City Gallery

Bernadette Rae, ‘Bridging the Gap’, Herald, 9 September 1993.

New Zealand art is a ‘white patch’ on the European consciousness that Peter Weiermair, director of the Frankfurter Kunstverein and a contemporary curator of international acclaim, plans to fill.

But while its art might be an unknown quantity there is a big interest in the country as a tourist destination and that tourism interest will bring people in.

So early in 1995 the Kunstverein—a gallery noted for its innovative exhibitions and introduction of contemporary artists from throughout the world—will feature the work of seven or eight New Zealanders.

Photography, sculpture, installation, mixed media, painting, film, video, and outdoor works are all possibilities.

But Weiermair has not considered the classical modernists like McCahon for inclusion as he considers them ‘too near what has happened in Europe’.

‘I don’t want anybody visiting the exhibition to be able to say “That reminds me of …”’

He says that New Zealand artists talk an international language but there are ‘peculiarities’ that will make a New Zealand exhibition interesting in Europe. The first is the ‘astonishing number of women artists here dealing with issues of identity, sexuality and gender, and the role of women in society.’

He is also interested in Māori artists ‘relating to an old culture which has been brought into a contemporary context’.

The New Zealand landscape and nature is the third specific area of interest. Weiermair perceives New Zealand art in general as very conceptual and elegant—just as contemporary art from New York is often labelled ‘cerebral’ while that of California is ‘sensual’.

In fact New Zealand art may be in danger of becoming too beautiful, he says. ‘That may have to do with the smaller market here, and the difficulty of selling work that is too dry.’

For that reason Weiermair ponders on how the exhibition will be received when it shows at the City Gallery in Wellington after its Frankfurt season and on how a reciprocal exhibition of German art might fare.

‘We see this exhibition as the start of an ongoing dialogue between the countries and a bridge for continued exchange.’

The exhibition will provide a real opportunity for New Zealand artists to break into the European market.

Frankfurt is a show window of art and a bustling centre of ‘art tourism’.

Artists from Japan, Mexico, and Australia—the subjects of previous shows at the Kunstverein—have found real success as a result.

Many have found galleries to promote their work; some have gone on to feature in other important European exhibitions.

Weiermair will decide on the artists over the next week along with Gregory Burke of the City Gallery in Wellington, who is co-curator of the Kunstverein show.

Twice the required number of artists are under consideration. Reducing the list by half is proving a difficult process because the quality of the work is equally high, Weiermair says.

The final selection will be made on how the various artists relate to one another and on the ‘dialogue’ between them that will speak also to a European audience.

Jim Barr, ‘Put It on My Tab’, Planet, no. 16, [date unknown.] Excerpt.

The exhibition has been landed with a rather curious title—Cultural Safety. Perhaps it’s just boasting that the artists involved cover the bases for gender and race almost to the point of pedantry. It is certainly a wilful cultural concept. At least no one will be able to accuse them of being bullied into a smart title by the marketing department!

Ruth Watson is already resident in Germany, Peter Robinson is on his way. Fiona Pardington, Jacqueline Fraser, Julian Dashper, Peter Peryer, curator Gregory Burke, and savvy art dealer Hamish McKay have their bags packed and are ready to go. Luise Fong, who recently relocated to Melbourne, is shopping for a new bag to take with her. Left behind in New Zealand is Michael Parekōwhai.

Peter Robinson’s works will cock a snoot at the very idea of safety, curatorial or otherwise. Robinson has given notice in his recent paintings that the art market’s attempt to assimilate him as the Māori McCahon is making him antsy. His wisecracks on roadside signs must have the McCahonophiles spinning. And McCahon’s great painting The Canoe Tainui certainly gets a razz from Sold Out, the large painted crate in the show. When Cultural Safety eventually returns to New Zealand, look out for his most recent sculpture. It’s a strange patch-work plane that appears in more than a few of his paintings. This time it’s 3-D and sits on the floor—so it should be able to hold its ground in Frankfurt. The idea certainly flies!

Jacqueline Fraser, as is her custom, will construct her work on site in Frankfurt. Over the past ten years, Fraser has assembled an intriguing lexicon of shapes and materials. Although her works often appear simplistic on the surface, they turn out to be complicated exercises in balance. The artist who comes to my mind is Gordon Walters. Both artists are investigating, in their different ways, the illusions of harmony and order. For Fraser, the installation in Germany will have added resonance. The Germans have been voracious ‘collectors’ of Māori artefacts over the last 100 years. By personally placing a work of contemporary Māori art in Germany, Fraser poses some fascinating questions. The fact that the work will be packed up and returned to New Zealand answers some of them.

Ruth Watson, although resident in Germany and presumably able to make a work on the spot, will be primarily represented by the image of an open book, set on a chocolate box sea. The large billboard work was executed for the City Gallery, Wellington, 1990 exhibition Now See Hear!

