City Gallery

Pauline Swain, ‘Global Art Exhibition’, Dominion, 3 April 1996.

An exhibition entitled The World is a pretty smart idea, and it was two New Zealanders who started it. It is an ambitious exhibition which will take place in Wellington and in Amsterdam at the same time, linked by some of the latest computer technology.

The project is the brainchild of Under Capricorn, a partnership of Auckland poet and critic Wystan Curnow and John McCormack, director of Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Curnow believes it is the first time an exhibition has been held simultaneously on both sides of the globe, linked by computer. Under Capricorn initiates special projects that place New Zealand art in a global context, such as the international symposium at the International Festival of the Arts two years ago.

The World was originally intended for this year’s festival, but is now finalised for June, July and August. Featuring work created by more than 20 international artists for each exhibition site, the show’s overall theme is art in the age of globalisation: the ‘shrinking’ of the earth through developments in information technology and people’s resulting perceptions of their place on the planet.

It will be in two parts: half at Wellington’s City Gallery, the other half at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, which—along with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris—is reckoned to be one of the world’s top three contemporary art galleries.

Billed as a cross-planetary hook-up ‘between old Zee-land and New Zea-land’ (don’t let the fact that Amsterdam isn’t actually in the Dutch province of Zeeland spoil a great slogan), one part of the show features T-Vision, computer software introduced by a Berlin company in 1994, and still being developed.

To use it, visitors at each gallery will rotate a large globe under their hands to make a computer picture of the Earth rotate in space, and by touching another interface, make the screen image zoom down on Amsterdam or Wellington, and then into the respective galleries for a virtual-reality look at the other half of the show, with potential for seamless inserts of live footage via the Internet.

The T-Vision system will be an atlas of the future, a digital 3-D map of the earth capable of any level of close-up and able to be constantly updated with the latest data—from temperatures to earthquake damage.

At the Wellington end, Wellington City Council computer experts hope to borrow equipment sophisticated enough to make T-Vision work well at this end—a half-million-dollar Onyx computer for starters. They’ll also help set up the Internet segment of The World, and there are plans for a walk-through ‘garden’ of upturned computer screens that will blossom with computer graphics.

The City Gallery is getting a reputation for having friends in high places on the international art scene, but this is the highest it has flown to date. Wystan Curnow, co-curator with Dorine Mignot of the Stedelijk, says, ‘It’s rare to have the chance to work with an institution as important as this. The World was an idea I’d had in the back of my mind for some time, to help raise the profile of New Zealand art overseas. One of the ways we’ve tried to do this is in packages of exclusively New Zealand work [such as two shows at the Seville expo and the Cultural Safety exhibition just back from German galleries.]

‘The trouble is, we wouldn’t get such a package into a prestigious place like the Stedelijk.’

‘What excites me about this is that it finally offers New Zealand artists the chance to work in the big league. Now, they can be seen alongside some of the leading artists in the world. If we have mature artists, we have to make these opportunities open to them.’ (Only three, however—two living, one dead—will be represented in this show, with a few more, possibly, in its Internet projects.)

When Curnow took his idea to Europe, the Stedelijk was the first institution to take it up. Its director, Rudi Fuchs, had been to the Under Capricorn symposium two years ago and knew whom he was dealing with.

Dorine Mignot is a long-standing curator at the museum with a reputation for taking risks. Ten years ago; she was among the first to put video art in a serious gallery. She likes to be ahead of the pack, ‘to try to get a grip on what is going on in society’, to twiddle the knobs of new technology.

‘That’s my task’, she says. ‘To look out for new things. It’s more tantalising than putting shows together from art down in the stockrooms.’

The Stedelijk, Amsterdam’s city gallery, owns nearly 55,000 art works including paintings by all the greats of world art since 1850. In Wellington a month ago Mignot explained the current show: ‘Globalisation is a reality. We can be very cynical but it’s happening. It’s a matter of what are you going to do with it?

‘Everywhere in the world now we’re getting the same stuff, mostly from the United States. In Holland, and I guess in New Zealand, a lot of people don’t like this. In Russia they’ve embraced it, but even there there’s an enormous longing to go back.’

