Monday, August 05, 2013

And now for something completely different

Te Papa plans to keep changing its new look art display but already you'd have to ask when works from the National art collection ever looked this good. It's probably not been since Te Papa opened 11 years ago. Not much sculpture this time round (apart from Michael Parekowhai’s red piano Story of a New Zealand river which has achieved Te Papa icon status) but the works on the walls look impressive and are juxtaposed to suggest intelligent connections and differences.

Te Papa's CE Michael Houlihan said recently that museums never lose their original culture. Te Papa has always had a 'make-it-simple-and-tell-'em-and-tell-'em-again mantra that still echoes through its galleries (absurdly large labels, signage everywhere). This spirit-of-the-schoolroom is exaggerated in the current presentation by a literal DIY ‘classroom’ (frame your own drawing, match bits of the collection in a Killeen lookalike, create fridge magnet poems, trace drawings) in the middle of the two main gallery set-ups.

The idea that art can’t really speak for itself was firmly implanted into the Te Papa way of thinking by Ian Wedde. He was the institution’s first Concept leader for art and later Head of art and visual culture. His influence remains in Te Papa's tendency to over-explain, over-simplify and in the process confuse themselves and us into the bargain. 

An example? Close by a classic Gordon Walters painting there's a cartoon think bubble (it feels more like a public programmes intervention than curatorial) telling us that Walters “liked to create optical illusions with paint” while on the other side of the room a label quotes Walters specifically telling how he added grey to his work to stop the image “jumping around too much.” The idea that people would see his works as optical illusions like those by British artist Bridget Riley always concerned Walters. His intention was to refine and balance the components of his paintings rather than agitate them. Besides why not let people think about what Walters was about for themselves rather than sum him up ... and get it wrong?

Still this culture of over-explanation, whatever the intended audience, is the going price for the chance to see a whole heap of interesting work intelligently displayed. And as a bonus in a section called Gifted there's the chance to see a donated collection of Aboriginal art given the space and respect it deserves for the first time. Even if that had been the only thing on display it would still be well worth the trip to the fifth floor.