I have not seen the Fiona Pardington work selected for the exhibition. Her sensibility makes her a marvellous choice for Germany. Pardington’s photographs have exactly the mix of strange beauty and unsettling logic to appeal to the self-conscious (let alone the sub-conscious). What is it about her photographs that is so irresistibly repellent, or should that be repellently irresistible? Looking at some of her more perverse images I feel like the adventurers in Raiders of the Lost Ark when it is announced that the delicious sweetmeats they are enjoying are monkey brains.

If one artist seems to have the exhibition’s branding firmly nailed to his mast, it must be Julian Dashper. You feel that if a Julian Dashper had not existed, the curators would have had to invent him. Dashper, who once claimed he would like to take his new show overseas with him as hand baggage, is represented by a collection of his slides, the Artforum projects, and a couple of paintings. Dashper’s unpicking of the contextualisation of art by museums and the impact of distance on culture clearly intrigued Weiermair. Weiermair also grasped that by including Dashper he inevitably becomes part of the artist’s project. And so the Frankfurter Kunstverein will be added to Watercolor’s growing provenance. Thanks to its barnstorming exhibition schedule, the Watercolor itself is becoming overwhelmed by the list of exhibiting galleries on its label.

In Luise Fong’s work we can see the curators acting from a sheer delight in her work at a visceral level. She is probably the least well known of the group to travel and her work is still in its early stages, despite her holy boards having the sensuous sombre beauty you might see if you drained the ponds in Monet’s garden.

On the other hand you would be hard pressed to contain the quirky sculptures of Michael Parekōwhai in a single room. Parekōwhai makes his sculptures in sporadic bursts with his most recent exhibition Kiss the Baby Goodbye an acknowledged knockout. His work is an eccentric alliance of English punning humour with a level of craftsmanship that would appeal to artists like the American Paul McCarthy. Added to this mix is a fascination with the Euro/American artist Duchamp and an acknowledgment of his own Māori heritage. Weiermair must have thought this artist was almost too good to be true. Parekōwhai’s sculptures will include the large pick-up sticks piece from the Waikato Museum of Art and History and the well travelled Indefinite Article …

Taking on a job like this requires nerve. It’s a fair guess that when Peter Weiermair suggested the idea there was a long pause while collective throats swallowed. That City Gallery Wellington (and in particular their former curator Gregory Burke) have taken up the challenge says much for their chutzpah. No doubt in the New Zealand tradition, when the show returns, the art scene will unleash the rabbits of war upon them.

John Daly-Peoples, ‘Seven Kiwi Artists Add a New Dialect to the International Language of Art’, National Business Review, May 5 1995. Excerpt.

The term ‘cultural safety’ was originally used within the nursing area to acknowledge different cultural responses and approaches to treatment and care but is now used within organisations and is seen as an outcome, rather than a process. Organisations in which the services, structures and systems are experienced positively by tāngata Māori are said to be culturally safe.

The exhibition draws attention to the even wider use of the term and its relevance across a number of areas—political, social, religious and cultural as well as personal beliefs. Central to the idea of cultural safety is the protection, place and value of the individual within society.

Fiona Pardington’s images of bodies are a poignant analogy for many of the social issues the exhibition focuses on. The body becomes a metaphor for land, identity, and beliefs. The way we regard our bodies is similar to the way we view others in society.

Jacqueline Fraser has constructed an installation in a large arched arcade which faces the street and has created an architectural space with cord, ribbon and wire which draws on both her Māori and Pākehā background. The room she has created refers to New Zealand as well as to Frankfurt. The installation Te Puhi refers to the tradition of high-born women being raised separately in a virgin state till ready for marriage.

Ms Fraser has intentionally and unintentionally established a number of connections between New Zealand and Frankfurt.

On the wall outside, high above the installation stands a stone carving of Mary with Christ, something Ms Fraser acknowledges with her ‘virgin’ brides.

The walls of her installations have the cross forms of tāniko weaving. Across the road from the installation is a series of half-timbered houses also bearing the diagonal cross members.

Twisted wire and ribbon formed into fleur-de-lis shapes cover the floor and walls.

The Kunstverein also features a crayfish on its wall. Ms Fraser has used this as a motif in her work, creating interesting allusions and referrals between the cultures.

Ms Pardington’s and Ms Fraser’s work refers to the impact of Christianity in the lives of all New Zealanders. For some, it is a positive force; for many others, particularly Māori, these works argue, it has been a destructive force.

Luise Fong’s large paintings allude to the body and the forces—physical, psychological and social which affect it. Her paintings are like skin, a containment.

Her works such as Pathology, which refers to death and mutability, with a reference to skin used as decoration, seem even more powerful with the Jewish Museum only a few blocks away. There is a tension in her work between the various interpretations of her image—skin which violates and skin which is violated.

