By MALCOLM BURGESS
Auckland is receiving the art treatment once again, that peculiar modern concept in which the big names of art wash up on the shores of unlikely localities, from Lithuania to Lorne St.
In this year's behemoth, 39 artists from 11 countries descend on the isthmus before scurrying into their gallery hidey-holes. To accommodate them, Auckland Art Gallery, Artspace, the Gus Fisher Gallery, Elam's George Fraser Gallery and more are co-operating.
The theme of Public Private, or Tumatanui Tumataiti, is conveniently wide. It might even be the central theme of art in our times; if the curators had not settled on it, it would have been there anyway.
But for a wary public, it's at least a useful entry-point from which to view the incredible range of objects, activities and experiences this triennial crams into the definition of "art".
Co-curator Ewen McDonald says the Government's most recent focus on "public private partnerships" means it is time to discuss the implications of this duality, and our understanding of it.
The two-month extravaganza will touch on interpretations of the duality as cultural context and how what is difficult in one may not be difficult in another, says McDonald. And how in a post-September 11, 2001, world, the more secure we want to be, the more we give up.
Of course, there is privacy in the digital age and the new nightmare of identity theft - it can take victims of such crimes a long time to get their "self" back.
Highlights include Germany's Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, whose Centre of Cosmic Energy extrapolates plans to build a machine based on ruins found at an archaeological site. Local artist Et al's project is made up of bits and pieces on hotel trolleys and a Dalek-like portaloo, a kind of sequel to her last show at the Govett Brewster.
Artspace on K Rd will bring together site-specific works that play on statistics under the title Auckland Remapped, including Ava Seymour, with her K Rd photomontage, and Dane Jakob Kolding's paste-ups.
At Elam's George Fraser gallery, Australia's Louise Bufadeci will hold a workshop with Elam students to produce a different type of walking tour.
Gus Fisher Gallery will be home to works by South Africa's William Kentridge, Jane and Louise Wilson from Britain, Yuan Goang-Ming from Taiwan, and Callum Morton from across the Tasman. Gao-Ming's The reason for Insomnia, 1998, uses a breathing pillow to probe the wider meaning of disturbed sleep.
Morton builds on the notion of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth house - a glass box that represented the perfect modernist structure, but one that was also inhuman and inhospitable. The Wilsons revisit an earlier Berlin residency where they gained access to Stasi headquarters and files.
With its bilingual title, it is almost a given that the triennial will grapple with cultural and linguistic questions. In this category, young Melbourne artist Sangeeta Sandrasegar draws the viewer into the finer points of her Fijian/Indian and Australian background.
Her project at the New Gallery tackles henna designs by using delicate cut-out paper hands.
"She is taking a traditional design and reinvigorating it in terms of contemporary pop culture," says McDonald. "Your personal view depends on where you stand and how you see the shadow."
South Africa's Senzeni Marasela features 40 small, stencilled images of a boy's face on embroidered handkerchiefs - but it's not just anyone's face.
It is Stompie Seipei - the little boy Winnie Mandela's soccer team beat to death. It is a memorial to Seipei by a young black South African living now with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Location of the works has been an important consideration, says McDonald. "We have arranged them so they counterbalance each other." For example, Aussie Robert Pulie's work features mirrors set at right angles, with a background of old bedroom mirrors installed on stands.
"It makes you feel like you're wandering into some bedroom you shouldn't be in. But because of the mirror, you get to see yourself split perfectly in half."
This split sums up a thematic divide among the New Gallery works. One side of the gallery leans towards the social and the political, such as the Kabokovs and Kao chung-li from Taiwan. Then there are the personal and the familial, such as Margaret Dawson, Julia Morison, Fiona Pardington and Emiko Kasahara.
This split within a split is evident in Neil Pardington's two large photographs - one of an autopsy theatre and one of an operating theatre. One is about life, one about death; the private self and the public self.
Some artworks easily cross the generation gap. Not everyone will know what local Lauren Lysaght's white boards are about, but the title Trifecta offers a clue. They are old racehorse names that used to be on the betting stands before they went electronic.
Lysaght found them in a dump and has built them into a wishing well, a little bridge and a stagecoach - "all things to do with hope", says McDonald. It might bring to mind chasing dreams, or the influence of gambling on society.
Laurie Anderson's At the shrink's, originally made in the 1970s, has been technically upgraded for 2004. Polly Borland's The babies depicts infantalist men who dress up like babies as photos on the mantelpiece.
New Zealander Julia Morison has used three different media to explore the idea of angels and flies - as shapes randomly occurring in vagina-like Rorschach inkblots, and the naturally occurring shapes of the parasitic mistletoe.
Catherine Rogers' photographs of McMansions on the outskirts of Sydney look out of the windows of perfect but inhuman houses in a way reminiscent of Callum Morton.
Will Auckland really get involved with the work of the world's high-art practitioners or are we just another stopover on the global romp of art?
McDonald says it's more interesting to exchange people than products and to get them to make site-specific works. "It's about literally and metaphorically bringing your baggage somewhere else and seeing how that works in a place that is foreign to you."
He likes the way this mirrors how multinationals might deal with a place when they move a chain store into a new area. "Do they go through the same process? Is it just marketing or more sensitive?"
But isn't the idea of the triennial just like an art chain?
"It's important it remains just a model. It's not like a circus that travels the world with the newest or the greatest hot young things," he says.
Running for more than two months, it is tempting to think an endeavour of this breadth and duration might struggle to maintain momentum. But McDonald says many works have been chosen with the idea that you simply can't take them in in one go.
"Often they have a strong after-effect and after-image."
* What: Public/Private, Tumatanui/Tumataiti: The second Auckland Triennial
* Where and when: New Gallery, University of Auckland's Gus Fisher Gallery, George Fraser Gallery, Artspace; March 20-May 30
By MALCOLM BURGESS