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What New Level Three Lockdown Means for the Arts

12 Aug 2020
Where does this week’s Auckland lockdown leave the arts? Mark Amery brings you the very latest in this special Lowdown weekly arts news bulletin.

Second wave setbacks

Sadly and rather ironically, the We Heart Aotearoa festival - a free sold-out event at Auckland's Queens Wharf on Saturday to “celebrate Aotearoa's tremendous efforts to moderate the impact of COVID-19” - has been postponed. 

It was due to include a huge lineup including The Black Seeds, Ladi6 and Leisure. Forget seeing The Bads at the Aotea Centre tonight, the APO at the Town Hall Thursday night, or as Stuff report today Devilskin and Sol3 Mio. As we pull together again, let’s get ready to be able to celebrate at a later date.

Venues were to reopen, premieres to occur, openings and launches to happen. This week’s road bump - a return to level three lockdown in Auckland -  is gutting particularly again for the performing arts. 

After almost five months in the black, Basement Theatre was due to reopen with four shows from Thursday, including a James Nokise solo and the popular regular Snort on Friday night.

The New Zealand Dance Company was due “in a year where live performance was once so abruptly taken away… to invite you back into the theatre for an evening of earthy contrast” with newly appointed NZDC co-Artistic Director Tor Colombus’s The Fibonacci and the world premiere of emerging Māori choreographer Eddie Elliott’s Uku – Behind The Canvas at the ASB Waterfront Theatre on Thursday and a sold out Friday session.  

And eerie timing for artist Gregor Kregar at Auckland’s Gow Langsford who last week opened ‘Divided We Fall’ - an exhibition of glass road cones he made during lockdown.  

Divided We Fall, Gregor Kregar, Gow Langsford Gallery. Photo: Sam Hartnett.

“Auckland has been renamed the city of cones,” he writes on the gallery site. “These orange beacons of progress march down every street, seventeen more kilometres rolled out during the lockdown to create extra space for social distancing. I have been watching their expansion for years…”  Thankfully like Kregar’s show, this is a week of exhibitions already up and running rather than openings. 

It’s not just Auckland affected: with Aotearoa back in level two, encouraging social distancing and with travel to and from Auckland curtailed, other arts producers are postponing events. Already Verb Wellington has cancelled Wednesday/tonight’s Wellington event Know Your Place, as interviewee MP Golriz Ghahraman is in Auckland and needs to stay put.

Creative NZ keeping tabs

Once again, Creative New Zealand is quick off the mark to update the sector during these understandably troubling times.  They've put out what information they have to hand on their website - and state their "first priority is to monitor this evolving situation and position ourselves to respond quickly, with flexibility, so that we are able to further support the sector as required."  Their recently announced funding calendar was created with level 1 in mind, and say "while we hope the increased alert levels will be temporary, we can’t rule out changing the 2020/2021 programmes, including funding opportunities, to enable us to respond where the need is greatest." 

CNZ has also cancelled their planned community arts stakeholder event for later this month, but hope to hold it at a later date. 

Operatic overdrive 

Funny thing COVID - some of our most traditional arts organisations have looked more energised and with new purpose than they have in years. Here‘s to the benefits of stable arts funding and fresh leadership! In previous Lowdowns, we’ve looked at strong work from the NZSO and RNZB. Add Opera New Zealand to the mix. 

The national company has been talking about finding new ways to work and connect with audiences ever since the appointment of Thomas De Mallet Burgess in mid 2018, and in 2020 that’s in full effect.

Just before lockdown they premiered the game-changing Madness of King George, set in a boardroom, in Wellington and Auckland (it will get its delayed Christchurch season in December). 

And, while their planned 2020 season has been majorly delayed, as De Mallet Burgess told Lynn Freeman on RNZ this week,  their preparation to present Handel’s Semele at Auckland’s cathedral Covid Covid has also presented some opportunities. While many of our opera stars can no longer perform overseas they’ve come home, making up for the absence of overseas stars coming here. In the online Echoes of History project, singers have been given the opportunity over recent months to research operas written in New Zealand (but unlikely to be revived), and film performances of aria in different locations. As an example, Eliza Boom performs ‘Ave Maria’ from early composer Alfred Hill’s 1914 Giovanni, filmed at a church at the Kauri Museum in Northland’s Matakohe. Back in April, Opera NZ filed this interview with Eliza in the original lockdown. 

Following the success of Opera New Zealand screening a past production of Tosca during the lockdown, Semele is also due to be filmed and shown on screen in the future.

