Tuesday 21 June 2022

Moe mai rā e Luit: Luit Bieringa, 1942-2022

It was strange to walk up Tory Street tonight after work, and realise I won't be bumping into Luit Bieringa anymore, out roaming in his hood.

I have always felt a kind of kinship with Luit (as with Jim Barr) because we all kicked off as young(ish) directors of a regional art gallery. With Luit, it was the Manawatū Art Gallery, which he led from 1971 to 1979. He must have been about 29 or 30 when he took on the role, and oversaw the replacement of a converted house that acted as an art gallery to the purpose-built centre. As he recalled in 2017:

The main thing was to try and change the context in which the gallery operated to becoming a fully-fledged public institution that the community could relate to. We had people's support and if you think of the time, the early 70s, we'd only just moved out of the rugby, racing and beer environment.

I have always loved the Art New Zealand article about the opening of the gallery. I often share it as an example of "guys - they've been doing this for ages". A fundraising team raised about a third of the building costs. Luit "deliberately tried to make the gallery as accessible as possible to all the people of the Manawatu, whether their interest be in functional pottery or conceptual art." At opening, there were looms and a potter's wheel on the ground floor for people to try out; Woollaston, Driver, Albrecht and Wong nearby; a "touch" gallery that people entered blindfolded then felt their way through an array of objects; then upstairs a show by conceptual artist Bruce Barber, including a video work. The original something-for-everyone: hands-on, tradition, new media, recognised quality, defying categories, emerging artists. I always found that inspiring. 

Likewise this beard:

Bearded man's face next to sculpture of a man's face
Luit in 1974, from the Manawatu Heritage site

It was at Manawatū too that Luit produced the landmark touring exhibition of contemporary photography, The Active Eye, a touchstone of any history of photography in Aotearoa (and history of any exhibition controversy).

Cover of The Active Eye, from Te Ara

In 1979 Luit left Manawatū to take on the National Gallery that was. So he must of been about 37 when he took that on, and he committed for a full decade. His legacy includes bringing that enthusiasm for photography and an exquisite eye to the development of the photography collection, and enrichment of the archives (including as a voluminous correspondent). 

And in the 1980s Luit led the charge on Shed 11, the offsite project space that is now the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. By the time I was studying recent New Zealand art history in the early 200s, this was the stuff of legend. The exhibitions between the two sites ranged all over the place. Barbara Kruger came to New Zealand. Cindy Sherman too. Content / ContextWhen Art Hits the Headlines. And didn't he look like a legend doing it.

Luit outside Shed 11, from a post by Catherine Griffiths

I wish I'd known him then. But - as I sometimes remind the people who still pull me up at art openings and berate me over the closing of the NAG - I was born the year Luit started working there. Which means I got the joy of knowing him in the second half of his life and career, with that odd frisson of meeting people in real life who just the week before you'd be reading about in Tina Barton's ARTH 301 paper. 

Photo snapped in Luit's archives last year

By the time I got to know Luit well, he had repurposed himself as a film-maker, working alongside his wife Jan. They produced documentaries on Ans Westra, the Tovey generation of art education, Peter McLeavey, and most recently Theo Schoon. We were lucky enough to be at the premiere of Signed, Theo Schoon last year, and join Jan and Luit afterwards, with all their friends. Ans was there. Luit bantered at her for not paying attention during his speech. It was wonderful.

Over the past two years I've had a few chances to talk to Luit a bit about his career (not very interested in talking about that) and way of working and making films (much more interested). He loved every aspect of it: the relationships (as exasperating as they might be at times), the arguments, the storytelling, the documentation, the romance of the archive, visual punch, emotional heft, the precious, precious stories of people's lives.

Luit, of course, was a vocal opponent of the dissolving of the National Art Gallery in the creation of Te Papa in the 1990s, and a staunch critic of the way Te Papa has collected, shown and served art since opening. At the same time, he could critique because he showed up; he was a frequent user and annotator of those archives; and a friend and encouragement to staff. He was a critic, because he cared deeply and he had strong opinions. Would that we all had that kind of passion.

Luit Bieringa. He was just a really cool cat. He and Jan have always been incredibly kind to me, first with my first husband, William, and now with Reuben. When I moved to Tory St Luit became part of my neighbourhood, and I'd bump into him often at the lights on the corner or at breakfast at Prefab. This part of Wellington will be quieter without him. While his death does not come as a shock, we all have to get used to this new gap in our environment, that space that will gradually heal over into memory.

All my love to Jan, the kids and their whānau.

Jan and Luit in the 1960s, from an Instagram post shared today by Stuart McKenzie

The official Dominion Post obituary, written by Mark Amery in collaboration with Luit, Jan, family and friends

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