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Foreigners Everywhere at Auckland Art Gallery

Claire Fontaine. Foreigners Everywhere.
Auckland Art Gallery. 10th May – 11 August.
Auckland 5th Triennial

Tama’ese lenei. Étrangers partout. Kei nga wāhi katoa a tauiwi.

I first thought my eyesight was failing me, until I realised each of the six vibrant neon signs were actually in an array of different languages. Searching for something I could understand, a pang of guilt struck when I looked to the Māori phrase; unable to decipher a meaning, I turned to the French instead.

Foreigners everywhere.

It’s a pretty strong statement, yet it didn’t have the effect on me that I thought it would: that excited feeling of revelation

when confronted with a novel and plainly perceptive idea. Even the initial inability to understand what was being said was not as frustrating as expected. The feeling of foreignness settled gently rather than dramatically arriving.

Was this because of my own travelling experiences, having gone days without being able to understand a single piece of my surroundings? Or was it something more universal?

It’s no secret Auckland is a multicultural hub, with over 40 per cent of our population having been born overseas. As a populace, we are endlessly opened to different cultures through food, advertising, events, and the people themselves. Even outside of Auckland, the spread of culture through mass immigration and the Internet has started to blur traditional regional boundaries.

Yet, even though our multiculturalism is an accepted given, at the same time I instinctively feel protective of holding onto something I can definitely label as my own: a language, a dish, a tradition. a combination of ideals and practices that makes us unique. Having something that separates us from being just a number in a world of seven billion is a way of self-validation – feeling important on a smaller, more comprehensible scale. But in creating a distinction between people, you simultaneously create a separation; there is no self without other.

This is a very dangerous way of looking, as difference becomes a pseudo-scientific justification for a lack of responsibility and care for the other. So where does the balance lie? As we move ever faster into a globalised world, the question seems to get more and more complicated, as people on the other side of the world can be friends while our own neighbours can be strangers.

Is the construct of the term foreign still useful in a global society? Or is it just a placeholder for us to feel like we still belong somewhere, and are important in our own right?

Fontaine’s work offers no solutions, but at least it raises the question.


Spending 2 months in a country I couldn’t speak the language
I was a foreigner.
Half-caste Pacific person from New Zealand in Mexico
I was at home.
Never before had I looked a part of a majority
I was a foreigner at home.
Touching down in Auckland, once again I was a minority amongst a sea of palagi
I am a foreigner at home.

Claire Fontein are from Paris, they are foreign. The Mackelvie gallery hosts Auckland Art Galleries European Victorian collection. Being aligned with New Zealand’s colonial history these by nature are foreign. Mackelvie’s general viewers tend to ignore the neon signs making the signs appear as foreign. Very obviously there is no english neon making them again appear foreign. The Māori perhaps the only one that should be at home, but amongst this European painting, it too is foreign. The Samoan neon runs true with me, but it too does not belong there, it is foreign.

Very often when work travels literally around the world but also through different sociopolitical discourses it doesn’t make sense, and often when coming to New Zealand side steps the racial and indigenous discussion that is so embedded in our art histories. However, Claire Fontein nailed it. In a migrant nation this work forces us to question belonging, if we are all foreigners then why is racial oppression still a feature? If Māori text seems foreign in a National building then is our indigenous population under represented? If we are all foreigners then don’t we all belong?

This foreign articulation is astonishingly accurate. Tu meke Claire Fontein.


Foreigners Everywhere (Chinese)
Auckland Art Gallery
neon, framework, transformer, cables
215 x 1300 x 50 mm

Foreigners Everywhere (French)
Auckland Art Gallery
neon, framework, transformer, cables
110 x 1720 x 50 mm

Foreigners Everywhere (Korean)
Auckland Art Gallery
neon, framework, transformer, cables
148 x 1535 x 50 mm

Foreigners Everywhere (Hindi)
Auckland Art Gallery
neon, framework, transformer, cables
185 x 2120 x 50 mm

Foreigners Everywhere (Samoan)
Auckland Art Gallery
neon, framework, transformer, cables
110 x 1240 x 50 mm

Foreigners Everywhere (Māori)
Auckland Art Gallery
neon, framework, transformer, cables
130 x 2292 x 50 mm
courtesy of the artist

