Media Release: June, 2006.
The Stokes Valley roundabout, The Reserve Bank, The Beehive tapestry…Guy Ngan is an unsung master. His abstract public sculptures are peppered through cities and towns all over New Zealand; seen every day by thousands of people, often with little recognition of who they are by and how significant a practice they represent. He has been making sculptures, paintings, drawings and prints for the last sixty years.
Ngan, self-dubbed as ‘Pacific Chinese’, is passionate about New Zealand. He has lived at his family home, rich with history, in Stokes Valley for over fifty years. He poignantly tributes early settlers to NZ: ‘I have much pleasure in showing some of my works that pay homage to the early Pacific people. Courageously, they discovered so many islands that we unhesitatingly call paradise.’
When Ngan was approached by City Gallery Wellington to mount a solo exhibition (his first in a public gallery since 1979), he was adamant that at eighty he was ‘too young for a retrospective’. Instead, he wanted to develop Journey: Aluminium Panel, Tiki Hands and Anchor Stones, a project where a body of sculpture and a series of paintings never previously exhibited alongside one another could be brought together to explore his long-held fascination in the history of early settlement in the Pacific.
The works in this tightly focused exhibition, curated by City Gallery’s Heather Galbraith, represent Ngan’s exploration through history, image and form of his place in the Pacific and in Aotearoa in particular. The ‘Tiki Hand’ paintings such as the moving Tiki Hands Encompassing Immense Space and jewel-like ‘Anchor Stone’ sculptures are Ngan’s homage to early navigators. Around 3500 years ago they traversed great ocean distances from mainland and Island Southeast Asia through Polynesia. The idea of the journey has been extended with the inclusion of a large public work, the Newton Post Office Mural (1973) which brings form, among other things, to the complex transporting of mail. (City Gallery’s Reading Room visually documents some of Ngan’s other signature works.)
Ngan pioneered a dynamic vision for a new kind of public building. In a 1952 Evening Post interview (the journalist hailed his brilliant future), he argued the importance of integrating artworks within the fabric of architecture: ‘The visual sense of decoration has been lost in buildings, but it is coming back in modern architecture… Up to now, sculpture and carving have usually been put in buildings as an after-thought, but they should have a unity with the building and be part of the whole artistic structure’.
After a twenty year Gallery hiatus, Ngan’s work remains as fresh, vibrant and provocative as ever. The overwhelming sensation these snazzy works emit is a fluidity of form and a sensitivity to the potential of their materials.
At eighty years of age Guy is still working, having recently unveiled a large stainless steel work Millennium Tree in the Auckland Domain. Along with people who have followed his work across the disciplines of architecture, design and visual art from the 1960s onwards, he is attracting a new, younger audience. His practice has always drawn upon his Chinese heritage as well as European and Polynesian culture, and maintains a strong investigation of New Zealand as a Pacific nation.
Guy Ngan is a major, underrated contributor to New Zealand’s visual culture. Time is right for a resurgence of interest in his work; this exhibition and the publication that accompany it aim to be a catalyst for further, expanded study of his practice.
City Gallery Wellington Director Paula Savage says: “We are most grateful to Guy Ngan for opening his home and archive to us; it has been a revelation to hear about and digest his adventures, and his take on the world. City Gallery Wellington is proud to bring Ngan’s work the public attention it so deserves.“
Journey: Aluminium Panel, Tiki Hands and Anchor Stones
City Gallery Wellington, 18 June – 24 September 2006
Biography: Guy Ngan was born in Wellington in 1926 to Chinese parents. He spent a large chunk of his early childhood in China. After tertiary study in London, he returned to New Zealand to become a public art works consultant at the Architectural Division, Ministry of Works in 1956. Guy Ngan has had a long-term involvement with the NZ Academy of Fine Arts, including ten years (1976-1986) as Director.