The New Dowse
April 12-August 17 | Reviewed by L M Wallace

“Visiting Antarctica was one of the most significant and important experiences of my life.”
—Chris Cree Brown

POWERFUL work from thirteen leading New Zealand artists and writers collides in Sinfonia Antarctica, an exhibition at The New Dowse, celebrating art inspired by experience; a result of the Artists to Antarctica programme.

The programme, established in 1996, provides selected artists with the opportunity to work in Antarctica’s challenging environment. Artists are only in Antarctica for just over a week, but it is expected that the experience will lead to new creative works, and the programme’s success is certainly evident in this diverse collection.

For whatever reasons, and there are many, Antarctica is a place that has captured imaginations for centuries. The strong connection that many New Zealanders feel with Antarctica lies behind the work on display. There exists a desire to offer some explanation as to why we feel Antarctica holds a place in New Zealand’s history and our present-day identity; why this is necessary. The exhibition is unusual, in that it is not likely many members of its audience will have had any direct experience with the subject. In this way, the heart of the collection lies in the artists’ ability to translate their experience and commentary to the audience through their respective mediums.

Each artist does so on their own terms. Andris Apse’s sweeping landscape photography captures the silence, and addresses the power and dominance of Mother Nature in Antarctica. Dick Frizzell, always with an interesting stance, found inspiration for his paintings in the interiors of Scott and Shackleton’s hut. Nigel Brown is a stand-out. For one, despite extreme weather conditions, Brown painted the majority of his work onsite; admirable in itself. His four pieces included in the exhibition give a sense of human observation, often showing figures looking on at the landscape. There is a solemnity to it; an idea that you will never be more than voyeur in the vastness of Antarctica – at its mercy – and his use of text conveys his message with immediacy.

Anne Noble chose to focus on the “forgotten, rather than the grand”. This is a nice approach. In her photographs there are signs of human life, but with an eerie emptiness. Full jugs of water sit on a ship’s tables surrounded by a sea of ice; a lone goalpost commands a deserted snowfield. She reconstructs the imagined Antarctica. A result of the harsh conditions, Grahame Sydney chose to trade brush for camera, and his images capture these vast empty landscapes and flat horizons. Although in the same medium, these two artists demonstrate the wide scope for interpretation of Antarctica; there is a sense of peace in Sydney’s work, while Noble’s possesses an unsettling air.

The inclusion of ‘Ice Crack’ (2008) from textile artist Clare Plug is a wonderful addition to the collective. It is an extremely effective piece and leaves you wanting more; unfortunately not to be found within the confines of this exhibition. Work from ceramics artist Raewyn Atkinson, and jeweller Kirsten Haydon give a gratifying injection of variation in form.

Antarctic writing is represented by the work of Margaret Mahy, and poets Bill Manhire and Chris Orsman. However, these are only very short excerpts from their respective bodies of work inspired by the experience. Blending writing and visual art is always difficult, and it does not fare any better here – the placement of text on the walls feels awkward and forced, as though an obligatory nod in the direction of poetry and prose.

In contrast to The Wide White Page, a collection of writing inspired by Antarctica and edited by Bill Manhire, there is nothing wide about this exhibition. The cramped space is in direct opposition to the awe and expanse of Antarctica that many of the artists are trying to convey. The impact of many of the wide empty scenes becomes diminished by the overcrowding of work. A slow viewing would be best to take in the pieces, particularly with the sheer number of different artists on show, however the small physical space forces viewers around the volume of work much too quickly.

Another jarring element, again largely due to the confined area, involves an audio battle. It may have just been due to volume levels on the day, but a video of Peter Maxwell Davies’ ‘Symphony No. 8’, an Antarctic symphony, was virtually inaudible against Chris Cree Brown’s ‘Under Erebus’ (2000) – a combination of sounds from practical life in Antarctica. Given the small space afforded to the exhibition, coordinators may have been best to choose one or the other.

The ambition in grouping such a large number of artists together is admirable; unfortunately there is nothing particularly inspired about the way the exhibition has been put together. There is a lot of white, obviously, and large iceberg-like pillars on the floor space from which Joyce Campbell’s large prints hang. Compelling work is clearly being produced as a result of the programme, and Artists to Antarctica could become a real cornerstone for artistic endeavours in New Zealand if an exhibition could match the inspiration found in the individual pieces. The local interest is there, and it seems a shame that this energy has not been made more of in this instance.

The artists seem keen to convey the difficulty of ever ‘knowing’ Antarctica. From the perceptions portrayed in the work on display, it’s apparent that everyone’s experience of the great continent is different, and artists can only make attempts at conveying this one experience, or this other. The confined layout of the exhibition affords the viewer no greater understanding or coherence, but hopefully the beautiful confusion we are left with from the combination of these striking pieces, promotes a desire to know more.