A Brisbane exhibition celebrates the dark side of NZ art and film, writes Andrew Clifford

My love is alien, sang Tim Finn in the Split Enz hit Poor Boy to start his solo set at the opening party for Unnerved, an exhibition of New Zealand art - in Brisbane. With outlandish costumes and stage routines, Split Enz were remarkable in the denim-clad music scene of the time, but they would be right at home in the New Zealand depicted here.

Unnerved: The New Zealand Project is the first substantial exhibition entirely of New Zealand art seen in Australia since Headlands at the MCA in Sydney in 1992. But Unnerved curator Maud Page, Australia's only curator of New Zealand and Pacific Art, is quick to clarify that this is not the Headlands sequel: "Headlands was a very, very different show and had a very different agenda," she says. "It was a more comprehensive show and it was curated by New Zealanders."

Rather than attempt an absolute survey of New Zealand art Unnerved looks at specific themes, which gallery director Tony Ellwood describes as "a rich, dark vein that recurs in New Zealand contemporary art and film. Many of the works create a sense of psychological or physical unease for the viewer".

Noting our brooding landscape, he says it's an aesthetic that would not be possible in Australia.

A few weeks earlier Ellwood was in New Plymouth for a gathering of New Zealand museum professionals. He was eager to promote the project but nervous about how it would be received by his Kiwi colleagues. He also notes a responsibility to remain relevant for his local constituency, which has close links to New Zealand through sport, trade and culture. Not to mention those New Zealanders living right on his doorstep.

"We'd like to think this exhibition might also act as a reminder of home for the expatriate New Zealanders living in Australia - who make up around 4 per cent of Brisbane's population - and make them proud of the astounding contemporary art being created in their country."

One hundred and twenty works from more than 30 artists appear in Unnerved, largely sourced from the Queensland Art Gallery's collection of more than 400 contemporary New Zealand items. Much of the collection was bought for the Asia-Pacific Triennial (APT), the gallery's flagship show and key point-of-difference, established in 1993.

With this exhibition, the second in a series of country-specific shows, Page says they wanted to show the gallery's commitment to art from the region beyond the interests of the APT. "It's shaped by the interests of the APT but it also goes well beyond that - Yvonne Todd's work, for example, does not speak to the regional Pacific, and there are quite a few works like that, that don't."

The exhibition (and collection) features all 80 works from Gavin Hipkins' pop-gothic photographic series, The Homely, a claim no New Zealand institution can rival. Other photographs include Bill Culbert's light vignettes, Anne Noble's strangely delightful Ruby's Room, moody historic landscapes by Mark Adams, and strikingly melancholic portraits of stuffed birds and museum-owned hei tiki by Fiona Pardington.

There is good representation of emerging artists, such as Campbell Patterson who also featured in the last APT, through to the Queensland Art Gallery's original New Zealand acquisition, a curious 1967 painting of egg shells in a colander by Michael Smither. There are plenty in between and much more still in the vault - Page acknowledges as being instrumental in earlier purchases, Brisbane-based New Zealander Anne Kirker who worked at the gallery from 1988-2006.

The most dramatic feature is Cosmo McMurtry and Jim McMurtry by Michael Parekowhai, a pair of giant inflatable rabbits originally proposed as a permanent installation for Cathedral Square in Christchurch, now shown together for the first time. In the adjacent gallery a fibreglass seal, titled The Horn of Africa, precariously balances a grand piano on its nose. The strange menagerie playfully suggest complex issues of trade, culture and post-colonial settlement. There is also Lisa Reihana's haunting Digital Marae series, also entirely from the collection - among the models, drawn from friends and family to enact the oral histories of ancestral figures, is Lord of the Rings star Lawrence Makoare.

Cinema and photography play an important role in Unnerved, coming together in works such as Nathan Pohio's ghostly video of a lurching sailing ship, doomed to endlessly play-out the same short scenario because of being filmed from a lenticular photograph.

An important influence in the exhibition is Sam Neill's 1995 documentary Cinema of Unease, which summarises our film legacy of black comedy and stark environments, perhaps culminating in Heavenly Creatures and The Piano. All of these play as part of a comprehensive "New Zealand Noir" film programme along with more recent fare including Taika Waititi's kooky Eagle vs Shark and Florian Habicht's Rubbings From a Live Man.

More overtly creepy are Yvonne Todd's photos of women in glamorous dresses, often based on pulp fiction characters, which appear more spooked than sophisticated. Described by Brisbane-based expat New Zealand curator Robert Leonard as "exemplary sufferers", Todd's portraits are sickly and claustrophobic in their pristine portrayals of doll-like beauties.

These melodramatic figures of suburban gothic fantasy make you wonder what the artist's upbringing was like. "As a child I was desperate for attention because both parents worked," says Todd with a wry grin, recalling deathly dull dinner conversations about tax as both were accountants. Jealous of the attention less-fortunate relatives and acquaintances would get because they had asthma or disabilities, she recalls faking illnesses and even jumping from a tree in the hope of breaking a limb. She laughs about it now: "There is humour to be found in pathos - it doesn't necessarily have to be tragic."

What: Unnerved: The New Zealand Project
Where and when: Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, to July 4

On the web: qag.qld.gov.au/exhibitions/current/unnerved