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March 26, 2018 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Toi Art

Recently, Te Papa Tongarewa showed off their new Toi Art space, after months of closure and an $8.4 million renovation. The space was opened to the sound of a pātē drum echoing through the new galleries, and a double lei being placed over Jacinda Ardern’s shoulders.

However, if you don’t have a similarly spectacular welcome into Toi Art, you might be forgiven for thinking that it is still undergoing some kind of construction. In Détour, the opening exhibition, Michael Parekowhai has taken the art off the walls and placed them into a space reminiscent of a construction site for a theme park. The steel scaffold of Forest Etiquette, (2018) stretches up from the fourth floor to the fifth. Cased in crystalline acrylic tree trunks, the structure winds and twists around an eclectic collection of preexisting works of art, which Parekowhai has “mined” from the museum’s collection, including various works by Frances Hodgkins, and Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels (1958), alongside loaned objects, such as works by Marcel Duchamp. Sitting within the “independent structure”, separate from the walls of the gallery, this new framing device allows us access to parts of the work we usually cannot access, such as the back of the works. Some works are held above our heads, entirely out of reach, forcing our necks into a less-than-ideal viewing position. Peppered around the gallery are fiberglass bobble-head monkeys and a giant elephant, their unexplained presence further adding to the absence of normality in this art experience.

Détour purports to be a critical response, encouraging us to re-contextualise our opinion of the gallery experience, and while it certainly rapidly repositions the viewer and succinctly addresses existing anxieties about expected art behaviour (such as appropriate viewing positions), one starts to wonder if this cheapens the experience. But perhaps this is the point. There is an air of absurdity in sharing a park bench with a bobble-head monkey. Wondering what your fraudulent fiberglass companion thinks of the vast history of art on display in front of him is a previously inconceivable experience to have within the art space of our national museum.

While Détour is the most unconventionally demanding exhibition in the new gallery spaces, there are four other exhibitions which are all worth a brief mention.

Lisa Walker’s I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered, is a fascinating retrospective of the jeweler’s 30 year career, presented in a refreshingly simple yet playful manner.

Tūrangawaewae: Art and New Zealand is a striking red-walled salon style antithesis to Parekowhai’s reconfiguration of the lower gallery. Tūrangawaewae showcases a national identity through the museum’s art, spanning from historical portraiture to contemporary works which address the tension of nationhood and belonging.

Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa is a pleasurable explosion of creative exploration through colour and noise. A highlight is Tiffany Singh’s Total Internal Reflection (2018), simultaneously a reflective space, waiting receive other’s emotions, and the most popular space for selfies.

Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists feels like the most information rich exhibition. The multitude of different mediums on display — costume, film, performance, photography and music — creates a rich platform in which to celebrate the mana wāhine the collective has displayed over the past 26 years.

Everywhere you turn in Toi Art there is another gallery waiting to be explored. It feels as if the alluringly soft, waxed plaster exterior walls of the gallery shouldn’t be able to hold everything in.

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