Secret Boyfriend II: The Return

In September last year, a few weeks after the earthquake, Air New Zealand had some $20 flights to Christchurch for January, so I took advantage of this sweet deal. “Yay,” I thought, “I can see the Ron Mueck exhibition and do a bit of earthquake tourism.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the city post-quake. I knew things were more or less back up and running, but I also knew that the Boxing Day aftershock had again munted things up a bit.

Hold up

I went for a wander and came across the ruins of Manchester Courts. It’s a historic multi-storey building that’s in the process of being demolished due to safety concerns.

A few months ago I tweeted that demolishing Manchester Courts would be “a loss not just for Christchurch, but for New Zealand”. I don’t actually know if that’s true. I just sort of made it up because I was annoyed about it. But surprisingly enough, the Herald quoted that in an article about historic Christchurch buildings facing demolition.

The building is now a pile of rubble, blocking off the corner of Manchester and Hereford Streets. It’s still annoying that such a handsome building couldn’t be saved, but it seems like it had been unloved for such a long time that perhaps it was better to have been put out of its misery.

If I didn’t pay too much attention, I could trick myself into thinking that everything was as it was pre-quake. But it’s one thing to see “Keep Calm and Carry One” merchandise in a gift shop (in fact, it seems pretty much mandatory at the moment for all New Zealand gift shops to stock such items), but it’s a different matter seeing a crude print-out of the familiar red poster taped up on an office window.

Keep calm

In Cashel Mall, the Whitcoulls store had its building declared unsafe from the Boxing Day aftershock. The store was been frozen in time, its front window still displaying a cheery Christmas tree and wreath, offering slightly unnerving season’s greetings.

There was the potential of aftershocks, which I was kind of looking forward to. GeoNet logged five significant aftershocks in the three days I was in town, with the largest being a 3.8, but I didn’t notice any of them. I can pinpoint where I was when each of them happened, but I can’t recall a whole lot of shaking, jolting or thudding going on.

I did a search on Twitter for #eqnz hashtags and found a few people tweeting about aftershocks that didn’t seem to match up with any recorded ones. Could it be that crowd-sourcing is more accurate than seismographs… or is it just jumpy resisdents tweeting at every passing truck or slammed door?

The Canterbury Museum has an area dedicated to the earthquake. It’s basic room, painted in a dark colour. On one wall, some statistics about the earthquake are displayed on the wall, including a frequently updated tally of the number of aftershocks – 4254, at last update. There’s also a projection of the Christchurch Quake Map.

It’s a really simple display, and it seems like a stop-gap measure to do something, while acknowledging that the story of the Canterbury earthquake is still being told.

Christchurch looks like this: normal, normal, normal, temporary fence, normal, normal, cracked bricks, normal, normal, normal, normal, normal, crumbling parapet, normal, canvas over hole in side of building, normal, normal, normal, church steeple on lawn in front of church, normal, normal, normal, broken glass, normal, normal, normal, dumpster full of rubble, normal, empty lot where building once stood, normal.

And slowly things are getting more and more normal.

What it says

I went to the Ron Mueck exhibtion twice. The first time I was straight off the plane, tired, emotional and the whole thing was a giant emo rollercoaster. So I paid another visit the next day to fully take it in.

Christchurch Art Gallery is really cool in that they allow non-flash photography for the Mueck exhibition. But this means that the gallery is full of people holding up camera phones or pocket digital cameras. They mostly take the same sort of photo – a front-on shot of the sculpture in its entirity.

Ron Mueck’s hyperreal sculptures give gallery visitors a rare opportunity – the ability to stare at someone for a long time. If you look at a real person, sooner or later your look turns into a stare and you have to engage with them or look away. If you’re looking at a film of a person, you’re not in control of what you’re looking at or for how long.

Ron Mueck’s sculptures give the viewer the chance to have a really good look at a number of people (and a chicken). You can stare at the massive belly of “Pregnant Woman” or the sleepy eye of the newborn “A Girl” or cop an eyeful of “Wild Man”‘s genitals. You can judgementally sneer back at “Two Women” or check out the toes of “Drift”.

There was something very special about the Ron Mueck exhibition. I’m not sure what it was, but I did notice this: in most art exhibitions that I go to, people seem to spend more time reading the information cards next to the art than looking at the art itself; in the Ron Mueck exhibition, hardly anyone looked at the info cards, and spent most of the time looking at the art and talking about it with their companions.

