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Ten Years in the Visual Arts

Tony de Lautour, Game Plan - 2007 acrylic on canvas 155 x 217 cm
Peter Robinson, Divine Comedy - 2001 Venice Biennale
Anton Parsons, Passing Time, 2010/11, image courtesy of the Art & Industry Biennial Trust.
Explaining Things, Dan Arps, Walters Prize 2010 – Installation view Auckland Art Gallery/Jennifer French.
Daniel Du Bern, Contra mundum - 2010.
As part of The Big Idea’s celebration of ten years online, we challenged critic Mark Amery to sum up those years in the visual arts - in writing.


As part of The Big Idea’s celebration of ten years online, we challenged critic Mark Amery to sum up those years in the visual arts - in writing.

To open it up for discussion Mark has also brought together contributions from five leading visual arts practitioners - Judy Millar, Reuben Friend, Peter Madden, Rob Garrett and Lonnie Hutchinson.

Everything's Connected

If you look back on the immediate past in your rear view mirror, it can appear as a blur. Distance gives things clarity. Activity slowly crystalises into shapes on the road that’s been traveled.

And yet, already, it’s hard not to conclude that the last ten years in the visual arts have been a time of change rather than consolidation. Of old things being opened up and new things plugged in: of our sense of the world expanding. Like the internet - from The Big Idea to Wikipedia and Facebook – everyone has been in thrall to the possibilities of things being connected.

Post-modernism, as a reaction to modernist art felt like it’d had its heyday in New Zealand by the turn of the century. It felt inwardly focused - busy dismantling modernism. Yet it created open ground for change in the last ten years. Opening out, art was increasingly about the context for objects, as well as their content.

It’s as if we physically took a few steps back to include more things in our view. To zoom out, like in Google Maps from a street in Wellington to a network of dots around the world. The gallery became more and more like a transit lounge, in which we worked out how to get there, from here, to over there.

If art late in the last century had been dominated in New Zealand by expressions of a sense of place, artists seemed far more interested now in exploring a sense of space - how things could interrelate in actual sites, and be mobile in many different ways in many different places. There’s been a keen interest in the arrangement of things: systems, archives, clusters, lists and piles. “A forest of signs,” to quote a review of a mid noughties Tony de Lautour exhibition.

Look back another ten years to the early 1990s and things were very different. A few examples: the promise and complications of biculturalism and cultural appropriation, the Ilam generation of so-called pencil case painters, the recognition of photography as an artform (a connector to a ‘sense of place’), the rise of a new generation of contemporary Maori artists, and of a contemporary Pacific Island art. Overseas we marketed New Zealand art as one package of distinctive issues.

I Am Many Things

Peter Robinson, Divine Comedy - 2001 Venice Biennale.

Peter Robinson, Divine Comedy - 2001 Venice Biennale

In the noughties we seemed to tire of curation around identity politics. We moved from 'I am he/she' to 'I am many things'. From Michael Parekowhai’s The Indefinite Article to his Ten Guitars.

The shift was signaled by our first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001, and bold installations by Jacqueline Fraser and Peter Robinson. Robinson’s work of this period provides us with forests of signs in relation to the confusion of identity brought about by globalisation. His Divine Comedy focused on the big bang and its promise of “everything and nothing”. Both artists’ work had identifiable Maori elements, but they were now simply inherent in their personality rather than overtly part of their works subject.

If art began the 90s getting grounded, by the noughties it was floating upwards to search for wider connections. Bill Hammond’s birds, for example, went up into the sky, and Shane Cotton left his slivers of landscape behind to charge up his imagery as icons in a digital ether.

Most public galleries were fat with solo shows, underlining a market for big works (for big new houses and big new buildings). Under the pressure of market economics, the public gallery became increasingly risk averse. Of exceptions one stood out – the Govett-Brewster in New Plymouth, where under Greg Burke it opened up to the world, while at the same time brought New Zealand artists together. As Christina Barton notes in an assessment of the state of art in New Zealand in 2006, many strands of the criticism leveled at the visual arts infrastructure in New Vision, a 1997 report commissioned by Creative New Zealand and the Chartwell Trust, were responded to by work being undertaken by Burke and others.

Chief amongst this was thinking more globally. Aside from Venice and funding assistance into biennale and art fairs, significant group exhibitions were now more likely to be focus on global inter-connectivity. Residencies for overseas artists, and in return New Zealand artists overseas built up. Artists from overseas got major shows in New Zealand, curated by New Zealanders. Tertiary institutions grew (note the establishment of Massey Wellington and AUT in 1999-2000) and plugged us more into the international circuit. There was an impressive growth in Maori and Pacific Island contemporary art coming out of tertiary institutions. But the increasing dominance of tertiary training as a place for research and practise has also led to a lot of dull academic art: art about art. An increasing amount of work that is all about its references rather than providing us with an independent or visceral experience.

Not only did we have an unprecedented number of new public galleries to fill (from university galleries like Adam Art Gallery and AUT’s St Paul St to rebuilds like the Christchurch Art Gallery, Tauranga Art Gallery and the Auckland Art Gallery extension) we filled them with new major regular events: Auckland Triennial, Prospect and Scape. The national programme of One Day Sculpture (organised out of Massey), with its networking of New Zealand curators with international artists for temporary events was a sign of the times. By the end of the decade public art was generally becoming more event based and temporary. Bigger was generally better.

Assisted by the increased ease of communication and globetrotting, curators determined themes to draw globally disparate artists together and make new connections through art history. In many respects the curators’ international community seemed more important than the artists.

