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City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Viggo Mortensen: Mō te Upoko-o-te-Ika: For Wellington: Documents

Rebecca Wilson, opening speech, for the parallel exhibition at Massey University

Tēnā koutou katoa. Ko Rebecca Wilson t0ku ingoa. He kaiwhakarite ahau, mō te whare toi. Na reira tena koutou katoa. Good morning and welcome. I work at City Gallery Wellington where I’m Curator for the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery. I worked with Viggo Mortensen on his Hirschfeld Gallery exhibition. Thank you all for being here this morning.

Viggo Mortensen is an artist in the true sense of the word—equipped with a range of creative tools he seems able to draw on any one of them to express and communicate. We know him as an actor—now you’ve been able to see him as a photographer with the large and impressive body of work in the upstairs galleries, and also in the smaller exhibition in town at City Gallery, which some of you will have seen last night at the media preview. He also has a strong practice as a painter; he’s a poet; and, with his business partner Pilar Perez, he runs a successful independent publishing company called Perceval Press. His recent exhibitions include Miyelo: Photographs of a Lakota Ghost Dance, at LA’s Stephen Cohen Gallery, and shows at Fototeca de Cuba, Denmark’s Museet for Fotokunst, and New York’s Robert Mann Gallery. And now these two exhibitions in Wellington.

The space I curate for at City Gallery Wellington—the Hirschfeld Gallery—is dedicated to exhibiting work by Wellington-based artists and designers. From time to time we also include in our exhibitions programme work that has a strong connection to our city, and, when we first saw Viggo Mortensen’s work, we seized the opportunity to exhibit it. Viggo conceived of Mō te Upoko o te Ika: For Wellington as just that. Two exhibitions that would enable him to give back to a city and a region that he lived in and loved. City Gallery, and, I’m sure we share this with Massey, is very confident that both exhibitions—the Hirschfeld Gallery and the Massey University—will be enjoyed by a great many Wellingtonians and visitors to this city.

City Gallery Wellington is the city’s public art gallery—we’re publicly funded and part of our mandate is to reflect and participate in the life of Wellington. So we’re delighted to be able to participate in the city’s celebrations surrounding The Lord of the Rings. And to be able to show that this richness and colour extends right through the arts.

We’ve also enjoyed working with Massey University to publicise For Wellington. And it’s been an opportunity for us to work with another Wellington university Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters directed by New Zealand’s first poet laureate, Bill Manhire. Viggo’s generosity extends to granting the proceeds of tonight’s gala opening to students of Massey’s proposed new film school, and proceeds from Saturday night’s poetry reading will go to scholarships for students of Creative Writing at Victoria.

Something about Viggo’s work itself, before I hand over to the person you all really want to hear from. What particularly stuck me in working on this project is how Viggo’s practice as a photographer has particularly evolved in the last year or two. In the time he’s been in Wellington—busy with demanding film schedules and working on location—he’s looked much more to his photographic camera than to paint and canvas. But in the abstract works—the large-scale canvas banners you’ve seen upstairs, and also in the smaller prints at the Hirschfeld Gallery–he’s working with light and colour, using the camera as a painter uses a paintbrush. Interestingly he speaks of his admiration for the New Zealander painter Colin McCahon, whose work he saw at City Galley on first arriving in Wellington. McCahon is famous for his interest in the interplay between light and dark, and for his interest in the power of the New Zealand landscape.

Another aspect of his work that intrigues me is how much he seems to enjoy the process of creating work. There’s a freedom to his approach that leads him to experiment with ways of making work that reminds me of something the artist Marcel Duchamp said: ‘Poor tools require better skills.’ When Viggo Mortensen’s film malfunctions in his camera, causing flashes across the images, he doesn’t throw them or the camera away. He continues to see what will come of it. You can see the results in works at City Gallery. Upstairs you would have seen a series of works with an exquisite almost magical colour intensified by a telescoping effect. I don’t want to give away all of the artist’s secrets but these were also made with bad tools requiring more skill. Enough from me.