Like anyone who leaves this country for any amount of time, the feeling of deflation upon return is often frustrating. Admittedly, I’d been spoiled for choice when it came to perusing art on the Continent. And yet I was rather exasperated that cultural perceptions in Aotearoa still remained archaic. Like any nation with a history of cultural evolution, the two dominant narratives seem to revolve around migration and the working class. Social and economic factors have a direct impact on art making and spectatorship, and while a lot of advances have been made, these narratives are as yet still unfolding.
Somewhere along the way with the rebranding of New Zealand as a multicultural nation, there also seemed to be an overzealous stating of difference. The most obvious example would be the identification of Pasifika art as a distinct field. Among my contemporaries are artists who no longer belong to the generation who remember home as another place. Which is not to discredit artists who draw on their cultural heritage, but it seems this has become an easy scapegoat when dealing with issues about cultural identity. Being myself a Kiwi-born Chinese female artist, there seems even less understanding about where that fits in. Considering that Chinese were the second non-Maori inhabitants of Aotearoa, after Europeans, the distinct lack of discourse around this seems to reveal a general bias towards accepted form of cultural expression. Perhaps that is beside the point. What is yet to happen is the realisation of New Zealand as a truly global country that does not define itself by its differences.
On another note, artists are increasingly part of an upwardly mobile economic group. We can say with some certainty that many artists will never experience the romanticism of starving for their art. Not with our penchant for luxury goods and the development of an increasingly diversified workforce. Given that artists have traditionally aligned themselves with the political left this begs the questions: how closely do our experiences express the real lived conditions of the working class? It feels fatalist to say it, but I don’t believe feeding a bowl of Thai noodles to privileged white guys is going to combat the neo-liberal economy.
The disparity between cultural and economic sympathies is also evident geographically. Given the relative scarcity of space in inner city Auckland, it is surprising that artist still cling to predetermined sites. The handful of streets around Karangahape Road, Lorne Street and Patiki Road are territorialised by commercial and artist’s spaces. You could be forgiven for thinking that art only happens in certain areas: a-little-bit in Mangere and not-really-at-all on the North Shore.
With our readiness for urban sprawl, it’s a wonder that artist don’t follow suit and colonise the outer fringes of the city. Perhaps this is because there is safety in numbers, a guarantee of acceptance and a ready-made audience. More likely it is because these spaces would simply be inaccessible. Unlike (all) other large cosmopolitan cities, Auckland lacks a reliable public transport infrastructure. While a real outcome for the proposed city rail is still in the works, its ability to activate communities cannot be underestimated.
Take the International Festival in Glasgow. This has succeeded time and again for its DIY approach to exhibiting. The festival was not only memorable for the way in which it mobilised an entire city, but how it demonstrated a collective willingness to experiment with unusual space to great effect. As these sites can never replicate the austere white spaces of traditional galleries, they begin to talk to specific conditions of being. It’s all very good for artist to ‘respond to the space’ in the relative safety of the studio or white walled gallery, but this could only ever refer to an architectural generality, never a social specificity.
Image: Le Swimming exhibition at Underground Car Park Gallery, Glasgow International 2014