She sees much uneasiness about cultural and technological globalisation, and wonders what the reflection is in individual art. The World is not only an attempt to envisage the globe as a singular system but also, Dr. Mignot says, ‘Doing it in two venues means that immediately you’ll get this interesting perspective that every place will make a different statement. A painter painting a landscape in New Zealand will have a different relationship with the land from one in Holland or Australia.’

An obvious comparison in The World will be Netherlands artist Jan Dibbets’s constructed seascapes and Colin McCahon’s mountains and hills.

Alongside the main exhibition in the Stedelijk, in the museum’s Room of Honour, Mignot has organised a survey of McCahon works. When she first came to New Zealand, she saw some McCahon paintings and said to Curnow, ‘I gotta have that. Who is this person?’

Other New Zealanders represented in the show are Ruth Watson and Michael Parekowhai, chosen because their work is in keeping with its theme. It opens in Wellington on 7 June and in Amsterdam on 28 June, to allow some artists to install works in both places.

As it turns out, apart from the twelve McCahon paintings to be honoured in Amsterdam, The World is hardly giving New Zealand artists a grand entree on to the international art stage. Its biggest impact at this end will be in bringing cutting edge overseas art to Wellington. And if the high-tech part of the show comes together as planned it could be worth seeing.

The City Gallery is the winner, chalking up yet another significant relationship with a top player in international art, to build on for the future.

Gregory O’Brien, ‘The World Over: No Place Fast, Some Place Slow’, Art New Zealand, no. 81, Summer 1996–7. [Reproduced with the permission of Art New Zealand and the author.]

At a lecture during the first week of The World Over at the City Gallery Wellington, Wystan Curnow flicked through slides of works from the show interspersed with shots of the artists drinking coffee, standing in landscapes and urban settings. Curnow was apologetic for what appeared to be an omnipresent wire sculpture off to the right-hand side of the slides, which, he explained, was only a hair caught in his camera lens. Somehow this seemed to underline the subjectivity of his curatorial position and the view from there—‘the hair of the dogma’, as Flann O’Brien would have interjected had he been in attendance—a subjectivity at odds with the exhibition’s rather grand and all-encompassing subtitle, ‘Art in the Age of Globalisation’.

While, for the most part, the visual art in the Wellington/Amsterdam exhibition slotted happily into the three corners of the show, under the headings of Panorama, Sphere and Nexus, the more successful works seemed reluctant to comply with the Globalisation agenda. The tag ‘Art in the Age of Globalisation’ also begged the question which age were we actually talking about? This exact moment? The seventies when Nam June Paik, Robert Smithson and McCahon were doing their stuff? The ’80s, whenever that was? The Global Art banner seemed a lofty and probably an over-reaching and unnecessary one to foist upon these unwitting souls. However I would suggest the failure of the exhibition to do what it was supposed to was probably its greatest strength and its most convincing argument.


Walking the Talk, Talking the Walk


The World Over could be seen or ‘read’ as a littoral show—two of its central tropes being the ‘Walk’—embodied by Colin McCahon’s Muriwai Beach painting of that title—and ‘Surfing’ (as in the Internet). The exhibition offered a variety of transports—of media—and a number of charted trajectories through time and space. It also played, thematically and formally, with unity and fragmentation, order and chaos, mystification and banality—the state of the planet, you could say.

The World Over was, strictly speaking, a sequel to the Under Capricorn conference held in Wellington in 1994, although it also asked to be read as a sequel to Wystan Curnow’s important exhibition, Putting the Land on the Map: Art and Cartography in New Zealand since 1840 at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 1989.1 In the catalogue for that show, Curnow proclaimed the death of landscape painting, ignoring for the moment that his exhibition might be evidence that the ‘genre’ (which had never been quite the watertight construct he suggested) did indeed have a healthy future, albeit a ‘different’ one. He wrote: ‘This genre, which once seemed and for many still seems so natural, and unmediated, has been used up. Seen through, its various realisms now read like failed strategies for suppressing its codes and generating alibis for ideology.’ A fair statement, if you accept certain parameters, but one which would hopefully inspire any artist worth his or her salt to pick up that hoary chestnut, ‘landscape’, and get to work on it rather than drop it.

