Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Art finalists at new frontier

The work by four finalists for NZ’s top contemporary art award goes on show today.
 Tai Whetuki - House of Death Redux  by Lisa Reihana.
Tai Whetuki - House of Death Redux by Lisa Reihana.

Want to see the impact of digital culture on our visual lives?

Then head to Auckland Art Gallery for the Walters Prize Exhibition, which opens today. The four finalists have produced photo and video-based media works. Auckland Art Gallery Curator, Contemporary Art, Natasha Conland says they work with moving images in diverse ways, but one thing is clear: " ... historic events and materials are very much on the minds of these artists."

You won't have to walk far to see what Conland means. For the first time since the gallery re-opened in 2011, one of the artworks is on the forecourt. You'll find Nathan Pohio's work immediately outside the main entrance.

A change to the Walters Prize rules in 2013 means artists can exhibit either their nominated artwork or a new one. So, although Lisa Reihana was nominated for in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015, she's presenting a new work called Tai Whetuki - House of Death Redux, 2016. Joyce Campbell and Shannon Te Ao exhibit their original work as well as additional ones.

So who are these four finalists pioneering contemporary's art next frontier?


Joyce Campbell, Walters Prize finalist.
Joyce Campbell, Walters Prize finalist.

Nominated for: Flightdream, 2015, Two Rooms, Auckland, September 24-October 24 2015.

What is it? Three-channel HD video installation, 25-minute looped, colour, sound by Peter Kolovos, text by Mark von Schlegell, narrated by Andrew Maxwell.

Exhibiting: Flightdream II, 2016 and He Miro, The Thread, 2013.

A farm in Wairoa, the Marianas Trench, and a garden shed in Karekare on Auckland's west coast. They may not appear to have much in common, but each has influenced inter-disciplinary artist Joyce Campbell. Using photography, film and video, sculpture and old-fashioned photographic techniques, she makes work that explores the tension between the natural and human-made worlds.

Flightdream is loosely based on a short story by science fiction novelist Mark von Schlegell (USA/Germany), whom she befriended while studying in Los Angeles. The story itself was written in response to Campbell's earlier series of photographs, Marianas.

Detail form <i>Flightdream</i> by Joyce Campbell.
Detail form Flightdream by Joyce Campbell.

In Campbell's immersive video, sculptural objects - based on bio-models - morph into new shapes. She creates these by putting an electrical charge through silver objects so colloidal silver drops into the suspension of water in a small tank. It all takes place in a cramped garden shed at her Karekare home. Sometimes her children come to help with the work and Campbell films the resulting reactions.

Raised in the backblocks of Wairoa, Campbell read a lot and, after the family moved to Auckland, where her father worked as a stevedore, she would hang around the wharves and wonder what lay in the deep beyond. A fascination with the ocean developed, though she finds being underwater disorientating.

"How do you make sense of the world when you don't have the normal visual clues you rely on to make your way around, when you can't even tell which way to the surface?"


Walters Prize finalist Nathan Pohio.
Walters Prize finalist Nathan Pohio.

(Waitaha, Kati Mamoe, Ngai Tahu)Nominated for: Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! 2015

What is it? LED double-sided billboard and self-supporting frame.

Exhibiting: Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! 2015.

Nathan Pohio struck gold when he visited a Christchurch library to find images to use for dressing the set for Te Matatini - Kapa Haka Aotearoa competitions. There, in the archives, was one of the most compelling photos he'd ever seen.

A picture, taken by an unknown photographer in 1905, showed Ngai Tahu leaders in full ceremonial dress on horseback flanking Lord and Lady Plunket who were in their motor car. The custom of escorting manuhiri (visitors) on to marae on horseback for a powhiri or welcome is unique to the Ngai Tuahuriri iwi. Though it captures broader Ngai Tahu values of kaitiakitanga (stewardship) and manaakitanga (caring for others), the photo looked like a film poster, an image taken to publicise a Western.

Pohio had spent time in Santa Fe in 2012 as an artist in residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute working toward a solo exhibition at MoCNA, the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. He became particularly interested Navajo and Crow images and iconography; he considered more closely the types of images associated with the "wild West" and the ways Native American people have been co-opted into its stories.

Nathan Pohio's <i>Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun</i>.
Nathan Pohio's Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun.

From then on, images that revised those old stories and painted a more nuanced picture of how the West was won, grabbed his attention. It also played into Pohio's interest in "expanded cinema" - the idea that film and video - is an art form in and of itself.

Once he'd finished the set for Te Matatini, Pohoi began to think about using the photo he'd found in the Christchurch library to tell a new story. He opted to print it on PVC vinyl, keeping it black and white, and present it as an illuminated (with 30,000 LED lights) free-standing billboard as part of the SCAPE Public Arts project in Christchurch.

