brake’s Monsoon photo series but took a very different approach in his own work, says Wedde. “Steve’s work has very immediate impact — it’s like, bam, it’s incredible — but with Brake’s, the impact is often quite slow. You have to just settle down, and then look.”

The different eras they worked in meant McCurry enjoyed luxuries Brake never had. “McCurry photographed alongside large essay texts by people like Paul Theroux in National Geographic. Brake had little captions written by very right-wing caption writers for Life… so you don’t have that depth of discourse around his work.”

Brake also had a fondness for imagining realities in his documentary photos. Monsoon Girl does not capture spontaneity, but rather a model styled and briefed by Brake, showered in water droplets from a watering can — not simply capturing what was in front of him, but actually “picturing Asia” through the lens of his own creative input. Brake’s experience in film-making inspired him to capture his subjects in motion: blurred bodies run from the beating rains, sometimes seemingly escaping the frame.

In contrast, McCurry’s images are crisp and colourful, presenting a liveliness often subdued in Brake’s work due to his grainier, more abstract images. McCurry’s famous Afghan Girl portrait is a clear example: the combination of a striking red headscarf and the young girl’s piercing green eyes have an immediate impact. As Wedde says: “Bam.”

— India Hendrikse

This ain’t no disco, Leafa Wilson/ Olga Krause, 2016.

Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise, St Paul St Gallery, February 24-March 31

A groundbreaking Lisa Reihana video from last century makes a timely return alongside recent works by Pacific and indigenous women.

Twenty-seven years ago, Lisa Reihana made a breakthrough video that placed her squarely at the heart of a new generation of Maori artists. Wog Features was incredibly innovative for its time, its hip-hoppy bounce and verve luring viewers into a strange stop-motion space that combined clunky animations with various cultural stereotypes, from dusky maidens through to full-on blackface. It was postcolonial confrontation with a beat, which made its subterfuge all the more slippery.

Made between 1988 and 1990, it was also a perfect work for the moment. As Australia celebrated its bicentenary and New Zealand its sesquicentenary, Reihana and her peers — Shane Cotton, Peter Robinson, Michael Parekowhai and others — reminded us that the celebration of nationhood couldn’t, on its own, drown out the legacies of colonialism, racism, land dispossession and indigenous trauma.

The exhibition Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise makes a timely revisit to Wog Features. We’ve just had another Prime Minister turn his back on Waitangi. And we’ve had news outlets inexplicably giving Sir Bob Jones a platform to spout racist, fat-shaming stereotypes about the homeless. And we have Donald Trump getting more horrifying by the day. We live in dangerous times, and people of colour are facing levels of hate many of us thought were behind us.

Still, Like Air curators Abby Cunnane and Charlotte Huddleston have brought Wog Features together with several recent works by indigenous and Pacific women. The title is a double-quotation: from Maya Angelou but also Hannah Brontë, whose work in the show is a music video that imagines an indigenous parliament in Australia. Skawennati uses the cyber-reality of Second Life to speculate on what a First Nations future might look like. One of Salote Tawale’s videos sees her drinking endless amounts of the sports drink Pocari Sweat. And Leafa Wilson examines the double marking of her own body, with its German-Samoan origins.

The exhibition isn’t a case of drawing “cause and effect” lines between Reihana’s seminal piece and these more recent works. But it does bring together the practices of women who put their own bodies on the line to examine how colonialism has impacted on how we see them in the public sphere. Looking is always a loaded act, and Reihana’s dusky-maiden-to-blackface continuum hasn’t gone away, no matter how enlightened we would like ourselves to be. One look to Nauru, or Standing Rock, or the customs areas of American airports will tell you that. The celebrations of 1990 and the clever barbs of Wog Features feel like a long time ago. And yet a quarter of a century on, brown bodies — particularly those of women — are arguably just as pathologised as ever.

-Anthony Byrt

Eli Kent has written and performs — with a pig — in Peer Gynt [recycled]. Photographed with Dotty the pig by Stephen Langdon at ASB Waterfront Theatre.

Peer Gynt  [recycled], ASB Waterfront Theatre, March 7-18.

An update of Peer Gynt relocates Ibsen’s story in the modern world — but keeps the creatures.

Dotty, the three-month-old kunekune piglet sharing the stage with playwright and actor Eli Kent on Metro’s photo shoot, is proving a bit of a drama queen. We’re photographing the unlikely pair at the ASB Waterfront Theatre, the festival venue for Kent’s play Peer Gynt [recycled], when Dotty shits on the stage. More than once.

Perhaps the piglet is protesting the lack of her preferred creature comforts — cinnamon loaf, camping trips with her owner Fleur Cutfield, and snoozing inside Cutfield’s house, where Dotty lives when it’s too hot outside. At this point, a performing career is looking less likely than returning to her usual role as runt of the litter.

Either way, it’s Kent who’s the star of this show: he penned Peer Gynt [recycled] and also has a central role in it, amid a 10-strong cast directed by Auckland Theatre Company’s Colin McColl.

