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The Fest Test: Pacific Crosscurrents

Tiffany Singh's 'Fly Me Up To Where You Are' at Aotea Square is a true community project, and one that will realise real social change. It is literally and conceptually at the heart of this festival.
Robin White and Ruha Fifita's Ko e Hala Hangatonu: the Straight Path
Darcell Apelu performing on the steps of the Gus Fisher.
The visual arts programme's core is instead the Pacific exchange of ideas and imagery, the melding of art-forms and the way the past informs present and future.

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The latest Auckland Arts Festival blog from Mark Amery.

Monday 3pm

The latest Auckland Arts Festival blog from Mark Amery.

Monday 3pm

Today I write from the Link bus that weaves and circles through the inner city, moving between events and catch-ups. Well, I fib, slightly: I began writing this blog on the bus, but its actually been written in snatched moments all over the city, as much on any park bench or under the shade of any tree town planners have been benevolent enough to grant us.

As well as musing on the limits of public space, I've also been musing on the fact that the days of monumental temporary public artworks for arts festivals may well nigh be over. Or at least those that don't involve a high level of community collaboration. Tiffany Singh's Fly Me Up To Where You Are is a true community project, and one that will realise real social change. It brings together visualisations of the hopes and dreams of 1000s of Auckland's schoolchildren on small flags, providing a canopy of festive bunting in Aotea Square. It is literally and conceptually at the heart of this festival.

I use the European festive term 'bunting' very deliberately. Is arrangement in the square feels more English than Asian or Kiwi. The strings of flags takes their inspiration from Tibetan prayer flags. These more commonly in their placement provide dipping emotional and spiritual through lines across a landscape. Nevertheless I admire the functionality of this arrangement here - a shade for the public sprawling on deckchairs as they enjoy a programme of free live music. The multicoloured flags feature the children's paintings - their thoughts for the future provide a roof under which we shelter from the sky.

Up at Artstation in Ponsonby Road you can fill in one of the hopes and dreams sheets Singh gave children to get them thinking, make your own flag and see a film projected onto cotton by Robert George of working with the children. Here the flags fly more freely. It would have been nice to see strings of them all over the city. Singh emphasises that the Aotea Square installation isn't the core of the work for her: that is in the schools and with the 1000s of children who then saw their dreams fly above their heads in their  classrooms, and then in the centre of the city. This work is not principally about audience but about participation. Singh is undertaking a census that isn't about numbers. For her and us the journey has just begun.

As I criss-cross the city the festival itself is awash with the currents of Asia and the Pacific: the sense of a nation full of migrants trying to find a sense of place. The Maori visual arts voice in the festival is strangely weak, arguably a sign that there is a gap in Auckland between those who run the mainstream arts infrastructure and tangata whenua that has yet to be probably breached. Right now reflecting the potency of contemporary Pasifika is far easier. C'mon Tamaki Makaurau, the festival is when we should be bridging these divides and grounding our present action in our past history with the land.

The visual arts programme's core is instead the Pacific exchange of ideas and imagery, the melding of art-forms and the way the past informs present and future. I have written previously in this blog of Kila Kokonut Krew's The Factory, the tale of human exchange that occurred in the 1970s as 1000s poured in from the Pacific to 'the land of milk and honey' for work. Real modern cultural exchange has taken much longer, and some of the country's leading exponents feature in is festival's programme. In the visual arts I think particularly of Jo Torr and Robin White, who both have significant exhibitions on.

Torr currently has a survey show at Objectspace in K Road, a show of gorgeous embroidered dresses, waistcoats and other historic colonial European costumery, many made exquisitely from tapa or bark cloth and blankets, traditional culturally-loaded materials of exchange.

Torr's work is about the way the Pacific holds a history of exchange of ideas, designs and materials, and she tells these stories through the adoption of historical designs and stitched images. Key moments of contact between cultures provide their grounding. She takes us back to the 18th century, adopting imagery like that of priest and navigator Tupaia's of the Society Islands of the exchange between Captain Cook's voyagers and the Islanders, stitched onto the Mother Hubbard dress style the missionaries encouraged Polynesian women to wear to cover their nakedness.

Clear from this survey is that Torr's work in recent years has grown stronger and stronger. While she has the rare distinction of having work in the collections of both Auckland Museum and Auckland Art Gallery, it's surprising that neither are producing this survey. Kudos to Objectspace.

This all said there are aspects of Torr's work that bother me. For one she asserts the work as sculpture rather than costumery and made to be exhibited rather than worn, with all  the attendant conceptual concerns that suggests. The exhibition looks beautiful, no problem there, yet what is a dress or a waistcoat but to be worn? Surely this can only bring the work more into the present. I have no love of the mannequin. The work seems to want to hide in the museum, kept safe from the fashion design of the present, when I see no need.

I also pop in on Robin White's large tapa work at Two Rooms with Ruhua Fifita. Whilst beautiful what I find most interesting is the video documentation that goes along with the show, demonstrating the long community collaborative process involved in creating stencils, ironing, sewing and then painting the tapa. The painstaking work, the laughter, the joy. It was only a hop, skip and a jump from the process demonstrated at Artstation with Singh's work with is a sewing machine. In both cases a community's concerns are articulated through their symbols, and then expressed through the intensive collective physical act of making.

Across town at the Gus Fisher Gallery top of Shortland Street Tautai Pacific Contemporary Arts Trust are presenting a performance series of up and coming Pacific Islander performers. When I arrive I'm pleasantly surprised too by another exhibition there, which reminds us exchange works both ways. It's an exhibition of the mid to late 19th century Scottish draughts person, botanist and artist John Buchanan. Buchanan's career began in the textile trade as a textile drawer, his interest in botany stirred by the popularity of ever more novel floral patterns for textiles. The connection to Jo Torr's work couldn't be more interesting. Buchanan emigrated to New Zealand in 1851 and this strong exhibition is full of the botanical drawings and landscapes he executed whilst here. With no pretensions to being an artist, like Torr he straddles several worlds. His was, as the exhibition title tells us, Art in the Service of Science. I loved the drawings of fungi and indigenous grasses.

Meanwhile out on the steps of the gallery - a miniature fortress which once held TVNZ and was NZ's first purpose built radio station - the performance programme is underway. I love how the Pacific Island artistic community with this project have in effect, from the roof to the stairwells, taken over this historic physical symbol of media power. On the evening in question Darcell Apelu can be found lying on the front steps, a speaker facing inwards on her belly, a microphone propped up on it for her to breathe into. It is as if she is gently nursing a baby, softly breathing through the mouth and nose into the microphone, receiving and exhaling breath in a cycle. The work is slow, sensual and somehow essential, as touching as it is also absurd. It is a work of the lips, the nostrils and the softly heaving stomach. Like a radio station of the self. Often in radio we tell guests to get close up to the mike. This work takes that to an extreme.

Written by

Mark Amery

11 Mar 2013

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