Go away

So, I’ve been to Christchurch four times since October 2009, which led to the notorious rumour that I had a secret boyfriend in Christchuch, and in turn led to my declaration that Christchurch itself was my secret boyfriend.

Well, I’ve decided to break up with my secret boyfriend. It’s not Christchurch, it’s me. It’s a lovely city, but I feel like I’ve gone as far as I can go with it as far as casual encounters go. I feel it is time for me to move on and get myself another secret boyfriend. And I know just the place.

Rad

Art vs moisturiser

I have a semi-regular gig as the Senior Culture Commentator and Wellington Correspondent on The Discourse Weekly Show podcast, hosted by two of my favourite dudes, Morgan and Ben.

The lads gave me an assignment: to review the European Masters exhibition at Te Papa. But here’s my dilemma – and this is a massive secret and you have to promise not to tell anyone, ok – I don’t actually know anything about art.

Well, I know a bit from playing “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego”. The time-travelling, crime solving heroine had to identify her targets partly by figuring out their favourite artist.

But yet despite playing this “edutainment” computer game, it did not edutain me much. I left knowing who Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt were, but I did not know what their paintings looked like.

And it didn’t leave me with a lifetime love for art. I didn’t take any art subjects at school and was surprised to get an A for the design strategies course I took at tech. But then in 2003 I visited the Centre Pompidou and realised that there was much more to art than landscape and portrait paintings. (Yeah, I was 28 when I figured that out.)

Suddenly my horizons expanded to the world of contemporary art. Ha, take that symbolic-fruit-bowl-of-sexual-awakening! Eat it, noble-clasping-handkerchief-lady.

But I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe art. I kind of know what abstract expressionism is (and how it was all a CIA plot) and surrealism and possibly cubism too. And dadaism. But if I have to go into it in deal, I’ll end up sounding like one of those delusional Etsy sellers, throwing in keywords galore in an attempt to art-up their craft creations.

So when visited the European Masters exhibition, I couldn’t do a straight review. I paid my $22.50, went along and looked at the paintings. Sweet. But I was much more intrigued by the exhibition gift shop.

As well as the standard art souvenirs of posters, postcards and books, there were a few unusual items. European Masters-branded hand and body lotion, hand and nail cream, and something called “body silk”. I’m not sure what the connection is between hand cream and Monet.

There were also fridge magnets and keyrings, made from copies of artworks cropped into an arbitrary circle or rectangle shape and given a new purpose. And European Masters-branded sketching pencils, but with the added irony of sketching not being allowed in the gallery itself.

I enjoyed the art, but I’m far more intrigued by the souvenir moisturiser. And this may possibly be a larger manifesto for my perspective on art and/or life in general.

Shed is dead

You know that “art” thing, right? It’s landscape and portrait realist paintings, and anything else isn’t art, ok?

Currently displayed on Te Papa’s outdoor Sculpture Terrace is a piece by Ronnie van Hout called A loss, again

Sheds

It comprises of two replicas of his father’s old garden shed. He’s taken a mould of the real shed and cast two fibreglass replicas, one painted red, the other yellow.

The yellow shed is filled with all the original contents of the old shed. It’s locked – just as it was when van Hout was a boy – but you can peek through a small hole in the lock and catch glimpses of what’s inside.

The red shed is also locked and empty (or so says the official description).

I visited it recently. While I was there a father and young son came passing through. They observed the two sheds.

Father: That’s not art; it’s rubbish!
Son: It’s meant to be a sculpture. It’s just a garage!
Father: I wouldn’t even use it as a garage. It’s just rubbish. If you had that in your garden, you’d have to pay someone to come and take it away.

So as far as they’re concerned it fails both symbolically and literally – not only is it a failure as art, but it’s not even a good shed. They left the Sculpture Terrace, but after a little while they came back.

The boy wandered around it some more. He tried to open both the sheds and became frustrated that neither of the shed doors opened. He declared:

Son: It would be good if you could get in it. It’s stupid cos you can’t go in it.

This frustrating experience is exactly what van Hout is attempting to convey. Says Te Papa:

Throughout van Hout’s boyhood, the shed was locked and inaccessible. It was only after his father’s death that van Hout was allowed access. As the shed had been a source of fascination for so long, it was a bittersweet moment for him to finally get inside.

