Much-loved board games and contemporary art grounded in New Zealand politics may not appear to have much in common, but one of the country's most successful artists has combined them in a exhibition which is far from child's play.

Berlin-based Simon Denny, NZ's representative at the 2015 Venice Art Biennale and a two-times Walters Prize finalist, is using popular games like Twister, Jenga, Operation, Settlers of Catan, The Game of Life and Jack Straws to question the high-stakes direction we want to head in.

His first exhibition in Auckland for six years, The Founder's Paradox includes a life-size sculpture of Denny as the hapless victim of the game Operation: lying in a tomb (or, he says, possibly a toy box) tech-enabled, lifeless and ready to be picked apart; seemingly bright and breezy art for world-making games like Settlers of Catan which, on closer inspection, have darker undercurrents and a Twister mat with quotes about homelessness and colonisation printed on it.

The Founder's Paradox also features a bronze Jack Straws set by sculptor Michael Parekowhai, his former teacher at the University of Auckland, comprising guns, saws, swords, ladders, crutches and a walking stick. Denny sees it as a reference to colonialism and how, as we move forward, we continue to deal with our past.


"Some of the ideas that I like to dip into often have a complexity to them," says Denny, whose Venice project Secret Power looked at the links between technology, power and privacy. "I think games are familiar to people - we're used to reading rule sets for games and playing them - so it's a way to make things a bit cute and easier to understand, easier to picture as a system."

The exhibition is in two sections; one with games that require cooperation and physical dexterity and the other with world-making fantasy games where players accumulate resources, complete quests and eliminate their enemies to be successful. But they can't be played because, says Denny, the sculptures, illustrations and dioramas are complex and difficult to make.

He sees two competing visions for NZ's future, both equally high-stakes. One is a resurgent collectivism, promoted by young kiwi Max Harris who, in his book The New Zealand Project, urges the country to embrace care, creativity and community rather than individualism; the other is a techno-libertarian vision personified by controversial American entrepreneur and Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel.

Artist Simon Denny's takes a gamble with his first Auckland show in six years, which asks what future we want for New Zealand. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Artist Simon Denny's takes a gamble with his first Auckland show in six years, which asks what future we want for New Zealand. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Billionaire Thiel was granted NZ citizenship in 2011 despite having only spent 12 days in the country; a typical residency requirement is 1350 days. He then bought the 193ha Glendhu Bay Farm in Wanaka. Denny says Thiel was influenced by a book called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State.

"When people see this exhibition, I would really like them to think about the contemporary landscape of politics and where, as New Zealanders, we should be investing our thoughts and feelings about what we want here, how we want to structure our world," he says.

He thinks we're often not fully aware of what beliefs, ideologies and world views truly motivate public figures, like business people and politicians, so we need to dig deeper to learn more about these and question whether it's what we want for NZ.

Living in Germany for a decade, Denny still considers himself a New Zealander.

"I am still very invested in our country and where it goes. My nearest and dearest still live here and my life is quite precarious; I hop between lots of countries and, even though I live in Germany, I'm sort of based all around the world," he says. "I vote and I try to read news dialogues but I was cautious about entering into, in New Zealand, a discussion about New Zealand politics..."

He worked with friend and art writer Anthony Byrt to gain additional insights into the political scene and says reading books like Harris' The New Zealand Project helped him to ensure his work was well-researched.

Denny was this year one of five international artists shortlisted for the Absolut Art Award; his most recent NZ exhibition The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom was at Te Papa in 2014.

What: Simon Denny - The Founder's Paradox
Where & when: Michael Lett Gallery, 312 K-Rd Cnr K-Rd and East St, until December 22.