A new beginning for art at Te Papa?

After two decades of announcements, planning, delays, consultation, promises and failed promises Te Papa has opened a dedicated art space to show off the national art collection.

The new $8.4 million art gallery, Toi Art, designed by Warren & Mahoney is over two levels of the museum, providing 35% more floor space.

As well as displaying works from the collection Te Papa has commissioned several site-specific works by New Zealand artists including Jeena Shin, Tiffany Singh and Michael Parekowhai.

Touted as a game changer, it certainly provides some impressive spaces but whether it really looks and feels like a national gallery is debatable and will probably be controversial.

When Te Papa first opened in 1998 one of the contentious parts of the exhibition, Parade, was the juxtaposition of Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels and a Kelvinator refrigerator. This came in for a lot of criticism, much of which is recorded in the new book on the history of the place by Conal McCarthy entitled Te Papa – Reinventing New Zealand’s national museum 1998 – 2018. In attempting to create a “family friendly” art exhibition the museum tried to present the art in a new way but in the process lost its way. In attempting to combine education and entertainment it went for entertainment and novelty.

The new commission by Michael Parekowhai, Détour, revisits these arguments with several artworks; a large Elephant, and McCahon’s Northland Panels, as well as several works by Marcel Duchamp both from the collection and fabricated by Parekowhai. The artist has previously used a large elephant in his commissioned work (Brisbane) with the animal, ‘the elephant in the room” representing the cultural and intellectual baggage which museums and galleries have difficulty in dealing with. Parekowhai is both celebrating the history of Te Papa as well as taking the piss out of the institution's approach to displaying art.

Te Papa says Détour provides alternative ways to encounter and experience art. It is whimsical but with a critical edge and that it is the artist's response to the repositioning of contemporary art at Te Papa.

The one sort of exhibition which tourists and locals look for in art galleries both here and internationally, with very little success, is a history of the country/city told through artworks – images of the land as it has been developed, images of events that have shaped the history and images of the people which have made it all possible.

It seemed Te Papa had found a way to achieve this with its wall of art called Encounter, an exhibition of portraits representing mana, power and prestige, of royalty, Maori leaders and colonial settlers.

The exhibition seems to start well enough with two works, John Webber's Poedua [Poetua], daughter of Oreo, chief of Ulaietea, one of the Society Isles, (she was briefly held hostage by Captain James Cook on his third voyage until a member of his crew was returned) and a landscape by the same artist of Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound. This is one of the first recordings of European presence in the country. It seems a good way to tell the story of Pacific navigation and encounters. But then there is a portrait of Admiral Sir Edward Hughes who Captain Cook once encountered on his voyages but who has no other connection with New Zealand. Then there is a portrait by the American artist Copley. The connection to New Zealand is that it arrived here from the US and was eventually acquired by the gallery. At that point any sense of narrative runs out. It’s not a history of New Zealand through portraits, just a lot of portraits, the sort of thing museums and grand houses of Europe feature.

One of the annoying aspects of this display is that there are no labels next to the paintings. To find out information about the works one must go to one of the two interactive displays so that the visitor pores over the screen rather than look at the paintings themselves and appreciate them as paintings.

There are a couple of impressive exhibitions including Pacific Sister – Fashion Activists, which provides an overview of the way in which Pacific fashion has intersected with European design to create new Pacific forms. Jeweller Lisa Walker’s exhibition I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered is superb coverage of 30 years of object making, showing the evolution of ideas and techniques. There is also a fine little exhibition, Te Reo/Language, which combines Pacific, Maori and European works linking abstraction, art and language.

Wellington’s City Gallery and the Dowse in Lower Hutt have been able to put on some much more impressive shows than Te Papa at the same time. The City Gallery show This is New Zealand includes the New Zealand Venice Biennale exhibitions – Michael Parekowhai’s Piano, Michael Stevenson’s Trekka and Simon Denny’s Secret Power while at the Dowse a major jewellery show, The Language of Things, featuring more than 100 international artists, explored various aspects of contemporary jewellery.

Significant works from the collection are on show including works by C F Goldie, Gottfried Lindauer, Rita Angus, Ralph Hotere, Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters, Len Lye and Robyn Kahukiwa.

Te Papa hasn’t really managed to create an art gallery worthy of being called a national gallery. The new gallery is bigger, and a lot of effort has gone into the exhibitions, but it still has some way to go before being considered an art gallery of repute, one that manages the stories of changing ideas, a changing society and a changing landscape.

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