Peter Robinson’s group of work is the most dramatic of the seven. There is a large packaging case festooned with slogans and a set of signs resting against the wall. The roadside fruit and veg sign, combined with the protester’s placard, addresses the commercial realities of past and present land grievances. The slogans are both witty and challenging; ‘Trusted dealers for over 150 years’, ‘Import specialist’, ‘You get more with less.’

He also has a four-metre long airplane covered in red, black and white felt applique. This plane shaped has been used previously by Mr Robinson with its reference to the canoe shape and the god stick. The single glass eye set in the ‘cockpit’ gives the construction an anthropomorphic look. It also links the idea of travel to the past as well as the present, from the travel of canoes to New Zealand to the travel of the people of Europe to New Zealand and to the travel of the artist and the artworks to Germany.

Mr Robinson’s work struck a chord with many Germans on the issues of land and identity, given the explosiveness of the German east-west problem, the growth of the militant right wing and the growing underclass of immigrants.

Mr Robinson also addresses exploitation of young, new, hot artists.

Exploitation of fashionable artists is something artists and the general public have seen as a common thread in recent contemporary art.

The themes of travel and isolation are dealt with in Ruth Watson’s work. A map of the world with New Zealand fixed in the centre might accord with many of us who see the country as important in world affairs. Yet the same map stresses our isolation, our safety in distance from the rest of the world. Her work also touches on tourism and the simplistic views we often give of our country. She uses a 1950s board game of travel in New Zealand to show the banality of representation of this country. She echoes the comments of Air New Zealand’s Thomas Bartsch who stressed that many tourists wanted to capture a feeling for the people, not just the landscape.

Julian Dashper’s works sat strangely in the large gallery. He really required a room of his own. His work, in a sense, is a commentary on the whole exhibition. As with much of his work, he deals with the transport of ideas about art and the way in which art reaches New Zealand via the illustration and the magazine. Copies and approximations of modernism were the basis of our art for many years. Mr Dashper takes this cobbled-together modernism and re-presents it to Europe showing it where it took the wrong turning.

Michael Parekōwhai has some of his large carved wooden sculptures in the show.

His large two-metre long pick-up sticks game entitled They Comfort Me is there as well as They Comfort Me Too where the sticks are presented in a kitset form, as is the jackstraws game. These giant-sized games with their complex readings about religion, politics, the nature of language and culture, along with their reference back to a Eurocentric view of the world, look enigmatic and dramatic in the Kunstverein galleries.

His large word sculpture using the words of the Colin McCahon painting I AM HE was quickly identified by one perceptive German journalist as coming from the pen of John Lennon in I Am the Walrus rather than the Bible or McCahon.

Peter Weiemair became interested in New Zealand art having seen the Headlands show at the Museum for Contemporary Art in Sydney (an Australian-curated show). ‘Initially, I was excited by the quality of the work, particularly as we have very little knowledge about New Zealand art in Europe. The Kunstverein has a philosophy of showing such art, new art. I wanted to put the finger on New Zealand art and say to Germans: “Stop—have a look at this.’’’

‘There are themes in New Zealand art which are pertinent to issues of contemporary art—how people relate to their culture, how they construct their identity and how that identity is constructed by Māori with a different ancestry and language and way of thinking, a different way of interpreting the world. Then this is combined with the international language of art.’

‘So this is not an easy show, but I hope people will give it a second view. The viewers will certainly recognise the similarities—these artists are speaking the language of artists in New York, London, or Berlin …’

The success of this Frankfurt show will again bring up the question of New Zealand’s participation in the international art scene. The Arts Council of New Zealand, the various public galleries and dealer galleries have made some inroads internationally. There has, however, been no real coordination and no real concept of a marketing strategy for our rare international ventures.

Christian Huther, ‘Cultural Safety/Second Nature: Contemporary Art from New Zealand’, Article 4, translated from German. [date unknown]

The language of art may be international, but national cultures can still have a lasting influence after the fall of national and language barriers. This has been shown once more by the Frankfurter Kunstverein which, after the respectable exhibition projects of recent years on Australia, Japan, Mexico and Brazil, has recently presented the art landscape of New Zealand. Cultural Safety is the ironic title of the exhibition (now in Aachen) and refers to the diverse heritage of New Zealand. Works of seven artists between 27 and 39 years of age are shown for the first time in Europe, rounded off by an exhibition of photographs, Second Nature.

The ‘safety’ refers to the recognition and conservation of cultural differences. Of New Zealand’s 3.3 million inhabitants, 400,000 are regarded as Māori, the indigenous people who have lived there for more than 1000 years and who are faced with problems ranging from unemployment to tourism. Young Māoris especially are currently occupying houses and making claims to ancestral land. Peter Robinson puts his Māori ancestry at 3.125 percent, while three other Māori artists represented in the exhibition seem to have a clearer descent. Robinson makes bitter allusions to the appropriation of the land by colonists with slogans on canvas such as ‘dirt cheap’, or the kiosk designated as ‘sold out’, all in the traditional Māori colours red, black and white.

