You never see the terms "conceptual" and "body art" out on the town together. Instead, as per the New Zealand Body Art Showcase at Aotea Centre last weekend, body art is less about high theory than eye-catching visuals.

The showcase posters included a turbaned man sporting a paint-on vest and tiger pants. Thankfully, the show itself didn't feature such high-camp treatment of "exotic" cultures.

Instead, the dominant style was epitomised by Dylanna Schnetler's fierce, fern-frond Xena stomping around in what looked like metallic ski boots. It's a proudly Westie aesthetic, incorporating Titirangi's native birds and bush, and Henderson's Goths and television fantasy creatures.

We saw a giant fox with bat wings, a rugby ball sprouting butterfly wings, two lizards and a weta (all well-researched), and a wildman with sheepskin dreads. Waterfalls flowed between breast mountains. Twigs for hair - literal birds' nests - are in. All very Weta Workshop (incidentally, it's one of the sponsors).


Many entrants work in screen make-up (or would like to), and compared with client briefs the showcase is seen as encouraging "blue sky dream" design. Yet there was still an official theme: Aotearoa. Cue beautifully knobbly pohutukawa trees, pukekos, Four Square men and fluoro pois.

More original were Yolandra Bartram's caged bird - chain wings and a birdcage head-dress - and Angela Pethig's pavlova Snow White, accompanied by seven torso-head dwarfs, including a pothead "Dopey". Not everyone appreciated the joke: "Shocking," muttered the Te Puni Kokiri award presenter.

While there was far more national celebration than criticism in the art itself, and the unbelievably amateurish technical hiccups didn't do justice to the impressive creations, the musicians between sections entertained with a really smart edge.

The Toa Maori group's River Queen costumes incorporated muskets and military jackets, in a subtle reminder of history, while male hip-hop group JGeek and the Geeks were a blast. They bring MC Hammer pants, black lipstick and satirical lyrics to a new generation with their "metro Maori sophistication" and over-the-top exuberance (check them out on YouTube if you're not one of the 675,000 who have already done so).

Painting on bodies - and putting them on show as object - is an incredibly evocative, intimate, trust-dependent art form. Each piece takes about eight hours of painstaking work, ideally in a well-heated room for the model's sake. Artists can choose whether to accentuate body features or just treat the body as a two-dimensional surface rolled into an inconveniently irregular cylinder.

But in all cases, suggests first-time entrant Ellen Sorensen, "there's so much life in a person" that the way the model embodies the art will give it a unique vitality.

It's not often a canvas can breathe and move on its own.

So why isn't the "high art" world interested in the medium? It has represented scads of human bodies on art gallery walls - why paint bodies but not paint on bodies? Sorensen, an Elam graduate whose student job was face-painting, points out that those artists who make minimal artworks out of dust on the ground can talk about them for half an hour. Finding all possible interpretations is what they are trained to do. On the other hand, "there's so much information in a person - it's overload for an artist".

Bodies - animated dust, if you will - contain so many meanings, so many codes. Any artist keen to step up to the challenge of working conceptually with such a rich site?

I hope so.