May 3, 2008

Things to do on cold days

How cold has this weekend been? winter is well and truly here...please note that I am very happy having seen that snow has fallen on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu...pffft to any nonsense about volcanic activity there. If the petrol man reads this, can you please put petrol down to oh, say $1 a litre so I can afford to go snowboarding every weekend this winter? that would be great, thanks.

Obviously there isn't yet enough snow for riding, so I had to settle for hanging out with the boy at Pataka. Tough, i know. I was actually not too keen to go, as I knew there was some Samoan art exhibition on. Three years working at Te Papa and not studying any contemporary Pacific art during my art history degree gave me the distinct impression that Pacific art was all tapa cloths and garish quilts. I am happily proved wrong.

Samoa Contemporary opens with a not-too exciting entrance, and made me wonder if that was 'it'. A beautiful waka carved from what seemed to be deep blue acrylic had wavy grooves running the length of it, offset with blue light above that made the waka itself look like the depths of the ocean. It was somewhat mysterious in its simplicity. The catalogue tells me (of course i didn't pay attention to names when i was there) that it is the work of John Ioane. There you go.

Hmm this catalogue is going to come in very handy...

Niki Hastings-McFall's work is I feel the Samoan version of Judy Darragh. Lamps collected from TradeMe (where else!) and second hand shops have their lampshades covered with $2 shop lei flowers, resulting in a cluster of glowing colour. I found the tacky kitsch totally appealling, and saw the first exploration of a theme that seemed to run through the whole show - the Samoan culture is one that does not do things by halves. Lamps overrun with flowers, lounge rooms crammed proudly full of children's successes, huge charcoal drawings and full-body tattoos. 

Following was a video of a performance work by Shigeyuki Kihara which was haunting and beautiful...There is something infinitely graceful in Pacific dance, the way the hands are used to tell a story and their movement is so fluid. The exhibition leads you on (something equally good about it, which i'll mention later...) through another installation, this one by my waka-making friend, John Ioane. Wasn't so fussed by the totem-like poles that seemed to serve as trees as you walked through to the next part. Apparently that's part of the meaning - journey - so i guess it works but they weren't terribly pretty.

Michel Tuffery's giant flies stuck to the walls through to the next section...and as with John's installation, I could take or leave Tuffery's flies. They're ok i suppose, but i much prefer his corned beef bulls (one of which is at the entrance to the exhibition on permanent display). The large room though, blew me away. All my previous Samoan-art stereotypes disintegrated in front of Greg Semu (the best) and Lonnie Hutchinson's work. 

I'll start with Lonnie as hers was my favourite. Vinyl-inspired circles of petal-like spirals dotted the walls to either side of the larger works. Made from building paper, they were fragile in design and construction but their darkness and the shadows cast on the white gallery walls made for a fantastic composition of opposites. Two 'clouds' cut from black acrylic floated by in their pattern-induced lightness. Taking centre stage was a massive black frame enclosing a pseudo-Maori pattern cut from more black acrylic. The whole was overlaid with clear acrylic and up close I felt like I was looking at a tv. The shiny-ness (is that a word?!) and clean lines coupled with the dimensions made me feel as if i was standing in an art collector's lounge looking at their plasma screen. Standing back the effect was even more impressive - strong curves complemented the rectangular outline and were projected onto the wall by the clever lighting. I was speechless, it was so fantastic. In my opinion, it doesn't really matter what the meaning of a work is if you find it staggeringly beautiful. This, i would very very happily part with some cash for. Couldn't care less what it means. For me, the contrast of black and white, matt and gloss, curves and lines, delicate and strong, was IT.

Greg Semu's photographs were Epic with a capital E. There was a set of three self portraits of his pe'a. Damn those tattoos are impressive. I liked the way he 'chopped off his own head' in the images, leaving us only to wonder who the person was behind the ink. The boy pointed out the amount of solid black on his legs - just how much that would have hurt. I was more curious by the fact in the third picture he could hold all his bits in one hand. But anyway...

Directly opposite were two more images by the same artist. Greg was artist in residence at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris, and the effect of working in a museum is evident in his work. One of the very large photos recreates a battle scene during the New Zealand Maori wars. My art history degree did come in handy here - I could see his reference to Jacque Louis David's grand battle scenes of the 18th century, and the Maori man in full uniform is a clear imitation of the magnificent 'Napolean on his steed' (or whatever it's called) painting. The glossiness of the image and the obvious stage setting again calls upon the past masters. The boy  and i had great fun pulling apart his oh-so-meticulously planned composition - diagonals to the corners, a patu blocking your eye from exiting the image, the lines leading you to look around and finally fall on the man astride his rearing horse. Brilliant. 

Right next door is an incredibly confronting image of what appears to be a shrunken Maori head. Quite appropriate considering - i think it's the French who are refusing to return the heads they have in their museum collections. On closer inspection the head is clearly carved from wood, but it is haunting all the same. It is a stark colour image of black on white, and if i think about it this could be looking at the issue of returning Maori artifacts. Most would see it as a black and white situation - return what was never yours to take. Obviously nothing is ever so simple....

I think i've rambled on enough. I must quickly mention Lorene Taurerewa's back-lit mobile of pen and ink drawings, a fascinating piece that one could spend ages looking at because of the detail in all the sketches. On stepping back from it, it looked different again - a play on how things change when you actually take the time to look closer and find out more, as opposed to standing back and just seeing the superficial information. Which sums it up nicely for me, I think. I walked into the exhibition thinking i knew what there was to know about Samoan art, and came out of it with a new appreciation. Having seen the details, and discovering some new favourite artists, it certainly expanded my horizons.

The other great thing about the exhibit was that it flowed brilliantly. For once I was left foundering, wondering where on earth to turn next in order to see everything, i was led the whole way. Love it, Pataka.

Also on - photos by John Whincup in a show called 'Walk on Water - Kiribati in crisis?' Check it out - the photos are amazing and I LOVED the frames (noticing the important things, as aways!)