“Pictura Britannica”

The letter always reaches its destination, but does the exhibition? Hastily installed in makeshift fashion as the opening program of the Te Papa Museum, “Pictura Britannica,” an Australian-curated exhibition of contemporary British art that was initially scheduled to appear in a privately run space, ended up in an institution that is oriented around national identity (the new museum tends to reduce art to a small piece of a larger sociological picture, by placing work alongside such historical curiosities as the waistcoat of Captain Cook or a refrigerator from the ’60s). The inclusion of at least one work in the show, Tania Kovats’ Virgin in a Condom, 1994, though, was interpreted by some as an indication that the museum has begun to give serious consideration to contemporary art. When Kovats’ piece, a modest votive statue draped in latex, was exhibited at the MCA, Sydney (the show’s originating venue), it was stolen. In Wellington more than thirty thousand people, many of them Catholics, signed a petition demanding its removal, but Virgin in a Condom stayed put for the duration of the show, receiving unprecedented media coverage.

The curator, Bernice Murphy, took care to distance “Pictura Britannica” from similar YBA exhibitions that have taken the “cool Britannia” line, and her sophisticated position was consistent with the suggestive work included. (The show was especially strong in film and video, but Murphy’s selections reflected a wide spectrum of recent artistic practice in Britain.) The exhibition raised the fraught question of assembling a national panorama, and it gestured toward national specificity by highlighting certain critical traditions—including analyses of the museum’s history—posited by Murphy as having informed recent British art. These ingredients, added to a local vision of biculturalism, have also shaped the environment that has given birth to Te Papa. In this respect, the inclusion of a subtle perspective on British art in the show’s extensive catalogue, Patricia Bickers’ essay “As Others See Us,” was a gesture that lent the project a provocative air of self-reflection.

In her own essay, Murphy writes that what distinguishes the artists’ use of such technologies and investigative modes as video, market research, and the journalistic interview are “critical strategies of analysis, re-interpretation and transformation.” In this particular context, however, one was struck less by the strategies themselves as by the jaded yet inventive perspectives fueling them. Contrasting with the museum’s confident stance, work by artists like Richard Billingham and Gillian Wearing is immersed in messy complicity and ambiguity. On the surface, Virgin in a Condom might have seemed the most disruptive piece in “Pictura Britannica,” but it was the more anarchic investigations of cultural forms offered by works like Gillian Wearing’s Confess All on Video. Don’t worry you will be in Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian (a grotesque parody of psychotherapy and demographic research) or Mark Wallinger’s Royal Ascot, 1994 (television monitors placed at the entrance to the exhibition that constantly replayed the arrival of the luridly outfitted British royal family at the Ascot races) that were most revealing within Te Papa’s inclusive national story.

Anna Miles