Archive for January 26th, 2011


Review: ‘Unnerved: The New Zealand Project’ at NGV International, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 26th November 2010 – 27th February 2011

A Queensland Art Gallery Touring Exhibition



Ava Seymour. 'Sate Highway 1' 1997


Ava Seymour (New Zealand, b. 1967)
State Highway I
From Health, happiness and housing series
Colour photograph of a photomontage


Ava Seymour. 'Day Care Walkabouts' 1997


Ava Seymour (New Zealand b. 1967)
Day Care Walkabouts
From Health, happiness and housing series
Photomontage on colour photograph



New Zealand art adrift in a myriad of stories and symbols – not a brave ‘new world’

This is an underwhelming group exhibition of over 100 works drawn from the Queensland Art Gallery collection, a show to wander around on a lazy weekend afternoon and not get too excited about. The large number of works in the exhibition make it impossible to review each work individually (although I critique some works below) but one does get an overall sense of the investigation by New Zealand artists into their history, place, culture and identity. While there are a few good works in the exhibition there are also some very mediocre works as well and, other than a few splashes of self-deprecating humour (such as the wonderful The Horn of Africa (2006) by Michael Parekowhai, below) it all seems importantly earnest: an exhibition for serious people (apologies to Oscar Wilde).

On the evidence of this exhibition the country of New Zealand must be a very unnerving place to live, mainly because their artists can’t seem to keep their hand off it – cultural history that is.

Throughout this exhibition we have psychological unease, physical unease, a little humour, parody, poetry, symbology, allegory, mythology, colonialism, post-colonialism, nationalism, commercialisation, representation, anthropology, travel, landscape, topography, advertising, first contact, sacred spaces, indigenous politics, Māori culture, Pacific Islander culture, pakeha (non-indigenous) culture, tools, guns, rabbits, seals, pianos, traditional tattoos, tourist sites and museums, surfing, suburbia, personal journeys, family albums, androgyny, identity, public housing, ambiguous states, hyperreality, surreality, dislocation, disenfranchisement, alienation, bodies, portraits, subjects, past, present, future (and more!)

Ronnie van Hout exhibits three atmospheric, eerie, dark photographs of constructed model landscapes: of a Nazi doodlebug and the words ABDUCT and HYBRID. The wall text tries, unsuccessfully, to link the images to the obscure and haunted landscapes of New Zealand – a very long bow to draw indeed. Bill Cuthbert’s “nice” photographs offer generalised statements of light and place but really don’t take you anywhere and in fact could have been taken anywhere. The wall text offers that the photographs are a “self-conscious, critical response” to the dismantling of colonial ideas of empire and nation … this is art speak gobbledygook at its worst trying to justify basic photography.

Mark Adams panoramic photograph of one of the sites of first contact – an important historical moment of encounter between Māori and pakeha (non-Māori people of European descent) – are a beautiful photograph of a sound and mountains that has then been dissected, fragmented and individually framed and then mounted unevenly on the gallery wall – just to make sure we get the point about the ‘nature’ of the scenery and its cultural implications. Lonnie Hutchinson’s cut wall work Cinco “offers an interplay between paper and space and explores the ‘va’ or space between – a relation between the Samoan people and the landscape saturated with the dialogue of our ancestors … being adrift in a sea of memories caused by feelings related to cultural loss and uncertainty.” I know how they feel: adrift, underwhelmed by the art and overwhelmed by the text.

Other than the striking photograph of the Dandy (2007, below) Lisa Reihana’s series Digital Marae (2001- ) also fails to inspire. The marae is a highly structure space where Māori families come together – an outdoor, cleared area, a communal or sacred place which serves religious and social purposes in Polynesian societies. Here can be found male sculptures called poupou featuring diverse forms of masculinity, Māori gods and goddesses. The elder Mahuika, while sometimes described as male, is deliberately depicted in her female state in this series. In Reihanna’s digital interpretation of the marae her gods and goddesses become slick, media-inspired glossy magazine type images printed large, mounted on aluminium and lit for maximum theatrical effect. The unstructured spaces behind the figures have no context, no placement and give lie to the inspiration for the series (a highly structured space) and, as such, they land with a commercial thud onto the cleared earth.

The lowest point in the exhibition must be reserved for the 80 photographs of the series ‘The homely’ (1997-2000) by Gavin Hipkins. Usually when reviewing I refrain from saying anything really bad about works of art but this is an exception. This series is awful. Robert Nelson in The Age describes it as “visually and conceptually incoherent.” Taken over 4 years and supposedly “examining notions of nationhood that are unstable and fractured” Hipkins describes it as “a post-colonial gothic novel.” !!