But such direct reminders of the painful past are the exception. The Māori artists mainly proceed more subtly, or simply decline to be tied to their origin. Fiona Pardington, for example, devotes herself to the male body in her black and white photos, decorating it with little adhesive love-gods or draping it with exotic and pretty [playful] masks, patterns and flower motifs.

Only Jacqueline Fraser is known to us already, through her participation in the Frankfurt Prospect exhibition of 1993. She constructs exotic figures and artfully contrived ornaments, flowers, palm fronds and jewellery from wires and threads. In her installation in the display window of the Kunstverein, Fraser gave a cryptic and decorative picture of woman as a traditional object of exchange for neighbouring Māori tribes.

It would therefore seem that the borders between propaganda, decoration and art in New Zealand seem to be fluid, but there are nevertheless many artistic expressions that, at first glance, are hardly distinguishable from other nations, ranging from painting, to photography, to sculpture. Luise Fong’s abstract painting could originate from here; Michael Parekōwhai with his urinals even alludes to the famous Fountain (1917) by the Dadaist Duchamp, but refuses to consider himself to be modelled on anyone else, as he states in his credo. From Duchamp via Buys and Dali to Picasso, nothing is sacred to him. In the catalogue, however, one learns that colonists emasculated Māori sculptures because they disliked their prominent sexuality. In another installation by Parekōwhai made of large letters forming ‘IAMHE’, ‘he’ can mean ‘false’ or ‘a few’ in Māori. The phrase becomes an admission of the artist’s own uncertainty as to his identity and of the ongoing search for truth and a God.

Julian Dashper advertised for himself in a leading American art magazine and thus gained a foothold in the art business. His success is at the same time an investigation into the mechanisms of the market. Ruth Watson, on the other hand, born in New Zealand and of European descent, paints a world map which shows the earth leaning with the Southern hemisphere as its centre of gravity [main focus]. New Zealand has admittedly left the edge for the centre, but now seems tiny and surrounded almost menacingly by a huge expanse of ocean. This re-evaluation of values can, as we see, bring its own perils.

Jonathan Mané-Wheoki, ‘Cultural Safety: Contemporary New Zealand Art in Germany’, Art New Zealand, no. 79, Winter 1996. [Reproduced with the permission of Art New Zealand.]

It must have seemed like a clever or cute idea at the time to send to Frankfurt early in 1995 the ‘largest exhibition of contemporary New Zealand art to be staged in Europe’ under the title Cultural Safety.(1)  The term ‘cultural safety’ had been adopted from the New Zealand health profession’s well-intentioned effort to address the issue of cultural difference—especially (but not exclusively) that of Māori—as an important consideration in the healing process. Sadly, the concept as applied in the health sector has occasioned widespread Pākehā resistance, so that the exhibition returns to New Zealand under a name whose meaning has, during Cultural Safety’s absence, been soured by charges of ‘political correctness’, of ‘social engineering’, of pandering yet again to Māori demands.

Similarly, in the art sector, Korurangi: New Māori Art, the exhibition with which the Auckland City Art Gallery’s New Gallery opened last October, was plagued by controversy, one journalist even going so far as to condemn it as ‘racist’, as ‘cultural apartheid’: (2) (and therefore distinctly unsafe culturally). What, then, would such a critic make of the disproportionate representation of artists of Māori descent in Cultural Safety, three of whom (Jacqueline Fraser, Michael Parekōwhai and Peter Robinson) had also featured in Korurangi?

Time was, not so very long ago, when Māori rugby players were excluded from All Black teams selected to play against the Springboks, not only in South Africa but in New Zealand. Until comparatively recently Māori artists, too—with the notable exception of Ralph Hotere—were largely unrepresented in, if not deliberately excluded from, New Zealand’s mainstream art exhibitions. In the 1960s modern art was presented at home and abroad as an entirely western enterprise in which Māori did not participate. When such art was shown in London in this period, however, its lack of national and cultural distinctiveness, and its perceived derivative aspects ensured a cool critical reception, as extracts from reviews printed in the catalogue of New Zealand Māori Culture and the Contemporary Scene attest [This was the first ever survey exhibition of contemporary Māori art, held at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch in 1966, and not, as the Cultural Safety catalogue states, in 1969 in the National Art Gallery.] (3)

Of the exhibition Contemporary Painting from New Zealand, held at the Commonwealth Institute in 1964-65, for example, Terence Mullaly, the Daily Telegraph’s art critic, observed that the artists ‘ape with apparent sophistication many of the gambits that have been modish in New York, Paris and London in recent years. As far as can be seen at this distance,’ he continued, ‘there is nothing distinctly national about their work.’(4) A geographically distant echo of this assessment is found the following year in a review by the Christchurch Press critic, F.H. Coventry: ‘Very interesting, but you would not know these paintings had come from New Zealand unless you had a catalogue’(5)

Would those who viewed Cultural Safety at the Frankfurter Kunstverein and the Ludwig Forum fur Internationale Kunst in Germany last year have known that the art had come from New Zealand unless they had consulted the catalogue? Or is the art so resolutely international in outlook as to render any expectation of a sense of place or difference obsolete? Perhaps it is still the issue that it was in the 1960s. A contemporary New Zealand critic wrily observes that ‘several of the artists [in Cultural Safety] make work that looks as if it might have come out of European art magazines’(6)—one of the pieces, Julian Dashper’s What I am reading at the moment, actually incorporates stacks of American Artforum magazines.

