New Zealand High Commission Canberra, Australia

Unnerved - The New Zealand Project

On 22 February, the Acting New Zealand High Commissioner Vangelis Vitalis addressed a private viewing of the Unnerved-New Zealand Project exhibtition at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Details of the exhibition can be found at the National Gallery of Victoria website and the Acting High Commissioner's speech can be found below.

Opening remarks by Vangelis Vitalis, Acting High Commissioner of New Zealand
at the private viewing of the art exhibition 'unnerved - the New Zealand project'
Tuesday 22 February

E nga mana, e nga reo, e nga iwi o te motu
Naumai, haeremai.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It is with considerable sadness that I join you today in the context of the unfolding and terrible disaster in Christchurch. We don’t yet know the extent of this national tragedy, but there is no doubt that it is, as our Prime Minister has said, a very very dark day in our nation’s history.

Thank you all for your messages of condolence and support this evening. That has been appreciated. Our thoughts are with the people of Christchurch and with the emergency services workers who are rescuing people as we speak.

And I know you will not be offended when I say that I will need to leave you directly after this address to return to Canberra.

Nevertheless, it is my privilege to speak to you this evening and welcome you to the private viewing of the exhibition ‘Unnerved’ here in Melbourne.

Dr Vaughan has already spoken of the National Gallery of Victoria’s vision for the development of a broader and deeper collection of both historic and visual arts for the new Gallery of Pacific Art.

From my perspective, this is a tremendously exciting initiative and it fits well with what your Prime Minister told the New Zealand Parliament late last week - her first state visit to our country.

She reminded us that Australia and New Zealand both have many interests, relationships, alliances and friendships. But Australia and New Zealand are different. “We are”, she said, “family.”

That puts it rather well. For this relationship is more than simply economics or security or defence or even sporting rivalry - though this year we will - just for a change - win the Rugby World Cup!

It is more too than shared commitments and coordination on emergency disaster management - though that of course matters, no less here in Victoria, a state that knows more than most of the terrible destruction which nature can wreak upon us. And we are reminded again this evening of how significant and important this is in light of the Christchurch earthquake today.

Our relationship is about much more than this. It is about enlarging one another’s horizons and challenging one another to think about things in different ways - often unsettling ways. And this is where art and culture - and exhibitions like this one in particular - matter so much.

The exhibition of Unnerved is an important further step in the evolution of the development which Dr Vaughan has described this evening - the development of a shared conceptualisation of our place in the world and our shared and at times parallel artistic and cultural evolution.

The Franco-Amercian cultural historian Jacques Barzun once said that ‘art distils sensation and embodies it with enhanced meaning. ’

Looking through the catalogue of works from the New Zealand artists presented here in this exhibition, one cannot help but agree.

This art does distil sensation - it does enhance meaning. I think, however, that it does rather more than that.

For, as Susan Sontag so famously said, real art must have what she called “the capacity to make us nervous.”

That is precisely the point of art - it confronts. It might make us uncomfortable, it may even unnerve us.

In my view it should do all of these things. But above all, art should make us question what we think; what we believe.

In fact, it must never let us be complacent and simply tell us what we want to hear, or what we wish to see.

I think you’ll agree that this exhibition does all this and more.

For me, this exhibition speaks to the core of New Zealand - our identity, our history, our conceptualisation of ourselves.

For in many ways New Zealand itself is, if I may say so, unnerving.

I mean that in both senses of the word.

For let us not forget, the word ‘unnerved’ can be interpreted in a positive way; or it can be understood in a rather more unsettling way.

This exhibition captures precisely that dual meaning. And, as I said, it is an apt description of New Zealand itself.

I can tell you as an eleven year old immigrant arriving in New Zealand many years ago, that New Zealand was in equal mixtures unnerving.

On the one hand it was paradise and, on the other hand it was quite unsettling.

The New Zealand singing duo the Otara Millionaire’s Club (OMC) described the paradise aspect of New Zealand rather well in their song ‘The Land of Plenty’. They said - :

A long white cloud, ancient land,
open field sacred ground, Bays of Plenty, the Bluff, the Cape, streaming sands, Boiling place, white water swells,
bridges of old, deep clear nights, open shores,
And my father used to say -
and we came to this land of plenty, and we came to this land of hope -
and we came to this land of good times…” 1

Take a look in this exhibition at the photographs and pictures by artists like Michael Adams, Bill Culbert, Gavin Hipkins of our country and I think you’ll agree it is an unnervingly beautiful country.

I said that New Zealand is a ‘paradise’, but I also said that it can be an unsettling place. 

