Anthony Byrt on the art world's brightest young things.

In 2016 the young, Auckland-based artist Tim Wagg made one of the best New Zealand artworks of recent years. His video, 1991, seemed, initially, to be a strangely fastidious look at 3D printing; the camera trained on a printer as it starts to secrete little strands of plastic. But then the unmistakable voice of the film's narrator cuts in - Ruth Richardson, former Finance Minister and architect of the 1991 "Mother of All Budgets." She describes her early life, where her political beliefs came from and then her radical transformation of New Zealand's economy.

The object being printed slowly reveals itself as she speaks: a 3D version of a weight that reads "N.Z. ECONOMY", copied from a Tom Scott cartoon in which Richardson, as a superhero, flies across the sky, holding it aloft. In a neat Freudian twist, Wagg was born within days of Richardson's welfare-busting budget, which implicitly changes her into a kind of maternal anti-goddess; the creative-destructive economic life-giver who ushered Wagg's generation into the world.

1991 was first shown in the 2016 Artspace exhibition New Perspectives, which brought together New Zealand's most promising young artists. In 2017, Wellington's Adam Art Gallery checked the same pulse with The Tomorrow People. Inevitably, there were overlaps (Wagg, for example, was in both shows). And next week, several artists who appeared in either or both exhibitions will be in the Auckland Art Fair's "Projects" section, curated by critic Francis McWhannell and Te Tuhi's new artistic director, Gabriela Salgado.

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There is, then, a growing consensus about who the emerging talents are. Harder, though, is defining what makes them special. Their respective practices vary hugely, so they're not a cohesive "movement", as such. But they are linked by one obvious thing: their age.

These are the millennials; the offspring of Jim Bolger's government, born into New Zealand's nascent globalisation, who became the first native children of the internet. And the best among them have started to understand and articulate the uniqueness of this position - which is defined by the irreconcilable global forces that shape them.

What does it mean, for instance, to crave revolution - to want to smash down the system embodied by Richardson's reforms and everything that came with them - while also actually quite enjoying the perks of the hyper-capitalist honey-trap you've grown up in?

This schizophrenia is the key to Hikalu Clarke's work.

Clarke, who has just landed a much-coveted residency at London's Gasworks later this year, has for the past few years been exploring the ways post-9/11 architecture and urban planning is shaped as much by fears of terrorism and anarchy as economic aspiration. Reinforced signage and sculptures double as anti-ramming barriers; strategic planting counteracts easy freedom of assembly; designer park benches allow people to sit comfortably but are actually formed by their real purpose - to stop the homeless sleeping on them.

For the art fair, Clarke is working with an object that would, initially, horrify the Occupy crew: a $250,000 car - the Lexus LC500.

His intervention is to make an enormous asymmetrical cover for it from military-grade reflective material, with a long, pleated trail. On the one hand, it's an absurdly haute-couture veneration. But it's also an act of urban camouflage. And, wearing the cover, the machine becomes something militaristic, invasive, even aggressive. Like Billy Apple and Simon Denny before him, it's hard to know whether Clarke is for or against - which, if most of us were honest, is the position we find ourselves in too.

Christina Pataiali'i studied alongside Clarke at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design. She's one of the most gifted painters to have emerged here in years: a pure talent who does things with a spraygun or brush other painters can only sit back and puff out their cheeks over. The irreconcilable tension in her work is different from Clarke's though: hers is the attempt to navigate the contradictions of her upbringing between Auckland's Samoan and Palagi worlds - "raised Samoan", she says, "but without the traditional reference points". Instead, hers were pop culture icons that had special status within her community: among them Mike Tyson, Tupac, professional wrestlers, even Kenny Rogers.

For the art fair, Pataiali'i is making an enormous wall painting: an imagined portrait of the American West.

This ties to her upbringing - to country music, John Wayne, spaghetti Westerns. And in 2009, following the GFC, she spent time in Arizona, where she saw firsthand the ghost suburbs filled with foreclosed homes and abandoned property developments pocking the desert. As she points out, there's an inevitable link here to the cowboy and the Indian too; which, played out globally, stands for the indigenous figure versus the coloniser.

For Pataiali'i, it's vital that her work reaches towards these international currents, beyond the specifics of her personal experience - something her immense skill as an image-maker, who riffs on everything from Picasso to graffiti and The Simpsons, is sure to guarantee.

Louisa Afoa's text work for the art fair, on the other hand, is joltingly simple: a short story really, based on a Facebook post by a friend about an immigrant family trying to stay in New Zealand. Afoa, whose work is always deeply personal, uses this as a springboard for her own recollections of her upbringing as a young Samoan in Auckland: "I remember when Mercy Mission used to bring food parcels to our house," she writes. "My favourite were the juice cups they would use on aeroplanes because we would freeze them to make iceblocks."

Much like Pataiali'i's paintings, Afoa's wall-text harpoons not only New Zealand's racist histories, but also the hidden prejudicial connections between race, class and the brutalities of urban life for many Pacific people.

"I hope that my work can create a space that challenges assumptions," she says, "by sharing personal experiences of being from a low-income family and being a person of colour, which has the potential to empower audiences who connect to the work through similar experiences."

Wagg likes the idea that he and his contemporaries are linked by a principle of tension: by a sense, both in their work and in the world in which they're living, that "things are starting to fall apart; that we can't just keep sticking Band-Aids on stuff."

Wagg's own contribution to the fair is a triptych of digital photographs printed on silk that become, in his words, "networked paintings". The first image of water at sunset seems like it's on fire. In the next, two people clasp hands awkwardly. In the final panel, we see a mountain landscape through a digital camera's viewfinder. Wagg has attached to these laser-cut objects he's adapted from images on blogs and websites - roses and daggers, a cut snake, a person lying in bed surrounded by a text that reads "I didn't go to work today ... I don't think I'll go tomorrow."

It's less direct than 1991, but for Wagg, speaks of the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in our political times: that symbols of resistance can turn into lifestyle logos, that we're losing empathy and physical connection, that our relationship with the environment is so often now mediated through the screen.

In the Trump era, and with the growing sense that the world is close to terminal political decline, Wagg's work is emblematic of a new sincerity and confrontation emerging in contemporary art; a sense there's a future that must be fought for. Confused, these artists might be,but they're thinking more clearly and more hopefully than most of us.

Lowdown

Auckland Art Fair The Cloud, May 23-27