Extracts from the London reviews reprinted in the catalogue of New Zealand Māori Culture and the Contemporary Scene were offered in support of the contention that New Zealand art would continue to have no distinctive character or identity until it referenced itself to the culture of the Māori. While New Zealand art today could hardly be said to have referenced itself to indigenous traditions, it certainly takes account of, and accommodates Māori art—indeed survey exhibitions of contemporary New Zealand art could hardly be considered authentic or complete without Māori art representation, particularly if they were to be shown abroad. For Māori, Pākehā and tauiwi to co-exist in New Zealand in a complex cultural relationship found nowhere else in the world, and it is the reflection, or expression, or recognition of this relationship that can lend exhibitions of contemporary New Zealand art their distinctiveness.

Nonetheless, the Māori component, one could argue, must have primacy. From zero representation in the 1960s the proportion of Māori artists included in national and international exhibitions, and on the basis of the quality and interest of their work rather than any notion of quotas, affirmative action or ‘political correctness’, is clearly on the rise. For example, of the thirty eight artists represented in Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, the first international exhibition with which Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art opened in 1992, eight were Māori. Back in New Zealand the Press commented how ‘Contemporary Māori art has been singled out by Australians as one of the most exciting features of a large art exhibition now on in Sydney.’(7) This was Michael Parekōwhai’s debut on the international art stage. Unpalatable though it undoubtedly is to some New Zealand artists, critics and journalists, the possibility that the European and American art world may be less interested in art by Pākehā and, conversely, much more enthusiastic about the indigenous art of New Zealand has not been lost on Māori, and to some degree drives the separatist agenda of several Māori artists in support of stand-alone exhibitions (which are then attacked as ‘racist’).

Interesting parallels may be drawn with the Australian situation. When Aratajara: Art of the First Australians, the massive survey exhibition of Aboriginal art, was shown at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1993, John McDonald, the Australian Weekend review columnist observed:

While ‘ethnicity was not a criteria [sic]’(8) for the selection of artists in Cultural Safety, it happens that of the seven contemporary New Zealand artists represented, four are of Māori descent and their iwi affiliations are specified in the exhibition catalogue. Three of the four (Jacqueline Fraser, Fiona Pardington and Peter Robinson) are of Ngāi Tahu descent, while Michael Parekōwhai is Ngā Ariki/Te Aitanga and Rongowhakaata. (Of the seven artists only Fraser had exhibited previously at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, in 1993.) The ethnic origins of the other three participants, however, are mentioned only in the most general terms: Julian Dashper and Ruth Watson as European, and Luise Fong as Chinese and European. All seven are, in fact, of European descent: but Robinson’s 3.125% Māori descent is highlighted ‘as a means of critiquing the added value that the art market ascribes to him as a Māori artist’. (9) (Robinson spent a liberating seven months in Germany last year away from the pressure he encounters at home to be the Māori artist that New Zealand’s art institutions want him to be.)(10)

So why are the biographies in the catalogue so specific with respect to the ethnic origins of the artists of Māori descent? Perhaps they were intended to provide points of entry for German viewers not only into the Māori artists’ work but into the exhibition as a whole. Perhaps they were meant to evoke the idea of Māori art. Pākehā New Zealand art has almost no profile in Germany, but traditional Māori art has a presence in German intellectual history linking back to James Cook’s second voyage to the South Pacific in 1772-75. Two Germans, Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg, participated in this voyage,(11) and acquired examples of taonga Māori which eventually found their way into the splendid collections of the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Berlin. Other notable collections of taonga include those in the Museum fur Volkerkunde, Hamburg, the Ubersee Museum, Bremen; and the Linden Museum, Stuttgart. But would the German viewers automatically have perceived a continuity between the historical ‘artefacts’ held in these museums and the work of the Māori artists represented in Cultural Safety? Maybe not, or, at least, not easily.

