RENEE LIANG devours the live flesh at the 2008 New Zealand Body Art Awards.

“I DON’T know why we paint on bodies,” Australian body artist Lynne Jamieson told the crowd. “Why would we choose to paint on a canvas that breathes, asks too many questions and can’t be put away in a cupboard when inspiration fails?”

I can think of plenty of reasons. For a start, those canvases can move, dance, strut or crawl – along a giant catwalk, to a rousing sound and light show. Second – and let’s not forget the titillation factor here – those canvases are fascinating in themselves, being people’s (nearly) naked bodies.

The NZ Body Art Awards (North Shore Events Centre, June 14) – “an international arts event in our city!” an excited North Shore City mayor Andrew Williams told the crowd – is in its third year, and getting slicker and more professional-looking with each year. What is termed “body art” includes not only painting, but also other forms of bodily adornment and activities that alter body appearance such as prosthetics and masks, supplemented by costumes. As such the artists who took part came from a diverse range of disciplines: makeup, special effects, fine arts, design and theatre, to name a few. This resulted in a show that was big on theatrics without being “theatrical” per se: there was no sense of narrative, only a catwalk style show. Though it was a far more creative and (sorry fashion folks) infinitely more fun show than anything I’ve seen being shown on a fashion catwalk.

To pulsing, evocative soundscapes and swirling lights as well as strategically placed smoke machines, “models” pranced on stage and took their turn cavorting in front of the judges. Each model had spent 6-10 hours naked but for their undies, being carefully painted from top to toe. Some were covered in scales, others appeared as painted gods, animals, or aliens. As well as the body paint there were grand headdresses, masks, rubber prostheses, diaphanous robes, elaborate frames depicting giant fish, merry-go-rounds, singing musical staves.....the variety was rich and quirky. The work was judged in a number of categories: hand painted body art, air brushed, mask, fantasy, creatures, fluorescent, prosthetic/rubber, ethnic/tribal, and Ta Moko Maori.

There were clearly some serious artists at work here, undeterred by the fact that their work would be seen for one night only and then washed off. There were also keen amateurs and students, learning the craft. Although some works verged on cliché (more than one monkey suit, and many variations on swirling flames and ethnic patterns) there were also some quite astounding creations on display that made me marvel at the imaginations behind them. I particularly liked those that distorted the body or movement of the body in some way. This was done with masks or costumes or fantastical mechanical constructions (a giant fluorescent fish requiring two men to operate by sidling along, holding each other chest to chest, was a standout example).

The models, too, did a great job. After a month of working with artistic director Jonathan Smith, some of them could move (swirl, crawl, prance...) in perfect imitation of their painted depictions. As with any group of volunteers there was a range of ability, but some clearly were already accomplished dancers while others made up for lack of skill with enthusiasm. And after what (for some) had been a 12-hour day, they could still smile and pose for the capacity crowd.

One of the great things about the NZ Body Art awards was despite its ambition to be a national, and yes, an international event, there were still some cosy parochial things about it. There was something lovely about the locals all gathering in the community stadium to have a few beers, tell some yarns and watch some models parade around in nothing but paint. There were plenty of kids and teenagers around, and some of them were even dressed up in the theme of the night, “jungle” – competing for a prize of a camping trip for best dressed audience member. The programme included items from a local dance school, kids from Youthtown ( a youth activity programme), and several local performance groups, which added to the warm community feel. It was clear that despite the flashy, slightly commercialised staging, this was still one of those events resulting from a great deal of commitment and hard work from a small group of individuals (founder and creative director Mem Bourke and her team) as well as many volunteers and lots of community goodwill – great to witness.

All in all, an eye-opening, creative, community night out, and an interesting peek into a still largely undiscovered art form. Congratulations to the eventual Supreme award winner, professional artist Carmel McCormick, for her stunning creations of a Lizard Man and Elephant man. I’ll be back to see what they come up with next year.

» Image credit: Gino Demeer