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Idealog—in the ideas business

How soon is now?

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[Art]

Living in the present is the challenge of contemporary art, as discovered at the recently opened Walters Prize exhibition

Evolution is defined by the rubric of continuous change leavened with incremental improvement. In moving from ape to iPod, Homo sapiens should have acquired a few skills and aftermarket upgrades.

This span of human achievement takes us from cave paintings of mastodons to Damian Hirst and Tracy Emin and their sharks and tampons. The question remains however, has the art got any better?

Winter 2010 is a great time to consider such matters at the New Gallery in Auckland where three exhibitions allow us to traverse the key ages of New Zealand art. While not quite the Neolithic period, for the purposes of this exercise we can regard the exhibition Goldie & Lindauer: Approaching Portraiture as being one of the earliest periods of New Zealand easel painting.

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LEFT:Charles Frederick Goldie Tamati Waka Nene, 1934 collection of the Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki

RIGHT:Ian Scott Sky Dash, 1969–1970 collection of the Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki

Of course, vital art was being produced in New Zealand long before Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Aotearoa in the late 18th century. But Art with a capital A, the sort that gets shown in museums and written about as being culturally significant, didn’t really get started in these parts until the late 19th century.

While the two great titans of the Maori portrait are strutting their stuff in exhibition, we can nip into the next room to check out what their grandkids got up to in Local Revolutionaries: Art & Change 1965–1986.

Only 30-odd years separate a painting such as Goldie’s Tamati Waka Nene of 1934 and Ian Scott’s Sky Dash from 1969 but in artistic terms we are witnessing an evolutionary eternity. Goldie’s imperious portrait is painted in the high academic manner pursued by artists for some four hundred years before he picked up a brush and his subject is literally the living past: the last of the mokoed Maori, captured before they and their culture became extinct—or so he thought.

Scott, on the other hand, is busy embracing the future— albeit, as is the way in New Zealand, a bit late. The summer of love was already two summers old when the young artist whipped up this frothy paean to fun, frolics and youth, but you get the drift: the future is a coming in technicolour, time to get on the magic bus.

Fast-forward to the 2010 iteration of New Zealand’s selfdescribed most important art award, The Walters Prize. You’ll note that the world has moved on somewhat from the good times of the psychedelic sixties to a far more dystopian vision of our age.

‘Dystopian’ is one of those art-world terms rarely sighted outside the confines of a curatorial discourse. A simple way to describe its meaning is the opposite of utopian—that is, a bit frightened and depressed—and taken as a counterpoint to that 60s show, it is a pretty accurate description.

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Dan Arps Wisdom Archetype from Explaining Things, 2008 courtesy of Neon Parc, Melbourne

The four Walters Prize finalists paint a pretty grim picture of life today. Well, that’s not quite accurate, as only one of them (Saskia Leek) paints. The others find stuff and rearrange it (Dan Arps), shoot video (Alex Monteith) and de/reconstruct existing architectural spaces (Fiona Connor).

So the key evolutionary change you have to get your head around is that what we have called art for thousands of years—namely painted pictures of people—has mutated, or evolved, into myriad different media and forms.

This makes contemporary art more difficult to grasp as frequently it doesn't look like art in the way a Lindauer portrait or even a Bill Hammond painting does, but don't let this fool you into think it is rubbish (even if some of it is in fact, uh, rubbish).

The job of the contemporary artist is to reflect the moment in the context of the past and/or the future and this is what these three exhibitions do. For Lindauer and Goldie, the past was just more interesting so their art reflected this.

Back in the 60s when our artists were ripping up the rulebook, the future was so bright they had to wear shades and, boy, it looked like fun.

Today as we attempt to decipher the art of the 21st century, the glories of the past or the promise of the future yield little in the way of insight. What we are confronted with is the now. So what does it all mean? Please text your answers on the back of a digital postcard.

Hamish Coney is a director of art auction house Art+Object

Originally published in Idealog #29, page 120

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