Had the Germans looked for signs of the exotic, or the ethnic ‘otherness’ of the historical Māori, in the work of Fraser, Pardington, Parekōwhai and Robinson, they would probably have been disappointed. For these are urban, cosmopolitan artists, whose work engages with western art traditions inside western art institutions, in a supposedly ‘post-colonial’ situation, at several removes from the marae which is the fountainhead of ‘Māoriness’. In the end, they had been chosen, along with their colleagues, not because they were Māori but because they were artists of high calibre, and their work was seen to address a range of culturally complex issues. But their ethnicity certainly added an ironic relish to the positioning of contemporary New Zealand art within the apolitical and amoral confines of an art museum and an international art exhibition in a country with a notorious and hateful history of racial supremacy, and recurring Neo-Nazi violence against the dark-skinned auslander and gastarbeiter at the present time.

Despite the fact that the majority of artists in Cultural Safety are of Māori descent, the selection of artists is, aesthetically speaking, culturally safe: these are early-to-mid-career producers of visually pleasing, rather than intellectually teasing or ‘cutting edge’ works. Nevertheless, the exhibition is impressive, and its installation in Wellington’s City Gallery (the originator of the show) is particularly handsome. Intelligently curated by Gregory Burke, formerly of the City Gallery, and Peter Weiermair, Director of the Frankfurter Kunstverein, Cultural Safety is a model of institutional partnership that bodes well for similarly fruitful collaborations to come. Perhaps it is a sign of New Zealand’s cultural maturing, and the ‘death of the cultural cringe’,(12) that we can imagine this exhibition not looking especially remarkable among all the shows that are offered up for public consumption in Europe, yet not at all raw, gauche, depleted and apologetic as those first selections of contemporary New Zealand art in London in the 1960s must have seemed.

  1. Cultural Safety: Contemporary Art from New Zealand, exhibition pamphlet (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 1996).
  2. Keith Stewart, ‘Cultural Apartheid Creates a Ghetto’, Sunday Star-Times, 15 October 1995: D4.
  3. Cultural Safety: Contemporary Art from New Zealand (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 1995), 122.
  4. Quoted in New Zealand Culture and the Contemporary Scene (Christchurch, 1966). (Daily Telegraph, November 1964).
  5. Press, 1 March 1965.
  6. Justin Paton, ‘Critics’ Choice’, Listener, 13 April 1996: 43.
  7. Press, 3 June 1992: 20.
  8. Cultural Safety: Contemporary Art from New Zealand (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 1995), 17.
  9. Ibid., 123.
  10. John McDonald, ‘Work on Sacred Ground’, The Australian Weekend Review, 28–29 August 1993: 7.
  11. Markus Schindlbeck, ‘On the History of the Māori Collection in the Museum für Volkerkunde, Berlin’, in Taonga Māori Conference, 18–27 November 1990 (Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1990), 68.
  12. Justin Paton, op. cit., 43.

Astrid Mania, ‘Another Look’, Monica, June 1996.

What would an average German know about New Zealand? Or, the question we (the freelance staff of Ludwig-Forum, Aachen) had to ask ourselves in awaiting the Cultural Safety and Second Nature shows from those far-away islands was, what did we know about them? We all lived with the well-promoted ‘clinical’ image of a healthy, green environment where people enjoy bungy-jumping, rafting and mountain-skiing. This does not fit the self-stylisation of European intellectuals, (or self-declared intellectuals). We knew the words ‘Moa’ and ‘Māori’ from cross-words (‘extinct giant bird’ and ‘indigenous people of NZ’), which helped a little, and, of course, we all furiously followed the dramas around the Rainbow Warrior and the latest French manifestations of nuclear muscle-flexing. This provided us with a warm wave of sympathy for the artists coming from such a dreary and culturally deprived country. Why do we never get the New Zealand of big cities, modern galleries and a vivid art scene in the media?

Then they arrived, the chosen few, to represent their country’s contemporary art for the very first time in old Europe. Some visitors were disappointed since they expected a tamed ethnographic show of Māori art—at least they knew about its existence—and the rest of us were overthrown by deep confusion: there is life on the other side of the world! These artists could stand, and had to stand, the challenge of contemporary American and European art. Especially in the case of Ludwig-Forum in Aachen, since the exhibition spaces are hardly fenced off and Cultural Safety was literally mixed up and competing with an exhibition of fish in fibreglass by Toni Grand, and with the permanent collection including such obtrusive works as Koons’ Made in Heaven. This disturbed the shape of the show, but is a well-known problem resulting from the interior design of the Ludwig-Forum.

It was impossible for us to judge the choice of artists, since we had no idea of the quality or quantity from which they had been selected. Shows being assembled on the grounds of giving a survey of a country’s art scene always put the curator in an uncomfortable position, provoking the question of what makes up the identity of a given nation or country. I personally dislike any reductivist position that looks at artworks only from a national point of view. This may well be a German paranoia, as I hate seeing German art reduced to the slogans ‘expressionist’ or, later, ‘wild’—but I do admit that selling the show under a national label was the easiest approach to this pioneering project. Moreover, the show itself was aware of this tricky problem being imposed on it by the Frankfurt curator, but the range of art presented was wide enough to distract people from searching for a commonly underlying ‘kiwiness’.

