What: Walters Prize 2018 Exhibition
Where & when: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, until January 28, 2019
Artists nominated for:
• BAD VISUAL SYSTEMS, 2016 by Ruth Buchanan
• The Making of Mississippi Grind 2017, 2017 by Jacqueline Fraser
• Whol Why Wurld, 2017 by Jess Johnson and Simon Ward
• Fāgogo, 2016 by Pati Solomona Tyrell
There's a ramp leading to Jess Johnson and Simon Ward's Walters Prize-nominated work, Whol Why Wurld, and though you know you have to walk up that ramp — arrows even point the way — there's a moment's hesitation.
After all, this is an artwork in an art gallery as part of New Zealand's most prestigious contemporary art award; ordinarily, we don't walk on the exhibits in art galleries. But this Walters Prize exhibition is different; the work is multi-sensory, bright and lively and the nominated artists clearly want viewers to be actively involved with their work.
Take that ramp.
Johnson and Ward, whose work was originally exhibited at Carriageworks in Sydney, added it so viewers have to take a deliberate step up into the space to see their other-worldly, five-channel video installation. Even the five screens are arranged in a semi-circle because the duo didn't want them "read" as some sort of linear story.
"We wanted to co-opt the audience in," says Johnson. "I don't like the idea of audiences passively consuming something."
Playing on the worldwide web acronym, Whol Why Wurld features Johnson's fantastical drawings animated by Ward. The jewel-toned videos are unsettling but hypnotic. What is this world they've created? How close is it to our own future realities? Why are the humanoid figures near-naked and what have they been stripped of?
While they exhibited extensively in Australia, this is the first time their collective work has been seen in New Zealand. They're thrilled, saying getting family and friends to see the work for the first time is a celebration in itself.
Meanwhile, Pati Solomona Tyrell, one of the youngest artists nominated for the Walters Prize, is seeing his work, Fāgogo, in its full glory. Remarkably, it started life as coursework for his Manukau Institute of Technology Diploma of Visual Arts and was first exhibited at the St Paul St Gallery, part of Auckland University of Technology.
Auckland Art Gallery has invested in a 4K projector so Tyrell's video, which opens with a meticulously pronounced poem and features a multitude of restless and embellished bodies, stands 3.4m tall and 6.1m wide.
It feels as if it could swallow you whole — if you haven't already lost yourself in Tyrell's powerful portraits which lead into his video work. On one side of a narrow corridor, there are members of his family — the images are staunch, traditional and hierarchical — and, on the other, members of his other family, the FAFSWAG community of queer Pasifika artists.
Tyrell says the photos are packed with multiple meanings and explore the intersections of his own identity. Then there's the Samoan word Fāgogo itself, which references stories told in a shared environment. This is the creation of new stories about cultural, gender and sexually diverse identities told in an environment shared with many who might never have contemplated such issues.
"I'm just realising how powerful it is to have the faces of my community on the walls of the Auckland Art Gallery," he says. "One of the bases of my work is people, so to see the young queer bodies powerful and showing their mana, and to be viewed in that way, it means so much."
Likewise, bodies are central to Ruth Buchanan's BAD VISUAL SYSTEMS, a complex and multi-sensory installation that, in 2016, occupied multiple floors of the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington.
There's a metallic curtain that you'll want to run your fingers through, videos, soft furnishings, including handwoven carpets, and motion-activated speakers that can guide you through the exhibition. Lying prone on a couch, there's even a host who, at certain times, will spring into action and take viewers to see two other works in the gallery's collection.
"For me, the experience of being a visitor in an exhibition of mine means I really do try to address the visitor so that they have a sense of arriving, a sense of something unfolding, and I do try to play a lot with scale and relations between hard and soft, density and openness, opacity and transparency and I think the space here, at Auckland, is quite tight but I've done that on purpose. I want to offer to the viewer a sense of being aware of themselves in that space."
While her Auckland Art Gallery show is smaller than the Adam, it still explores the "body politic" and the place of individual bodies within it. With the Adam being part of Victoria University, Buchanan set out to look at the way institutions contribute to our knowledge of art and art history.
"I think most of us would agree that history — dealing with 'history' anyway — will always involve an engagement with questions around hierarchy, power and, I guess, institutional mechanisms, so they are big themes or questions to try to address. They're the driving concerns behind the show."
The production of "image culture" and how pop and celebrity culture, high fashion, media and rap music plays a part in this means bodies are at the heart of Jacqueline Fraser's work, The Making of In the Heat of the Night 2018. So are racial politics.
Fraser says she wanted to make a new work for the Walters Prize exhibition because people might get bored seeing the same thing again; it has only been a year since her The Making of Mississippi Grind 2017 was displayed at Auckland Art Gallery.
Black tinsel walls, collages and a green tinsel "box" suspended from the ceiling intrigue; music — Kendrick Lamar's Damn and Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror — make you want to dance but there's as much tension as tinsel here.
How does the Walters Prize work?
The Walters Prize started in 2002 to recognise outstanding contributions to contemporary art in New Zealand. Every two years, four New Zealand artists are nominated on the strength of exhibitions held here or overseas. Finalists are selected by an independent jury of art professionals and the winner determined by an international judge. Each finalist can redevelop or expand their nominated work, which the 2018 quartet has chosen to do. The winner, announced in November, receives $50,000; all four finalists $5000.