The problematic dialectic at the heart of curator Hou Hanru’s question/anti-question is explored by a number of artists at the 5th Auckland Triennial.
The open-ended ellipsis at the end of the title of Hou Hanru’s 5th Auckland Triennial invites you to finish the sentence, If you were to live here… As I was wandering around Auckland a couple of weekends ago, I kept thinking that my completion of this sentence would be …I would be able to see the whole Triennial.
Surely, it is not inconceivable that someone would travel from some other part of New Zealand, especially to Auckland to see the Triennial, as I did on Queen’s Birthday weekend (as well as taking the opportunity to visit my brother and his girlfriend)? I arrived on Saturday morning and we went straight to Otara market to get ourselves a mussel fritter with steak sauce and visit Fresh Gallery. Fresh Gallery closes at the early time of 2pm on a Saturday, so while we were ushered out we grabbed some Triennial brochures to plan our next move.
I soon realised that the Gus Fisher Gallery, the George Fraser Gallery, ST Paul St., and Artspace were all closed on Sundays and Mondays. A kind of art terror gripped me. Admittedly, I hadn’t been very organised or I would have ascertained this information beforehand. But when else but on the weekend is someone from out of town supposed to see the Triennial? And it’s not as if Auckland is an easy city to get around. We couldn’t jump on a cheap and efficient train to zip into the CBD, where most of the venues are clustered. We had to get in our car and sit in traffic and it took 40 minutes for us to get to Artspace, where we stayed until 4pm, when the gallery closed.
Am I a slow gallery visitor? Perhaps I am, I like to look and think, watch all the video works from start to finish (and there is a lot of video in Triennial); read the wall texts and other paraphernalia. There is a lot of good work in the Triennial. It requires attention and thought. It takes time.
I don’t like griping about this like this. But the restrictive opening times of the venues seem to directly counter to one of the enjoyments of a triennial or biennial, which is wandering from venue to venue—teasing out how the spaces relate (or don’t) to each other and how the logic of the event’s inevitably amorphous theme bends and stretches (and breaks) across the physical spaces. Especially for out-of-town or international visitors, finding the different venues is an interesting way of getting to know the city that you are in—getting lost, coming across unexpected works, arguing about directions with the people you are with. (I might quickly add that finding any useful information on the Triennial’s website on an iPhone was mind-blowingly frustrating.)
The brochure for the Triennial proclaims, “We’re taking over the city. This year, Auckland’s largest contemporary art festival expands into nine locations across the city—explore new venues in Fresh Gallery Otara and Silo 6, Silo Park.” But if you’re visiting on the weekend, this claim rings hollow. If the Triennial really was “taking over the city,” you would be able to explore the city and the art in tandem. But if you aren’t an Aucklander or a mysterious semi-employed flâneur who doesn’t have to work during the week, you can’t, because half of the venues are only open for four hours on a Saturday.
Anyway, this is a complaint, but also a caveat for this write-up because it means I can’t comment on the Triennial in its entirety. What I did get to see was absorbing and heterogeneous. The themes of large biennials or triennials always confound me. How could you possibly thematise such large and disparate group of art in any way that would be useful or productive? Hou’s theme, If you were to live here… almost too neatly addresses relevant issues of diaspora, the complexities of cultural identity, globalisation, and urban renewal. More interesting, I think is the way the theme points self-reflexively at some knotty problems at the core of the whole construct of the biennial and triennial system. What does it mean for artists to present works in foreign contexts? Can meaning be translated? Are artists working in site specific and responsive modes able to make significant connections with communities within the short time frames allowed by the development and presentation of triennials and biennials across the globe?
Some answers to the final question are offered by Makeshift, an artist duo from Australia, who produced the work Kauri-aoke (2013) for the Triennial. Their work, a kauri karaoke machine stocked full of New Zealand hits, invites gallery goers or passers by to sing karaoke, whether in Fresh Gallery Otara, where the work usually lives, or during one of its sojourns out into the Otara town center.
By the time I encountered the work, the community had whole-heartedly taken it up. The Gallery Attendant said that when school finished for the day there would often be queues of kids lining up to sing. This anecdote was spontaneously underscored by a bunch of kids turning up while we were there, pleading for a turn. The careful selection of nostalgic New Zealand hits, with lyrics that focus on land, home, and belonging, calls into question the construction of cultural narratives—how we identify and through what means.
A number of other participating artists took the opportunity to point directly at the problematic dialectic at the heart of Hou’s question/anti-question. The question/statement If you were to live here… places the Auckland-based artists in a strange, liminal zone, because of course, they do in fact live in the city. Through her installation at Artspace, Janet Lilo cleverly acknowledges her role as a kind of anomaly within Hou’s construct. Her installation Right of Way (2013) includes a video work that poetically traces the prosaic signifiers of her Auckland home: banana trees, pylons, flags, trailers, side streets, and twilight football games. Vividly coloured, and mirrored outward from the center of three screens, Auckland is rendered familiar but also cryptic, as if Lilo, in a nod to the Triennial’s theme, is saying “If you were to live here…you could see Auckland as this…or as this…or as this…” The city is self-replicating, unnamable, and beautiful.
Peter Robinson is another Auckland-based artist who references the way in which the Biennial’s theme locates and dislocates his work by putting it (literally) on the move. His multi-part work If You Were to Work Here: the Mood in the Museum (2013) comprises numerous aluminum rods coloured red, yellow, blue, and green. They were first displayed at Auckland Art Gallery and then moved by 240 students in a hikoi to Auckland Museum. Welcomed into the Museum, the sticks were placed up against the existing architecture. Over the remaining weeks of the Triennial, the Museum’s staff is invited to select a rod that reflects their mood (each colour has a different associated mood) and place it in a location of their choosing in the Museum. Only 60 of the sticks will be on display at any one time.
If You Were to Work Here: the Mood in the Museum, moves through various contexts, and as it does, signifies and inflects in multiple ways. The sticks become a mood map of the Museum’s staff. They are also a symbol of ambiguous protest. A tukutuku pattern. A child’s toy. A prop. A staff. A rainbow. A minimalist sculpture. A flag pole. A sign. The meaning of the coloured rods shifts from the hands of the artist, to the space of the Auckland Art Gallery, to the hands of the hikoi participants, to the hands of Auckland Museum’s staff. In their final position in relation to the myriad objects in the museum, their meaning fractures and replicates like an endlessly deferring post-structural sentence.
The movement and relativism of If You Were to Work Here allows the work to hover outside of the imposed thematic. During my visit, I wasn’t aware of the mood component of the work when I went to the Museum (clear information about the Triennial at the front desk was thin on the ground) but the jaunty colours of the sticks were often surprising and hilarious in relation to the objects they were placed against. A favourite was an elegant blue rod placed behind the writhing, melodrama of a Laocoon replica.
If Robinson’s idea of ‘home’ or ‘place’ is radically contingent and durational, Luke Willis Thompson’s work Untitled (2012), encountered physically in the Auckland Art Gallery, brings you abruptly into the present tense. Thompson exhibits the garage doors tagged by south Auckland teenager Pihema Cameron in 2008, which resulted in his senseless stabbing by homeowner Bruce Emery. Especially if unprepared, the work hits you like a shove in the sternum; a frank, forceful reminder of Auckland’s histories and its suffering.