Octagon artwork provokes

The Rugby World Cup haka Peep show in the Octagon. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
The Rugby World Cup haka Peep show in the Octagon. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
If art is meant to be provocative the Haka Peep Show in Dunedin's Octagon well and truly succeeds on that score. The mayor, David Cull, might be supporting the installation but it is a safe bet many Dunedin residents like neither the work nor the council spending on it.

Serious questions are also being raised over the process of approval and confidentiality. What were councillors and council staff thinking when they put $50,000 towards what is obviously a phallic work of art that would stand prominently in central Dunedin?

Why, when the art in public places subcommittee looked at the matter, did the money come out of marketing budgets? When did the public ever get the opportunity to comment?

The best art through history often caused shock, was sometimes thought disgusting and came to be appreciated many years later. There are even some who, after initial dislike, have come to appreciate the harbour molars, but many others still consider Dunedin's harbourside bloated by $45,000 eyesores.

But, it is hard to see the Peep Show ever being seen as highly significant art even if it does challenge on some levels. Unfavourable reactions do not of themselves make the art worthy. Art that appals frequently has no lasting impact.

Artist Rachael Rakena, from Massey University, has said the work, which is in the shape of a deodorant brand advertised by the All Blacks and houses 3-D video works of four haka performed by prominent Maori, "considers the sexualisation and commodification of Maori and indigenous sportsmen, through the use and exploitation of their masculinity and their culture".

Fair enough. Although many might consider such sentiments ridiculous, these are the types of issues with which artists might well wrestle. But placing what is obviously, in one way, a giant penis in the Octagon is inappropriate.

Those, including the artist, who are surprised at the vehemence of the anti reaction must live in a different world from the wider public. Perhaps, and without all that public funding, it could have been placed in an art gallery where patrons have the choice to go. It is right in residents' faces in the Octagon.

There are other matters worth questioning. The $50,000, with part of another $80,000 coming from Ngai Tahu, is an especially large amount of money for what is only a temporary installation. And the ownership of the piece still remains clouded, not a satisfactory state.

Cr Lee Vandervis, who resigned from the art subcommittee two months ago when the committee supported spending $100,000 on "renting" the Haka Peep Show - it has since been funded from marketing budgets and with support from Ngai Tahu - surely has the right to speak out about it.

The public has the right to know how the council came to spend the money on the work. Elected members need to be accountable for their spending, even if councillors and staff too often seem to think $50,000 is small change.

There are times when matters must remain confidential, notably when revealing contract negotiations could cost ratepayers dearly. But too often subjects are confidential so they can be controlled, because they might be embarrassing or as a veil to cover individual councillor responsibility.

One wonders how much support for the Peep Show came because of councillor and staff attempts to be sensitive to Maori matters and their desire to go along with Ngai Tahu. However, whatever the topic or issue or with whomever they are dealing, they have to be clear and hard-headed.

As it is, they look foolish in agreeing to the placing of a phallic sculpture in the middle of the city and to spending on a project bound to antagonise ratepayers. The chairman of the art subcommittee, Cr Bill Acklin, meanwhile, looks ridiculous in accusing Cr Vandervis of breaching confidentiality on a matter of such obvious public interest.

While how exactly funding for public art made its way into a marketing budget is unclear, there is a certain irony in what has happened. The Peep Show is causing such reactions that publicity is beginning to extend well beyond Dunedin, making it into the US-based Huffington Post website as well as New Zealand newspapers. Whether that is good publicity, however, is another question.



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