After studying the recently announced theme for next year’s Sydney Biennale – “You Imagine what You Desire” – I’d like to suggest an alternative title, borrowed from a video by Singaporean artist, Ho Tzu Nyen – The Cloud of Unknowing. I know this was the name of a mystical tract from the late Middle Ages, but nothing could be more mystical than the explanation of the theme posted on the Biennale’s website.
Having grown accustomed to such mysticism I took a short trip across the ditch last week to view the 5th Auckland Triennial, which goes by the interrogative title: “If you were to live here…” The surprise was that guest curator, Hou Hanru, had stuck closely to this proposition, remaining focused on ideas about what it means – and requires – to live in a certain place. This is not the first time this conscientious journeyman curator has applied himself to the issues associated with modern urban life.
Hou was born and educated in China but has spent most of his working life in France and the United States. He came to prominence with a travelling show called Cities on the Move (1997-2000), which looked at the rapid evolution of the Asian urban landscape through a sprawling array of works. The Auckland Triennial has allowed him to re-visit some of the ideas behind that exhibition in a completely different context.
Hou’s Triennial is spread out over eight separate venues, including a self-contained component called The Lab, embedded in the heart of the Auckland Art Gallery. The show includes 35 artists, or groups of artists, with most galleries hosting only a handful of works. Although the quantity of art is not large, it takes a considerable time to see the entire exhibition, partly due to some lengthy audio-visual pieces.
The Lab bills itself as the “brain” of the Triennial, functioning as a working space in which three local faculties of architecture will present projects dealing with five specific topics: Informal Markets; Ideal Homes; Multicultural Impacts on Urban Transformation; Rural-Urban (as living space); and Emergency Response and Recovery (Christchurch as a case study).
As might be expected, the Lab is a busy working space filled with diagrams, photos, models and all the usual bric-a-brac of a university architecture department. It may be fascinating for architects and town planners, but most viewers will struggle to decipher this shapeless, evolving installation, which is also intended as a space for lectures, workshops and performances.
One may appreciate the serious intent behind this ambitious collaboration. Although it creates a visual roadblock in the middle of the show, it also provides an intellectual foundation for a project that makes a genuine attempt to analyse what it is like to live in a city such as Auckland, in a country such as New Zealand.
As the only city in the world with more New Zealanders than Sydney, Auckland is the closest thing the Kiwis have to a metropolis. Yet the city is a patchwork quilt in terms of architecture and ethnicity. It is also in the throes of redevelopment, with spiralling property prices.
All of this is contained within the fabric of the Triennial, even in the choice of venues. The Gus Fisher Gallery, for instance, is a peculiar low-slung brick construction of the 1930s, now sandwiched between towering office blocks. The George Fraser Gallery is a homely cottage on the grounds of the Elam School of Fine Arts, next to a park.
Fresh Gallery Otara is a community-based gallery located in a shopping plaza in a South Auckland suburb mainly populated by Pacific Islanders. Silo Park is a harbourside industrial area now being gentrified. Even the Auckland Art Gallery has just undergone a major renovation at the hands of Australian architects, fjmt.
As for the populace, one cannot go anywhere in New Zealand/Aotearoa without being conscious of the bi-cultural policy that recognises the Maoris’ prior occupation of the land. Yet this is only part of the city’s growing diversity. Large migrant groups from Asia, the Pacific and the subcontinent have transformed Auckland into a genuinely multicultural city.
Suddenly it makes perfect sense that one of New Zealand’s best-known musicians would call his band Crowded House. Auckland is a crowded, slightly chaotic residence for successive waves of migrants who cling to their own cultures while embracing new opportunities in one of the safest, most isolated countries on earth.
With that isolation comes the fantasy of New Zealand as the only place that will survive a nuclear war. This idea drew the Austrian artist Hundertwasser, to live in New Zealand, and it has inspired American artist, Amy Siegel, to make a film called Winter, based on the ‘last human being on earth’ idea, beloved of science fiction.
