/ May 7, 2009

"Kiwi Club"

“WE’RE NUMBER FOUR NOW; soon we’ll be number one!” Bullish Auckland mayor John Banks’s reference, in his opening address at the Auckland Art Fair’s Thursday evening vernissage, to a recent survey ranking the New Zealand capital behind only Vienna, Zurich, and Geneva—and tying with Vancouver—as Most Livable City went down predictably well. And a jab at a perennial rival—“To the Australians: I know I’ve been speaking a bit fast”—drew some unseemly cheers. Fair director Jennifer Buckley followed up with a more diplomatic introduction (“I feel like a wedding planner with a hundred brides, but aren’t they beautiful?”), but the stage was set. Showcasing antipodean galleries exclusively, the biennial event can’t but invite comparison between the host and its larger, louder neighbor.

The third and biggest edition of the fair to date—staged in an events center on the city’s waterfront—featured more Australian galleries this time than in 2007, potentially making it a counterpoint to the more established Melbourne Art Fair. But as curator Blair French points out in his attendant essay, an increasing number of Australian and New Zealand artists bridge both locations, their status and reputation now more often determined by opportunities and resources than by birthplace or their work’s supposed local color. Writer and curator Gregory O’Brien, in his text, appends the reasonable hope that artists from both sides of the Tasman might form “an intelligent, informal, mildly competitive, occasionally quarrelling but mutually supportive group, out here on the edge of the world.” On the evidence here, that group looks to be not only established but in respectable health.

But of course, there are always curmudgeons. “Hey, no photography allowed!” Geoff Newton from Melbourne gallery Neon Parc, a newcomer to the fair, made joking objection to my snapping his neat installation of works by Elizabeth Newman but eventually relaxed into more amiable patter. Gene Paul from Gisborne’s PAULNACHE was more immediately forthcoming, explaining the gallery’s plan to rehang its stand every day, allowing artists Peter Adsett, Star Gossage, Johnny Turner, and Sanjay Theodore to reap the benefits of a typically generous allocation. At Auckland gallery Whitespace’s stand, directors Deborah White and Kenneth Johnson were noisily upstaged by a pack of real sheepdogs, perhaps engaged to contain Jim Cooper’s rangy ceramic installation, while Melbourne and Sydney’s Anna Schwartz went a cooler route, showing Daniel von Sturmer’s striking but silent Painted Video.

At Auckland’s Anna Miles Gallery, Darren Glass was represented by a large pinhole-camera print and a new book documenting, among other similar devices, the eccentric contraption he used to make it. Ivan Anthony, another local dealer, showed work by, among others, Venice-bound Francis Upritchard, while the unassuming Peter McLeavey, proprietor of Wellington’s longest-established commercial space, was happy with what he modestly described as “a bit of a mixed grill.” Among those making the rounds of his and other stands were artists Clinton Watkins, Murray Green, and John Reynolds, collector and philanthropist Jenny Gibbs, veteran critic Hamish Keith, impish broadcaster and collector Marcus Lush, former New Zealand Idol and New Zealand’s Got Talent judge Paul Ellis, and—semi-incognito in gumboots and hat—actress Danielle McCormack, star of Kiwi rom-com The Price of Milk.

The choice of Don Thompson as the fair’s Friday-afternoon keynote speaker, while explicable, was a misstep. A crusty Canadian economist trailing a book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, that characterizes the high-end contemporary art market as an exercise in branding gone bananas, Thompson delivered his stultifying thesis in a conspiratorial manner that drew discontented rumblings from the back half of a packed room; the front half, occupied by guests of sponsor ANZ Private Bank, lapped it up like the novelty corporate presentation it resembled. Hanging his picture of a trade ruled by snobbery and fashion on the exhaustively documented rise, and slight recent fall, of statisticians’ favorite Damien Hirst, Thompson introduced the crowd to Conceptual art as if it were a laughable aberration. And his contempt at the idea that an artist might use technicians, while veiled with humor, remained embarrassingly palpable—even when he called for help with a PowerPoint glitch.

A cab and a curry later, my companions and I found ourselves observing several of the area’s numerous—and indefatigable—trannies totter past in the rain from the safety of favorite art-world bar Department of Conversation, rating their style like ice-dance judges holding up 8s and 9s. Avoiding three cops hauling one blotto miscreant off to the cells, we finally ventured out in search of the invitingly warm-and-fuzzy-sounding Sky Bears Cuddle Den for a performance by local electronic musician Adam Willetts. We discovered the long-haired circuit bender already hunched over an array of homemade analogue synths—one of which was neatly housed inside an antique Mac—and settled in for an enjoyable session of abstract sound that moved from tranquil to dissonant and back again. At a modest two dollars—a sum that, in the event, no one even troubled us for—the experience stood in doubly refreshing contrast to Thompson’s exasperating spiel.

On Saturday evening, painter Andrew Barber’s “Dreamhome/Shithouse” opened at artist-run dealership Gambia Castle, easily the most talked-about venue during my stay. It was a decent show (the plaster-dust-coated floor was a nice touch), and the crowd was amiable, but an event from earlier that day seemed set to linger longer; at nonprofit Artspace, Alicia Frankovich had staged an hour-long performance titled A Plane for Behavers. A former gymnast, Frankovich evokes sporting action to reflect on the histories and meanings of physical gesture, stamina, and stance. On this occasion, she was attached, with a rope and other climbing gear (shades of Matthew Barney), to a pulley secreted in the gallery ceiling. Every few minutes, an assistant hauled one end of the rope toward and finally out the door, pulling Frankovich off the floor and leaving her dangling briefly while more viewers filed in. The assistant would then return to her original spot, and the artist would descend. After an hour, Frankovich shed her gear and paced, with her assistant, silently out of the room.

Image: Dealer Geoff Newton