Well worth getting 'Among the Machines' projections

Some will be daunted by just the idea of the large contemporary show at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Don't be put off by the prospect of being bemused among large, projected, moving images. It's well worth a visit.

It seems art, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The exhibition ''Among the Machines'' occupies most of the extensive first-floor galleries and the BNZ gallery on the ground floor. Time was a ''big'' exhibition would fill just one of the larger first-floor spaces. Now this sprawls around much of the building.

It is the second show in an intended series involving collaboration between the gallery's own curator, in this case Aaron Kreisler, and others.

For ''Among the Machines'' the external curator is Dr Susan Ballard, formerly of the Dunedin School of Art but now at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

The show represents several Australian and New Zealand artists and according to the gallery's information they set out to ''interrogate relationships between utopia, technology nature and place''.

The place is New Zealand's South Island. While there are ecological concerns about its survival, or that of its present biodiversity, there is a tradition of considered optimism, or striving for a better future, the ''utopia'' of the introduction, which might alleviate those concerns.

''The works offer a speculative map for the future histories of machines, media and humans.''

The artists are Susan Norrie, Ruth Buchanan, Jae Hoon Lee, Aaron and Hannah Beehre, Hayden Fowler, Ronnie van Hout, Stella Brennan, Daniel Crooks, Fiona Pardington, Ann Shelton, Bronwyn Holloway-Smith, Douglas Bagnall and Nathan Pohio.

In the 19th century, Samuel Butler wrote a satirical novel, Erewhon, set without acknowledgement in the South Island commenting on the changing relationships of people and machines, anticipating much which happened later.

The curators' challenge to the artists was to present works prefiguring better relationships. They selected one work from each and the artists then supplied another of their own choice as counterpoint.

I spent half-an-hour on opening night and another two hours the other day and am far from having exhausted the content. It's really only possible to give something of an overview.

It's a mixed-media show making heavy use of moving images, projected on to walls and on screens. The days when art was exclusively hand-made are well and truly over.

People are now fairly used to installations but these are mostly not sculptural stage sets. It's the content which counts, although each space is still conjured visually.

The big one across the passage at the top of the stairs is dim and moody which suits the large projected images.

Jae Hoon Lee's Sea of Desire shows an aerial view of a sea-surrounded landmass over which another wrinkled sea endlessly crawls, rather in the manner of Tennyson's poem. There is much else here.

In the passage Fiona Pardington's big, black backgrounded photos, of upside-down Maori women with Gothic lettered moko on their chins is curious, almost disturbing.

Are they in coffins? But the surrounding leaves, fruit and flowers make them seem alive, mysterious and darkly attractive.

The colonisation of Mars may be a fanciful solution to the overpopulation of Earth. But the proposed real estate, though vaguely indicated, might be a heroic modernist urban answer.

The pitch on the screen is soft, not hard-selling. Bronwyn Holloway-Smith's Pioneer City is mild satire, not scathing derision.

The whole ambience of the show is mild, occasionally meditative, which seems right for its range and sprawl.

There is no shrieking or wailing and the most raucous notes are the calls of the exotic birds in Stella Brannon's primordial forest. These are real animals which look like dodos. One feels, if they exist, they probably shouldn't.

There are guides to the show in plastic wall brackets and I recommend them. They identify and open up the installations.

It's nice to go round without them for a while, just cruising on the general impression. But they provide the specifics to get more closely involved with the works and the ideas behind them.

A Garden of Parallel Paths is split/screen moving images in an urban setting - is it Melbourne? - with people walking through walls in Harry Potter fashion but illustrating the compartmentalisation of city life.

Susan Norrie's Transit and Shot are moving images of rocket launches and plane landings, distant from New Zealand, but dramatic and in the imagery, heroic. She is questioning this, but within the show's ambience, gently.

There are two tents on the landing. The larger takes us into a forest people lived in for 30 years, but abandoned. On the ground floor in the BNZ gallery there is a Scapegoat referencing William Holman Hunt's painting. The most subtle work is just beyond, involving blue light and dappled dots.

''Among the Machines'' is outstanding.

Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian and writer.

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