T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Samples offer easy peek

By T.J. McNamara

Trawling through the work of 20 artists is a daunting task for most but a smaller gallery is offering a simpler way to taste the Auckland event.

The Cloud of Unknowing, a video by Ho Tzu Nyen, showing at St Paul Street Gallery, AUT School of Art and Design. Photo / Natalie Slade
The Cloud of Unknowing, a video by Ho Tzu Nyen, showing at St Paul Street Gallery, AUT School of Art and Design. Photo / Natalie Slade

Patience is needed to deal with the demands of the 5th Auckland Triennial. Working through the videos and installations of the 20 artists at the Auckland Art Gallery takes time but the splendid work by two artists at the St Paul Street Gallery offers a simpler way to sample the nature of the event.

In the larger room is a video animation, Parallax by Shahzia Sikander from Pakistan. It is a three-channel work on a huge screen and is accompanied by surround sound music by Du Yun.

The work is largely abstract though from time to time human forms appear. The work is layered and the background, continually in motion, has the character of vivid watercolour washes enlarged by digital techniques but keeping the sense of painterly gesture. Over this a number of darker forms hover that gather like flocks of birds or fall in cascades of colourful flowers.

Patterns appear and constantly change.The music is thin and often discordant but reinforces the feeling of celestial forces at work beyond our particular world.

There are often times when the work is very beautiful.

The other work, The Cloud of Unknowing by Ho Tzu Nyen from Singapore is much less lyrical. The title comes from a Middle English mystical poem about knowing God through a process of meditation. The work here is about stress and peril and provides metaphors for the pressures of life.

Eight solitary contemporary characters are shown driven to the point of breakdown. They live on different floors of a dilapidated apartment building and include a very fat man, two middle-aged women, one of whom has given up eating, a man afflicted by skin disease, a scholar, and a tormented victim. The victimised character descends to the water-filled basement. The glimpses of a climax in each life are linked by transitions where a drummer plays accompanied by vivid flashes of red.

The soundtrack is almost entirely drumming except for one twitter of birdcalls.

The work is a single channel video projection but the sound has 13 channels. An unseen bass drum is played so loud at climatic moments that the building vibrates.

We develop deep emotional sympathy with these unfortunate people. Finally each is enveloped in clouds of vapour.

When the camera reaches the top of the building windows open and a burst of radiance is followed by real smoke from behind the screen. Everything ultimately dissolves into cloud.

The effect is cinematic but there is no clear narrative. It remains unclear why the character in the basement is stripped to white lacy underwear.

We can deduce from the scholar's increasingly haphazard writing that he is on edge. What is evoked is the feeling that the most disparate of people suffer stress in their own way and everything ultimately dissolves into cloud. Whatever the viewer makes of it, whether the cloud is God or death, the experience of this work is very powerful and must be a high spot in the Triennial.

The work of Ross Ritchie at Whitespace Gallery, called Seeing in the Dark, is similarly enigmatic. He has had a long career. The Auckland City Gallery is now showing a fine painting he did in the 60s. It has a splendid painterly quality and the current exhibition, is also notable for the virtuoso handling of paint.

The dark of the title refers to the background of the work.

Out of this black background figures and shapes emerge. One shape continually present is a skull, solidly bony and with deep and convincing cavities. No flat mask here but a strong symbol of mortality. Accompanying the skulls are luminous semicircular openings like the doors of a furnace.

Then the oddity really begins. As well as these forms there may be an old American fighter plane from World War II as in Pacific 2 or, in Two Women there are two figures sitting close together confronting the viewer. One has a white circle for an eye and the other a black. Are they friends, sisters, lovers? Nothing is explicit.

Even where you might expect a narrative in a painting, such as Salome where a severed head, which might well be John the Baptist, rests on a table, there is another head floating in the dark, solemn, serious, unidentifiable, just a witness.

One of the most powerful works, called IV, is the simplest. White lines converge in the blackness, the skull looms high at the centre of the work and in the foreground is a glass jug of water painted with the utmost skill. It is a continuation of the skills and powerful imagination of an important painter.

Sanderson Contemporary Art has shifted from Parnell to bright new premises in Newmarket and their first show is still lifes by Damien Kurth and titled Duplex.

There are no flowers or fruit but carefully painted oil drums, peeling masking tape, collections of jars - some with oily substances.

The paintings have all the skills of traditional still life but deliberately reverse expectations by suggesting nothing natural but the acrid realities of a mechanised age.


At the galleries

What: Shahzia Sikander and Ho Tzu Nyen at the 5th Auckland Triennial
Where and when: St Paul Street Gallery, Level 1, 40 St Paul St, to June 29
TJ says: Two outstanding video contributions to the Triennial, one splendidly pictorial and the other psychologically gripping.

What: Seeing in the Dark by Ross Ritchie
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to June 8
TJ says: Masterly works by one of our most eminent painters, dark and filled with intimations of mortality.

What: Duplex by Damien Kurth
Where and when: Sanderson, Osborne Lane, 2 Kent St, Newmarket, to June 2
TJ says: Very accurately drawn and painted still-life. No fruit or bowls but stained jars and oil drums.

- NZ Herald

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