A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria provides a different look into contemporary New Zealand art.

A Little Unnerving

10:42:AM 10/02/2011
Georgia Wilkins

Anne Noble’s Ruby’s room no. 6. 1999 digital print series.
Anne Noble’s Ruby’s room no. 6. 1999 digital print series.

Step inside the NGV this summer and you’ll 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 you’re 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, Parekowhai’s The Horn of Africa, in which a real grand piano balances precariously on top of a fibreglass seal’s nose.

Gavin Hipkins’ Christchurch (Mask). 1997–2000 The Homely series.
Gavin Hipkins’ Christchurch (Mask). 1997–2000 The Homely series.
Then there’s Gavin Hipkins’ brilliant, claustrophobia-inducing photograph of a tightly woven face mask in Christchurch (Mask), from his The Homely series, made homely only by the mask’s soft, honey-coloured fabric.

The works have travelled down from the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane under the accomplished curatorship of Pacific-art specialist Maude Page. It’s 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 Todd’s 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 Todd’s 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 that’s involved, the way it’s 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. They’re 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 … It’s just what resonates with me, what interests me,” she says.

Yvonne Todd’s January. 2005 Vagrants’ Reception Centre series.
Yvonne Todd’s January. 2005 Vagrants’ Reception Centre series.
The works in Unnerved are united by their use of a muted colour palette, which creates a mood that is restrained but foreboding. They also rely on contrast to give them double meaning. Anne Noble’s close-up photographs of her young daughter’s mouth, filled with various fluorescent foreign objects, is seductive but unsettling. Is it blue candy on her tongue or crushed-up pills? Do her pink lips represent childlike innocence or something more adult and sinister?

Unnerved aims to revive Australia’s 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 doesn’t so much symbolise a particular country as it does a particular mood.

“I don’t 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.


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