T.J. McNamara on the Walters Prize

By T.J. McNamara

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Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! By Nathan Pohio
Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! By Nathan Pohio

There is a feeling, notably among curators of exhibitions and art educators, that painting and conventional sculpture are played out and time-based installations and video are where the force is at.

The works selected for the Walters Prize, now on show at Auckland Art Gallery and to be announced later this month, are three video works and a billboard display representing each artist's body of work.

Perhaps, too, the Jury decided Maori sense of history, myth and spiritual grace might be a fertile strengthening for art here. Of the four finalists, three are Maori and this sensibility is the basis of their art.

Raise the anchor, unfurl the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun!
By Nathan Pohio

Raise the anchor, unfur the sails, set course to the centre of an ever setting sun! by Nathan Pohio, stands as a giant billboard outside the gallery's main entrance. It was originally installed in 2015 in Christchurch on the riverbank close to the Remembrance Bridge near what had been a boundary between Ngai Tahu and Crown land.

The year is 1905 and it shows the then Governor-General, Lord Plunket and his Lady on their way to Tuahiwi where a claim by the Ngai Tahu was presented.

The vice-regal party are in an early motorcar; behind them, riding high on horseback, are 10 tribal leaders in ceremonial cloaks. All are depicted frontally and it makes for an impressive display.

Shifted from its original position and relevance to Christchurch, it remains a monumental display with much to say about history, race relations and land disputes. Also adding to its force is a comparison to the history of the American West in epic films where horses play as an essential part and, obliquely, to the European takeover of Indian territory.

The image was taken by C. I. Jennings for the Canterbury Times and is no personal snapshot, but a once widely disseminated public image. As art, it is selected rather than created but it is visually impressive and provocative.

Two shoots that stretch far out by Shannon Te Ao.
Two shoots that stretch far out by Shannon Te Ao.

Two shoots that stretch far out,
by Shannon Te Ao

The other three works, on the gallery's top floor, are all videos and, of those, only one has extra props. Two shoots that stretch far out 2013-14 by Shannon Te Ao was originally installed at the 19th Biennale of Sydney, 1914.

The artist sits or stands playing St Francis speaking to the birds. Except that he chants a waiata about loss in Maori translated to English rather than Italian or Latin. He declaims to geese, a swan, rabbits, chickens, a wallaby and a donkey. Te Ao's attention to nature goes further; an area filled with plants,(mostly weeds) in pots, is at the front of the room where his video plays so his attention extends to them.

The work is rather absurd but it has wit, charm and acknowledges the difficulties of making a connection with "other" and problems of verbal communication.

Tai Whetuki - House of Death Redux, 2016 by Lisa Reihana.
Tai Whetuki - House of Death Redux, 2016 by Lisa Reihana.

Tai Whetuki - House of Death
by Lisa Reihana

This singularly powerful work is an addendum to Lisa Reihana's splendid, long installation piece In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) that is the main part of her entry for the Prize. That piece has as background the bright and sunny view of the Pacific set out in scenic wallpaper from 1815. But, against that idyllic background, it contained scenes of misunderstanding and violence.

This offshoot, Tai Whetuki - House of Death, plays on two screens. It is very dark, almost black and white, and a special feature of the presentation is the polished black floor, which deepens the space and reflects the action.

It deals with a Maori vision of death; Hine-nui-te-po, the goddess of night and death, is the central figure and it was shot in deep bush at Karekare, itself a scene of massacre. It begins with the death throes of a warrior and the scarifying of arms and chest by mourning women.

The spirit of the warrior is dragged along the river of death; bones are cleaned (a Maori custom in times past) and the spirit of death is clad in an impenetrable white cuirass a little at odds with the atmosphere of the dark underworld. The netherworld established by the reflective floor and the drama of the bush setting make this a strong coda to the epic work that precedes it.

Detail from Flightdream by Joyce Campbell.
Detail from Flightdream by Joyce Campbell.

Flightdream
by Joyce Campbell

Flightdream is work on two screens, which continues Joyce Campbell's earlier work Marianas that evokes the extreme depths of the sea. This work is based on a short story by Mark von Schlegell, a German/American writer about a dream of descending the depths of the ocean in search of a sea monster.

Throughout the 25 minutes of the film, patterns of veil-like forms continually evolve and spread to a sound track of experimental noise. The forms are created by the corrosive action of chemicals on silver and parallel the artist's earlier work on recording the patterns of growth of bacteria.

The constant unfolding and changing of the transparent forms on the two screens is compelling although the narrative is only implied as background for the creation of a special, mysterious atmosphere.

What: The Walters Prize: Nominees
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery. Toi O Tamaki, to October 8
TJ says: Works selected by a jury to represent the achievement of four artists to be judged for the $50,000 Walters Prize. Three videos and a billboard require a commitment of time from viewers and installation space from the gallery.

- NZ Herald

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