The company also has a programme running that’s designed to generate new opera composers and writers. Over 100 people have expressed interest in being part of Voices of Aotearoa 6:24, which invites emerging and experienced artists to submit a project idea that features an opera singer, an instrumentalist, a composer and a writer, and that the teams “reflect as widely as possible the diversity of our culture, musical heritage and geography.” Each of the six selected teams will “develop a narrative outline, identify a moment of song within this narrative and collaborate utilising their specific skills to realise the writing, composition and performance of the song.”

Death of the blockbuster

Last week we heard from Auckland Art Gallery director Kirsten Paisley about moving away from a blockbuster-based business model. And this week it’s confirmed in this Stuff story that a range of international blockbusters are off nationwide. 

AAG has postponed its Picasso and Monet shows, plus one of a major collection of contemporary art from Italian museum Fondazione Prada (timed to coincide with the America's Cup). Auckland Museum has delayed an exhibition of Ancient Greek artefacts from the British Museum to mid-2022, as has Te Papa with its major Surrealist show, from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam until June 2021. 

This doesn’t mean all international exhibitions are off and we can expect new announcements. It’s just that the big collection shows need to be personally couriered with staff travelling with them, making quarantine times tricky.

“We’ve been thinking,” Paisley says, “about spatial installations, video art, auditory art and performance art.”

Museums, then, need to look to new add-on earners that provide fresh opportunities for the public. Which leads us to other new positive initiatives brought on by COVID... 

Prior, most tours were taken by internationals, so Auckland Museum have come up with something for locals: Secret Museum Tours, taking groups of 10 into the bowels of the building to the collection storage areas. Bags, phones and cameras get locked in a black cabinet. No touching. Here’s a Stuff story.

Before you go on one of those tours I’d recommend reading Jamie Metzger’s excellent piece on Newsroom ‘Taonga: The original social distancers’, which discusses the problematics of those Māori taonga being dislocated from the communities they come from.

“Museums have been making small steps towards recognising their Eurocentric tendencies,” writes Metzger. “Policies like Te Papa’s Mana Taonga offer pathways to connect taonga with living communities. Māori staff are becoming more visible in institutions. ‘Decolonisation’ is the word on everyone’s lips and repatriation is very on-trend this museum season. But museums have only really dipped their toes in the bicultural pool; they aren’t swimming just yet.”

Back slash

Forward Slash by Poppy Lekner.

Last week artist Poppy Lekner dealt with the usual tired ‘is it art/my child could have done that’ media approach to her winning an art award, the Parkin Drawing Prize, when a few days later another predictable media brouhaha occurred after Auckland artist Alan MacDonald called her work Forward Slash a fake on social media. He included links to a similar piece of the same name which was created last year by American Joel Swanson (Newshub story here), which in fact is similar to Fluxus work from the ‘60s. 

Parkin prize head judge Charlotte Davy said the judging panel was confident this was not plagiarism, and Lekner herself was clearly surprised about the coincidence. It’s not difficult to believe such a coincidence could have happened, given her conceptual minimalist approach. Andrew Paul Wood welcomingly comments on this at Beyond structural similarity, the works are subtly quite different in their delivery. Lekner’s art practice is held in high respect (she is currently showing in Quicken at Massey University’s The Engine Room). What’s more concerning is credence given by media to social media posts rather than making a better effort to introduce and put our artists’ work in context when they win awards.    

One good media outcome of prizes like these are articles on finalists in our regional papers. Here in the Kapiti Observer is Parkin Drawing Prize highly commended artist Elisabeth Vullings with a work about boundaries during lockdown. It’s a drawing on a wooden door, that zooms out to a plan of Elisabeth's house, street, neighbourhood and further out to New Zealand.

More worthy recognition

Writer Elizabeth Knox is to receive an honorary Doctor of Literature from Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington (Read NZ release here). Knox currently teaches a course in world-building at the International Institute of Modern Letters at the University. A rather cool name for a course.

Read NZ have also announced this week the finalists for the Ngaio Marsh Award for crime fiction. It’s a genre with its own rules, so interesting to see among the finalists two debut authors also in a Best First Novel category – Becky Manawatu and RWR McDonald – and two other finalists – Gudrun Frerichs and Renée – who are well-known writers but considered first-time crime and thriller writers.

Meanwhile, the long list of artists being considered for the Wallace Art Awards has been announced

Firing up the kilns

Mirek Smisek kilns on the Kāpiti Coast.

Two beehive kilns built 40 years ago by the late potter Mirek Smisek, believed to be the only ones of their kind in New Zealand, are being moved delicately this month a few metres, brick by brick, to make way for the Peka Peka to Otaki Expressway, north of Wellington. They’re rather fine structures, held together by dust and clay, with the move a condition of the road going ahead. Smisek’s widow and fellow ceramicist Pamela Ansouth spoke in an accompanying video about the wish to see a cultural centre for ceramics spring up around the kilns. 

