Auckland’s new Art Gallery invites me to breathe deeply. Returning from smoky, grimy tourist destinations to rediscover my own city, I have the sense I’m wandering into a big holiday marquee put up by my relatives. Call in any time. Plenty of room. We’ve pitched the big tent on the back lawn under the trees. Make yourself at home. The first inclination on approaching is to drop your head back to gauge the height of the entrance atrium, billowing like slung canvas. Kauri posts echoing traditional pou appear to take the weight of all that timber but, as if there is a paradoxical fluidity and plasticity in the whole, the pou – like Tane Mahuta – push sky from earth, Rangi from Papa as in the creation story. Inside, pillows of air and shade invite you in to see more of the pulsating flowers overhead, so far only glimpsed through the glass.
Turns out you have to get clear of the lobby, climbing a flight of stairs to a mezzanine before you get to see this confection of inflated plastic cascading from up there and filling the huge space with its disarming, preposterous, gorgeous vibrancy, each flower swelling briefly as air gasps into it, then falling back to rest before breathing again. I’m not sure if the motorised whooshing is slightly disturbing, or as reassuring as the machines that whir and flicker in intensive care units: all vital signs under control. I think the latter. This pneumatic centrepiece would be rather tragic in a state of detumescence, after all. But the deliciously vivid creation isn’t the first splash of tropical colour at Toi o Tamaki. Choi Jeong Hwa has also created the pure “Red” installation – a flush of plastic blossoms – lying in silky dribbling water on a black plinth at the gallery entrance.
O colour how I love you. How my heart dives into you.
The water shimmers like a fine tissue of silk, blown by breaths of breeze gentle enough to dislodge dandelion fluff.
The red and the black. Familiar from Maori art. Resonant for Chinese culture.
Seems curious – but I’ll go back for many more visits to what I think of as a metaphorical family marquee for Tamaki Makaurau / Aotearoa New Zealand, to get to know the galleries and their contents better – that the representation of Maori in the history of the region’s art is, here, pretty one-dimensional. The gallery is named Toi o Tamaki. I find the noun toi translated as tip, point, summit, art, knowledge, origin, source (of mankind), native, indigenous, aboriginal in the Maori Dictionary. The architecture of the place (Richard Francis-Jones) responds strongly to the location – in particular to its contemporary vegetation, a lush canopy of trees – and the hill once called Rangipuke, and the Pā site, Te Horotiu, where the Art Gallery is situated. Yet the art displayed within it, as well as the tour guides’ uncritical interpretations for tourists (and, lamentably, locals) of the cultural context of the Goldies, Lindauers et al, elevates a European reading of Auckland cultural history.
Later, after the tour, I linger over many works. One that speaks clear as a bell is McCahon’s 1970 Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Described by NZ Museums as responding to Jesus’s cryptic assertion about walking in the light of the world…
NZ Muesums’s 2001 guide explains that for McCahon, freshness and immediacy of communication was something which had held the artist spellbound even as a young boy, when he recalled watching a signwriter laying down gold-leaf letters on a shop window in Dunedin. In numerous works after this McCahon’s own paint-laden brush set down words as scripted light, as disputational voice, prophetic declamation, lament, song and haunted recitation. McCahon’s written paintings somehow fuse the wonder of angelic utterance with the simple language of a roadside chalkboard…
Such a brief for the pursuit of an artistic mission could work just as well for a building, which after all is speaking to us through its forms, if in ways other than words. Toi o Tamaki as metaphorical home, gathering place and representation of who we are works beautifully at the level of invitation to shelter, to contemplation, and inspiration, but arguably less well at foregrounding cultural issues.
Of all the images I gazed at on this visit, the one I keep coming back to is inspired by Auckland’s west coast: a luscious Gretchen Albrecht, Golden Cloud, unusually a rectangle rather than her favoured lunette shape.
Flowing horizontal washes of thin acrylic paint capture the shimmering glow of sun on cloud, the dark of night imperceptibly closing on on the day. The deeper colour below is suggestive of a momentary green flash, that secret of nature sometimes revealed as the sun sinks over the horizon… (Brownson, R. 20011. Art Toi: NZ Art at Auckland Art Gallery, p. 233).
This painting is my heart-sense of Auckland, pitching and tossing under the winds of two oceans, whether I’m contemplating the end of the day looking east or looking west. And so Toi o Tamaki is drenched with colour, image and voice. Reds redolent of pohutukawa blossom, blacks and slates of iron sand, lustrous gold, greens that only New Zealanders know and yearn for when they’re away. Dare we ask for more? More confident arrangement of the images and voices that can speak through the collections to make for a truer cultural account.