Lowdown:
What: Gus Fisher Gallery re-opening – We're Not Too Big to Care!
Where & when: Gus Fisher Gallery, Shortland St; Saturday, April 6 - Saturday, June 15

In 1984, New Zealand was changing faster than it had for decades. State monopolies were out; deregulation was in. Transport, telecommunications, postal services and even electricity companies were about to get competitive; it was goodbye to import duties and tariffs and jobs and old certainties.

Possibly to reassure us, the then 60-year-old supermarket chain Four Square let us know We're Not Too Big to Care! Thanks to its own advertising and the reworking of some of these images, notably by artist Dick Frizzell, the Four Square brand is indelibly linked to New Zealand art.

Now, 35 years after the slogan was used in advertising, it's back as the name of the first exhibition at the newly refurbished Gus Fisher Gallery on Shortland St, but the exhibition, with 16 artists from New Zealand, China, the United Kingdom and the United States, turns the catchphrase on its head to take a sobering look at what being too big to care can come to mean.

The gallery, part of the University of Auckland, shut late last year for a $200,000 refurbishment - its first in nearly 20 years and paid for by the university. Curator of contemporary art Lisa Beauchamp now wants it to become a go-to central-city destination for contemporary art lovers – and those who want something new to do during their lunch break.

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Beauchamp has high hopes for the gallery, which occupies a 1934 Grade I-listed heritage building previously home to Radio 1YA and TVNZ. While its new floor – jarrah parquet recycled from the old Christchurch Town Hall – bright pink foyer wall and library corner look stunning, she says the real change has been creating more exhibition space and shaking up its programming.

Alterations to the entrance mean art can now be displayed there – Beauchamp says it will make an ideal sculpture court – while a tiny enclave, once a telephone booth, is now a pocket-sized site-responsive space for artists.

Antechambers, which serve as entryways into larger rooms, will now be used for installations and moving image work alongside the existing Gallery One and newly created Gallery Two (it's in a former and very sizeable women's bathroom). A library nook, the Kete Aronui, is a new feature and will display books that exhibiting artists say have influenced them.

The glass domed ceiling of the Gus Fisher Gallery.
The glass domed ceiling of the Gus Fisher Gallery.

Given the building's significance as a historic place, renovations had to be sympathetic, but Beauchamp also wants the exhibitions – "socially relevant around pressing contemporary topics" – to reflect its heritage. That means featuring contemporary art with an emphasis on film and video by emerging and established artists.

"I don't come from a particularly cultural background; I come from Somerset, in the UK, a working class family so I am very straightforward about how I do things and I know to get people in an art space we're competing with lots of other attractions – going shopping, going to the cinema – so I am always thinking about why would people want to come to visit us?" she says.

"We have to give them something exciting and fun and meaningful, but it has to be meaningful for the artist as well as visitors. I am very aware of that. It's not going to be a white cube elitist space – I am against those – as you can see, it's very colourful. There's going to be sound, there's going to be films to watch, we're going to have our Kete Aronui, there'll be events."

The reopening exhibition, We're Not Too Big to Care, looks at the dehumanising nature of mass production and its impact on individuals, and features major international work such as Chinese artist Cao Fei's film Asia One. Shot inside the world's first fully automated sorting centre in Kunshan, China, the 63-minute film follows the only two human employees who, initially, seem to be closer to the robots and machines working around them.

John Baldessari, Learn to Dream, 2011, screenprint.
John Baldessari, Learn to Dream, 2011, screenprint.

Other international contributions come from American artist John Baldessari, whose Learn to Dream considers how corporate slogans can be used to manipulate a workforce; New York-based New Zealander Billy Apple also picks apart the fake sincerity and falsehoods often encapsulated in corporate branding (Apple also has older work on display at the neighbouring Lumley Centre) while The Duvet Brothers' video Blue Monday, with footage of Thatcher's Britain and, yes, the iconic New Order track, asks how much has changed since the 1980s.

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New Zealand work includes a new commission by Dunedin artist Aroha Novak. Her The Right to be Unequal is a carved wooden ladder, decorated with gold leaf and reaching toward the Gus Fisher glass-domed entrance way ceiling. Northland artist Carole Prentice's hand-drawn images are inspired by her uncle Ralph, who, in the 1950s, was the first to sell McDonald's French fried hot chips to go; Gabrielle Amodeo has animated the "see how it runs" catchphrase of Cerebos Table Salt; Angela Tiatia's The Fall is a snapshot of a society running close to empty and Emily Hartley-Skudder exhibits new work, Sunlight Soap, in Gallery Two.

Talks, tours and special events – the Basement Theatre's monthly Watercooler story-telling event will come to the Gus Fisher for one night only – complement the exhibition.