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Lowdown #40: Live Action Dramas

Mitch Tawhi Thomas 2019 Adam New Zealand Play Award winner
Bill Culbert, Strait (2013). Photo: Jennifer French. The New Zealand Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Creative New Zealand.
Ron Mueck chicken / man 2019. Mixed media. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū
Richard Frater, Stop Shell (Live Rock Version), 2019, Fossilised coral, 3D printed macroscopic graphs, coral organism, marine aquarium, bio-media, plexiglass
E Mervyn Taylor’s restored Te Ika a Maui at Takapuna Library. Image: Maeve Blackman
Mark Amery on a family art affair, public fascination with the lifelike in Christchurch with Ron Mueck and auction house operatic dramas in Auckland.


Welcomed Spotlight

The role arts and creativity play in wellbeing is the focus of The Big Idea this week as a new national network launches. Te Ora Auaha: Creative Wellbeing Alliance Aotearoa is made up of individuals and groups across the arts, health, youth, social and education sectors. More on the new website. The launch follows recent concerns expressed by Creative New Zealand about the absence of the arts from an Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction in the recommendations of recent report He Ara Oranga. Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho from Te Pou Theatre and Dr Molly Mullen spoke to RNZ about Te Ora Auaha on Sunday. Borni also spoke to Sam Grover about the importance of mental health of artists and there is an encouraging interview with Michael Moynihan of CNZ on the value of creativity and the lack of a national arts strategy for Aotearoa.

Dodgy Music News

With a documentary about to premiere it was announced on April 1 that all 30 of the former and present members of The Chills would come together to form a mega-Chills band to play for one day only, creating “one of the largest, most unstable band line-ups in musical history.” And there have been to my count only a mere 18 Chills. The arts it seems are not immune to April Fools jokes, and they make for great PR. Yet the cruelty of this joke is it’s a brilliant idea. Someone needs to make it happen.

In other music news, the line-ups for the Auckland and Christchurch You Are us/ Aroha Nui concerts have been announced, and they are huge – including in Christchurch an appearance from Lorde.

Bill’s Shadow

Bill Culbert, one of New Zealand’s most respected senior artist’s has passed into the void.

I’ve never looked at a shadow the same way since after seeing how Culbert saw it. He captured light and shadow in a glass in black and white photography with a spare beautiful visual poetry. Culbert also stridently captured the imagination with friend Ralph Hotere in a series of outstanding major gallery installations. As a sculptor, fluorescent tubes, electric cables, recycled plastic and suitcases were his elegantly employed spatial grammar. Representing NZ at the Venice Biennale in 2013 and long resident in France and London, Culbert continued to show frequently in New Zealand, as recently as late last year with dealer Hopkinson Mossman.    

Mitch Tawhi Thomas Awarded

Mitch Tawhi Thomas is the first playwright to win the Adam New Zealand Play Award twice, this year for his new play Pakaru. Playmarket announced the award alongside other new play awards on Sunday. Tawhi Thomas spoke with RNZ’s Lynn Freeman.

Breaking  Public Art News

Christchurch Art Gallery has had quite the media unveil for the arrival of a commissioned work by UK based Australian sculptor Ron Mueck. Of a man and a chicken. Take what local symbolic reflection on that you like, but it’s a welcome orchestration of good news. This man and chicken will be hugely popular and on permanent display right now to enable all to ooh and ah about the half life size realism of every wrinkle and foot callus (the focus of this segment on Seven Sharp feeding into a public fascination going back to the ancients with an artist’s ability to make the ‘incredibly lifelike’).

The Mueck is the latest in a series commissioned by the gallery, with significant fundraising (including record-breaking crowdfunding) to celebrate the human spirit post-earthquakes. That fundraising was led by company Brown Bread who are warming up to announce the changes they will make to the Arts Foundation in May. The selection of Mueck reflects the huge popularity of his solo exhibition held in the gallery just prior to the February 2011 earthquake. It is claimed to be the most popular exhibition in Christchurch’s history, and likely stays in people’s minds as a moment in time just before the city changed forever. Some great detail on the work at Stuff.

Also revealed this week by Scape Public Art in Ōtautahi: an image of a new public sculpture Vaka ‘A Hina by Auckland based Tongan artist Sēmisi Fetokai Potauaine for Rauora park in the CBD. It’s due to be installed by the end of the year. It’s being called a symbol of unity and, at 16 metres high (about five storeys) “a homing beacon”.

The restored E Mervyn Taylor mural Te Ika-a-Maui has been installed permanently in Takapuna Library Auckland (last seen at City Gallery Wellington last year), close to where it was first in place in Northcote – at a landing station connection to the COMPAC undersea cable coming in at Takapuna beach. It has a fascinating story behind it and the restoration has been part of an interesting art project by artist Bronwyn Holloway-Smith that touches on mural restoration, public space and digital surveillance. The mural led Bronwyn to work on the recovery of E Mervyn Taylor murals with Massey University, and this now NZ Book Awards shortlisted book Wanted: The search for the modernist murals of E Mervyn Taylor.

Great to see Gary Silipa transforming public spaces in Glen Innes too. Here’s a charming insight into the magic he’s been making in his local neighbourhood

The World HQ of the Verb

Literary event organisation LitCrawl is now Verb Wellington. And with that name change comes a wider lit events platform across the year, echoing Lauris Edmond’s line that Wellington is “world headquarters of the verb.”