Whereas the earlier exhibition steered a course around Colin McCahon, The World Over posited him at the centre of the discussion, his work featuring prominently at both venues. Interestingly (although this might tell us more about the curatorial sensibility than the exhibition concept), McCahon felt relevant to a surprising amount of work gathered in the show, including the word-works of Lothar Baumgarten, the songlines of Aboriginal Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, and, needless to say, the composite paintings of Imants Tillers. Gary Simmons’s Three Buoys, a wall-sized chalk on blackboard drawing, had the scale and manner of a late McCahon word painting, except that the ‘message’ was replaced with three smudged symbols—as if McCahon’s letters and numbers, his Teaching Aids, had been superceded by unstable pseudo-scientific drawing. (The smudge, in all its spontaneity and deliberation, is very much part of the McCahon repertoire or, in Curnow’s phrase, ‘grab-bag’ of styles.)

At the Stedelijk, another work by Simmons faced McCahon’s Landscape Series B across a room, underlining this connectedness. Ruth Watson’s heart-shaped photographic assemblage, Lingua Geografica, echoed McCahon’s Visible Mysteries series and Jan Dibbet’s Comet 3–60 (1973) conveniently invoked McCahon’s Comet works. While there was an over-riding slickness to much of The World Over—with its proliferation of highly finished, pristine surfaces, from Wim Delvoye’s wooden concrete mixer to James Lee Byars’s perfect sphere—McCahon’s contribution stated a case for the blatantly ’hand-made’, with his heavy, although not indelicate, daubing of oil paint on unstretched canvas.

While, as I have said, the McCahons (one in Wellington, thirteen in Amsterdam) seemed to wield a certain power over the show generally, there was also the sense that they spoke a different language from the other contributions—they were more sombre, introspective and personal. As Curnow wrote in 1977, ‘McCahon’s art is eccentric insofar as it is outside the circle, off-centre, provincial.’2 1f there is a largeness of statement in McCahon, there is also a refusal to relinquish his regional origins—obviously he would have been deeply suspicious of this exhibition’s subtitle.

McCahon’s Walk, in Wellington, was a world away the techno-fetishism which crept into the Internet component of the show. ‘Walk’ suggests real movement through real space, with pauses along the way for contemplation and conversation, the numbers I to XIV denoting stations—stationary positions—before the viewer moves on. The numbers also denote events as opposed to the curious non-events the viewer might encounter later in the cyberspace part of the exhibition. McCahon’s brushstrokes are witness to a struggle—with the notion of Art as well as with religious belief, an impressive array of personal demons and, on top of all this, the spectre of nuclear and ecological disaster. The ‘global’ art elsewhere in The World Over was more cerebral and detached—it rarely seemed to up the stakes that high.

The visual art at the City Gallery Wellington split roughly into two camps—firstly, a densely-packed postmodernist sampling of cultural artefacts (here I would posit Tillers, Nam June Paik, Rob Scholte) and, secondly, a minimalism leaning on refinement, detachment, and a pseudo-scientific feel (Tremlett, Byars, Matt Mullican, Ger van Elk, Dibbetts). Mercifully, the era is well and truly over when such an exhibition would have begged the question: ‘How does the New Zealand Art stand up against the foreign art?’ The local ‘product’ was as relaxed about its bearings as that produced anywhere else. Also, its effectiveness was as varied, its quality as uneven.

In the case of Michael Parekowhai, the Stedelijk got the interesting works;3 Wellington was left with three ‘Māori’ mannequins, Poorman, Beggarman, Thief. While I like the idea of real/fake figures walking through the ‘landscape’ of the exhibition, there was a blandness about them that made them a big hit at the opening (where, I’m told, they blended in seamlessly with the ‘real’ people!) but, in the austerity of the gallery the following day, they looked like a party trick, albeit a good one. Ruth Watson is remarkable as a creator of textures and witty intellectual conceits (she, Philip Dadson and John Hurrell were the three artists in the current show who were also in Putting the Land on the Map). The shiny surface of her Lingua Geographica belies its subject, a close up of the coarse texture of a human tongue (the artist’s, I am told). Like David Tremlett, Watson takes quite straightforward ideas and does a consummate job on them. The finish is everything.


No Place


The publicity for The World Over sounded as if the show would be riding the crest of the present technological wave. Paradoxically, the works in the show that operated within rather antiquated parameters (for instance, Simmons’s wall drawings, McCahon’s pronouncements, Byars’s precious objects) were far more highly charged and ‘amazing’ than the video and Internet offerings. The exhibition became, unintentionally, an occasion for musing on the reliability of such tried and true technologies as oil on canvas, chalk on board, carved wood, even the photographic print.