Set in Norway, Henrik Ibsen’s original Peer Gynt tells the story of a young dreamer trying to navigate his way through life and discover his true self, but failing in his mission at every turn. Kent’s version essentially tells the same tale, yet somehow nearly everything about the original plot has changed. “I’m a pretty weird dude,” he says. “I mean, the play was already weird, but I’ve made it even weirder, if that’s possible.”

Kent’s Gynt is the kind of guy who wouldn’t think twice about hanging out with controversial photographer Terry Richardson or notoriously difficult film director James Cameron. It’s all about making sure his needs are met, and stuff anyone else’s. Basically, he’s a selfish bastard.

On the flip side, Gynt’s very nature makes him relatable. “He’s an everyman,” says Kent, 28. “He’s likeable in the same way that Eric Cartman from South Park is likeable. He’s completely amoral. He does racist things sometimes, and he does sexist things sometimes, but he doesn’t really, fundamentally believe any of that stuff.”

Like Cartman, Gynt’s suggestible, lazy nature makes him easy to forgive, posing moral questions about why we sometimes excuse unforgivable acts by likeable or naive characters. People like Richardson, who despite sexual misconduct claims continues to photograph celebrities for a living.

At the heart of the play, Gynt must overcome his fear of doing anything difficult in order to become his true self. He longs to feel fulfilled but, paradoxically, can’t feel whole because he gives up everything he tries before it gets difficult enough to become fulfilling. In the end, his whole life has passed him by and he is full of regret, having not lived any part of it fully.

Kent spent a year working on the play and describes it as his response to the original text rather than a rehash of it. “It’s a bit of a mire,” he says. “You can really get stuck in the morality of it all.”

He plays a kind of narrator or lecturer — “less boring than it sounds” — and has relocated the story from the 1870s to the present with the help of socio-political context and “celebrity” cameos.

“At one point, an actor playing James Cameron is forced to re-enact that famous Titanic scene,” he says, delighted.

Like the original, Kent’s play is often dreamlike, and Ibsen’s fantastic creatures remain pivotal to the story. “There are dancing trolls!” he says. “And a live pig!”

-Kate Richards

Jason Te Kare, director of Cellfish. Photographed outside Mt Eden Prison by Stephen Langdon.

Cellfish, Q Theatre, March 8-14.

Teaching Shakespeare in a prison unlocks the inmates’ histories in a new show from Jason Te Kare’s Theatre of Auckland.

Jason Te Kare doesn’t want to reveal too much about Cellfish, his new show. It’s a dark comedy and a psychological thriller, it’s set in a New Zealand men’s prison, Shakespeare is involved — “the plays, not the dude who wrote them; he’s dead, unfortunately” — and when I ask for more detail, there’s a long pause. A thriller needs to thrill, so it needs its secrets. “I want to be careful not to give the wrong thing away here...”

Te Kare works at Te Oro, the music and arts centre in Glen Innes. He’s a GI boy from way back, but he’s been in Wellington for most of the past decade and a half. “I moved down to do my first professional play as a young actor in 1996, at that year’s international festival, and I kind of fell in love with the place. Maori theatre was really strong down there in the 90s; they had so many theatres cranking out work.”

He ended up staying, and going to drama school there, and one gig led to another, and 13 years passed. He came home, in the end, because he wanted to start his own company.

“Wellington’s got a long history of Maori theatre. They’ve got Taki Rua, they’ve got Tawata, they’ve got so many Maori theatre companies it would be crazy to start one there. And I’ve always wondered why it hasn’t taken off in Auckland, a Maori theatre company. Maori dance is really strong here.”

He decided it was time to come home and see if the skills he’d picked up in his Wellington years were up to the challenge of running his own show. “I wanted to step out on my own and test myself. Test my ability to make the creative decisions right from the top.”

Te Kare’s company, Theatre of Auckland, or TOA, had a success at the Basement last year with their Matariki show, Glimmer. Cellfish is their second. Rob Mokaraka and Miriama McDowell brought the core concept to Te Kare three years ago — “They asked me in as a dramaturge, and I absolutely loved the idea. I could see so much potential in it.” The three have been working on it ever since.

The story is about the ways in which our social systems fail the people they’re meant to serve and protect. A woman comes into a prison to teach the men Shakespeare, and the history and inner selves of the inmates are let loose.

“She unlocks their imaginations, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse... It’s about using dance and comedy to explore the darker depths. We don’t want to shy away from these characters’ crimes. We didn’t want to devalue the effect crime has on victims. So it’s a real fine balance between charming the audience and using comedy with these characters, and not ignoring the deeds these men have done to get themselves incarcerated. “We’ve fine-tuned it through a couple of workshops, and people get charmed, and then they get shocked, and then they fall in love with it. We’ve set it up so it turns on its head right when you’re not expecting it to.”

The decision to use Shakespeare in the show was one they thought hard about. “Miriama had just been cast in Pop-Up Globe’s Romeo and Juliet, last year, and I think she was the one who brought it to the table. We really interrogated the idea, to start off with. Because, you know, you invoke the name of Shakespeare, you’re promising something epic — emotionally and story-wise. And you’re also challenging yourself to be able to speak to the lords as well as to the groundlings, which we decided in our case meant people who know Shakespeare really well, and people who don’t know him at all.”

