NZ International Arts Festival
By Mark Amery
The visual arts programme of the NZ International Arts Festival has been a modest one. Big international coups like Yayoi Kusama have been and gone and the opportunity to draw new pathways through the city through temporary work, and bring together the city’s bevy of galleries at a time when the city is humming have largely gone begging.
The Adelaide Festival, which happens at the same time as Wellington’s, provides a good model for us. It hosts a Biennial of Australian Art, has a visual arts curator, and an Artists Week. The latter is a four-day symposium with international keynote presentations and conversations, bringing together discussion around the visual arts nationally, much as Writers And Readers’ Week does (which Adelaide also hosts).
Wellington is good at talking, and it is too simplistic to suggest that Auckland is our visual arts centre and Wellington our performing arts’ one. Both cities have particular cultural strengths across artforms, which festivals can play to.
Meanwhile what was described by City Gallery in 2007 as New Zealand’s “largest and most exciting contemporary art event”, the three-yearly Prospect - what was the country’s only major survey of New Zealand contemporary art - has quietly gone from the gallery’s programme. When it first appeared in 2001 it was seen as a response to the lack of major New Zealand group exhibitions at the gallery. That gap remains.
This is a time when the city is full of visitors interested in engaging with the best we have to offer. The festival used to work with dealer galleries to see exhibition in their spaces as part of the programme, giving them a rare burst of wider promotion, and the festival a layer of excellent contemporary New Zealand visual art. This kind of proactivity helps ensure the festival sets the whole city alight. This year Hamish McKay has programmed exhibitions of new work by Seraphine Pick and Milan Mrkusich (the latter on now) to coincide with their City Gallery exhibitions. Meanwhile downstairs from McKay in Ghuznee Street Bowen Galleries have a festival show of new work by Joanna Braithwaite, Warwick Freeman, Jeff Thomson and Louise Purvis. It closes this weekend.
What has come together nicely is a range of international art installations that work across disciplines. These feel as much part of the performing as visual arts. They favour an immersive sensual experience for the viewer in a space over the intellectual distance the frame of the painting, say, provides.
Through light and sound we are provided the physical participation denied us in our seats watching stages in the evening. Even large-scale charcoal drawings at Pataka in Porirua by Australian Catherine O’Donnell provide a contemplation of light and shadow on the architecture around us.
With strong major works by video artist Bill Viola and sound artist Janet Cardiff at the Dowse And City Gallery respectively, installations are presented that have already established themselves as popular festival experiences internationally. It’s the first time major works by either artist have been presented in New Zealand, but it’s a shame that newer work isn’t also presented or commissioned.
The Museum of Wellington City and Sea have commissioned an artist, Daniel Brown’s Vessels filling the museum’s long high central wall as if it were a stage backdrop. Like a set of musical staves on which water filled glass bowls are placed like notes, and which film works play on at regular intervals, Vessels provides an enchanting interplay of light and water. The shadows of the bowls over time can come to resemble lightbulb filaments or scallop shells. Yet the work remains decorative, failing to engage any deeper, and its supposed connection to Dante’s Divine Comedy is obtuse.
It’s worth noting (as it’s not mentioned in the festival programme) that all these exhibitions continue for at least a month after the rest of the festival has ended.
The highlight of this festival for me has been the survey of the work of New York based Anthony McCall at Adam Art Gallery. It brings fascinating preparatory drawings, diagrams and documentation of his work with light in the 1970s together with recent lightworks in darkened space, dating from since he was rediscovered as a significant artist in 2001. This exhibition is as much a revelation for me as curator Christina Barton describes McCall’s work as having been for her when she first encountered it. A brick falls into place filling a chink in contemporary art history.
Like cigarette smoke through the light of a cinema projector, mist swirls through lines of projected light like oil paint, creating a fabric you feel you can touch and Richard Serra-like sculptural forms you can inhabit. Light isn’t being shed on the representation of anything else, it and the volume of the space in the gallery it inhabits are the principal experience itself.
I put McCall’s work alongside that of Len Lye’s as that which on first encounter changes the way you look at the world. The Adam has gone to enormous effort to bring this show together and it shows. A delight for the young and old alike, all it needs now is your attendance.
Anthony McCall: Drawing with Light, Adam Art Gallery, until 25 April