The ironic title of Cultural Safety contradicted any nationalist feeling, but its mere use unveiled an interesting difference between Europe and New Zealand. While we deal nowadays with notions of racism and hostility against foreigners coming into our countries, New Zealand has been dealing with the trauma of being a colonial country and the sensitive relationship between the pre-existent and the newly arrived cultures. The catalogue dealt very instructively with these issues, depicting a clear and understandable image of the current discourse in New Zealand/Aotearoa, both on a broader cultural and specifically art-related level. Still, we felt, some deeper insights into the history and culture of Aotearoa would have helped to further comprehend the artworks. Maybe it is an art historian’s obsession, even weakness, to always trace the roots and models of a work, but a broader knowledge—like it or not—of Colin McCahon’s work would also have been enlightening. This raises the tricky question: does an art work necessarily need a historical or political frame of reference? In our daily practice of shifting art-works around the world via exhibitions, printed or digital reproductions, how much of its weight is being lost on the way? No question, a decontextualised work must still speak in a new and foreign context. I admit that I would be as amused and alarmed seeing a show of recent German art including a model of the former Wall and the Berlin Brandenburg Gate as I would be in seeing a show of contemporary New Zealand art including a stuffed Kiwi, a romantic photo of Māori dancers and a reproduction of a Colin McCahon painting. It appeared an interesting fact that most of the works were—for lack of a better word—conceptual, none showed the polished surface of an academically-painted post-modernist canvas. The work most shaped by purely artistic concerns appeared to be Luise Fong’s, whereas the other artists revealed a lot more of the Cultural Safety discussion. Ruth Watson’s maps with their reflections on the situation of New Zealand in both its geographic and cultural context were a good and accessible approach to the show, smoothing the way for the more ‘alien’ works, such as Peter Robinson’s and Jacqueline Fraser’s, both using Māori imagery. It took us some time to believe in the irony of Robinson’s work—which is not a weakness of his oeuvre, but we were trying so hard ourselves to be ‘culturally correct’! While his work is aware of its ‘exoticism’ and is deliberately exposing it, Fraser’s fragile installations were in danger of being read as ‘exotic goods’ only. We found them the most difficult, simply owing to our lack of knowledge of Māori traditions. Being art historians we sympathised with Julian Dashper’s installation dealing with the problem of second-hand experience, as we also suffer from reproductions and badly blown-up slides. And we laughed along with Michael Parekōwhai kit-set Duchamp.

The formal opening was overshadowed by the New Zealand embassy’s refusal to appear and speak because ‘a stroke of madness’ had been detected in the photo advertising Peter Peryer’s Second Nature show. A lot has recently been said and written on this affair. I am terrified by any governmental or administrative interference in art, and we could not help but form the impression that our common sense, intelligence or judgment (Kant was German after all!) was somewhat underestimated. New Zealand officials missed a wonderful opportunity to promote their country as a mature society with art and artistic discourse. These officials disrespected both the artists and the German institutions involved. The general impression among the audience was—alas—that if the embassy would not officially open the show, how could it be considered an important one? Fortunately, despite summer holidays and heat, the interest in the exhibition, especially among the art world, was wide. The lack of official benediction was compensated for by the amazing fact that we saw artists speaking and singing (!) at the opening. We were stunned: artists in Germany are generally unwilling to speak, and—even worse—when they do want to, they are usually muzzled. The show was an interesting experience. It has changed our view of and has stimulated our interest in, a country that up to now has been one of the few blank spots on the contemporary art world map.

From what I have perceived of New Zealand so far, it is time for it to leave its splendid isolation and set sail once more to explore foreign shores. The residency established in Aachen is surely a step in that direction. On the back of the recent international success of New Zealand film, people involved in culture need to establish links across the different media and join forces for self-promotion. In contrast to the founding of a United Europe, I have experienced a somewhat chauvinist attitude lurking behind this country’s facade, and would recommend fresh blood transfusions for an incestuous family!

Katy Corner, ‘NZ Art Heads Out’, City Voice, 24 April 1996. Excerpt.

This show celebrates seven rising artists who look to the future with an eye on their artistic forebears. Peter Robinson’s felt plane sits in the middle of the gallery and lends a cross-cultural tone to this show; as do Ruth Watson’s beautiful map/souvenir/games. The feeling of longing for home and identity is strong in Watson’s work, as well as the enormity of the challenge of being an artist.

Robinson trades in slogans: ‘Fallen off the trolley sale,’ ‘We pay for your interest,’ ‘A wee gem,’ and his constructions have more than a little anger in them. But he has also created very touchable and elegant forms out of tar, wax, earth, pasta, wool, fibreglass and polystyrene.

Upstairs, Michael Parekōwhai coloured rods are strategically strewn and the construction “I AM HE” says something about McCahon’s legacy. He has moulded together innocent items like spades and oars, along with rifles and crutches and leaves the viewer to make what they will.