Weeks after the exhibition had finished the Internet component of the show still appeared to be only partially realised or, perhaps, abandoned. That aspect of the exhibition felt a little faked. (I suspect the curators weren’t computer-nerdish enough to know what the new-fangled gear was capable of and who the real operators were—or maybe it’s just that the real activity in that area is in more commercial areas than the fine arts.)

Richard Killeen’s Internet and CD-ROM piece, A Brief History, comprising a handful of his familiar hybridised forms, was rendered inert by its manner of reproduction, failing, as it did, to compensate for (or capitalise on) the loss of texture and allure that video reproduction entails. I can imagine the same images as cut-outs on a gallery wall and they would be puzzling, thought-provoking, somehow necessary. Here they seemed merely an exercise, a working sketch or just some items dredged from his computer archive and awaiting a purposeful setting.

It has to be said that the technological side of the show wasn’t a complete wash-out—even if the pleasures it offered were not always the intended ones. Nam June Paik’s TV Garden (1974–8) appeared, in this day and age, charmingly low-tech. The images of David Bowie ‘live’, of John Cage, Allen Ginsberg and Paik’s assistant Charlotte Moorman playing a ‘human cello’ were quaint and even nostalgic (as were the distorted video-effects). This genuinely antiquated artwork was a ‘living’ example of how technology is forever dismantling and surpassing itself (something oil-on-canvas has never quite managed).

The CD-ROM technology provided an invaluable function in allowing gallery-goers in Wellington to walk through the Amsterdam Gallery and vice-versa—even if going through the exhibition in this fashion is more an experience of the space in which the works are hung than a confrontation with the works themselves. Artworks tend to rely on scale and, again, texture and allure—the very things a small pixellated image suppresses. Having crashed your way from room to room of the ‘Stedelijk Virtual Gallery’, you could almost kid yourself you had been there, although this kind of experience is a bit like having read Cole’s Notes but not Hamlet itself.


Some Place


What, ultimately, did The World Over amount to? Random pages torn from a curatorial notebook? Unlike the comparatively tight Putting the Land on the Map exhibition, the recent show was both haphazard and purposeful, a few well-chosen reference points rather than an attempt at a complete map.

The World Over was an inspired (to use a discredited term) assortment of fragments, an attempt to align Muriwai Beach with the Information Superhighway, to span the gap between info-surfing and walking. The message of ‘Art in the Age of Globalisation’, as I experienced the show, was that Fine Art still exists, primarily and most effectively, in a room somewhere. In spite of high expectations, reinforced by the ‘space-age’ advance advertising for the show, the electronic media component was, in the end, dwarfed by a few good pieces of art sitting around in a few congenial gallery spaces. The image I am left with is of Wystan Curnow walking along Muriwai Beach, contemplating Melville, Ginsberg and McCahon, then looking towards the horizon through the viewfinder of his camera with its omnipresent hair. Curnow has written extensively and brilliantly about McCahon in the past—perhaps his inability to ‘get with’ the technological moment is because, whether he admits it or not, he is far more at home with McCahon’s contemplative ‘Walk’ than with any amount of Internet surfing, and that predisposition was, consciously or not, a defining characteristic of The World Over as a whole—certainly it shaped the successful part of the show.

In the end, we are left with the lone figure on the beach—the romantic / mythical interpreter / seer deciphering the natural world. The technological leaps and bounds that were meant to propel this exhibition into cyberspace would appear to have offered nothing compelling enough to replace that myth, that reality.

1. Yet another exhibition the recent one asked to be seen in relation to was Curnow’s 1984 McCahon exhibition I Will Need Words at the National Art Gallery—both shows included the seminal works The Canoe Tainui, Elias Triptych, The Shining Cuckoo and The Days and Nights in the Wilderness. Notably, the Stedelijk show was the first time McCahon’s Blind series has been hung in sequence since it was originally exhibited and subsequently broken up.
2. Wystan Curnow, McCahon’s ‘Necessary Protection’ (New Plymouth: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 1977),
3. These works, They Comfort Me Too (1994) and Acts (1993), have already been widely exhibited in New Zealand.