— David Larsen

Clockwise from top left: Rob Ruha, Jon Toogood, Moana Maniapoto and Warren Maxwell.

Revolutions, Spiegeltent, March 9-10.

Four acclaimed New Zealand musicians unite to salute protest songs that have changed the world.

Four singer-songwriters devising an original show just days before they’re due to perform it could be a total mess. But if any group can pull it off, this one can.

They’re all leading musicians in their own right, after all — Moana Maniapoto (Moana and The Moahunters), Warren Maxwell (Trinity Roots, Little Bushman), Jon Toogood (Shihad) and Rob Ruha — and they know that when it comes to a live show, an authentic performance can ace a polished one. This is lucky, given that by the time they’re together in the same place, it will be five days before their first gig. Meanwhile, they’re sharing ideas via Dropbox.

Their show, Revolutions, promises an acoustic celebration of the potency and prevalence of protest anthems throughout history. The festival’s artistic director, Carla van Zon, brought the singer-songwriters together because they are “four artists who really have something to say”. Maniapoto is an indigenous rights activist, Maxwell’s a programme developer at Massey University’s School of Music and Creative Media Production and has taught songwriting in prisons, Toogood is an Apra award winner and Ruha is credited as being one of the most influential Maori musicians of this century.

Revolutions will span a variety of genres (Maxwell says he’s been pondering punk a lot lately), and subjects as diverse as relationships, politics, poetry and growing old. “Revolutions aren’t always political,” says van Zon, “but art can change the world.” 

-David Larsen

Yona Lee designed her sculpture, with its 1.4km of stainless-steel pipes, specifically for Te Tuhi in Pakuranga.

In Transit (Arrival), Te Tuhi, March 11-July 23.

Yona Lee was in Korea when she dreamed up  the idea of a sculpture taking over an entire Auckland building.

The idea came to Yona Lee in bed — not at home in Auckland, but as she lay in the single bed that formed part of a large-scale sculpture she was installing at a gallery in Korea.

What if, the artist mused, her next exhibition was the antithesis of art that simply hung on a wall? What if the sculpture she created for Auckland’s arts festival took over an entire building?

It seems appropriate that the concept for In Transit (Arrival) at Te Tuhi in Pakuranga was formed while Lee spent three nights sleeping inside one of her own works.

Faced with a three-hour return commute to the gallery in Seoul, where she was completing an artist’s residency, she found it easier to make practical use of the work she was rushing to assemble as her exhibition opening loomed.

In Transit (Arrival) is Lee’s — and Te Tuhi’s — largest and most ambitious project to date. The site-specific installation’s 1.4km of stainless-steel tubes claim the contemporary gallery’s foyer, climb its walls and take over corridors, offices, a courtyard, a cafe, kitchens, education and children’s spaces — even the toilets.

“The experience of art has been flattened by the internet and by looking at images online,” says Lee. “I hope this work provides a sense of suggestion that art should be experienced in real time and space.”

Within the network of elaborate linear steel structures, which echo the handrails and barriers found in airports, train stations and other urban public spaces, sit everyday objects evocative of private or domestic domains — lamps, tables, laundry racks, a swing. The inherent humanity of these familiar objects, juxtaposed with the uniformity and anonymity of stainless steel, forms a wacky hybrid world of daily life and internal landscapes. It’s as if boundaries have dissolved, the flotsam and jetsam of consumerism snared in a gigantic metallic fish net.

The maze-like sculpture is an evolution of the work Lee created in Seoul, linked both thematically and in terms of functionality — gallery visitors can walk through it and touch it, pull up a chair, take a shower or a snooze.

In Transit (Arrival) is both a celebration and a critique of modernisation, says Lee, 30, who was born in Korea and whose family migrated to New Zealand when she was 12. Questions about her identity formed a starting point from which she explored universal concepts of space and time.

“In contrast to New Zealand, Korea is very densely populated, and a small land mass. Because of that you can do a lot in a small area, whereas in New Zealand, you travel far to get something done. I was thinking about how that understanding of space is quite different, the development of transportation, the 12-hour flight from here to Korea, and how that would change our understanding of the world.”

Lee’s intention is for the work to be experienced almost incidentally, given Te Tuhi’s dual role as community hub and art gallery. “Walk along the corridor at night and you will hear someone preaching in one room, in another room there is music and people dancing, an orchestra practising, art classes. I really wanted to respond to that characteristic of Te Tuhi — it’s unusual for a gallery to have these different spaces, which bring quite a diverse audience to the building, not necessarily here for the art but kind of like a meeting place.”

Indeed, the sculpture’s takeover of Te Tuhi means visitors are impelled to become participants in it, rather than simply observers. “The work is completed by the public engaging with it,” says Lee. “The work is performed by the audience, their experience of the journey through the work and their experience of everyday life.”

 — Susannah Walker

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This is published in the March- April 2017 issue of Metro.

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