Jacqueline Fraser uses various materials, including plastic wire and fibre to create her lyrical pieces. One piece is like a stage set with bronze gossamer curtains pulled back from a blue background, with a celebration of female and Māori within.

Luise Fong’s large work leaps out at the viewer with its glutinous glee. Several works have holes cut out, but even where the process seems loose, there is firm control. Cluster is two small panels with strict microscopic detail, Smoke VI feels like a tiger’s eye, and Pathology is incredibly intimate.

Fiona Pardington’s photographs are lush and stark. They are visceral and perhaps disturbing, with sexual intentions left up to the viewer.

Julian Dashper has a lovely little painting in a side gallery. He’s extremely versatile and a collection of slide boxes combines with his circle paintings and constructions.

… Anger and a longing for home (NZ) are not a new province, but in the Cultural Safety exhibition, one can see it very clearly. A multicultural artistic tradition is growing out of a firm base laid down by earlier artists.

Mark Amery, ‘Travelling Show “Export Quality”’Sunday Star-Times, 14 April 1996. Excerpt.

Because this work has travelled it can be dealt with in a different light. So it is the artists who deal with cultural packaging (namely Michael Parekōwhai, Julian Dashper, Ruth Watson and Peter Robinson) who work best together and alone in this show. While the much praised work of Fiona Pardington and Luise Fong might have done well in the European setting, their work in this gathering at home is lacking in one.

In much of his work, Michael Parekōwhai is repackaging the work of Europe and sending it back in kitsets. Parekōwhai often refers to the Marcel Duchamp found object. In Mimi he does this, making copies of Duchamp’s found urinal (Fountain) and putting them into kitsets.

In They Comfort Me and They Comfort Me Too giant pick-up sticks receive the same treatment. The change in scale changes our perception. Toys become tools with new meanings and game playing becomes a serious pursuit.

That’s also apparent in Ruth Watson’s Tour of New Zealand, a game in which the viewer moves square by square through a tour of the country from a tourist perspective (the views found on cake tins). Watson’s simple recontextualisation and (literal) underlying text makes viewers question the way they see their culture. With the found map Another Map of the World, our perspective is challenged more simply. The glove is positioned before the eye with New Zealand and the Pacific at its centre. Germany can’t even be seen.

Julian Dashper deals with the way modernism has been viewed from the New Zealand perspective in a conceptual manner. His insertion of ads into international magazine Artforum (which are the show) are not just a gesture, but a comment on the fact that we view overseas art mainly on the page. In Dashper’s work the slides and magazines become the artworks. Only Dashper’s name and passport photo remain with the packaging.

Dashper’s interest in transportation and cultural packaging is also found in Peter Robinson’s work. Culture has become a commodity up for sale. In one work here, our culture has become an empty crate with a sign inside that says ‘sold out’. And culture has sold out in both senses of the word.

Cultural Safety covers too much ground to be dealt with comprehensively here because, sensibly, it looks at six artists in depth. We get a better understanding of these artists work than any broad survey could achieve. It is welcome in New Zealand, with or without the new passport stamps.

John Daly-Peoples, ‘New Zealand Photographers Peter Peryer and Fiona Pardington Dazzle in German Debut’, National Business Review, 12 May 1995. Excerpt.

The other photographer showing works in the touring show Cultural Safety, Fiona Pardington, shows work in stark contrast to Mr Peryer. While he uses his immediate environment, the everyday, Ms Pardington, using studios, models and contrived arrangement, establishes an intimate world where the body becomes central.

It is an ambivalent world where religious imagery, eroticism, clinical anatomy, voyeurism, hedonism and introspection are linked.

She makes the viewer aware of the body as a representation of human relationships. She expresses our fears and delights in our body and the bodies of others. She touches on how we perceive our sexual identity and our relationship with others.

Ms Pardington’s work at the Frankfurt show was given a special location in what was once a small chapel.

This location drew attention to the religious connotations of many of the works: Adam, Diptych, Sebastian, Christopher and Veil with its blood-spattered cloth.

Ms Pardington gives her subjects attributes or symbols which they hold or with which they are associated—Sebastian with small cupids holding bows and arrows, Abelard holding old carrots like a bunch of withered genitals.

These two photographers have managed to convey an image of New Zealand and New Zealanders which would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

They are not depicting the land, the people or the places but an impression of detached observation and invention. They are presenting the essence of things, rather than the substance.

Air New Zealand sees cultural events like this as important for the company to be involved in.

‘This is new territory we are entering with this venture of bringing New Zealand art to Germany,’ Thomas Bartsch of Air New Zealand (Germany) said.

‘We know from surveys our clients are different from many other travellers from Germany—they are more interested in art and culture. We want to ensure that this intellectual and inspirational part of New Zealand is understood in Germany. It can only be good for our business.’