Bringing art to the fore

Pendant, by Lisa Walker.
Pendant, by Lisa Walker.
21st Sentry Cyber Sister, 1997, by Pacific Sisters: Ani O’Neill, Niwhai Tupaea, Rosanna Raymond,...
21st Sentry Cyber Sister, 1997, by Pacific Sisters: Ani O’Neill, Niwhai Tupaea, Rosanna Raymond, Suzanne Tamaki. Tapa (bark cloth), feathers, bone, harakeke (New Zealand flax), nylon, shells, seeds, coconut shell, videotape, plastic. Photo: Te Papa
Kaleidoscope, by Richard Killeen. Photo: Te Papa
Kaleidoscope, by Richard Killeen. Photo: Te Papa

Once, people asked where the art was when they went to Te Papa. After opening Toi Art, Te Papa hopes there is no way anyone can miss it. Mike Houlahan reports.

When the national museum Te Papa opened in Wellington 20 years ago, not everyone shared in the rejoicing.

Te Papa was a merger of the National Museum and National Art Gallery, which had often been uneasy bedfellows in their former shared home in Buckle St.

Te Papa head of art Charlotte Davy looks over the ‘‘Turangawaewae Exhibition’’. Photo: NZ Herald
Te Papa head of art Charlotte Davy looks over the ‘‘Turangawaewae Exhibition’’. Photo: NZ Herald

When the building was opened, more than a few leading figures in the visual arts area felt short-changed by the amount of space afforded to displaying the nation’s art treasures. As the arts reporter for Wellington’s Evening Post newspaper at the time, I wrote a few stories along those lines.

Now, with Te Papa refreshing all its exhibitions building-wide as part of a revamp of the entire institution, it has taken the opportunity to address the amount of gallery space devoted to the visual arts.

While the galleries remain at the back of Te Papa’s top floors — guarded at one entrance by the forlorn-looking skeleton of famed racehorse Phar Lap — the two levels afford 35% more display space for art.

The $8.4 million redevelopment kicked off with five exhibitions, some drawing upon the 40,000 artworks in the national collection and others being artist retrospectives.

In addition, Te Papa commissioned 10 new artworks for the opening: Tiffany Singh’s work Indra’s Bow, a gigantic arch which is colourful and fragrant, is a highlight.

Tiffany Singh in her immersive artwork, part of the ‘‘Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa Exhibition’...
Tiffany Singh in her immersive artwork, part of the ‘‘Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa Exhibition’’. Photo: NZ Herald

No doubt there will still be some disgruntled folk out there — New Zealand’s art scene is seldom short of them — but there is no denying Te Papa has made an effort to raise the profile of the visual arts part of its remit.

"Not only have we increased the space and put more of the collection on display, but we have also really focused on the diversity of the experiences — from great big immersive pieces to more traditional experiences," Charlotte Davy, Te Papa head of art, says.

"It’s about trying to get that real range of art experiences that we haven’t been able to explore in the smaller space."

Frequently, the new contemporary works reference the collection.

A gallery screening three Len Lye works — films that still feel modern despite being 80 years old — sits beside a new work dealing with colour, Tiffany Singh’s Total Internal Reflection.

A crowd-pleaser of a work, Singh’s piece allows the viewer to pick a colour before entering a darkened room and the lighting therein changes accordingly.

"When you walk in by yourself it’s quite a sedate experience and you can quietly enjoy the colour of it," Davy says.

"But when you are watching 20 to 30 children in there, or some other big group, and all of a sudden this dynamism of colour and light takes over, it’s just fabulous."

One new commission for Toi Art’s opening goes a step beyond referencing the collection: Michael Parekowhai’s installation Detour, in the gallery foyer, enthusiastically pilfers from Te Papa’s treasures, the artist revelling in the invitation  to draw upon works of personal significance in the collection and present them in a manner of his choosing.

Indra’s bow, (detail), by Tiffany Singh. Photo: Te Papa
Indra’s bow, (detail), by Tiffany Singh. Photo: Te Papa

Hence, pieces such as Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels sit within a nest of scaffolding, watched by a host of gigantic cartoon sculptures; including the elephant in the room hovering over viewer’s heads.

Nor do the galleries ignore the remainder of the building. For example, a transom window in the Toi Art space brings a new perspective on a large Filipe Tohi work hanging in the airspace of the Polynesian gallery below.

