Meaning lost in translation

By T.J. McNamara, T. J. McNamara

Do we go for significance or sensation? The international group show Mash Up, running at Artspace since the Auckland Festival, poses this question. Like most group shows it is thematic - looking at cross-cultural understanding and translation.

The significance of the show and individual works is expounded eloquently by the literature accompanying the exhibition.

A work by Dutch-Swedish artist Olof Olsson is two texts on A4 paper. One text describes a group show and the other its planning. They are completely composite and ironic, and offer no visual sensation at all. This sets the tone of the show, which elsewhere makes big claims.

An instance is the work by the "Copenhagen Brains" for COPYSHOP called 100 Most Valuable Brands in the World, an entertaining video of 100 logos flashing past. There is a marvellous shock of recognition as you watch because despite the speed you could put a name to them all.

It is a lively work but is mentioned in the accompanying material as "a challenge to the current economic order" - a big claim for a short video shown in an obscure gallery in a country at the edge of the world.

The exhibition's avowed aim is to explore the processes of translation - what can be conveyed across one culture to another. Art and music are the great vehicles for such cross-cultural projects but only sporadically does this show succeed in its aims.

The successes are small scale and ironic, such as the NZ Government post office clock set on Kabul time or the comment on the apparatus of organised travel made by Japanese artist Shimabuku when he takes an octopus on a day-tour of Tokyo. Shigeyuki Kihara's photographs of herself as fa'a fafine posed in a 19th century manner are striking images with many layers of suggestion.

This leaves loops of Spanish dancers in costume coping with unfamiliar techno music and other works such as piles of copy paper that spell out codes. Documentary photographs come over as worthy but fall far short of the aims of this typically 21st century exhibition that leaves painting and sculpture wallowing in the wake of concept.

Further along K Rd at Michael Lett we also find a very modern manifestation. Here the gallery has, with unparalleled generosity, surrendered itself entirely to a construction that it can never sell and is site-specific so it can only exist for as long as it is on display.

The work, by Fiona Connor, is called Something Transparent (please go round the back). The front of the gallery has two full-glass windows and a glass door with much older leadlights at the top. This facade has been exactly reproduced in the layer on layer of 15 replicas that fill the gallery. The doors are locked so the forest of glass and framing is impenetrable. You either look from the footpath or obey the title and go round the back of the gallery and through the back door.

The work is distinctly different when you make the little journey. From the front with the light behind you see a mass of transparent reflections. From the back you see the world outside through a multitude of barriers with only one startlingly sharp reflection because of an unplanned optical oddity.

The claim is that the sculptor, by making facsimiles "liberated" from their function, focuses the viewers' attention on the detail and makes us more aware of what is around us.

This is really in the tradition of still-life painting. This elaborate sculpture is, like some still life, capable of metaphorical interpretation. This is an art gallery and you have to peer through layer after layer of mystery on the way to understanding. It is a bit more than a hall of mirrors and certainly worth a look.

From K Rd to the fourth floor of the Canterbury Arcade is a distance in more ways than one. At the Anna Miles Gallery the exhibition by Barbara Tuck called Fieldwork Central offers lots of attractive painterly sensation.

The starting point for these works is the landscape of Central Otago. Rocks, hills, lakes, pools, streams, horizons are worked into intense evocative tapestries by manipulating paint by a variety of gestures.

There is no one viewpoint but every element chimes together to suggest both scene and memory.

Sometimes a patterned shape suggests flowing water done in a Chinese manner as a reminder of early Chinese settlers and seekers.

This is a notable feature of Li Bo's Breath as much as the two horizons and hills and sky of the innumerable shifts that give energy to a fine work such as Atua Sweet Affliction.

The same kind of restless, intense, almost jewelled handling is apparent in the five large paintings that make up the exhibition by Richard Boyd-Dunlop at Aesthete Gallery in Parnell.

These attractive paintings use patterns of triangles over figurative shapes. The patterns refer to the complexity of DNA although they do not incorporate the helix.

The work is said to focus on conservationist issues but more apparent is the delight in colour and mystery. A World Boat floats between a deliciously painted sky and sea. Link has a green elongated shape like the spinning earth. Most attractive is Metamorphosis where gold and red are combined with a crouching figure that takes wing in a series of shapes that push on energetically into space.

It adds up to an impressive show because of the sensation of sheer delight in colour, shape and life rather than its significations.

At the galleries

What: Mash Up, an international group show curated by Julia Rodrigues
Where and when: Artspace, 300 K Rd, to April 29
TJ says: A lively international show that asks many questions, provides no answers and has little that captivates the eye.

What: Something Transparent, by Fiona Connor
Where and when: Michael Lett, 478 K Rd, to May 16
TJ says: The whole gallery given over to 15 exact replicas of its front door and windows. The door is locked; to appreciate the transparency of the work you have to go round the back. A metaphor for art now?

What: Fieldwork Central, by Barbara Tuck
Where and when: Anna Miles Gallery, 4J 47 High St, Auckland, April 24 to May 2
TJ says: Each painting has a multiplicity of details of views of central Otago worked into a dense tapestry of paint and shape.

What: DNA, by Richard Boyd Dunlop.
Where and when: Aesthete Gallery, 251 Parnell Rd, to April 28.
TJ says: An exhibition where the concept of DNA as colour and complexity is wedded to symbolic shapes in spectacular but intricate paintings.

- NZ Herald

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