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April 29, 2013 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Review – Te Papa: Nga Toi

“Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more […] pry, listen, eavesdrop.”

Walker Evans penned these words as a subtext for his Subway photographic series (1938-1941). His idea of a curious, perhaps inquisitive eye could just as well encapsulate the effect of Te Papa’s new gallery space on Level 5. Ngā Toi invites the eye to wander from room to room and delight in the diversity of styles, media and contexts on display. Considering the breadth of artworks to encounter, this ‘micro museum’ is definitely worth a couple of visits.

For now, let me just focus on a few ‘eyelights’—photography, for instance, which I like to call a ‘script of light’. Room 11 entitled Toi Pepa: Works on Paper offers some examples, by noted artists like Diane Arbus, Eugène Atget and Marc Riboud. But I stopped to stare at one work in particular: Lee Friedlander’s Shadow, New York City (1966). Its formal qualities conjure the idea of the gaze, of sight as a site of ambiguity, of confrontation—in this case, the viewer as a voyeur.

We notice a shadow encroaching on the back of a woman’s head—a rather bizarre, almost surrealist image, the shadow signifying the photographer’s presence. Friedlander, it seems, defies the secretive nature of street photography. He is not hidden, let alone absent from the snapshot: his shadow underlines a certain taste for the uncanny, eerie part of the self. In terms of daunting atmosphere, the photographs by Wayne Barrar also spring to mind. His landscapes are anything but the scenic, pristine sort of photography one might expect. He endows them with a dim, obscure ambience, with hints of human traces, what he calls the ‘commodified subterra’—man-altered landscapes, infused with darkness.

To continue on the topic of light, Buster Black’s Mountain 1 also calls for scrutiny: unlike photographers who ‘paint’ with light through a camera, he uses oil to create a sense of light on the canvas. In this textured landscape, a snowy peak floats out of the darkness. The exhibit’s caption says that his mentor Colin McCahon was struck by the “visuality of white on black”.

Frank Hofmann’s Lili Kraus portrait (1947) and Projection image: scissors (ca. 1946) are also filled with contrast, reminiscent of Man Ray and Stieglitz. Hofmann was inspired by the avant-garde aesthetic of New Photography he had been in contact with in Czechoslovakia, thus enthused to experiment and distort perceived realities.

A similar sensation of illusion, of a hypnotic kind this time, can be felt if you stand in front of Heat, a fascinating video work by Queensland artist Christian Thompson.

“I love the mysticism and the seductive cruelty of the desert, my home, and how it can be so alluring and potentially life-threatening”, he says.

His claim is made palpable in this large-scale, three-channel projection of three young women. As they stare back in silence, imagined waves of heat infiltrate the air, their hair sweeping and tousling as if alive—like the Gorgons of ancient Greek mythology (the sisters Stheno, Euryale, and, the most famous, Medusa). Their sure gaze unflinchingly meets ours. This piece is not only visually stunning: its tune (the melancholic melody of a harp) is what tempts our ears first, then the eye, to come closer.

Like Bill Viola’s slow-motion films, Thompson makes us wait—there is a hallucinogenic quality to Heat: the spellbinding rhythms are those of the wind, that comes and goes, building at times to a crescendo, but still offering no respite from its hot grip… Intriguing!

Enough describing, go see all these little art gems in the flesh, eye-to-eye!


Ngā Toi is a long-term exhibition located at Te Papa, Level 5. Free entry.

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