The series features flat, one-dimensional images of symbols: sculptures, closed doors, open doors, flags, people, repeating circles and vertical elements – where the aggregate of all the images is supposed to MEAN SOMETHING. These are the most simple, most basic of year 12 images formed into a sequence that is conceptually irrelevant in terms of its symbolism and iconography vis a vis the purported critical examination it seeks to undertake. This person really needs to look at the sequences of Minor White to see how a great artist puts photographs together – not just in terms of narrative but the meaning in the spaces between the images, their spiritual resonance or, if wanting to be more literal, study that seminal book ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank to see how to really make a sequence. Ultimately, these are images I wished I had never seen.

On to better things. For me the absolute gem of this exhibition were the photomontages of Ava Seymour from her ‘Health, happiness and housing’ series (see photographs above). These are just fantastic! Featuring as a backdrop photographs of state houses built in the 1950s and 60s Seymour assembles her cast of characters – composite figures of found limbs, bodies and faces taken from old medical text books – and creates stark, psychological sites of engagement. The can be seen as family portraits, social documents of unseen alienation and dis-enfranchisement with communities and also a comment on the conduct of the welfare system and state housing, but in their ironic, self-deprecating humour they become so much more. Even though they use old photographs the artist recasts them ingenuously to become something new, a new space that the viewer can step into, unlike most of the work in this exhibition.

Most artists in this exhibition seem intent on a form of cultural excavation to make their work, digging and rooting around in cultural history and memory to find “meaning”, to make new forms from old that actually lead nowhere. They excavate symbols and signs and reform them hoping for what, exactly? All that appears is work that is stunted and fragmented, chopped up dislocations that offer nothing new in terms of a way forward for the culture from which these histories and memories emerge. There is no holistic, healing vision here, only a series of mined observations that fragment, distort and polarise, descending into the decorative, illustrative or the commercial. The same can be said of some Australian art (including the exhibition Stormy Weather: Contemporary Landscape Photography at NGV Federation Square that I will review next). As Robert Nelson succinctly observed in his review of this exhibition in The Age (Wednesday, December 29th, 2010), this exhibition “reveals a weakness that also exists in our scene: fertile tricks and noble intentions, but patchy skill or poetic imagination for connecting them.” Well said.

“”When the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.” (Meister Eckhart) It is an evocation of the image as a threshold leading to new dimensions of meaning. Symbolic images are more than data; they are vital seeds, living carriers of possibility.”1

New dimensions of meaning, vital seeds, living carriers of possibility. Everyone of us is a living, breathing embodiment of cultural history and memory. We know that intimately in our bones, as human beings. What artists need to do is observe this legacy but offer a way forward, not constantly excavating the past and hoping this is enough when creating work. These are not new spaces to step into! The cohabitation of indigenous and ethnically mixed non-indigenous cultures in both Australia and New Zealand requires this holistic forward looking vision. It is a redemptive vision that is not mired in the symbols and archetypes of the past but, as Australia writer David Malouf envisages it, ‘a dream history, a myth history, a history of experience in the imagination’.2 It is a vision of the future that all post-colonial countries can embrace, where a people can come to know their sense of place more fully.

Rather than an escapist return to the past perhaps a redemptive vision of New Zealand’s cultural future, a history of experience in the imagination, would be less insular and more open to the capacity to wonder.

Dr Marcus Bunyan


  1. Ronnberg, Ami (ed.,). “Preface,” in The Book of Symbols. Cologne: Taschen, 2010, p. 6
  2. Footnote 6. Daniel, Helen. “Interview with David Malouf,” in Australian Book Review (September , 1996), p. 13 quoted in Ennis, Helen. “The Presence of the Past,” in Photography and Australia. London: Reaktion Books, 2007, p. 141

Many thankx to Jemma Altmeier for her help and to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Lisa Reihana Ngāpuhi: Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tu 'Hinepukohurangi' 2001


Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi: Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tu New Zealander, b. 1964)
From Digital Marae 2001-
Cibachrome photograph mounted on aluminium
200 x 100cm
Purchased 2002
© Lisa Reihana


Lisa Reihana Ngāpuhi: Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tu 'Dandy' 2007


Lisa Reihana (Ngāpuhi: Ngāti Hine, Ngāi Tu New Zealander, b. 1964)
From Digital Marae 2001-
Colour digital print mounted on aluminium
200 x 120cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2008 with funds from the Estate of Vincent Stack through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
© Lisa Reihana



Yvonne Todd (New Zealander, b. 1973)
From the Vagrants’ reception centre series
Light jet photograph
100 x 73.8cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2007. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant
©Yvonne Todd


Michael Parekowhai Ngāti Whakarongo 'Kapa Haka (Whero)' 2003


Michael Parekowhai (Ngāti Whakarongo New Zealander, b. 1968)
Kapa Haka (Whero)
Automotive paint on fibreglass
188 x 60 x 50cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2009 with funds from Tim Fairfax AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation
© Michael Parekowhai



The National Gallery of Victoria today opened a major exhibition celebrating the extraordinary work of 26 contemporary New Zealand artists in Unnerved: The New Zealand Project.

