It's unusual for New Zealand critics to give any artist a public roasting. So last summer, when commentator Daniel Michael Satele severely criticised Tessa Laird and Tiffany Singh on prominent art site EyeContact for cultural arrogance regarding their 2010 work Wihaan, it caused a minor sensation. Neither artist responded, until I visited Singh this week.
Wihaan was created as an Auckland City Council "Micro Site" temporary public artwork. It is a Thai spirit house - a small raised wooden "temple" where people can make offerings to local spirits - and, Singh says, the artists hoped to inspire "respect for difference" by making this spiritual practice visible. Another aim was to display a distinctly "Asian" silhouette for the city's Asian inhabitants.
Wihaan was first sited in Albert Park and then in a smaller park nearby. There, Singh says, people used Wihaan as any other spirit house, leaving incense and flowers and practising tai chi nearby. Last year, the artists suggested Wihaan should become permanent and this publicity caught Satele's notice.
(I think temporary artworks make our public spaces exciting and they spread funding around; complaining they're not permanent seems a terrible, council-discouraging idea.)
Satele suggests Singh and Laird are Orientalist - romanticising all of Asia as an idealised exotic "other" without differentiating much between cultures. Singh is Orientalist, proudly so. She volunteers that she is "Asian" (without specifying that her Asian heritage is Punjabi), and says she prefers the open spirituality of the East to the secular West.
Satele says the artists have talked about Wihaan as if it were pan-Asian rather than specifically Thai. Satele's criticism was sharpened by the false impression left by Wihaan's publicity that spirit houses are specifically Buddhist.
Phra Joe Apagaro, of the Watyarnprateep Buddhist Monastery, which advised on the artwork, told me that spirit houses are not Buddhist, and that he saw Wihaan as a cultural rather than religious artefact.
Singh, a practising Buddhist, has a different understanding from Phra Joe (and Laird): she says spirit houses are not only Buddhist. But, counter to Satele's speculations, Singh genuinely relates to Wihaan as a spiritual object.
Spirit houses (in different designs) are found across South and Southeast Asia so, arguably, Wihaan is culturally inclusive. But the artists do not often explain this. Satele is right that, despite their aims, the artists don't always explain what spirit houses are.
Singh doesn't know whether Wihaan's carved patterns have any particular significance and she told me the work was "made by the Buddhist monks in Kelston". In fact, non-monk Thawee Khampantip built Wihaan and, says Laird, he received the entire artist's fee.
Wihaan raises an excellent point: Auckland's public art needs to be more culturally diverse. But, even if Wihaan helped to meet a spiritual need, some of Satele's criticisms also stick, about the artists' carelessness when discussing Wihaan's cultural meanings. I would love to see these parties debate. The moot: that Orientalism is no longer valid.