PRINT March 1995


Wystan Curnow from Auckland

FEBRUARY IS SUMMERTIME down under. We have beaches and cruise ships, we have rock concerts, one-day cricket, and sunny prospects. Primal Scream, Ministry, Grant Lee Buffalo, R.E.M., and, I almost forgot, the Rolling Stones have lined up alongside locals like Crowded House, the Headless Chickens, and Spies Underground. Cricket has dominated one or other TV network, Sri Lanka vs. Australia in Sydney, England vs . Zimbabwe in Perth. The West Indians are here and the South Africans are due soon. The economy is overheating. After twenty years of stagnation and decline, last year’s 6 percent growth and a burgeoning budget surplus have put the country in a new mood.

In downtown Auckland the signs of the upturn are unmistakable. Office blocks more or less vacant since the ’87 stock-market crash are filling again, and others are being built-—cranes have returned to the skyline. Aucklanders have suddenly acquired a passion for inner-city living, and since there are no apartment buildings here—New Zealanders are supposed to live in wooden bungalows in suburbs—office buildings are everywhere being made over and plans for apartment blocks drawn up. The developers and their clients are coattailing on the young artists, entrepreneurs, and students who had previously occupied these buildings as squatters, caretakers, and low-renters. An expanded street life and cafe-and-club scene have formed, their sophistication doing much to make inner-city living seem attractive. Before the crash, high rents had been pushing the galleries out toward the suburbs; now, having weathered the recession surprisingly well, some have moved back. New galleries are opening up. Auckland’s dozen or so quality commercial galleries make it the center of the country’s small but flourishing art market.

A few salient factors dictate the terms of cultural life in Auckland, and in New Zealand generally. The country is small: 3.5 million people occupy a land mass the size of Japan, with its 123 million people. Ten percent are Maori, mostly of mixed Maori and European ancestry, and clustered at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. New Zealand is isolated: its nearest neighbor, Australia, is not all that close, Sydney being about as far from Auckland as London from Moscow. Some five to six thousand miles separate us from Beijing, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Santiago. First discovered by Polynesian explorers about 1,000 years ago, and by European explorers about 300 years ago, New Zealand has a brief modern history, dating from 1840, when the British persuaded the Maori inhabitants to “sign” what they called a “treaty” ceding the country to the Queen.

Not surprisingly, New Zealand possesses no distinguished collections of European art to add to the Maori taonga or treasures in its museums or on its marae, or tribal meeting grounds. Few historical or contemporary international exhibitions visit here or are originated by our art galleries, and internationally established contemporary artists are rarely represented locally in public or private collections or by commercial dealers. A developing link with Australia provides the exception to this pattern of isolation: Australian artists like John Nixon and Imants Tillers show with dealers here, and New Zealanders like Stephen Bambury and Julian Dashper exhibit regularly in Australia . The MCA in Sydney has been particularly active in showcasing and collecting New Zealand work—Julia Morison, William Dunning, Yuk King Tan, Jacqueline Fraser, Shane Cotton, Peter Robinson, Michael Parekowhai, and Denise Kum were included in its recent postcolonialist show, “Localities of Desire.”

In recent years the Auckland City Art Gallery has mounted a series of Australian survey exhibitions, of which last year’s “Aussemblage” was the most recent. Otherwise the Auckland galleries, along with Artspace and Teststrip, two staunch “alternative” spaces, and the Auckland City Art Gallery’s new space, are more or less exclusively devoted to contemporary New Zealand art. Precisely because the scene is so self-contained and small, there is a demand for variety and complexity. New Zealand has its own art world, whose resources and structures are in fact surprisingly well developed considering the size of the population. It is also a world which depends for its variety and complexity almost entirely on the local product. Partly because of this, young artists tend to flourish here. That was borne out in last year’s “Art Now” survey of sculpture at the Museum of New Zealand, in Wellington, and will be confirmed by “Cultural Safety,” a show of New Zealand art that opens shortly at the Frankfurt Kunstverein.

The two events that have most shaped the country over the last ten years are, first, the 1984 election of a Labor government whose unexpected, and radical, free-market program shocked its supporters and left the country ideologically confused and politically traumatized. Since New Zealand never had much of an old right, the new fundamentalism is capitalist, not Christian, managerial, not moral. Second, in 1985 the jurisdiction of the Waitangi Tribunal, set up to hear claims against the Crown over actions since 1975, was extended to actions dating back to the Treaty’s signature. The extension has obliged New Zealanders to confront their past and has enabled them to begin shaping a more truly bicultural future for themselves. Support for and resistance to both the free market and biculturalism is to be found on both sides of the traditional political divide. But there is no doubt about the dramatic impact both events have had on the support structures of the arts, and on artistic and critical practice.

