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Step inside the NGV this summer and youll be confronted by Cosmo McMurtry, the giant inflatable rabbit. Though Cosmo the brainchild of artist Michael Parekowhai seems friendly enough from afar, a closer inspection reveals a delirious smile and a crazed, bug-eyed expression.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of New Zealand contemporary art, where youre not sure whether to walk away or get a bit closer.
Like its name suggests, Unnerved: The New Zealand Project, on at the NGV International until February 27, will leave you a little unsettled. But in a good way.
Take, for example, Parekowhais The Horn of Africa, in which a real grand piano balances precariously on top of a fibreglass seals nose.
The works have travelled down from the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane under the accomplished curatorship of Pacific-art specialist Maude Page. Its the first large-scale exhibition of contemporary New Zealand art to take place in Australia since Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art occupied the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney 19 years ago.
Queensland Art Gallery director Tony Ellwood describes Unnerved as an exploration into the rich, dark vein found in contemporary New Zealand art. In keeping with this theme, each artwork dances playfully between the eerie and the kooky, never quite settling on either effect for too long. The result is a significant body of work brought together by what Elwood describes as humour, parody and poetic subtlety.
One particular highlight in this standout show is Yvonne Todds larger-than-life Alice Bayke, a commissioned, wall-sized tapestry of her own medium-format portrait photo of the same name.
Sue Batten and Amy Cornall at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop wove cotton warp with wool and cotton weft for nine months to create the piece, based on Todds design.
Speaking at the opening, Todd described the amount of time the two women spent on the tapestry as fascinating to watch for a photographer.
I really liked the obsession thats involved, the way its so slow. A photo shoot can take half a day this took nine months, she says.
Todd draws from a cast of imagined and adapted female characters from pulp-fiction novels for her portraits. In January, the character is an heiress who ends up with a speed addiction. One day she wanders off in her pyjamas after eating an LSD-laced sugar cube, which is where we find her.
I like constructing characters. Theyre often made up, but I do like to borrow from quite obscure sources Sweet Valley High books, their covers, Jacqueline Susann who wrote Valley of the Dolls Its just what resonates with me, what interests me, she says.
Unnerved aims to revive Australias engagement with New Zealand art, which has its origins in a series of ANZART exhibitions in the late 1970s and Artists Regional Exchanges from the mid-1980s.
But for Todd, Unnerved doesnt so much symbolise a particular country as it does a particular mood.
I dont think they speak of any particular place, more a state of mind. There is a slightly sombre tone, and I think that is mirrored by the generally introspective aspect of New Zealand.
And the humour, parody and poetic subtlety?
I think humour is important. I feel like people are starting to smile at my work more. Sometimes I feel like telling them, cheer up!
Hopefully after Unnerved, people will finally get the point.
» Unnerved: The New Zealand Project is on at NGV International until February 27.