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The Fest Test: Cars and Scoria

Te Tuhi Director James McCarthy greets the crowds with his megaphone.
A rather fetching scoria wall at my friend Cushla's flat.
Props to Te Tuhi on the opening function front. First, director James McCarthy does his short speech with a megaphone and secondly, they've created their own homebrew for the occasion.


The latest Auckland Arts Festival blog from Mark Amery.


The latest Auckland Arts Festival blog from Mark Amery.


Today I'm enjoying writing as we drive around Auckland: a passenger for the drive and the festival, admiring the views. As I write on my tablet, driving to Te Tuhi Gallery in Pakuranga, I'm admiring the necklace of volcanic cones that stud the isthmus. My friend Cushla (the driver and an artist) muses whether she could find a way to make art whilst driving. This is a city of the car and volcanic scoria.

Props to Te Tuhi on the opening function front. First, director James McCarthy does his admirably short speech with a megaphone (fitting with the political directness of the work of Santiago Sierra, Destroyed Word we have come to see) and secondly, they've created their own Te Tuhi homebrew for the occasion. Very good straight from the bottle.

I love Te Tuhi right now. It's distance from the CBD seems to give it license to do things (beer, megaphone) differently. But at the same time, and perhaps because of its sense of independent distant self (like the Govett Brewster before it), it's currently a national leader in presenting international and New Zealand artists work that engages with the world.

First I see a work by Blaine Western, The Fold of the Land. You enter a darkened room with a table full of ephemera related to the Urewera, and items like a bullet shell. There is just enough light to see with the accompaniment of the sound of cicadas. From there you move slowly through the increasing darkness into another space, increasingly disorientated, to see a film full of light, gliding through a forest canopy of leaves.

The aesthetic here has a hard functionalist edge that bores me a little. It’s simply not to my taste. The sense of disorientation in the way the work operates is interesting but it didn't connect strongly enough for me to the material - something the artist perhaps is reaching for. Our sense of difficulty in reading the Urewera's rich  history and spirit, and the need to go with our instincts seems to be that point, but its treated dryly.

Destroyed Word is an international collaborative project featuring contributions from 10 countries, New Zealand's produced by Te Tuhi. Sierra commissioned each country to build a giant letter to his dimensions from the word 'Kapitalism' using a primary product or one significant to the region's economy, and then record its destruction on video. In Australia it's brushwood, Papua New Guinea native timber, Iceland aluminum, and so on. The strength of Sierra's work  is to make such simple strong political gestures, yet tightly control some nuances, and then leaves the rest to communal anarchy.

While you can take away a free poster and the work can be viewed on Sierra's site, it really comes to life in its large landscape display in the gallery, the 10 performances occurring up large in 10 simultaneous projections over 24 minutes. There's a beautiful accidental music to the way each of the actions in the works interrelate and yet are so different. There's a nice tension between typographical order and anarchic destruction. Cinematically it's all rather gripping:  it's hard to leave until you've seen each letter toppled, chopped, burnt or devoured.

In Berlin the T made out of insulating foam is constructed ingeniously as a support for a passageway below a building, passerbys continuing to pass by as someone attacks the structure until it collapses. Still, people stumble over it going about their business. In Sweden demolition machines slowly go about destroying a concrete M. In India a tow truck ploddingly goes about battering an I made out of human excrement to nothing.

New Zealand's contribution is in my biased opinion one of the strongest. A giant letter A contains shelving to contain about 100 2 litre bottles of milk (a well chosen commodity). The bottles are then repeatedly shot at, as if facing a death squad or toys at a fun fair shooting range, gushing milk before finally forming a cloud of milk dust at its base. The tension waiting for the firing to begin over the many minutes (part of the work's strength is the way it plays with the tension of time) is part of this letters strength, until a final few volleys send the whole structure crashing to the ground.

The key strength of the work is also its weakness. Sierra has put some strong criteria over what he needs but it's up to the country's to execute. This sees letters like the Australian brushwood K and Holland's pig food S (eaten naturally by pigs) less impressive in their visual outcome. And yet the diversity of approaches does add to the work's visual musicality, completed to the sound of gunfire and a concrete pneumatic drill. In the final minute villagers in Papua New Guinea gather around their fallen totem and celebrate. The way the artist controls but also gives community's power to react physically to a symbol of their country's industry provides a powerful collective statement.

On the way back to town we give a lift to a woman who missed the Te Tuhi to K Road Artbus home. She tells us about the excellence of the Complaints Choir's singing on the bus out from town. A global phenomena (I saw a group video exhibition of complaints choirs at GOMA in Brisbane a year ago), choirs write and perform songs based on a collective list of complaints about their city. Auckland's main theme? Transport. I feel a blog theme coming on.

Our car guest is an American compliance officer who has moved to Manukau to escape America. She basically gives a Complaints Aria the whole way home about The USA's capitalist woes. A suitable accompaniment to Santiago Sierra's Destroyed Word. I in the back meanwhile muse on what would be the best way to destroy one of Sierra's letters if it were made out of scoria.

Written by

Mark Amery

9 Mar 2013

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