A Feast of Bites
By Mark Amery
The funny thing about Old School New School - a Massey College of Creative Arts exhibition celebrating the 125 years Wellington has had a design school - is how much it reminds me of Te Papa. Funny, because the exhibition is in the great hall of what was once our National Art Gallery, curated by a former director of that gallery Luit Bieringa.
The national gallery has come to be remembered as everything that the visually noisy exhibitions downstairs at Te Papa, and in particular its opening art and design exhibition Parade, wasn’t.
Old School New School is all a bit much, all at once. Pat slogans, such as ‘sense of place’ and ‘visualising a nation’ decorate the walls and floor. Ironically, and perhaps a little inevitably for a design school the exhibition feels over designed. Laid out for short attention spans. Strong text and film documentary components, which provide some great stories, are hard to focus on amongst the busyness.
The exhibition’s scope is both broad and long. It showcases the impressive work of some of the most recognised graduates of the school - from its beginnings in 1896 as the Technical School of Art, through its years as Wellington Polytechnic to Massey today. It covers everything from art, graphic design and moviemaking to fashion and the design of common products, such as the dustpan and office chair. A dull history show it is not. It’s smart and information packed, but it's also dense and overloaded. It gave me a headache.
Take away some of the other layers and Matthijs Siljee‘s exhibition set is itself an ingenious piece of work. Resembling a plywood jungle, a diverse array of intimate viewing spaces are built off a forest of tall vertical staves. Spaces unfold and objects jump out at you at ever-different angles. It responds well to the challenge of presenting temporarily but interestingly a plethora of material in a grand space.
As with Te Papa, there’s both good and bad to this exhibition’s approach. Whether it’s a model of a Scud Missile launcher or a Laurie Foon gown there is, as they say, something for everyone. It’s packed with interesting stuff. You’re guaranteed to discover pieces of our art and design history that will surprise and interest you.
Yet satisfy you? It offers a feast of bites. Because its job is celebrating a disparate group of creatives it never follows through on any one subject. With his strong local knowledge and good research Bieringa certainly gets close in the areas he probably knows best. He packs in a great little history of graphic design in Wellington, yet naturally it’s not complete. The selection of art (always interesting never predictable) emphasises the strengths design training gave some of our leading artists. But the relationship between art and design deserves its own exhibition. I’d have loved also to have seen work by artists and designers from their student days so we could see their evolution. Indeed, more focus on the actual teaching within the school – as images of teachers John Drawbridge and Kate Coolahan at work touch on – would have been welcome.
Like web browsing, Old School New School left me feeling all a buzz but a little empty. There may be no better teaching aid than the inspiration of great work, yet where there could be an ongoing exhibition programme focusing on themes of import to students this feels, like any big expo display, like an act of marketing for the institution first, education second. That the five-week exhibition received $70,000 from the Real New Zealand Festival Lottery Trust – which provided a nationwide lolly scramble of arts funding - I find a little odd, but goes some way to explaining its broad, external focus.
- Old School New School, until 5 November, The Great Hall, Museum Building, Massey University, Wellington