Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Denny exhibition brings out the cloak and dagger in Te Papa

We're approaching what's becoming a bi-annual tradition as Te Papa gears up to show off its latest Venice Biennale booty. Apart from the first outing, only one artist has failed to sell their Venice work to Te Papa and that was the super controversial outing by et al. in 2005. This year Simon Denny skirted controversy with Te Papa purchasing a very particular segment of the installation (they could always borrow some of the David Darchicourt material they excluded from the purchase via MoMA – ha, ha, just kidding). 

Denny's presentation at Venice put the Five Eyes spy network centre-stage reaching the dismal conclusion that the spy masters are just run of the mill corporate managers, albeit with chilling powers. So who's surprised that around 18 months ago, knowing that at least part of Denny's Secret Power was Te Papa bound, that someone hatched the bright idea to make a spy exhibition. The only reason we know this is thanks to the blog No right turn who used the Official Information Act to get documents out of Te Papa (you can read it here and also get access to the documents) outlining the show. The proposed timing is interesting too with Te Papa pushing for before Denny’s 2016 showing on their fifth floor. The original idea for the spy show actually came out of the Department of PM and Cabinet (Intelligence Coordination Group) working with Te Papa International Strategy Adviser. Hopefully not a standard source of exhibition ideas, but who was going to turn down a 'significant collection of scientific spying equipment, top secret documents, images (eg. political cartoons) and objects [to] tell the story of the secret world of NZ’s spies and their mission'?

As it turns out, Te Papa could. This proposal was in play months before the new CE Rick Ellis took over and it would be nice to think he was one to kick it into the gutter. Still, just think what might have been. This could have been an exhibition that overshadowed even Air New Zealand's brilliant PR capture of Te Papa. And lost too the opportunity to work with NZ’s top spies who were to 'provide the collection, expert advice, curatorial guidance (and co-curators); initiate and manage loans; manage political sensitivities etc’.

Presumably the crazy kids on the Te Papa staff (their names have been redacted from the documents) that dreamt up this wacky idea are still in the building pining over their lost opportunity to showcase the NZ intelligence community before Simon Denny sent them global. Secret Power indeed.