Siegel’s short movie is one of the key works on display at the Auckland Art Gallery, where the idea of “home” plays a dominant role. Another touchstone work is an installation by Michael Lin, Atelier Bow-Wow and local architect, Andrew Barrie, called Model Home. It consists of a house made out of paper, installed in the middle of a gallery of historical New Zealand art. The reference, however, is to the Ming Gong – the migrant workers who have helped build China’s new cities while living in tiny, cramped quarters. Where do the Kiwis house their migrant workers?
Elsewhere in the gallery, the Australian duo, Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro have created an imaginary living space for young, urban aspirationals – a kind of camping environment enlivened by designer items from the local gift shop.
Among locals, Luke Willis Thompson is exhibiting a set of roller doors with a painful history. These actual doors were tagged by a young Maori graffiti artist who was chased and murdered by an enraged property owner.
Each of these works casts the idea of ‘home’ in a different light: as a temporary refuge for the displaced worker, a cool pad that reflects a particular lifestyle, and as a stronghold to be defended with excessive force.
The concept of ‘fortress New Zealand’ is also at play in a work by Maddie Leach, who has created a deceptively simple installation that shows a film of a doorway that leads to a network of underground passages built during the Second World War. The tinkling music that plays in the background is a piece called The Glow Worm, by German composer, Paul Lincke, a favourite of the Nazis. The reference is to a proposal to install a colony of indigenous glow worms in the tunnels as a tourist attraction, but one can hardly miss the overtones of bunkers and state-sponsored paranoia.
A more spectacular installation by three Maori artists – Saffronn Te Ratana, Ngataiharuru Taepa and Hemi Macgregor – suspends a black lacquered figure with a bull’s skull for a head, within a maze of zig-zagging rafters. It refers to a notorious police raid on a Maori community that took place in 2007, in response to fears about homegrown terrorism. Needless to say, no terrorists were uncovered but a lot of mayhem ensued, resulting in a monumental reparations bill.
Not all the Triennial works are so dramatic or bleak. Being an artist is like having a license to dream in a user-pays world, where everything has a price tag. Artists can still harbour Utopian ideas, and fantasise about projects such as Do Ho Suh’s proposal for a bridge that connects his home town of Seoul with his place of residence, New York.
At the George Fraser, one may savour the remnants of a riotous residency by three Chinese calligraphers known as the Yangjiang Group. The artists make large characters with ink, but also use tea and any other materials that come to hand. It’s a powerful demonstration that traditional forms can be responsive to new energy and innovation.
The two most striking video works are to be found at the St. Paul Gallery, at AUT University – a dazzling, cosmic animation called Parallax, by Pakistani artist, Shahzia Sikander, which remains essentially the work of a painter; and Ho Tzu Nyen’s previously mentioned, The Cloud of Unknowing. It is a tale of supernatural forces set in a Singapore apartment block, complete with a loud, drumbeat score and a real cloud.
Among notable contributions by Australian artists there is Angelica Mesiti’s Citizens’ Band, at Artspace – a four-channel study of street musicians in Paris, also currently viewable in the Anne Lander Award at the Art Gallery of NSW. A remarkable inflated tent at Fresh Gallery Otara is the handiwork of Sydney artist, Keg De Souza.
I’ll save Mesiti for another day, but De Souza’s installation, called Tropical Thunder, is an eye-opener. Her tent is stitched together from brightly patterned plastic table cloths purchased from nearby stores. There is also a coffee table balanced on bottles of sickly soft drink, which give the work its name. To complete the package she has collected an array of comments from residents, on the indifferent quality of food available in Otara.
Such intricate engagement with the community is not an option for Japanese sound artist, Ryoji Ikeda, who has used six massive concrete silos as the venue for a work that simply plays the A pitch at a uniform level throughout the building. Yet it doesn’t sound like this to the ear, which picks up reverb from the walls, and is influenced by the way we move through the space. After a few minutes you begin to feel this insistent tone is doing something destructive to your brain. It gives a new twist to the theme: “If you were to live here…”
Auckland Triennial: If You Were to Live Here…
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki & associated venues – May 10 – August 11, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 25, 2013