Also, Te Papa retains its gallery space designated for touring exhibitions, and it can be connected to Toi Art to accommodate large shows.

"We are really aware of what is not out as well as what is out, so we have put in place a new temporary exhibition programme on level four; those shows will change around every four months," Davy says.

"Up on level five, because people are quite attached to the collection and they often want to come back and see things a bit more often, we’ve decided to leave them up for a year to 18 months and then switch over.

"Of course, we want to get more of the historic and modern collection out - for the opening we have quite a focus on the contemporary - but we are already planning the programmes for the next 2 to 3 years ahead."

While the opening of Toi Art was the main attraction in Wellington on its opening weekend, the capital is a city where art is everywhere.

Outside Te Papa you walk past 4 Globes: Telluric Insurgencies Redux, by Auckland artist Ruth Watson - the latest pieces atop the Wellington Sculpture Trust’s four harbourside plinths - and then across Para Matchitt’s landmark carved City To Sea bridge, to Civic Square.

Rosanna Raymond (left) and Lisa Reihana at their ‘‘Pacific Sisters Exhibition’’ at Toi Art...
Rosanna Raymond (left) and Lisa Reihana at their ‘‘Pacific Sisters Exhibition’’ at Toi Art Gallery. Photo: NZ Herald

The bridge offers a fine view of Fault, a permanent light installation by Bill Culbert and Ralph Hotere  that adorns the outside of central Wellington’s other premier art space, City Gallery.

Usually the home of works on the cutting edge, at this time City Gallery is showing pieces that have either reflected or explored New Zealand’s national identity: from the classic three-screen film made by Hugh Macdonald and the National Film Unit for the 1971 Osaka Expo, to various works presented at the Venice Biennale.

Another, literally, playful work by Michael Parakowhai is on show here, He Korero Purakau mo te Awanui o te Motu: Story of a New Zealand River, a bright red, intricately carved Steinway piano.

Various guest musicians have been invited to play the instrument, and this morning visiting US piano duo Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe  - performing in the New Zealand Festival of the Arts later that night — take the instrument for a stroll.

Walking on, past the cafes and a dizzying array of the street art that has sprung up in Wellington’s formerly moribund laneways, we meet Mary-Jane Duffy from Art Explore.

A writer and former gallery owner, Duffy is impeccably connected and an excellent and informed tour guide around the Cuba St quarter’s collection of dealer galleries.

After admiring the works on show at venues including Peter McLeavey Gallery, Bowen Gallery and Hamish McKay Gallery, the tour ends back at Te Papa, and back at Toi Art.

The museum is always busy in the weekend, with a constant jumble of tourists and parents trying to entertain children, and this particular afternoon - with plenty of new things to see - Toi Art is pleasingly packed.

It’s early days yet, but in turning back the clock and restoring the national gallery to prominence, Te Papa may well be on to a winner.

- Mike Houlahan was hosted in Wellington by 


While you’re there


• The organisers of The Jim Henson Retrospectacle (until April 29) have gone above and beyond to create a festival celebrating the art and imagination of the film-maker, puppeteer and artist, best known for creating The Muppet Show. There’s a fortnight of film screenings, puppet workshops and an epic concert featuring Bret McKenzie and the NZ Symphony Orchestra.


• From May 18-27 Wellington will come alight with this sparkling festival showcasing the talents of those working in art, design and technology. After dark, make your way across town and soak in huge sculptures, projections and interactive installations.


• Tickets for the Wellington Jazz Festival (June 6-10) have just gone on sale and it’s the best way to brighten a winter’s evening. Held at the beautiful Wellington Opera House, the acts are sure to be as diverse, fun and awe-inspiring as ever.


• Described as "Willy Wonka for beer lovers", Beervana is a must-do for anyone with even a passing interest in craft brews. This time around, it’s being held from August 10-11 as part of Wellington on a Plate, and will give you the chance to sip interesting beers amid a buzzing atmosphere.


• The epic food festival that is Wellington on a Plate surpasses our expectations year after year with the creativity of its events, pop-ups, competitions, special menus and collaborations. It’s set to take place from August 10-26, taking over eateries all over the city. Stand by for an announcement of what’s on the delicious menu.


WOW asks you to "Leave Your World Behind" and soak in the impressive design, artistry and theatre of this spectacular show. Taking place from September 27-October 14, this year marks their 30th birthday with about 60,000 spectators expected to witness the magic over three weeks.

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