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March 26, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Collecting Contemporary: Mixed Messages at Te Papa’s Latest Exhibition

Te Papa rejuvenated their Collecting Contemporary exhibition in February, removing some works that had been on display since June 2011, and replacing them with others. One of the biggest additions to the Te Papa collection was a group of Jim Allen’s works, previously on display at the Adam Art Gallery as part of the Points of Contact exhibition early last year.

Three of Allen’s works, Space Plane, Tribute to Hone Tuwhare and Small Worlds, occupy a significant portion of the Collecting Contemporary space, and I was excited to see them again. However, the way a work is exhibited influences how it is perceived, and the brightly-lit display of Space Plane was underwhelming after its eerie presence in the darkness of the Adam’s Kirk Gallery last year.

Furthermore, I found myself struggling with the velvet rope (metaphorical or literal) around works of art displayed in institutions. Yet again, works whose very existence depends on interactivity are separated from their audience, this time with white lines on the floor. Jim Allen is recognised as a pioneer of ‘post-object art’: sculpture that extends beyond the simple object, requiring (and even welcoming) the viewer to enter the sculpture’s space and experience it from within. But at Te Papa, we are strictly warned not to touch. The wall-text says, almost apologetically, that this is after consultation with the artist. I wonder how Jim Allen actually feels about works that were designed to be touched, displayed to be looked at.

Mentioning his involvement in the decision-making process makes it seem as though Te Papa is taking the easy way out; avoiding the ongoing efforts involved in preserving a work of art that will degenerate over time, as the public interacts with it. This is particularly mind-boggling when you consider that these works, in their current iteration, are not the same physical pieces as were exhibited originally in 1969; rather, they are 2010 reconstructions.

Without delving too much into a ‘Ship of Theseus’ philosophical debate (Wikipedia: “the question of whether an object which has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object”), it is clear that, in this case, the artist’s main concern is not that his works are maintained in their original form. In fact, much of his practice has included restaging works and challenging thinking around art as being a holy object.

In the same vein, Maddie Leach’s The Ice Rink is represented only by a few photographs of the original work, where she installed an ice rink in the Waikato Museum of Art and History, and invited visitors to skate on it. Again the wall-text discloses that Te Papa owns the right to install an ice rink, and thus exhibit the work in full, in the future. I can’t help but wonder why they haven’t done so for this exhibition. Surely an exhibition of the finest contemporary art that Te Papa has deemed suitable to enter their collection warrants the installation of the whole work?

Although these are two major gripes that I have with Collecting Contemporary, the exhibition as a whole isn’t too bad. There’s a pleasing range of photography, painting, sculpture, multimedia art, and decorative arts and jewellery. (Less pleasing is the split between male and female artists; a gender bias that the modern world loves to pretend is past, but is undeniable when you look at the numbers. I counted eight female artists, in contrast to seventeen male.)

Maori jewellery artist Areta Wilkinson’s works raised some cultural issues that are particularly interesting within the context of Te Papa. Lisa Reihana’s video installation is hypnotising, with multiple screens showing footage tracking across the ground at Ngawha Springs in Northland. Karl Fritsch’s jewellery explores jewellery’s place as a fine art, and fits that title much more satisfyingly than Lisa Walker’s tacky plastic kitsch.

Collecting Contemporary raises some interesting questions about Te Papa’s role as a museum, an art gallery, and as one of New Zealand’s primary art-collecting institutions. Their display methods and attitudes towards contemporary art need to look to the artworks themselves for guidance, rather than simply continuing along traditional museum paths.

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