Hey Wellington, don't look now but your arts is showing!
Ronnie van Hout's "Quasi", a 5m-tall hand with a face on it, was helicoptered into position on top of the City Gallery last week and hearts are all a-flutter, all over the capital.
"Looks like a grumpy old white man," apparently. "Looks like Trump!" "Looks like that fool [add name of choice]." "It's Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market," except, you know, not invisible. "It's a nightmare." "It's a self-portrait by the artist, so don't be rude." "It made me laugh out loud and was a welcome addition to my urban wanderings."
Which may or may not be the same thing as urban wonderings. "It's a Lovecraftian nightmare come to life," which is a bit weird, because it doesn't seem very Satanic and also it isn't alive. Though how cool would that be, if it walked along the roof?
Why Quasi? Haven't you read The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Maybe it would be better if, like Charles Laughton's Quasimodo in the 1939 movie, it moaned, "Oh the bells, the bells!" on the hour and ran around holding its hands over its ears, although I can see that would be a logical impossibility.
Laughton? Or was it Anthony Quinn in the 1956 remake, fated to fall in love with Gina Lollobrigida in "the lusty stormy Paris of the Middle Ages", as the trailer has it. Which is slightly not how the animated Disney remake saw it. But come on, Wellington, what's not to like? It's better than bloody Middle-earth.
Don't you get it? Quasi stands atop the art gallery, claiming "Sanctuary!" for himself and any Esmeralda who needs it, as he has since 2016 in Christchurch. The gallery is our new cathedral.
Well, is it? Is that how Wellington, "cultural capital" of the universe or something, thinks of art? It's a challenge. And not one the city has, to date, noticeably risen to meet.
Why do people complain about good art? Don't answer that. Why don't people complain about bad art? Where are the howls of protest at the mind-numbingly inoffensive "sculpture" that litters our public spaces and the forecourts of corporate headquarters everywhere? Let's get offended about blandness.
Ronnie van Hout has form with this sort of thing. He did Boy Walking, recently installed in Potters Park in Balmoral. That caused a stir too. A giant Pākehā boy striding confidently into the midst of one of the city's most culturally rich and diverse neighbourhoods – what's that about?
I have to say, I wondered myself, until I took an urban wander and had a look. Bloody hell, it's good.
I know, easy for me to say, I'm a former Pākehā boy myself. But to me, it looks like a celebration of a child's goofy confidence, like an insistence that we take children seriously, with immense good humour. Like someone from a story and you realise you'd really like to have that story read to you.
It asks a question - a lot of questions - and you find your answers. That's as it's meant to be.
So why do people complain about good art? Because it's too hard to call it nice, that's what I think.
The Para Matchitt sculpture on the bridge in Wellington, connecting the town square to the waterfront, is my favourite public art in the whole country. I give thanks every time I see it that it was built in the days before endless public consultation ruined everything. Turned great ideas into good ones and then, as often as not, stopped even the good ones from happening.
Public consultation is important, don't get me wrong. But the way we do it now is a nightmare. Wellington's City Gallery deserves a cheer just for being able to rise above it, literally and all the rest.
Art isn't meant to be nice. Although a lot of it is. Art isn't meant to be beautiful, although a lot of it is, too.
Michael Parekowhai's The Lighthouse on Auckland's Queens Wharf is magnificent for all sorts of reasons, including its beauty. But to my eye the same artist's colourful "Cuisenaire rods" work in a laneway in the Wynyard Quarter is much less successful, because it's trapped in a decorative role. I think it's merely pretty, although I know people who will have dropped their croissants on the floor at that heresy.
Art is what it isn't meant to be and it isn't what you think it is.
Wellington has a string of inspirational, graceful sculptures along the road from airport to city and that's so lovely. But they're also why the city needs a corrective, a face staring down at the people from the middle of a hand. Wellington has a lot of public figures commemorated in bronze and they'll benefit from the corrective too.
Art is beautiful, so art must also be disturbing. For every Botticelli Venus there is Picasso's Guernica. Art is illuminating but sometimes it's more illuminating to be confounding. For every Lisa Reihana there is Billy Apple. For everything art is, there is an exception.
Art is profound and glib and also terribly misunderstood if you try to reduce it to such things. Art is loved and loathed. Art is amenable to explanation – to an immensity of jargon, if you're an academic. Art is beyond words.
Art is what nothing else is. Although there's also Andy Warhol. Art is a tin of soup. You could put that on top of a building.