apexart :: Conference Program :: Wystan Curnow


Conference 1, Wroclaw, Poland (June 1999)

Writing History on the Margins: New Zealand
by Wystan Curnow

At present the art world displays a cordial interest in contemporary art scenes outside its own. Whether this interest will gain in depth or endure is an open question. Certainly, it has behind it a history of expansion. That is, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as the prospect and then the outbreak of war closed down the cultural capitals of Europe, the art world moved across the Atlantic to become concentrated at mid-century in New York. By the end of the 1970s, a resurgent Western European scene had begun to merge rapidly with the American to produce an enlarged, truly trans-Atlantic art world. This is what I here call the art world, one comprised of a number of influential city-based scenes. Accounts of postwar art, previously written as if the only work of significance was produced in New York, are increasingly being re-written from the perspective of this enlarged world and adjustments to the record are being made. I think of Thomas Crow's, The Rise of the Sixties (1996) and Tony Godfrey's Conceptual Art, (1998).

In the meantime, in various conditions of isolation and degrees of marginalisation, characterised by different combinations of political, economic, cultural and geographical constraints, a multitude of discrete arts scenes have grown up outside of it. All reduplicate, in part or in small, its characteristic infrastructures-contemporary art museums, magazines, markets, funding agencies. The recent art world interests in these scenes coincides with some easing of the constraints under which they have previously laboured. The question is: do these scenes, which now wait upon the centre, presage a further expansion of its borders, and a further reconsideration of postwar art history? Or do they merely represent the latest addition of fresh emigrant faces from these various scenes which serve to confirm its authority?

Each scene now has, or expects to have, a recorded history of its own distinct from that of contemporary art as such, a history which serves as some sort of compensation for its exclusion from the centre. Whether implicitly or explicitly, this history proposes a place of difference which distinguishes it from the art world--the place of the same. Inside the art world border we have contemporary art as such, outside we have contemporary Chinese art, contemporary New Zealand art and so on. If a genuine expansion of the centre is to occur, however, the absorption or accommodation of some of these scenes will require a different critical and historical project. Historians of and at the margins will need to undertake revisions of the modern and the contemporary in the terms proposed by their own and comparable scenes. The outcome of histories written from, rather than of, the margins, would not be a new monolithic history in the grip of a rigid teleology, rather it would be made up of multiple strands woven with coincidence, knotted with misreadings and fringed in loose ends.

These very broad observations may serve to introduce some of the terms proposed by the New Zealand scene. These terms in their turn may indicate some of the constraints and the opportunities, a history of this particular locale, scene, would disclose, and some of the comparisons and constrasts it would invite with other locales. First of all, despite the fact that its distance from the art world has grown shorter over the decades, New Zealand remains physically isolated and strikingly self-contained. Three of its cities have more than one dealer gallery as we call them, Auckland has a dozen, there are nine art museums, two art magazines, and six tertiary art schools. The local art public, along with the local art market is almost exclusively interested in the local product. There are no public or private collections of modern or contemporary international art of any depth. Australian art represents a growing exception to this rule; indeed just before I left for Wroclaw, a selection from the 600 works in the Chartwell Collection of Australian and New Zealand art opened at the Auckland Art Gallery. A few exhibitions from outside the New Zealand scene cross its borders as do a few artists. There is little or no pattern to these comings and goings; they are seldom repeated and they have surprisingly little cumulative effect. Their frequency has increased gradually, but not in response to any determined public programme or policy. Every few years over the last decade or so, either an exhibition surveying New Zealand art or with a notable New Zealand presence takes place somewhere in the art world, usually in Europe. The most recent of these, Toi,Toi,Toi, Three Generations of Artists from New Zealand was curated by Rene Block for the Museum Fredericianum in Kassel. Distance aside, New Zealand's isolation is partially a sign of cultural self-absorption but also a result of a lack of art world interest. No Documenta director has ever visited New Zealand, no New Zealander has ever exhibited either at Documenta or the Venice Biennale. Secondly, the New Zealand scene meets conditions for the discourses of legitimation most pertinent to peripheral scene that were outlined by Alexandre de Melo, in his presentation, a combination of discourses.