Decision Making, Naga Tsutsumi (2020), totara charcoal on Fabriano paper.

Speaking of kilns, Palmerston North artist Naga Tsutsumi has started creating large scale works using charcoal from totara trees, a technique he’s personally perfected. Here’s a fascinating film and accompanying Manawatu Stuff  story.The film by Josh Dahlberg is refreshing for his gentle slow attention to his studio practice, with the sound of the winds in the trees behind. His work features characters inspired by Japanese sci-fi movies surrounded by New Zealand forests (currently on show at Zimmerman Gallery in Palmerston North until the end of August). In 2018, Tsutsumi bought a kiln and started to experiment with burning the totara to get to the right consistency to be able to draw with it. 

Installation views of Long Distance Travel to Manawatu by Naga Tstusumi, Zimmerman Gallery.

Queer icons

After last year’s smashing collaboration for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Hansel and Gretel (which got a successful onscreen life during lockdown), composer Claire Cowan and choreographer Loughlan Prior have received a Creative New Zealand grant to write a ballet based on the life of ‘40s Auckland exotic dancer Freda Stark, which Cowan will base on her own violin concerto ‘Stark’. “This will, as far as I know,” Cowan tells Eva Radich in this RNZ Upbeat interview, “be the first full length story ballet that involves queer main characters.”

Speaking of queer icons from a time when being queer wasn’t celebrated, the irrepressible Coral Trimmer, aged 90 (sister of ballet’s sir Jon Trimmer) is still with us here in Paekākāriki where I live, and playing up a storm professionally on a harmonica. This weekend, the Kāpiti Concert Orchestra perform a concerto at the new Te Raukura Kāpiti Performing Arts Centre, composed for her by Dorothea Franchi and first performed by Trimmer 60 years ago at Wellington and Auckland’s town halls. “Rinse the purple out of your hair and start living again,” Coral tells the Kapiti Observer with an accompanying video of Coral telling her story and blowing the instrument she first started on during the great depression, in 1935.  

Forward momentum

The Whangārei Fringe crew. 

Each week, arts advocacy takes another step forward. Arts Makers Aotearoa Kāhui Ringatoi Aotearoa is an artist-led project now gaining momentum with hui. “We hear the widespread frustration that is felt by our creative community, especially when our art making is undermined, undervalued and underestimated,” they write. You can join here

Creative New Zealand have helped make Whangārei’s first fringe festival possible and - being in October - it’s the first fringe in New Zealand since COVID hit (Northern Advocate story here). The Fringe is particularly vital in Whangārei, where there’s a lot to bring together: it’s a welcome collective approach, with the group behind it representing groups Oneonesix, Northland Youth Theatre, Circus Kumarani, Fire Frenzy and Awhi World. First acts and registration is open at

Going off online 

Right now, independent conversation is ‘going off’ online. We’ve been featuring different series every week. Here’s a few more.

Coming out every Friday on Youtube, Wabi Sabi features “real conversations with interesting people who are not afraid to be themselves.” There couldn’t be a better example than the guest of the first episode, Pita Turei: iwi advocate, storyteller, and filmmaker. The great host is Yana Kirakovskaya. 

Pip Adam is into the 70s in her podcast series Better Off Read, but she’s now supercharged things, care of CNZ, with ‘Sound Series’ -  conversations exploring the relationships between sound and literature. Each pairs interesting artists: so far James Woods and Nick Ascroft, Ruby Solly and Chris Tse and Eamonn Marra and Cooki Aimee M. The focus on sounds is great for radio - Cooki’s selection for her pod of the “sucky bath-going-out noise”, the common basis of childhood anxiety, is a good example.  

Frank Films provide “current affairs from the South Island for all New Zealanders” and they’re putting good things out with NZ on Air funding through RNZ, Stuff, NZ Herald and their own website. Season Changing South has a pile of recently uploaded content. My faves: a look at Tessa Peach’s fabulous shop Frances Nation, dedicated to lovingly made NZ made products: everything from drill bits to hand bent potato mashers. Then there’s following singer songwriter Julia Deans’ finding out more about her ancestor Jane Deans, a remarkable early Scottish settler.  Interviews include with her dad, sculptor Paul Deans.  

Finally, to add to the range of online arts tools is a set of four rather unique free online drawing classes from Wellington artist Sian Torrington, The Anti-Perfectionism (lockdown) recovery sessions. “They’re designed,” she writes, “as an antidote to the narrative during lockdown around being productive, like writing that novel or whatever!” They’ve been developed from a live course Torrington has been teaching.