So perhaps the little boy should take comfort in the useless, disappointing non-art sheds and instead go and have a look at a Goldie portrait and be thankful that the bittersweet Pandora’s box of the shed can’t be opened.

City of stuff that wasn’t there the last time I looked

I went to Auckland for the day for work. It was my first proper return to Auckland since I left.

On the flight over, as the plane flew over South Auckland on its decent, the two men sitting next to me (strangers who had been chatting) had this conversation.

Man 1 (Looking out the window): It’s a ticking time-bomb that’s going off.
Man 2: What is?
Man 1: South Auckland.
Man 2: Oh, why’s that?
Man 1: Third-generation Polynesian kids.
Man 2: Yeah, that’s the problem with society today. You can’t even bloody well give them a smack these days.

The conversation soon turned to the election, but here’s the interesting part: while they both reckoned National would probably win, neither of them really fancied John Key as prime minister. They thought he was inexperienced and not particularly trustworthy.

Anyway, on the ground in Auckland, I noticed the following things were different:

  • The Mount bar in Mt Eden is now The Mount Sports Bar. This is signified by a green plastic sign that looks like it was designed in Microsoft Paint.
  • The people in my new flat have put little flags in the window, but I didn’t see what country they were for.
  • All the public art in Aotea Square has been removed ahead of the big redevelopment. This scares me because traditionally when Auckland public art goes into storage, it gets forgotten about.
  • St Patrick’s square has also been ripped up and is being reconstructed with a robust new look for the new millennium. Its fountain has also been removed.
  • And to complete the trilogy of ripped-out fountains, the lovely one outside the Art Gallery is gone, as the space is being used for the new gallery extension.
  • (Yeah, I bet Auckland forefathers are really embarrassed that they build so many inadequate public spaces that weren’t robust or world-class enough so now they have to be ripped out and rebuilt.)
  • The new Westpac HQ on Customs Street is coming along nicely. It’s a smart design that fits in nicely with the older buildings on Customs Street, but looks of this decade.
  • There’s now a Gucci shop, right next door to the new Louis Vuitton shop. Boring.
    The crazy plastics shop on K Road has closed down. It astounds me that they stayed in business for as long as they did.
  • The old Brazil seems to be getting a new occupant. They seem to be doing a partial renovation, which greatly pleased the passing Rentokil serviceman. (“About bloody time.”)

The daylight is different in Auckland compared to Wellington. I’m not sure what it is, but Auckland light seems softer, more diffuse. Wellington has darker, sharper shadows. Is it clouds? Landscape? Lattitude?

I also went to the New Gallery and saw the Walters Prize nominees.

  • My favourite, on a personal level, was Cloud by John Reynolds, which comprises of hundreds of little canvas squares with words and phrases of New Zealand English written on them. TREE TOMATO.
  • There was also ACK by Peter Robinson, some giant bits of styrofoam that filled a couple of rooms. It pissed me off because of its giantness and room-fillingness. It made me feel all doomed and on the verge of extinction.
  • I was pleased to see the Digital Marae collection by Lisa Reihana. I’d seen three photos from it at the Tjibaou Centre in New Caledonia (which you should go to one day). Digital Marae has large photos, sounds and digital projections which combine stylised image of Maori in costumes inspired from various era in history. I love the Josephine Baker-style one.
  • And finally there was Dejeuner by Edith Amituanai, a series of photos looking at Polynesian rugby league players playing professionally over in France. I found it kind of depressing how they photos showed their French living rooms transformed into a really ordinary working-class New Zealand living room, complete with a bookcase with a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica sitting in the centre of the room. I felt alienated from the Polynesian, French and rugby league cultures shown.

So who’s gonna win the $50,000 prize? Probably the styrofoam. [1/11/08 – Turns out my prediction was correct: Peter Robinson’s ACK got the $50,000.]

It was a really nice day in Auckland and I started to feel a bit wistful and wondered if I shouldn’t have left Auckland. But on the way to the airport, it started raining that special kind of fat Auckland rain and the traffic on the motorway was awful. And I knew I would never miss that.

Matchboxes

I went to the Auckland Art Gallery yesterday because it was a Sunday and I wasn’t working. (Oh, I’ve been working lately, baby. I’m been working.)

The main art gallery building was restricted to a few ground-floor galleries because the rest is shut off in preparation for the coming expansion – they’re going to pull down the cool 1970s part and replace it with a giagantor extension. Yeah, architecture from the ’70s isn’t quite heritagey enough to be kept.