The general culture became all about festivals and events – mechanisms to connect galleries with the public (witness in 2011 in Auckland Art Week, Art in the Dark and White Night). Extensive public programmes welcoming other artforms into the gallery became mandatory. More, more, more was the order of the day.

The Age of Mobility

Passing Time is commissioned by the Christchurch City Council and CPIT with generous support from CPIT Foundation. Image: Passing Time by Anton Parsons at the entrance to the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT) photographed shortly after the 6.3 Christchurch earthquake. The poster next to the work marks what would have been the starting place for the SCAPE Parade.  Anton Parsons, Passing Time, 2010/11, image courtesy of the Art & Industry Biennial Trust.

Anton Parsons, Passing Time, 2010/11, image courtesy of the Art & Industry Biennial Trust.

The balance of new work activity in New Zealand meanwhile was happening in small artist-run spaces, entering a period of maturation after a handful paved the way in the 90s. The idea of artists doing it for themselves became the norm. It also emphasised how the bigger public galleries seemed to have outgrown being places of community for artists. Dealer galleries meanwhile took a more public role in showcasing the latest trends on contemporary work.

Ironically, in the age of the birth of the ebook, there was also a heaving mass of publishing. Printing became easier. In the digital sphere blogs started popping up, and EyeContact emerged in 2007. Depressingly however we actually saw a decrease in arts commentary and criticism in New Zealand.

In this age of mobility, biennale and art fairs were prominent and dealers became increasingly mobile and fluid in their models of operation. There was also an ever-growing strengthening of connection to Asia, and an attention to the issues of urbanisation that it raised.

The growth of the Auckland Art Fair was testament to these changes, and that Auckland’s commercial scene grew voraciously - in comparison to the rest of the country. Auckland found its feet over the decade. First of all it had to notice, with some surprise, the growth of Wellington as ‘events capital’ while it had been looking elsewhere. Now its public engagement is catching up. Meantime the tragic impact of the Christchurch Earthquake on the city’s built heritage has made the magnificent development of a temporary public art programme by Scape all the more poignant.

If I seem to have laboured over the mechanics of presentation and delivery in the last ten years it’s because we’ve seemed obsessed with them, often at the expense of the actual art.

Around the Day in 80 Worlds

Explaining Things, Dan Arps, Walters Prize 2010 – Installation view Auckland Art Gallery/Jennifer French.

Explaining Things, Dan Arps, Walters Prize 2010 – Installation view Auckland Art Gallery/Jennifer French

There has been a tendency for art to be concerned with the complex surface of things rather than what they contain. Work about the systems that connect things rather than actual things themselves, with an attendant relishing of the ambiguity and instability of meaning.

Indeed, there was more work about uncertainty and confusion than anything else. Globalisation seemed as much to disconnect us from ourselves, leaving us pondering how commodified objects had become. It didn’t necessarily make us bolder. We generally seemed shier in New Zealand of being political (certainly in comparison to artists internationally), as if it equaled being simplistic and polemic. We opened up to ideas of social interaction (how often you heard the term ‘relational aesthetics’) yet often didn’t yet seem to have anything to say. It felt like that opening hour at a party where the conversations are still hesitant and stilted.

So many shows and works focused on collections and the archive. The form of installation became dominated by collections of disparate objects struggling to talk to one another. Dan Arps winning of the Walters Prize in 2010 felt like a summation of this trend. His work Explaining Things was described by Judge Vicente Todolí as “a metaphorical trip around the day in eighty worlds.” Painters like Sam Mitchell and Andrew McLeod were typical of many whose work suggested hours spent in libraries and second hand bookstores trawling for images that might bring worlds together in one picture.

The sense of work being all about connections is also reflected in the popularity of fractal geometric patterns, where any one point is joined to many others. If I was to look for a symbol of this time it might well be a Peter Trevelyan geometric dome made out pencil leads.

Tick All of the Above

Daniel Du Bern, Contra mundum - Y3K, Melbourne, September 2010.

Daniel du Bern, Contra mundum - 2010

The pencil in the ‘90s was a force to reckoned with. Drawing’s very sketchiness made it popular as a media in its own right. Yet, wasn’t installation the dominant form of the time? And what about photography? (Big glossy colour prints everywhere.) Or was it video? (Easy to forget it was still struggling to get gallery time in the ‘90s.)

Basically, tick all of the above. This was a period when everything got its art world stamp of validity. Questions like, ‘is painting dead?’ and ‘when is design art?’ were in their death throes. In fact being officially dead, painting got more license to get out of its corner and engage with spaces, the world and its history.

Sculpture was big and outdoors, matching the inflation of property prices and disposable income of the wealthy. In the Auckland region we got a bumper crop of wonderful sculpture walks, and private sculpture parks. In Wellington you couldn’t move without bumping into a sculpture – over 60 percent of the work commissioned by the Wellington Sculpture Trust was put in place in the last ten years.

Then there was a re-engagement with craft on the one hand, and the found object and conceptualism on the other – with these two poles often coming together. With his exhibition of a collection of beautifully crafted objects made out of gorse, Regan Gentry’s practice caught the tenor of this duality.

If there was any area that most pointed to the future however it was a re-engagement with the post-object practices of artists of the 1970s, as surveys of the work of Darcy Lange, Jim Allen, and Billy Apple attested to. We picked up threads we’d dropped to prepare to move forward. The gallery space was back under interrogation as a construct. One of my fondest memories was Daniel du Bern’s flying of two black flags above City Gallery Wellington’s parapets. The fight between artist and the institution was back on.


  • Commissioned by The Big idea December 2011

Written by

Mark Amery

8 Dec 2011

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.