New Zealand is the home for three or four outstanding artists whose work makes a difference in the discussion of art world issues. I won't talk about Boyd Webb; those of you familiar with his work will know of him as a British artist. For most of his career London has been his home. Nor of Billy Apple, the only British Pop artist with conceptualist credentials, who lived and worked in London and New York through the 1960s and 70s but who has since established himself back in New Zealand. Or of Len Lye who should be regarded, along with Stan Brakhage as the only abstract expressionist film-maker. Lye's kinetic sculptures of the 1960s are more than distinct. He too was London andNew York based for most of his career. Such variously expatriated artists will always be in danger of falling between the two stools of metropolitan and local histories unless the kind of histories from, rather than of the margins are undertaken. But I will confine myself to the work of the painter Colin McCahon who, unlike the others, was but a traveller to the art world, rather than a migrant, and whose changing reputation provides a rather clearer illustration of the issues we are concerned with at this conference. Let me start by describing the travels, not of the artist, but of one of his paintings, The Song of the Shining Cuckoo, (Te Tangi a te Pipiwhararua), painted in 1973. The Shining Cuckoo, itself a migratory bird, arrives from the Solomon Islands, 2,000 miles to the north of New Zealand , each Spring, September/October in our hemisphere. The painting first left New Zealand in 1984 for the Sydney Biennale of that year, and flew on from there to the Edinburgh Festival. Six years later it went to the ICA in London, and the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. In 1996 it made its first trip to Europe, to hang in the Stedelijk Museum's "room of honour", and only two years later it was shown in Stuttgart. This is, of course, just the kind of accumulation or pattern of consistency my earlier broad generalisations ruled out, the kind of pattern that speaks not only of discourses of legitimisation, but also of the material with which new local histories can weave the art world into the story of their scenes . Shining Cuckoos use the nests of the Grey and the Chatham Island Warbler for their own purposes. And other, more travelled artists have from time to time made use of McCahon, in the process broadening the border traffic by smuggling it into the art world disguised (sometimes lightly, sometimes heavily) as their own.

The lie about the "natural law" of border traffic, as Ken Lum has noted, that "influence" always flows one way, from the centre to the margin, ensures that such uses normally go unremarked. In remarking it here, I am telling again a story I have published before, because it has to be retold. John Walker is a painter who has been variously based in Britain, the United States and Australia. Not a major artist, certainly not an artist as interesting as McCahon, he is nevertheless a good one and, more importantly a solid citizen of the art world. He visited New Zealand in 1981 and acquainted himself with McCahon's work at the Auckland and National Art Galleries. Among the paintings he particularly liked was A Grain of Wheat (1970) which, like many McCahon's, is dominated by a Biblical text, in this instance one beginning: "In truth, in very truth, I tell you, a grain of wheat" (John 12, 24-5). Shortly after his visit, Walker began putting similarly hand-painted phrases in his own paintings, favouring especially a Biblical line, again from John: "In truth, in very truth, I tell you, I am the door." The point here is not so much to do with plagiarism or originality, as with the situations of reception; for when Walker came to show these works in London and New York, no one remarked on the McCahon connection because no one who saw his paintings had seen a McCahon. Paul Brach, reviewing the work for Art in America, misread the work instructively, identifying a "dialogue" as he called it, with the New York painter Robert Motherwell. And that is one of the ways in which the histories of the art world get written. So McCahon slipped across the border unnoticed and joined the ranks of countless other unidentified influences loose on the streets of New York.

There is a comparable story to be told about the McCahon in Julian Schnabel's Pope Pius series of 1987, which followed his encounter with the New Zealander's work during a visit to Australia. You will recall that these were the years of appropriation and of post-modern quotation, and yet the opportunity to relate issues to do with reproduction and the circulation of images to the political geography of the art world was at the time seldom taken. The Australian artist Imants Tillers was one of the few who did. Against Tillers' frequent and wholesale appropriation of and trafficking in McCahon over a number of years, that of Walker and Schnabel pales into insignificance. But it also changes the terms of the discussion. Because as an Australian-based artist, Tillers is himself marginalised, and he has in fact made the geography of the art system a central subject of his work. His project, the Book of Power, comprises a body of work stretching over twenty years, in which the works of some 250 artists, mainly from the last 50 years, are quoted and variously hybridized. It is a painted history from the margins, and serves as a model for the written history from the margins that I have in mind. The history Tillers proposes is endlessly instructive, its remarkable connections serve to expose the various critical imperialisms and parochialisms and dogmas for what they seem so relentlessly to constitute: an institutionalised ignorance disguised as conventional wisdom. The Book of Power brings together Colin McCahon and Joseph Beuys, Goerg Baselitz and Michael Nelson Jakamara, Giorgio de Chirico and Shusaka Arakawa, to name but a few of its more obvious connections, none of which we are likely to encounter in the textbook accounts. It is one of Tillers' considerable achievements to persuade us that a history that proceeds from a critical understanding of the changing art system and a thorough knowledge of art at its margins will be very different from the one we now possess.