Auckland Art gallery visit: Tuesday 7 May 13:33 2013

Neon lights in six colours written in six different languages, I haven’t a clue what is says it is all pretty foreign to me. This art work is situated above the Victorian Tales of Love and Enchantment exhibition, what better place to have these texts increase its feel to other people who expect an intimate feeling with these Victorian paintings to then disrupt that feeling from happening. I smile and laugh a little as this work brings visual joy of the urban aesthetic to the fore front.
Neon signs are normally used for advertising and commercial signage’s….. So to have six languages lit up, it surely was an eye opener. The art work is a useful way of questioning an individual’s connection to a place (Auckland) and time (now). How else are we to face this problem of which place or country do we belong in? Simply this question will never find its answer, but maybe we should change the question to “why must we seek to belong’?

I walked around this space for quite a while and I noticed that the groupings of certain colours of the texts related to the Victorian paintings in some way. Colours red and pink were in a corner where the subject matter were females and are located in the left side of the gallery. In the middle section of the gallery, the neon sign colours are white and green and hung above paintings which portrayed men in amour suits which showed a heroic element. At the other end of the gallery the colours of baby blue and yellow which hung above paintings that portrayed a family and recreational aspect. Over all I guess there were considerations into which sign suited its place by its colour and what subject matter existed before hand. Maybe this reading is totally overboard and I may be looking at this work in a whole different perspective… but maybe ; with this in mind, this was my only way of understanding this work. I simply noticed something different in the Victorian Tales of Love and Enchantment exhibition and then realised that the neon text were written in a language that I could not understand.

Signs that did not communicate to me became an object to me. I then look for other ways of understanding its form by adding my meanings to Claire Fontaine’s use of colours presented to me in the neon sign format.

SO maybe……. this might be the underlying process of how someone finds some connection with and individual who is foreign. The act of disregarding a language which is normally spoken to a person; to then rely on visual signifiers which strips an individual’s communication of speech to the skin colour and appearances of the foreigner who is trying to communicate. Realising this now, I honestly feel like a jerk, this art work by Claire Fontaine, showed me the actual process of what I was doing and how this way of understanding a foreign text or person is really like.


Foreigners everywhere. Strangers everywhere. Strangeness everywhere. All is foreign. All is strange. All are strangers.

Foreigners Everywhere literally illuminates all the foreign objects within the Mackelvie gallery: there are the light sculptures themselves, objects that would not look out of place in a seedy international food court but do look out of place in a Victorian gallery with vaulted ceilings and classical columns. But then, this architecture is at odds with the rest of the Auckland Art Gallery, and the European paintings that line the walls are misplaced in a New Zealand national gallery, and wasn’t James Mackelvie himself a foreigner? And aren’t I a foreign object in the gallery space? Aren’t we all?

By pointing out the strangeness of everything in the space, Foreigners Everywhere suggests that the notion that anything is foreign is arbitrary. Foreignness is merely a case of context. After all, don’t we all become foreigners once we leave our homes? And isn’t that what makes home worth returning to? Isn’t that what makes it home?

Perhaps home is simply on my mind. As I write this, I am 8810 kilometres from home, drinking powdered green tea from a chipped cup in a shoebox room in Tokyo.

Never have I felt so foreign.

Japan is an extremely homogenous society. I wandered central Tokyo all day and saw perhaps five other westerners, of which I was the only young woman. Each time I spotted another westerner, or indeed anyone who was not of Asian descent, we would always lock eyes for a brief moment. Not on purpose, or even in solidarity, but because we could not help but notice another face that did not fit, and be reminded of our own foreignness, our own strangeness in this country.

Before I visited Japan, Claire Fontaine’s work made me wonder why the word “foreign” is still used when the notion seems so void. Surely, I thought, we are always surrounded by foreignness today, nothing is so very strange anymore, not to me.

And yet. I am a foreigner. I am a foreigner everywhere on the planet, except in New Zealand. But even in New Zealand, I am foreign. My parents are not New Zealanders, and so I am foreign. But then, we are such a young country, are anyones parents true New Zealanders? How far back must we go? And if we keep going back, didn’t we all come from the same place, once upon a time?

Are we all foreigners, or are none of us?


Photo Credit: Lana Lopesi




This entry was posted in: Reviews

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