Unloved, unwanted

The art on display there was mainly a sort of greatest hits selection, including plenty of Goldies and Lindauers for the tourists. It was all a bit boring, but the Love Chief exhibition (brilliant name) tickled me greatly, which I think was its intention.

Over the road at the New Gallery, there was Likeness & Character, a selection of portraits, including Tony Fomison’s The Ponsonby Madonna, right there, in my face. Lovely.

It all got me thinking about the art of self-portraiture. There’s a lot of it going on these days what the craft of the digital camera self-portrait – hold the camera at arm’s length, look seductively down the lens, and snap. But I’ve seen self-portraits done this way that are more than just a quickie taken for a Facebook profile. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops. (A Flickr search sez: “We found 6,091 groups about self and portrait.”

Upstairs at the New Gallery was Making Worlds, which seemed to be primarily geared towards a “Hey kidz! Art is kewl!!!” audience, but managed to be rather interesting for senior citizens such as myself.

There was a collection of Eugene Carchesio’s decorated matchboxes, with an activity table where visitors could decorate their own one. A gallery attendant told me that they had to keep putting aside matchboxes that were too rude for the family-friendly theme. Cocks in the boxes were a particular problem. Well, there’s a whole exhibition theme right there. I made a family-friendly cockless box.

Red Hot 2

My favourites from Making Worlds were Callum Morten’s International Style 1999 – a miniature replica of Mies van der Rohes’ Farnsworth House – showing the spooky side of Modernism, and curtains.

And I also liked Chiho Aoshima‘s City Glow animation. A five-screen-wide journey through a lush city where snake-like buildings squirm amongst the flowers. And it had an awesome gothic graveyard scene.

I walk past the Art Gallery all the time, but I hardly ever go in. I shall have to do this more often, because there is so much good stuff there.

Also, oh, it’s New Year’s Eve. How’d that get here so fast?

Poppadom

If you’re like me, you’ve probably often wondered what your face would like painted on a poppadom, which is then cooked and puffed up, distorting your likeness into a 3D landscape.

Blow 15

Rad, yes? This is part of Blow, which is part of AK07. I went along because my cousin Sue is, along with Tracey Collins, the designer and curator of the project.

The genre they work in is basically set design, but this is taken to more arty extremes, working with space.

Blow it’s based around a number of large, blown-up globs. Then a number of designers have designed their own thing with each one. Some had DVDs playing inside, some had stuff attached, and one had a fellow wearing a pair of bacon goggles, painting portraits on poppadoms.

I guess the main reason I went along was to support my cousin, but once I got there and started experiencing it, I was really drawn into it. I had so much fun exploring it. There was a lot to see, hear, feel smell and taste. It was engaging and challenging and totally drew me in, and I like that with art.

Plus, I got to eat my face.

It’s on display at the BNZ Foyer of the Aotea Centre from 12 to 24 March. Go and see it and get the poppadom guy to paint you!

Street clean

I went to the Waikato Museum of Art and History (yes, all that together under one roof). There’s an exhibit of some Len Lye stuff. The best things were the metal sculpture things. (I’m using the word thing a lot because I don’t know exactly what to describe it as.) My favourite one had a long thin piece of metal, about 50 cm wide and a couple of curly bits of metal attached to it. It was hung down from a black metal box which shook it and caused the metal to make a big loud noise, not unlike thunder (and “thunder” was in the name). It caused such a delightful ruckus that two women in their late 30s went to investigate the ruckus but quickly walking away, pulling “I’m not sure if that’s really art…” faces.

I miss the old Art Museum on London Street. It was like a boning 1960s office building but one floor had the museum. Yeah, an office building with a great big old Maori war canoe in it. And the old Art Museum had permanent exhibits about Hamilton’s history. There was a slick early ’80s slide show with images of Hamilton throughout the years. My favourite thing was the old post office franking machine. There’d be pieces of paper that could be franked and souvenired.

Now that building has many franking machines as it’s now the Waikato Mail Centre and in the late ’80s the museum got a new home in a classy building. The canoe now overlooks the river, well away from the old windowless room in London Street.

Hamilton gets better every time I return.

Oh yes, word on the street is that nicknames such as “Hamiltron” or “The Tron” are terribly passe and using it only makes you look like an out-of-town dork-arse who’s trying to be with-it.