It stood 2.4m high and 8m across on a 4.9m free-standing billboard on the banks of the Avon River, between a city block owned by Ngai Tahu and the CBD, controlled, post-earthquakes, by the government.


Lisa Reihana, Walters Prize finalist.
Lisa Reihana, Walters Prize finalist.

(Ngapuhi, Ngati Hine, Ngai Tu) Nominated for: in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Saturday, May 2, 2015-Sunday, August 30 2015.
Exhibiting: Tai Whetuki - House of Death Redux, 2016

What is it? Two-channel ultra HD video, 14 minutes, stereo sound, colour

At the National Gallery of Victoria, a family - mum, dad, grandma and three daughters - sit watching a 15-minute, 58-second iteration of Lisa Reihana's in Pursuit of Venus [Infected] (iPOVi). The girls try to swish their hips like the dancers on the two-channel video, which recreates Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, Joseph Dufour's scenic wallpaper from 1804.

"You know," says mum, "the Maoris [sic] were master sailors. They sailed all the way from New Zealand to Hawaii and all over the Pacific without any modern instruments."

Dad nods, not taking his eyes away from the screen and adds: "I wonder what they first thought when they saw us Europeans; I wonder if they realised they were living in paradise and it was about to be completely stuffed up ... "

Since it screened at Auckland Art Gallery last year, Reihana's masterful use of the historic wallpaper to re-imagine encounters between Pacific and European peoples has been a conversation starter like no other.

<i>Tai Whetuki - House of Death Redux</i> by Lisa Reihana.
Tai Whetuki - House of Death Redux by Lisa Reihana.

The full-length 32-minute version became Auckland Art Gallery's most popular exhibition by a New Zealand artist, alive or dead, since 1997. Some 49,000 visitors saw it; it's now the country's entry in the 2017 Venice Biennale. As well as preparing for the Biennale and the Walters Prize exhibition, Reihana is completing work for various Australian galleries and starting a new project for Auckland Council.

"I haven't made a work before that's had such a broad-based appeal; I just wanted to make it to the best of my ability, but there are lots of resonances not just for us but for everywhere else, I think.

"One of the things I am really interested in, as a woman, is making art that is practical but beautiful and allows people to question things and see them from another perspective."

She nearly didn't accept the nomination because Biennale requirements meant iPOVi couldn't be shown again until Venice. But Reihana says she loves working at Auckland Art Gallery and has used the opportunity to explore one of the stories in iPOVi that deals with Polynesian traditions around death and mourning.


Shannon Te Ao, Walters Prize finalist.
Shannon Te Ao, Walters Prize finalist.

(Ngati Tuwharetoa) Nominated for: Two shoots that stretch far out, 2013-14; first exhibited Biennale of Sydney 2014

What is it? HD video, single-channel, 13 minutes and 22 seconds, colour, stereo sound.

Exhibiting: Okea ururoatia (never say die), 2016 and Two shoots that stretch far out, 2013-14.

You can picture the scene: a friend of a friend happens to be an artist and he wants to come round, sing waiata to your pet and film it. It could go one of two ways, but Shannon Te Ao says all those approached were happy to let their animals have their moment in the spotlight.

So Te Ao found himself geese, a swan, rabbit, chicken, wallaby and a donkey and set about making Two shoots that stretch far out.

"I wouldn't describe myself as really a dog or a cat person and I'd been quite cynical about the relationships people say they have with their animals," Te Ao acknowledges. "My sister is a devoted dog lover and that did get me questioning my own cynicism."

<i>Two shoots that stretch far out</i>, by Shannon Te Ao.
Two shoots that stretch far out, by Shannon Te Ao.

The aim was to highlight how we try to communicate with one another, but often end up talking past one another; the title references the whakatauki (proverb) E kimi ana i nga kawai i toro ki tawhiti, which describes a desire to find one's roots or trace relationships.

"I've always been interested in things which aren't black and white, the spaces in between, so I want to think about how we really communicate with one another," he says.

Born in Sydney, Te Ao grew up watching whatever was on TV (though he doesn't have one now) and was intrigued by the medium. He describes it as efficient - "you can shoot for one hour and have an hour's worth of material" - which extends to its ability to reach large audiences.

Walters Prize

• A biennial contemporary art award established 16 years ago.

• The winning artist receives $50,000; three finalists each get $5000.

• Shortlist decided on by four local jury members (artist Peter Robinson, and senior curators Emma Bugden, Dr Lara Strongman and Nina Tonga).

• Winner chosen by an international judge - this year, it's the deputy director and chief curator at Hong Kong's new M+ museum, Doryun Chong.

• Award announced at the Walters Prize award dinner on Friday, September 30.

For more background information on the prize, visit aucklandartgallery.com

- Weekend magazine

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