4th Auckland Triennial

Various Venues

New Zealand recently made an appearance in the world media as the source of a novelty news item when a kakapo, a critically endangered flightless parrot, attempted to mate with the head of a presenter on the BBC television show Last Chance to See. The tension in such a rare, perhaps vanishing opportunity is offered as a “condition for viewing” by curator Natasha Conland in her Auckland Triennial, a thematic exhibition that is the country’s smaller, much younger relative of the Biennale of Sydney. Conland inflects her themes of “risk and adventure” with the title “Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon,” a figure derived from Marine Hugonnier’s video The Last Tour, 2004, which imagines a near future in which the Matterhorn is to be closed to the public and we take a final ride around the peak by balloon.

Capitalist risk and its environmental effects are a recurrent concern in the show, treated most richly by Berlin-based New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson’s video On How Things Behave, 2010, in which a voice-over weaves together highly specific material—some New Zealand financiers’ experience of the 1987 stock market crash, theories of probability, and a coastal hermit’s experience of the 2002 Prestige oil spill—into a meditation on uncertainty that draws out their most general implications.

Ideological conflict and documentary uncertainty are reflected in another cluster of works. Iranian artist Shahab Fotouhi dramatizes a single historical moment, the return of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile in 1979, mapping his trajectory on the floor of the gallery in neon in Route, 2010. Scaffolding overhead functions as a synecdoche for the stage that marked the landing point for Khomeini’s helicopter, which is shown in found video footage in Aerial Appendix, 2010. Fotouhi’s careful abstraction and ambiguity are outdone only by Lebanese artist Walid Sadek’s cryptic evocation of the story of a pro-Palestinian Japanese terrorist in Kozo Okamoto Resides in Greater Beirut, 2008–2009.

Political issues closer to home are raised in Richard Bell’s satire of racism against indigenous Australians (Scratch an Aussie, 2008) and Tom Nicholson’s imaginary memorial to Australian colonial blindness (Monument for the Flooding of Royal Park, 2009). The tangible risk in intercultural encounters is touched on by Shigeyuki Kihara’s “Talanoa: Walk the Talk I–VI” series, 2009–10, in which the Auckland artist stages music and dance collaborations between ethnic and religious community performance groups.

Evoking stakes of a different order, other pieces—among them works by Martin Boyce, Tove Storch, Alicia Frankovich, and Tino Sehgal— relate the notion of risk more directly to form or to the viewer’s experience. The individual’s body, too, is the site of physical stress or hazard in activities familiar to a local audience, such as surfing (Auckland artist Alex Monteith’s gigantic projection Red Sessions, 2009–10), urban gymnastics (Australian Laresa Kosloff’s elegant Super 8 transfers Trapeze, 2009, and St Kilda Road, 2010), and sailing (Johanna Billing’s This Is How We Walk on the Moon, 2007).

Argentine artist Jorge Macchi’s video 12 Short Songs, 2009, is emblematic of the show’s predominant sensibility, alluding to a perilous world but offering respite from it in an everyday poetry. A series of cataclysmic news headlines—world faces “total” financial meltdown, for example—is punched into cards and hand-cranked through a music box, producing nostalgic-sounding but stuttering atonal “songs.” The work presents an allegory of the helpless remove we may feel in attempting to process global events, but its satire of media sensationalism suggests a flight of fancy may nonetheless be a good place to start.

Jon Bywater