Wednesday 9 November 2011


Today on the radio I'm going to be previewing the visual arts line-up at next year's NZ International Festival of Arts. I was struck in 2010 by how much more Wellington's public galleries seem to be aligning their programming to the Festival than in previous years*, and that seems to be true of 2011 as well.

Te Papa is timing a refresh of 'Collecting Contemporary' for the start of the Festival, which will feature works by Karl Fritsch, Francis Upritchard and Martino Gamper from Gesamtkunsthandwerk, currently my 2011 show of the year.

City Gallery is unveiling 'The Obstinate Object: Contemporary NZ Sculpture', featuring new, recent and older work, including the single piece I am already most excited about seeing, Don Driver's Ritual**, which I've never seen in the flesh.

The Adam is showing series by four photographers: Kohei Yoshiyuki, Fiona Amundsen, John Lake and Simon Starling. I saw Starling's Autoxylopyrocycloboros (the work that will be at the Adam) at the Power Plant in Toronto in 2008, and was struck by how much Starling's practice reminds me of Michael Stevenson.

And the Dowse is showing Mexican artist Theresa Margolles' In the Air from 2003 alongside a new work commissioned for her visit to New Zealand. Margolles is my pick for the Festival. In the Air is very simple, on first glance (and glancing contact) - bubbles blown out into a gallery space that pop as they hit hard surfaces or land on wandering visitors.

The charge comes when you discover that the bubbles are blown using water that was previously used to wash down bodies - victims of violent crimes, drug overdoses, traffic accidents - in the Mexico City morgue. Even though the water has been sterilised, it still carries that taint of death and decay, turning the innocent bubbles into a somewhat grisly memento mori - a role they've played in Western painting for centuries.

It's the combination of the simplicity and the big reveal that I think will captivate people about this work. [My one concern is that there won't be enough bubbles to make the room seem fairytale like - please let there be enough bubbles.] Like Janet Cardiff's Forty-Part Motet - in my opinion the hit of the 2010 visual arts line-up - it's not a work you have to work hard to get. It's easily explained, but also easily experienced. I might sound like I'm being dismissive, but I'm actually being admiring; this kind of succinctness, of distillation, of directness, is relatively rare in contemporary art, but magical (or at the very least reaction-provoking) for the viewer, whatever their level of gallery-going experience.

*It's just as well I've never been an Angry Young Person, because that sentence makes me feel about forty.  
** Yeah - I'm most excited about the oldest work in the show. I was truly never an Angry Young Person. 

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