Those artists I just mentioned, Bill Culbert, Gavin Hipkins, Michael Adams and the others presented here capture the beauty of our land and people, but also a darker undercurrent - a core theme of much of the work here - of something rather more unsettling.

Let me explain what I mean perhaps with reference to the work of our New Zealand poet, Kapka Kassabova. She has written movingly about the complicated and unnerving feelings that our ‘paradise’ can evoke.

In ‘Coming to Paradise’ she wrote:

We came and found paradise but something
was missing in the water, in the sky,
in the movement of hands
that couldn't embrace or punish…
We came looking for paradise and paradise
we found, but it wasn't enough
so we wept and talked about leaving
and never left. 2

This land of ours is empty and vast, the light is clear and sharp. It is utterly unlike the flickering faded glory of old Europe. Its beauty is new, stark and each and everyone of us knows it and owns it. And as the Christchurch earthquake has so brutally reminded us today, with beauty there can be a terrible danger.

The works exhibited here speak to that element in the New Zealand psyche, that unsettlingly clear, harsh beauty, but also that equally unsettling sense of danger of being at the mercy of nature. And what could be more unnerving than our collective sense of helplessness which looms over us all in New Zealand - that vulnerability to the forces of nature?

For this is not just the land of the hobbits and the orks made famous by Peter Jackson. Nor is it simply the land of the Flight of the Concords so brilliantly evoked by Jermaine and Brett.

This is also the land of Vincent Ward’s Vigil; the windswept west coast wilderness captured in Jane Campion’s The Piano; it is the country described in Max Gimblett’s striking pictures and the arrangements which are so essential to the works presented here by Florian Habicht.

What does this exhibition tell you about New Zealand?

I hope it tells you something and nothing. For New Zealand defies pat and complacent descriptions.

New Zealand is a complicated place - and this exhibition underlines just how complex a country we are.

Tony Ellwood, in the introduction to the publication showcasing this exhibition in Queensland, described it rather well. He said it represented a “particularly rich dark vein found in contemporary New Zealand art and cinema.” 3

That dark vein is all about the sense of psychological or physical unease which underpins many of the pieces of art you will see here.

What I particularly appreciate about the way this exhibition has been brought together is the way that it seeks to engender a broader conversation between us about parallel and very distinct art and cultural histories that are evolving so quickly in New Zealand-specific ways.

Bi-culturalism is the unique way in which New Zealand has sought to frame its engagement between its two cultures, Maori and Pakeha. While much has been achieved over the past thirty plus years, much more is still needed.

Some critics have argued that bi-culturalism is stifling and restricting what Maud Page called “other possible conversations about New Zealand and its relationship with the rest of the world.”4

Take a look at some of the art in this exhibition and make your own decision.

What seems clear to me is that whatever label you want to affix on this exhibition - it will be your label and yours alone. I hope we will all see different things.

I invite you to take a closer look at the ‘Jug Windowpane’ work by Bill Culbert, or perhaps the photographs of Mark Adams or the ‘O Tamaiti’ exhibition from Sima Urale, not to mention the striking compositions by Sriwhana Spong or Nathan Pohio’s ‘Landfall of a Spectre’. Take a second look at what Michael Parekowhai is telling us, or not telling us. And what about the works by Julian Hooper - what do they tell us?

These and many other works that you will see here are unnerving in one way or the other - they are fascinating and complicated and I encourage you to take more than one look. These pieces of art will challenge you in ways that may surprise you. These are the conversations that art needs to provoke. I hope they do this for you this evening.

Let me just conclude by saying that the range of art here and available to you is simply stunning - there is no other word for it.

I want to thank the National Gallery of Victoria for this initiative, not least the Gallery’s commitment to building its collection of contemporary New Zealand works.

Finally, let us remember this evening the victims of the terrible tragedy in the city of Christchurch.

In his song ‘Welcome home’ one of our New Zealand singers, Dave Dobbyn says:

“As a cloud the full length of these isles,
just playing chase with the sun
And it’s black and it’s white and it’s wild.5

Thank you

No reira, tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.

 

1 Otara Millionaire’s Club, ‘Land of Plenty’, Lets Sing It (see also: OMC - Wikipedia)

2 Extract from K Kassabova (1996) Someone Else's Life, Bloodaxe Books, Dufour Editions

3 T Ellwood (2010) Director’s Foreword, in Unnerved: The New Zealand Project, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane

4  M Page (2010) `Unnerved: An Introduction’, in Unnerved: The New Zealand Project, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane

5  Dave Dobbyn, `Welcome Home’, The Great New Zealand Songbook, Thom Music (Sony)

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