I was fortunate enough to visit New Zealand twice in 2009--once for the opening of the third biennial Auckland Art Fair in May, a compact but, in spite of its relative youth, well-staged event, and again during the much quieter Christmas-and-early-summer season (the holidays coincide down under). Considered together, the two trips offered an intriguing glimpse at a contemporary art scene that, while geographically remote from western capitals and characterised by a certain degree of self-deprecation--usually an endearing quality, occasionally a frustrating one--presents a disproportionately broad variety of experience. The fact that audiences in the UK and the US tend not to hear very much about it might be attributable not only to the considerable investment of time and money involved in getting to the country--and in exporting its art--but also to the local creative community's partial orientation towards a different set of international art world hubs.
In a 2008 report from Auckland for Frieze magazine, Sydney-based critic Nicola Harvey cites a suggestion of curator Brian Butler that New Zealand might benefit from a deeper concentration on its developing position in a 'Trans-Pacific' scene rather than looking exclusively further afield or retreating into self-congratulatory introspection. A former director at Los Angeles gallery 1301PE, Butler was at the helm of Auckland's key publicly funded gallery, Artspace, from 2005 to 2008, and his perspective now seems increasingly commonplace. There is perhaps an artistic correspondence between Los Angeles and New Zealand that has yet to be thoroughly mapped; Giovanni Intra, an Auckland-born artist who died in 2002, was a co-founder not only of the influential artist-run space Teststrip in his home city but also of the much-admired China Art Objects Galleries in LA. The city's cannier artists and dealers now travel to art fairs, biennales and residencies in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama, for example, rather than reflexively springing for pricier flights to New York, London or Berlin (or, indeed, simply staying at home). Australian fixtures such as the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane and the Melbourne Art Fair also continue to attract a Kiwi contingent.
That said, there has also--by common consent and in my own experience--been a recent intensification of artistic energy and ambition within and for Aotearoa (New Zealand's Maori name), much of which has, coincidentally or not, manifested itself since the launch of the Auckland Triennial in 2000. The event's fourth installment, curated by Natasha Conland, will open at Auckland Art Gallery and four other metropolitan venues on 12 March this year, and runs until 20 June. Subtitled 'Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon', the international, cross-generational survey promises to investigate 'the ongoing possibilities for adventure and risk in art'. Featuring new work by 30 or so artists from the UK, the Middle East and the antipodes, it will showcase responses to the airy theme by locals such as Nick Austin, Alicia Francovich, Robert Hood and Michael Stevenson, and by Brits including Johanna Billing and Olivia Plender.
Conland, who curated et. al.'s the fundamental practice for the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005, also co-edits (with Christina Barton and Wystan Curnow) Reading Room, an annual journal that stands virtually alone in offering an informed, critical long view. The 2009 issue features a roundtable, 'The State of Art and Discourse in New Zealand', that presents a detailed and revealing exposition of some of the issues currently being debated locally by concerned critics and curators. These include, but are certainly not limited to: the still-fluid status of contemporary Maori art in relation to its Pakeha (non-Maori New Zealander) counterpart; the continuing investigation of extra-gallery formats in projects such as Claire Doherty's 'One Day Sculpture' (a year-long programme of temporary public artworks); the pros and cons of globalisation and its attendant ideas about the erosion of centre and periphery from the viewpoint of increasingly travelled Kiwi art, artists and art world professionals; the coincident persistence of various strains of nationalism (one variant of which is espoused by populist critic Hamish Keith in his recent TV history of New Zealand art The Big Picture) and the perception of a general lack of theoretical coherence in most homegrown accounts since the 1980s. …