Tell Me Len Lyes
The first three exhibitions I’ve visited this year have got me thinking…
Waikato-based visual artist Margaret Aull (Te Rarawa, Tūwharetoa, Fiji) presented her Master of Fine Arts graduating work this week at Whitecliffe College of Arts & Design in central Auckland (read more here). Cook Islands choreographer Tepaeru-Ariki Lulu French has curated an impressive exhibition at Fresh Gallery Otara, and down the road at Mangere Arts Centre, there’s a long summer exhibition called Agiagiā, which is a Samoan title for an exhibition on the late Pākehā artist, Len Lye.
In the way that so many conversations in the diaspora about Pacific art and artists reflect and respond to colonisation, these exhibitions highlight three notions of cultural exchange. The artists critique and respond to the interface of coloniser and colonised, where cultures blend and bleed into each other. Consciously and unconsciously, the exhibitions present commentary on reciprocity, loss, protocol and power.
The entrance to Margaret Aull’s installation, entitled Rules of Engagement, was symbolically lowered. It required audiences to stoop upon entering the space, responding to the Fijian protocol of lowering one’s head as a gesture of respect and deference when in the presence of a chief (traditionally), entering a room or when passing in front of seated people. The installation is the outcome of Aull’s investigations into the notion of tapu, something she describes as “an indigenous liminal space… [existing] by way of knowing and doing, and activated when acknowledging the unknown.” (Rules of Engagement Through The Notion of Tapu catalogue, © Margaret Aull)
The audience experience of this work is an awkward maneuvering around large-scale objects, precarious mirrors and two slightly manic eyeballs. The installation is loaded with Maori mythological symbolism and rooted in Aull’s personal enquiry informed by her dual heritage.
Choreographer and Cook Islands tamure dancer, Tepaeru-Ariki Lulu French has curated an exhibition entitled, The Pacific Muse: The Art, The Dance. It consists of documentation of her ongoing performance piece, The Pacific Muse, from its original presentation during the 2011 Pacific Dance New Zealand Choreographic Lab to Auckland’s 2013 Tempo Dance Festival. From its most recent presentation, a series of stunning staged photographs were produced and are presented as relatively large-scale prints.
Central to the exhibition is the display of the costumes designed and constructed by Valentina Serebrennikova in consultation with French. They are hauntingly beautiful and feel worn, as in imbued with the dance and French’s ongoing research into Pacific female body politics, stereotypes and the legacy and effects of colonisation.
Mangere Arts Centre’s summer exhibition, Len Lye: Agiagiā runs for three long months, an exhibition timeframe better suited to large public institutions and museums rather than community galleries. Len Lye was a New Zealand artist known for his innovative experimental film practice; co-curator, James Pinker states in the exhibition’s media release that “Lye was one of the first Pākehā artists to appreciate indigenous cultures around the world.” *side-eye*
The galleries are painted black. The exhibition consists of framed drawings, kinetic sculptures and videos. Whilst there is a lengthy introductory wall text, the exhibition lacks any interpretive text and moving throughout the space, my guest and I felt detached and emotionless at the lack of information and assumed importance of the works. Whilst a museum has a duty to inform and educate its customers, galleries seem to have less accountability for an exhibition’s transmission, a problematic dynamic in the case of a ratepayer-funded community gallery.
Len Lye’s notoriety as an artist is not common knowledge even amongst arts educated audiences; the value of his work is not mutually translatable. He used Pacific imagery in some of his work, and the exhibition has a Samoan title, but the relevance to the Pacific, and potentially Pacific Island audiences, is superficial. Mangere Arts Centre’s audiences are diverse but I find it frustrating that a publicly funded community gallery clearly prioritises for industry and academic audiences before considering the experience and expectations of its local community.
Whilst attendance numbers and mainstream media reviews will translate to bureaucratic boxes ticked, measuring engagement rarely reflects the reality of disengagement. Mangere Arts Centre doesn’t have a suggestions box and there are rarely opportunities to provide feedback on their programming. I’m not alone in wishing that such a well-equipped facility and resource could better serve the community and context it sits within; disappointment and frustration is evident at a community level, but rather than complain, people just don’t go back.
So, 2014 – here we go, here’s to another year of art projects and real talk!