This place we call home

By Adam Gifford

The Auckland Triennial, which opens next month, brings together a host of local and international artists responding to what it is like to live here. Adam Gifford talks to curator Hou Hanru.

Model Home by Michael Lin/Atelier Bow-Wow. Photo / Atelier BowWow, Rock Bund Art Museum, Shanghai, the artist.
Model Home by Michael Lin/Atelier Bow-Wow. Photo / Atelier BowWow, Rock Bund Art Museum, Shanghai, the artist.

For the next three months, Auckland will have an art infusion. A triennial is what you have when you can't afford a biennale, but Auckland's fifth will be an attempt to position the city as an international cultural hub.

Curator Hou Hanru has called it If you were to live here..., as if most of the audience lives somewhere else. Maybe they will.

In his curatorial attire of neat black-on-black, Hou has the look of someone always about to fly away somewhere. It's that sort of mobility that Auckland Art Gallery is counting on to deliver a better showing than 2010's underwhelming self-curated event.

Hou's curatorial track record includes the first international biennale in China in Shanghai, China's pavilion at Venice in 2007, the Istanbul Biennale, two in Beijing, and a number of shows introducing contemporary Chinese art to European audiences.

His studies in fine arts and art history in Beijing in the 1980s were alongside many who were to become stars of the emerging Chinese avant garde, so his move to Paris in 1990 put him in the box seat to present their work to the west.

More recently, he has been living in San Francisco.

Hou says while biennales and triennials are relatively new platforms for contemporary artists to show their work, they may do the job better than traditional museums and galleries in an era of globalisation.

"Because biennales or triennials are events that include more specifically produced projects, as well as being a more open platform for intellectual discourses and a more open format for performance or expression or so on, that represents a huge advantage compared with the established, traditional format of museums, galleries and so on.

"It is more immediately responding to the contemporary situation," Hou says.

He says the past two or three decades has seen the rise of multidisciplinary artistic production.

"A lot of established categories collapsed in the way people invented new ways of doing things, so with biennales or new forms of exhibitions, galleries and museums are open to embrace more diverse activities.

"They provide a new platform to redefine what artistic production is in general.

"Everyone agrees almost anything can go into the gallery.

"That is a very challenging situation.

"It has to do with the dynamics of our society, which is getting more open in terms of values, in terms of norms of living and also has to do with political change.

"Most societies are adapting to the principle of democracy, to different degrees."

Hou's international selections for the triennial include Australian

Angelica Mesiti, whose work explores communal collaborations with different social groups, Singaporean Ho Tzu Nyen, Albanian artist Anri Sala, Shahzia Sikander from Pakistan, American Amie Siegel - who was the international artist in residence at Elam last year - and Korean Do-Ho Suh.

"Multidisciplinary" is how many are described - photography, video, performance, installation, architecture and sociology all get thrown into the mix.

New Zealand artists invited to participate include Peter Robinson, who is placing colour-coded sticks among the Auckland Museum's exhibits; Janet Lilo, who has a video and sound installation about the people who share her Avondale driveway; Tahi Moore, who will have sculptures and videos in and on the subject of Gus Fisher Gallery in Shortland St, a former radio station; and Saffronn Te Ratana, Ngataiharuru Taepa and Hemi Macgregor, who will create a joint installation at Auckland Art Gallery about the 2007 Urewera raids and tribal authority.

In trying to push out what the term "art" can encompass, Hou has pulled together the architecture and spatial design faculties of AUT University, the University of Auckland and Unitec into The Lab, which he describes as an ongoing peoples' university where specialists come to give lectures, students participate in research, and the public come to voice opinions.

"The Triennial is not only an exhibition," he says.

"It is also a process of research and also trying to create a platform for encounters with ideas, experiments with ideas that go beyond the traditional format of art exhibits."

Participants include Sarosh Mulla from design collective Oh.No.Sumo, who will create an installation exploring the Kiwi quarter-acre dream, and University of Auckland design professor Andrew Barrie will consider how the rebuilding of destroyed churches can contribute to the recovery of Christchurch.

Teddy Cruz, a professor in public culture and urbanism in San Diego and the co-founder of the Center for Urban Ecologies, will work with University of Auckland academic Kathy Waghorn to create proposals for the rejuvenation of the Whau River area in Avondale. (Cruz will hold a public lecture at Auckland University on May 6.)

An AUT team, led by Albert Refiti and Elvon Young, will explore socio-cultural-politico "problematics" around Auckland, and Maori architecture specialist Rau Hoskins and artist Carin Wilson will lead a Unitec team to design a hakari stage such as has not been seen for 150 years.

The Triennial line-up should be able to generate the sort of spectacle that such events are known for, but Hou says the question is: can one go beyond the spectacle?

"There are a lot of straightforward anti-spectacle actions and also people thinking about the relationship between image production and other material possibilities, also the relationships between cultural production and community life for example.

"The central theme creates a context for various kinds of actions, especially for artists to research and engage as if they were living here.

"That has multiple meanings. New Zealand is considered a remote place, so apart from living here, a lot of people come as tourists, as consumers of nice landscape and so on. I really hope this international event would become a process of engaging with this place through people imagining living here, so the spectacle aspect dissolves into this living process."

So would Hou live here?

"This living is not that you live here for 10 years but it's researching, investigating, studying, and also building new social relationships with the people, with the place and to find out where the problematics are in the real life here.

"How much this place can contribute with its specific conditions to the so-called art scene in general. How much the new experiments that can be produced out of this process and to be translated into the debate on what kind of life we are living," he says.

Hou's question was perhaps best answered by the late Julian Dashper, whose work included addressing the issue of how to establish an international presence as an artist while living in Auckland.

He was never in a triennial.

In a piece called 100 Thoughts, published at the end of a residency at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, in 2001, Dashper said: "Living somewhere is not to do with actual time spent living somewhere, but to do with intention.

"For example, not having a plane ticket to fly away."


What: Fifth Auckland Triennial
Where and when: Various venues, May 10-August 11; see

- NZ Herald

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