The third and last set of terms the New Zealand scene proposes concerns the politics of cultural and ethnic identity. These are complex in New Zealand, despite the smallness of its population and the shortness of its history, and despite a local tendency to privilege the bi-cultural (the relation between the "first people" or the tangata whenua, "people of the land" and the peoples who came later) over the multi-cultural. McCahon's Song of the Shining Cuckoo is a bi-cultural elegy which visually weaves together Maori and Pakeha (as whites are called) narratives of death: the fourteen Stations of the Cross and the flight of the Maori soul, in bird form, up the coast of the North Island, whence it leaps from this world to the next. McCahon, who died in 1987, was Pakeha. For more than ten years now Pakeha artists have no longer attempted such bi-cultural statements; they have left the field to artists with some Maori ancestry. At the same time, McCahon is widely, although not universally, credited with pioneering (starting in the 1960s) the re-examination of New Zealand's racial history, and with bringing bi-cultural issues to bear on the question of national identity. 1990 was the year in which New Zealand officially became a bi-cultural nation through the ratification of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, in which Maori chiefs relinquished their sovereignty in exchange for certain guarantees concerning land ownership and customary rights. A programme has been put in place to ensure some reparation is made for Pakeha abuses of the Treaty. Although this programme has had its controversies and challenges, political support for it transcends traditional left-right differences. To be Maori in New Zealand today is still to be disadvantaged economically, politically, educationally, and in terms of physical and mental health. To be a Maori artist today, if you are talented, is an advantage. Officially you only need be one eighth Maori to be Maori.

Peter Robinson, whose bloodline is more diluted than that has, as a Maori artist, made it a subject of his work, raising questions about defining ethnicity. Robinson is one of the most critically and financially successful of young New Zealand artists, but not more so than Shane Cotton, who cannot keep up with the demand for his paintings. There are currently two ways to be a Maori artist in New Zealand, both of which offer national success and some international exposure. One is to be an "official" Maori artist and make "contemporary" rather than "traditional" Maori art. Financial support is available from a separate government funding agency for Maori and Pacific art set up in the 1980s, Te Waka Toi and through commissions from government departments. Maori features, such as the use of some traditional materials (wood, feathers), motifs, or narratives, are required; these are commonly combined with various modernist and expressionist features. The other way is to be a contemporary New Zealand artist who addresses bi-cultural issues, usually problematising and challenging official policy--as I have said Pakeha artists now tend to steer clear of these--and relies on the same resources, strategies and discourses as Pakeha artists. Those who follow this course have implicitly rejected "official" contemporary Maori art. They include Robinson, Cotton, and Michael Parekowhai-- prominent participants on the art scene, who may nevertheless be noticeable by their absence from exhibitions of Maori art.

The playing out of these issues of identity go some way to explain that which is self-absorbed about the self-containment of the New Zealand scene. And yet these issues are present in and contribute to the shape of the art scenes of other post-colonial cultures. That said there is also a strong, if ambivalent, backlash against local self-absorption. Ronnie Van Hout is a young artist who has produced a series of witty photoworks attacking the local art canon. Van Hout says that as an immigrant he dislikes the past, and he's fed up with the country's obsession with its history, and that he refuses the canonical burden of having to fulfill "the promise of previous generations". With Peter Robinson, Van Hout flies low, trying to sneak under the radar of the canonisers, and the cultural policy makers, by displays of questionable taste, bad temper and dubious politics. Both are purveyors of a comic book nazism and talk back radio paranoia. A 1998 Robinson triptych aligns three roughly painted signs which say: fish + chips; Boy, Am I Scarred? (with a spiral suspiciously like the thumbprint logo of the New National Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa), and Our Place, the Museum's slogan which is accompanied by a crudely drawn swastika). Robinson's handwriting is too close to McCahon's for comfort.

These rather desperate yet tongue-in-cheek constructions of alienation represent attempts by artists to arm themselves against the twin threats of cultural identity reduced to tourist copy on the one hand and art reduced to society entertainment and decor on the other. Least these strategies seem like the only way ahead, let me close with a note on the work of Jacqueline Fraser. Like Robinson, she too is a Maori artist, but while he plays the part of the bohemian hooligan, she has in recent years elected the path of the post-colonial female dandy, a kuia flaneuse. Fraser's widely exhibited elegant ribbon andwire reliefs and installations paid homage to the weavers and carvers of the Maori meeting house, the culture of which accords great mana to the ancestral and the hieratic. Her celebration of these qualities in her most recent narrative reliefs is far more whole-hearted than any to be found in official Maori art; symbolically it re-instates an equivalence of sovereign structures presumed by the Maori and European signatories of the Treaty of Waitangi. In a text she wrote for her installation for Cultural Safety, an exhibition of contemporary New Zealand art at the Frankfurt Kunstverein in 1995, Fraser told the story of Te Puhi (The Princess). Te Puhi is a Maori woman set aside. She is groomed and trained as a princess. Her whole life is controlled and protected by prayers. Her position is predestined to fulfil marriage liaisons for the good of the tribe. She is special which means privilege and sacrifice. The Northern hemisphere Madonna welcomes her. The Saint's relics remind her of the underworld. Europe is her court.

Wystan Curnow