Four of the best
There's nothing particularly unusual about that - I usually try to relieve the pain of visiting Auckland's CBD by ducking into a gallery or two, I'm regularly persuaded to visit movie theatres by the shocking state of Kiwi television, and I've even begun to appreciate the strange art of dance under the wise tutelage of Skyler. What really is unusual is the quality of the stuff I've seen in galleries and theatres over the past week.
My run of good luck started when I wandered into a dark room at the back of the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery in Hamilton. I thought I'd walked into some sort of empty storage room, and was about to turn around and leave when I noticed half a dozen circular screens flickering high above my head. The screens had been attached to huge tyres, which were in turn attached to the ceiling of the room. I had thought myself alone in the room, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom I noticed a dozen or so bodies sprawled about on the floor, where thoughtful curators had placed long black mattresses.
I had just lain down and made myself comfortable when the artists responsible for this mysterious installation turned up, and began to give an impromptu lecture. Sculptor Brett Graham and film-maker Rachel Rakena explained that Aniwaniwa (the word can translate as either 'rainbow' or 'disturbance') had been conceived as a tribute to the people of Horahora, a small town built near Hamilton to house the mostly Maori workers at New Zealand's first hydro station. Horahora flourished for a few decades until it was inundated by the lake created by the big new hydro dam a little further down the Waikato at Karapiro.
Brett Graham is a member of the Ngati Koroki sub-iwi of Waikato, whose rohe includes Horahora, and he spoke about about the sadness his relatives felt when their little town was drowned. Graham added that he and Rakena had tried to recreate the easy comfort of a Ngati Koroki meeting house by laying mattresses on the floor of their exhibition space and inviting audiences to take a rest. 'We don't mind if you snooze', he added.
While Graham spoke, the screens near the ceiling showed the extraordinary film Rakena had made amidst the ruins of Horahora: in one scene, two children blew bubbles as they struggled to take the washing down from a line that had hung underwater for decades; in another, a man dug laboriously for potatoes on the bottom of Lake Karapiro.
Rakena explained that most of the actors in Aniwaniwa are Ngati Koroki volunteers, and that their performances are designed to represent the dispossession the group had suffered since the invasion of the Waikato in 1863. 'It's incredibly difficult to swing a shovel underwater, to dig and keep your feet on the ground', she observed. 'That's what Maori have been trying to do for a long time'. Other parts of Rakena's film have an abstract, painterly quality: silver and grey streak across the camera's deep green eye, as it is dragged at speed through the Waikato; later, a turbine churns the dark water white, and the camera rises from the deep and and advances into a wall of rising flames, as an angry haka is piped through the gallery's speakers. Aniwaniwa is beautiful as well as fascinating, and I was pleased to hear it was exhibited to great acclaim at the last Venice Biennale.
Like Aniwaniwa, Lisa Reihana's entry in the 2008 Gordon Walters Art Awards takes some of its inspiration from the traditional Maori meeting house. Lately I've been reading Michael Jackson's memoir The Accidental Anthropologist, which includes a beautiful description of the experience of entering a wharenui:
To step into a Maori meeting house is to step into another world. The noise of the outside world is hushed. As your eyes become accustomed to the gloom, you became aware of the carved ancestors along the walls, eyes blazing, bodies tensed with ferocious power. The soles of your feet make contact with woven mats on the floor. The atmosphere is one of unnerving intimacy. You are drawn backwards to primeval beginnings...
To enter Lisa Reihana's Digital Marae is to step into the future, as well as the past. Reihana has covered the walls of two rooms of Auckland's City Art Gallery with enormous photographs of a series of mythopoetic figures who are at once strange and familiar, comforting and terrifying. Some of the figures are performing supernatural feats, like flying above the clouds or emerging from a warp hole in outer space; others find themselves in contemporary Auckland. Many of Reihana's portraits feature motifs and mannerisms from a variety of cultures and eras: a character named 'Dandy', for instance, wears a warrior's moko and a Victorian gentleman's suit, clutches a carved tokotoko (orator's cane), and sits on a stainless steel chair that looks like it was designed by Alvar Aalto.
