Gateway to the Pacific

    • Tony Oursler, Head Knocking, 2000; courtesy of the artist and Jensen Gallery

In Auck­land, it is impos­si­ble to view the Pacific in the con­text of a kind of time­less past. The site of a rich Maori-European, post-colonial cul­ture and home to var­i­ous Pacific, South­east Asian and Euro­pean dias­po­ras, the city has become one of the most vibrant cul­tural pro­duc­tion zones on the globe. Auckland’s sec­ond bien­nial art fair, the Auk­land Art Fair 2007, offers a unique oppor­tu­nity to taste this dynamism and expe­ri­ence for what it is—as a gate­way to the Pacific.

Artist Ani O’Neill is of Maori and Cook Islands descent, and makes objects and instal­la­tions using South Pacific Island craft skills that have been passed down to her from her Cook Islands grand­mother. These tech­niques include the cre­ation of tra­di­tional cos­tumes for cel­e­bra­tion as well as tivae­vae (quilt mak­ing), embroi­dery, sewing and cro­chet, which have all been adapted from the colo­nial teach­ings of the mis­sion­ary wives by the women of the Cook Islands and the greater Pacific.

O’Neill’s craft of cro­chet becomes a vehi­cle for shared mem­ory and sto­ry­telling. For instance, dur­ing a res­i­dency at Art In Gen­eral in New York in 2004, O’Neill cre­ated The Buddy Sys­tem based on a cro­chet­ing work­shop in which vis­i­tors to the gallery space were assisted in cro­chet­ing a sim­ple, wool flower. Each participant’s con­tri­bu­tion added on to the instal­la­tion, as part of a grow­ing vine. At the end of the exhi­bi­tion, the vine was dis­man­tled and the indi­vid­ual pieces sent to a friend or fam­ily mem­ber cho­sen by the participant.

O’Neill’s work, Lucky Dip 6, is of the same genre and, as such, is part of an open-ended series. Artist O’Neill has said that the work “involved me reach­ing into a sack with all my dif­fer­ent wools and pulling out two at ran­dom.” The works ref­er­ence craft and coun­try fairs, birth­day par­ties and the recy­cling ethos and ran­dom aes­thet­ics of many home crafts. O’Neill’s arch­i­pel­a­gos of cro­chet cir­cles are rem­i­nis­cent of brightly col­ored atolls dot­ting an ocean, play­ful spores bloom­ing across pale gelatin film or droplets of dye stain­ing a blank page. They allow us to think about dis­tance, viral con­nec­tion and happenstance.

Judy Darragh’s work exhibits sim­i­larly flam­boy­ant excess. Her works are derived from her predilec­tion for the kitsch aes­thetic of two-dollar store cheap imports and con­tem­po­rary day-glow mate­ri­als, which she makes pass through a sunset-hued and frangipani-scented fil­ter. These eclec­tic and seem­ingly chaotic assem­blages of hand-made and found objects bor­row much from New Zealand’s rural and urban neigh­bor­hood tra­di­tions of com­mu­nity fairs, week­end Pacific pro­duce markets—from the rows of gaudy prizes at trav­el­ing cir­cus fairs and A&P Shows where hand­crafts and cake stalls sit along­side prize cat­tle, sheep pens, pony rides and giant vegetables.

In Arts Soci­ety the artist mir­rors a com­mu­nity fundrais­ing stall with a cir­cle of tres­tle tables over­flow­ing with joy­fully painted and encrusted, res­cued ready-mades, strings of home­craft paper beads, woolen webs, crowds of poly­styrene snow­men and fanned vinyl records, all of which echo a Sonia Delau­nay paint­ing or even a Judy Chicago din­ner set­ting gone awry. Ele­ments of Arts Soci­ety have been used in pre­vi­ous instal­la­tions and will be used again, includ­ing work to be seen at the Auck­land Art Fair.

O’Neill and Darragh’s art prac­tices share an inter­est in the pos­si­bil­i­ties for exchange and com­mu­nity build­ing that form around the con­cept of the trad­ing table. Theirs is a world of con­nec­tions, but it is a world cog­nizant of the dis­tances, both phys­i­cal and value-laden, that sep­a­rate us from one another in the con­text of our trade-driven society.

Niue-born John Pule explores the mis­un­der­stand­ings of such dis­tances. Migrat­ing to Auck­land at the age of two in 1964, Pule’s work asks para­dox­i­cal ques­tions about con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean New Zealand life and tra­di­tional Niuean cul­ture through the expe­ri­ences of cul­tural and phys­i­cal dis­lo­ca­tion. He sees him­self as an out­sider to both cul­tures. Thus, his sto­ries of alien­ation and belong­ing are sto­ries of how the sav­age Other resides in each one of us.

Pule’s recent can­vases are pop­u­lated by grass-green cloud shapes car­ry­ing pock­ets of visual nar­ra­tive. The vines of the ti mata alea (Cordy­line Tree) are a recur­ring motif. In Niuean cul­ture, this plant is believed to be the source from which human life orig­i­nated. Thus, this imagery holds great mean­ing for Pule, whose fam­ily brought native Niuean plants with them to New Zealand to set in the soil of their new home, a com­mon prac­tice by natives of the Pacific cultures.

This attempt to find anchor­age in a new place can sim­i­larly be expe­ri­enced in his paint­ings, yet this aspect simul­ta­ne­ously rep­re­sents his works’ fun­da­men­tal fail­ure. The green clouds in recent work hover uncer­tainly. If they are islands, they are float­ing, with­out moor­ing, unsta­ble. Per­haps, in a world increas­ingly aware of the dan­gers of global warm­ing for dwellers of low-lying islands, and influ­enced by the forced migra­tions of global economies, the stains in Pule’s works, like hope bleed­ing away, remind us that the sandy shores of the Pacific can all too quickly become places of no return.

While show­cas­ing the thought­ful and sophis­ti­cated con­tem­po­rary art of New Zealand-based artists, the fair will also fea­ture artists and site-specific instal­la­tions by cre­ators from fur­ther afield. Among these, Tony Oursler’s brand of low-tech, expres­sion­is­tic video the­ater will make its appear­ance in his Head Knock­ing, an instal­la­tion in which a video of a man knock­ing his head against a hard sur­face will be pro­jected on an out­side wall. Orig­i­nally shown at Madi­son Square Park in New York as one of four large-scale video pro­jec­tions accom­pa­nied by a sound piece under the title The Influ­ence Machine, Head Knock­ing demands to be seen as part of a larger whole, and Auck­land is a delight­fully messy larger whole within which to be seen.

Auckland’s Viaduct Basin, where the art fair will encamp, is under­go­ing the sort of urban re-design that has become ubiq­ui­tous on city water­fronts around the world. In a state of flux, it is a fit­ting site espe­cially given that Oursler’s cool, sim­ple and haunt­ing images are often at their best when they come into con­tact with the rough and dis­or­ga­nized real world. A recent pro­posal to build a huge sports sta­dium on Auckland’s down­town water­front was thwarted by pub­lic out­cry, so the re-staging of Oursler’s image of a man knock­ing his head against a hard sur­face is truly set to give rise to some rich local associations.

Previously published in "Art Fairs International," 7 May 2007

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