Insofar as the state itself is in disrepute, so is public support for culture. Government funding for the arts, vital in a country with little history of private patronage, continues, but now comes largely from lottery profits and is administered by Arts Council “managers” in the form of “investments. ” Government has ceased funding research in the humanities. The National Library is laying off staff. One art collector told me he was in favor of requiring the Arts Council to become self-funding in five years or get the ax, another that her offer to buy a building for Auckland’s City Art Gallery was met with a counteroffer from the mayor: would she like to buy the gallery itself? Traditional arguments for the public funding of culture are no longer listened to. I suspect that when they succeeded in the past, it was less that they convinced than that they were not met by confident counterarguments—which are now all too ready to hand. So the case for culture in New Zealand today largely stands or falls on the ability of individuals and organizations to describe what they do in commercial and business-management terms, which is to say, their ability to elaborate on a metaphor. This is the only language game in town.

Few have confronted its distortions; among them, as you would expect, are a number of the country’s more incisive artists. Derrick Cherrie, Ruth Watson, Julian Dashper, Michael Parekowhai, and Billy Apple have variously taken up and at the same time dismantled the metaphor. The reception of their work raises the question: who sets the rules by which art’s “accountability” is to be judged? Those within the support structure have in fact been slow to construct an effective counterargument, another language game. Biculturalist policies extrapolated from the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi come closest. In the meantime, many are learning to play the official code and in some cases to play it very well.

One measure of this is the quantity of art-museum expansion going on. Four of the country’s eight major museums are building new premises or acquiring and refurbishing existing ones that situate them closer to the heart of their respective cities and so to their audiences. In Auckland, a trust formed by collectors Jennifer and Alan Gibbs has bought a four-story building specifically to enable the City Art Gallery adequately to present its premier collection of contemporary New Zealand art. As the City Council was unwilling to contribute more than the $1 annual rent charged by the trust, the Gallery will rely for running costs on leases to shops and cafes on the lower two levels. This is an extraordinary act of private patronage for New Zealand, and may be a sign of things to come.

Far and away the largest and most significant museum building under construction occupies a spectacular Wellington waterfront site where it will serve as a singular waharoa, or entryway, to the capital and the country. The Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa is a new and a unique institution that aims to be the first genuinely bicultural museum in the world. Its origins lie in the Museum of New Zealand—one of those conventional, culturally questionable combinations of ethnographic and natural history collections—and the National Art Gallery, both of which long shared the same roof and governing board. Since the appointment of Cheryll Sorheran as chief executive, the discipline-based departments of both institutions have been dismantled, and their collections integrated. And while the Museum wants to assure us it will be a “competitive, commercially responsive customer focused organization,” the commitment to biculturalism quite clearly limits and contests the reach of the language of business. Basing itself firmly on the terms of the Treaty, the Museum’s bicultural policy permits the separate management and control of artworks/taonga, provides for equal and effective representation at board level, and involves tribes/iwi in decision-making processes.

The Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa is not intended to be a temple, a storehouse for hallowed objects, be they treasure or specimen. Styling itself a “forum for the nation,” it means to display its resources of material culture so that its visitors may participate in the investigation, the celebration, and the construction of the national identity. How that will work remains to be seen: opening day is four years hence. Displays as such, be they trade fair or art fair, are less innocent than formerly. We know a discursively charged space when we see one. And we know all museum displays, especially those that foreground “museum effect,” are nowadays rather apt to resemble recuperations of installation art. The “forum” metaphor has at least the signal virtue of recognizing the artwork for what it in fact is, a discursive object. John McCormack, the new director of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, also talks about the museum as forum. He has in mind not only the Gallery, which is soon to relocate itself right on Dunedin’s main street, but also Midwest, the better of the country’s two art magazines, which he coedits from the Gallery, and the Under Capricorn agency, which he codirects and under whose auspices the very successful international conference “Is Art a European Idea?” was organized for Wellington’s International Arts Festival early this year.

Given New Zealand’s history, questions of cultural identity are scarcely avoidable. Little of its art, past or present, is untouched by them. In the ’60s, in the painting of Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters, Maori imagery joined or replaced the landscape as the sign of the local, of the New Zealand difference within the Modern. Growing awareness of cultural difference within New Zealand meant that by the early ’80s, Maori imagery had disappeared from the work of European artists like Walters and had come to dominate that of the growing number of Maori artists. Last year, two substantial exhibitions served to summarize this development: “Parallel Lines: Gordon Walters in Context” and “Te Waka Toi,” a selection of work by midcareer Maori artists, just returned from an American tour. What neither exhibition quite represented was the extent to which this rather simple biculturalism has since been transcended, particularly in the work of younger Maori artists like Parekowhai. It is now the “differing within” that is increasingly the mark of the local, whether the starring point is Maori or, as we Europeans know ourselves, Pakeha.

Wystan Curnow is a critic, independent curator, and poet who teaches at the University of Auckland. He is currently writing a book on the artist Imants Tillers and working on an exhibition addressing the topic of globalization.