Litcrawl has already grown over its five years well beyond its annual November pubcrawl of numerous microevents (inspired by the San Francisco Litcrawl). Verb have already announced three upcoming events with British and Irish writers this Autumn, look set to do a fair bit of podcasting and, major news, will lead the curation of New Zealand Festival’s writers and readers programme in 2020. With directors Claire Mabey and Andrew Laking’s festival experience, that’s a natural fit. Verb Festival (aka Litcrawl) 2019 guest curators will be Hana Pera Aoake and Mya Middleton of feisty art collective Fresh and Fruity. Expect the unexpected.

Live Action Drama

This shift follows New Zealand Festival also announcing late last year a larger umbrella for its other events, Tawhiri. And details for a new event, Second Unit have leaked: What Will You Do In the Shadows is a participatory “live action drama on a chaotic film set” has it that it’s taking over Circa Theatre from mid-June.

No prizes for guessing what that last show is about. And last week reviews started emerging (NPR, Washington Post  and Variety) for the US What We Do in the Shadows TV series on FX Network, with the pilot directed by Taika Waititi. Taika was interviewed by Thrillist among others.

And in other NZ film news, filming has wrapped on the TV adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

The Death of Vice

A shining light in arts and social online journalism is no more. The NZ office of Vice magazine has closed, putting five staff under editor Frances Morton out of work. It opened in 2015 but really hit its stride in 2017 with the launch of Zealandia, and some excellent short documentaries. Punchy in-depth investigation of some of the most vital aspects of our society and culture which are left on the margins of mainstream attention, the Vice NZ team have curated a selection of their favourite videos and reading.

The Gallery Bug

Talk about a family affair. Lesley Kreisler started running contemporary art exhibitions from the front rooms of the New Plymouth family home she shared with painter Tom Kreisler back in 1989, before the gallery then moved downtown. Now son Nick Kreisler has returned from running his own Kreisler Gallery in Melbourne to bring the two family businesses together. Lesley meanwhile moves to Christchurch to be close to the family of another son, curator Aaron Kreisler, Head of the Ilam School of Fine Arts, where father Tom trained in the 1960s. That family history is captured on the new Kreisler Gallery website. The gallery relaunch has started with an offsite exhibition of clay works by Maia McDonald at Parrotdog in Lyall Bay, Wellington.

It’s a good time for fine artists in new Plymouth right now: Kreisler Gallery opens after another new gallery, Anderson Rhodes opened in 2018. It’s currently showing photography by the terrific Patrick Reynolds.

In other merger news: Webbs’ auction house has acquired fellow auction house and gallery Bowerbank Ninow in Auckland. Simon Bowerbank and Charles Ninow remain in charge of operations.

This is just the latest in an auction house drama worthy of an opera libretto. As Briar Williams reported for Australia Art Digest last June, Webbs itself has had two different owners in the five years since the Webb family sold their remaining shares in 2014 to Mowbray Collectables, who in turn sold it to Mossgreen in 2015. Mossgreen-Webb went into liquidation early in 2018, and the business has been rebuilding since.

Brilliance in Bookland

In author news at the Storylines Awards the Joy Cowley Award for a picture book text has gone to Janelle Wilkey for Mrs Brook's Chook and Amy Haarhoff has won the Gavin Bishop Award for an unpublished illustrator for her work on Clare Scott's story Ruru and Kiwi's Midnight Feast. More on RNZ.

Online Content Worth Checking Out

A vital space supporting the health of contemporary Maori and Pacific Island theatre – Wellington’s Te Haukāinga is the focus of a great discussion between Māori theatre practitioners in this Pantograph Punch piece. As writer and director Nancy Brunning notes: “Being a manuhiri in someone’s space all the time… You don’t develop at all and you’re constantly giving your intellectual property to somebody else.”

Berlin based New Zealand artist Richard Frater deserves more local attention for its smart approach to climate change and innovative exhibition making. Why - you can get a handle on from reading this longform essay by Boaz Levin on Contemporary Hum.

Frater’s long running Stop Shell series has featured a floating living oyster, a water filter, pump, a chiller and aquarium - a mini-ecosystem, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The most recent iteration 2019, Indifference at Auckland’s Michael Lett Gallery also has an aquarium containing a piece of fossilized coral, with organisms gradually introduced to reverse coral bleaching.

Theatre critic James Wenley has recently moved to Wellington and with fresh eyes gives a valuable extensive critical overview of New Zealand Fringe shows. He notes gender was “an overwhelming focus in the Fringe, mostly from a critical feminist perspective”.

“I am aware,” writes Wenley, “that I watch from a privileged position, and theatre’s potential for providing comfort in difficult times is not something that would be accessible or even helpful for everyone, but it has helped me. I have been out, and around people, forming temporary communities united by our choice of performance… I realised how vital it felt to be seen and included as an audience member.”

And speaking about the birth of the fringe in New Zealand, a happy birthday to BATS Theatre in Wellington which celebrates its 30th birthday this month. Here’s a published history.

Last Lowdown I mentioned writing by the great embroiderer Areez Katki. Here’s an essay by Jane Groufsky with images on Pantograph Punch on recent show Bildungsroman at Malcolm Smith Gallery in Auckland, which will tour to Otago Museum in October.


Image credits, top to bottom:
Bill Culbert, Strait (2013). Photo: Jennifer French. The New Zealand Pavilion, 55th Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Creative New Zealand.
Mitch Tawhi Thomas 2019 Adam New Zealand Play Award winner
Ron Mueck chicken / man 2019. Mixed media. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū
E Mervyn Taylor’s restored Te Ika a Maui at Takapuna Library. Image: Maeve Blackman
Richard Frater, Stop Shell (Live Rock Version), 2019, Fossilised coral, 3D printed macroscopic graphs, coral organism, marine aquarium, bio-media, plexiglass

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Written by

Mark Amery

3 Apr 2019

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