Unnerved explores a particularly rich, dark vein found in contemporary New Zealand art. The psychological or physical unease underlying many works in the exhibition is addressed with humour, parody and poetic subtlety by artists across generations and mediums. Bringing together more than 100 works ranging from intimate works on paper to large scale installations by both established and emerging artists, Unnerved engages with New Zealand’s changing social, political and cultural landscape as the country navigates its indigenous settler and migrant histories. These works explore a changing sense of place, the continued importance of contemporary Maori art, biculturalism, a complex colonial past, the creative reworking of memory, and the often interconnected mediums of performance, photography and video. If the vision is unsettling, it is also compelling and Unnerved: The New Zealand Project offers us new ways of seeing one of our closest neighbours.

This fascinating exhibition explores a rich and dark vein found in contemporary art in New Zealand, drawing on the disquieting aspects of New Zealand’s history and culture reflected through more than 100 works of art.

Jane Devery, Coordinating Curator, NGV said: “The works presented in Unnerved reveal a darkness and distinctive edginess that characterises this particular trend in New Zealand contemporary art. The psychological or physical unease underlying many works in the exhibitions is addressed with humour, parody and poetic subtlety.

The exhibition reflects the strength and vitality of contemporary art in New Zealand with works created by both established and emerging artists, across a range of mediums including painting, photography, sculpture, installation, drawing, film and video.

Unnerved engages with New Zealand’s changing social, political and cultural landscape, exploring a shifting sense of place, complex colonial past, the relationships between contemporary Māori, Pacific Islander and pakeha (non-indigenous) culture, and the interplay between performance, video and photography,” said Ms Devery.

A highlight of the exhibition is a group of sculptural works by Michael Parekowhai including his giant inflatable rabbit, Cosmo McMurtry, which will greet visitors to the exhibition, and a spectacular life-size seal balancing a grand piano on its nose titled The Horn of Africa. Also on display are a series of haunting photographs by Yvonne Todd, whose portrait photography often refers to B-grade films and pulp fiction novels.

Gerard Vaughan, Director, NGV said this exhibition demonstrates the NGV’s strong commitment to interesting and challenging contemporary art secured from around the world; he noted that the NGV has made a special commitment to exhibition the contemporary art of our region.

Unnerved will introduce visitors to the rich contemporary arts scene of one of our closest neighbours, fascinating audiences with works ranging from the life size installations by Parekowhai through to the spectacular 30 metre photographic essay by Gavin Hipkins. This truly is a must see show this summer!” said Dr Vaughan.

Unnerved will also offer a strong and engaging collection of contemporary sculpture, installations, drawings, paintings, photography, film and video art by artists including Lisa Reihana, John Pule, Gavin Hipkins, Anne Noble, Ronnie van Hout, Shane Cotton, Julian Hooper and many others.

Press release from the National Gallery of Victoria website


Michael Parekowhai Ngāti Whakarongo 'The Horn of Africa' 2006


Michael Parekowhai (Ngāti Whakarongo New Zealander, b. 1968)
The Horn of Africa
Automotive paint, wood, fibreglass, steel, brass
395 x 200 x 260cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2008 with funds from the Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund in recognition of the contribution to the Gallery by Wayne Goss (Chair of Trustees 1999-2008)
© Michael Parekowhai


Michael Parekowhai. 'Cosmo McMurtry' 2006


Michael Parekowhai (Ngāti Whakarongo New Zealander, b. 1968)
Cosmo McMurtry
Synthetic polymer paint on polyvinyl chloride, fibreglass, air compressor
734.3 x 506.4 x 739.1cm (variable)
Presented by the Melbourne Art Fair Foundation with the assistance of funds donated by NGV Contemporary, 2006
National Gallery of Victoria
© Michael Parekowhai


Gavin Hipkins. 'Christchurch (Mask)' 1998


Gavin Hipkins (New Zealander, b. 1968)
Christchurch (Mask)
From The homely series 1997-2000
Type C photograph
60 x 40cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane Purchased 2008. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund
© Gavin Hipkins


Fiona Pardington Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe, Kati Waewae 'Sweet Kiwi, from the collection 'Whanganui Museum'' 2008


Fiona Pardington (Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe, Kati Waewae New Zealander, b. 1961)
Sweet Kiwi, from the collection ‘Whanganui Museum’
Gold-toned gelatin silver photograph
61 x 50.8cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2008 with funds from Gina Fairfax through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation
© Fiona Pardington


Max Gimblett. 'Balls' 1990-97


Max Gimblett (New Zealander/American, b. 1935)
Brush and ink, synthetic polymer paint and pencil on handmade paper
59.8 x 79.3cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
The Max Gimblett Gift.
Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2000
© Max Gimblett


Anne Noble. 'Ruby's room no. 6' 1999


Anne Noble (New Zealander, b. 1954)
Ruby’s room no. 6
Colour digital print
67 x 100.2cm
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
Purchased 2006
© Anne Noble



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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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