T J McNamara on the arts
T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: The frame tells the story

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A still from the video Black Moon by Amie Siegel. Photo / Natalie Slade
A still from the video Black Moon by Amie Siegel. Photo / Natalie Slade

The 5th Auckland Triennial at Auckland Art Gallery is challenging in many ways. One is that it forces you to explore every part of the gallery. Works are tucked away in corners and on stairs and mixed with the gallery's permanent collections.(From top): Michael Lin, Atelier Bow Wow and Andrew Barrie's paper house; a still from the video Prepared Piano for Movers (Haussmann) by Angelica Mesiti. Pictures/Natalie Slade

In the midst of the Auckland Art Gallery's traditional and New Zealand paintings, you can find a structure made of framing and builder's paper.

It is two rooms with a gap between, both equipped with bunk beds. Garden plants and the house dog are drawn on the paper. It is open at the top and a bird roosts under the eaves. In the open space hang clothes. It is Chinese workers' accommodation designed by Michael Lin in conjunction with Atelier Bow Wow and Andrew Barrie. The end wall of the gallery is painted with an abstract design and also accommodates four videos showing aspects of building construction. This white structure and its accompaniments are an elaborate comment on the nature of building and sets the theme for the whole of the work in the gallery, exploring living space.

Like almost all the Triennial work on show it is immaculately made.

Throughout the whole exhibition production values are of the highest order. Even the sculptural work in the adjacent staircase space is carefully jointed as it articulates its way through the given space. It is a collaborative work by Saffronn Te Ratana, Ngataiharuru Taepa and Hemi Macgregor.

Level one houses work by seven artists. In the two videos by Amie Siegel, the first has its moments of power. It shows a land development that has been abandoned. Fine houses have been built but never occupied and their windows and doors are boarded up. Perhaps most telling of all, it shows many swimming pools, some filled with stagnant water, some empty. This abandoned, derelict suburb is backed by mountains but the land is arid and dry. It is a telling documentary but the director is quoted as saying she wanted to overlay it with other elements. She has chosen to make it a backdrop for a narrative where a group of attractive young women dressed in army fatigues and carrying automatic machine guns make their way.

They stalk with all the cliches of soldiers in peril, hiding against walls, ducking around corners, covering each other and finally bivouacking in an empty swimming pool in a scene that is imaginatively lit. The blind and boarded-up houses are touching. The young people playing soldiers are a little absurd.

Siegel's other work uses the house designed by Ian Athfield on the coast near Wellington. It has become the vehicle for romantic anxieties conveyed by shots of cliffs and sea, with cobweb-cloaked doorknobs and the house as fortress.

Next, we see a video of a village. The photography by Zhou Tao is excellent, notably quietly dramatic shots of cats watching a rat.

The work in the next alcove reflects a real-life criminal drama in a way consistent with the practice of contemporary art. Luke Willis Thompson has brought into the gallery the garage doors a teenager was tagging when he was stabbed and killed by their owner.

This is a classic case of, "You've got to be told or you'd never know". The doors are plain and grim. The tagging is erased, but accompanying information is written on the wall. It is a stark reality but only by the widest definition an artwork.

Tracey Emin's bed has left a legacy and the installation by Australians Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro is part of it. It has all the appurtenances of a modern suburban house, including a wine cellar in the ceiling even though the ceiling is still lying on the floor. In keeping with the theme of the Triennial the building processes of the house are reflected in the shower base and walls still to be installed. The very framing of the house is just an indication and a builder's saw is in the centre of the whole display. The work only mildly hints at a way of life and remains banal.

Around the corner is a curious assortment of material by Yto Barrada about the French in Morocco. It is called A Modest Proposal, the title of a deeply ironic 18th-century work by Jonathan Swift about eating babies. As it alludes to the French military and colonialism it must emphasise the irony of foreign occupation.

A neat example of physical struggle with culture is tucked away in the Palladian staircase on the Wellesley St side. Here we have a video by Angelica Mesiti, which shows the precarious effort required to get a grand piano up the tight circular stair of a 19th century apartment building in France.

On the top floor of the gallery an installation called The Lab Project Space combines with a research space. This is designed to be the focus of the whole Triennial. Here, and throughout the gallery, there is diffidence about colour. The Triennial is challenging but certainly not festive.

At the galleries

What: The 5th Auckland Triennial

Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, Kitchener St, to August 11

TJ says: The headquarters of the Triennial is all videos and installations in the admired modern manner but is worth the time and effort needed to respond to its various situations. The comprehensive information on the wall helps.

- NZ Herald

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