Digital Marae also includes a blurred, ghostly film and two panels showing a flickering psychedelic pattern that somehow recalls the complex tukutuku panels Maori women weaved for traditional meeting houses. In a note accompanying this astonishing exhibition, Reihana explains that she was prevented from visiting a meeting house when she was a child, and that she is using art to create a turangawaewae for herself in twenty-first century Auckland.
For many years now film-maker Shirley Horrocks has been meticulously documenting New Zealand's cultural history. Horrocks' portraits of writers like Allen Curnow and Albert Wendt and visual artists like Len Lye and Marti Friedlander have themselves become an important part of New Zealand's cultural infrastructure. Unlike some of her counterparts in academia, Horrocks is able to communicate with a wide audience at the same time as she does justice to the complexity of her subjects; it is not surprising that a number of her documentaries have attracted large TV audiences.
I was delighted to be invited to a trial showing of a Horrocks documentary about the New Dance Group by my friend Lani-Rain Feltham, who has worked for some years now as Shirley's researcher. Like Aniwaniwa, Horrocks' new film stylishly retrieves a forgotten piece of New Zealand history. For a few short years immediately after World War Two, the all-female New Dance Group dazzled and bemused audiences in Wellington's school and community halls with its modernist, politically-charged performances. One of the group's dances was called Sabotage at a Factory; another protested the destruction of Hiroshima. The group used music by Soviet modernists like Shostakovich, and developed steps and geatures inspired by the movement of the machinery of modern factories and the weaponry of modern war.
The New Dance Group dispersed as its members married, had children, and vanished into the hinterland of the patriachal philistine society that was 1950s New Zealand. The group still languished in obscurity when historian Maria Schultz discovered some footage of its performances and approached Shirley Horrocks with the idea of co-producing a documentary.
The New Dance Group fascinates me, because its work seems so different to that of better-known modernist innovators active in mid-century New Zealand. The dancers' unashamedly urban, industrial inspiration contrasts starkly with the rural subject-matter of modernist painters like Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston and modernist poets like Allen Curnow. The group's preoccupation with politics also stands in contrast with the otherworldy, often spiritual interests of the likes of McCahon and Curnow. If it had survived and prospered, the New Dance Group might have have had a salutary influence on Kiwi artists working in other genres.
While Lani-Rain Feltham has been studying the history of dance in New Zealand, her sister Rosey has been helping move the artform into the future. Rosey is the founder and leader of BackLit Productions, the dance troupe which gave the premier performance of The Story of Stuff at the Auckland Town Hall last week. Like the creations of the New Dance Group, The Story of Stuff manages to be political without being preachy. 'The Story of Stuff' is a Noam Chomsky essay about the absurd side of the 'consumer society' capitalism has created; the BackLit crew arrange a series of dances and skits around this theme, without worrying too much about constructing a narrative or a linear argument. Last Wednesday's performance was alternately hilarious and chilling, as witty satires on body image and celebrity TV morphed without warning into choppy, tortured dances that evoked the difficulty of being a young woman in a society obsessed with telling young women what to look like and what to buy.
In one particularly eerie scene, Rosey and her friends stepped tentatively from one consumer object - a TV, a stereo, a computer - to another, trying desperately not to touch the ground. It was as though they were crossing a raging mountain stream by stepping from one slippery boulder to another. Anyone who has ever spent their pay check on overdue hire purchase payments will understand Rosey's metaphor.
On the day that The Story of Stuff premiered, Rosey was profiled in the Granny Herald's trashy Viva section. Rosey wanted to talk about the extraordinary works she is writing and performing, but Viva's interviewer insisted on quizzing her about such weighty subjects as her favourite place to shop and her favourite colour. I can't think of a better example of the sort of stupidity that The Story of Stuff attacks.
As you can see from these hurried reviews, I haven't had a bad week. If you're sick of sitting at home listening to talkback radio, then get out of the house and see Aniwaniwa, Digital Marae, The New Dance Group, and The Story of Stuff.