Will Gresson – 20 June, 2013
The first thing you notice is that New Zealand has had an upgrade in location since 2011, with the National Pavilion in 2013 being housed inside the Istituto Santa Maria della Pieta; this beautiful old building sits within a ten minute walk of the Arsenale, one of the two major venues of the Biennale. The venue's increased visibility and ease of access is undoubtedly beneficial, however what is also noticeable is how well the work itself fits into the venue.
Front Door Out Back
Curated by Justin Paton
1 June - 24 November 2013
The Venice Biennale is always an interesting discussion point among New Zealanders. Even now, in 2013, few have forgotten the uproar when et al. was selected to represent New Zealand in 2005, and the ensuing “public debate” which almost led to the end of New Zealand’s involvement in the event. It must come as some relief then that Bill Culbert’s exhibition, Front Door Out Back has seemingly been so well received in 2013, with Sir Nicholas Serota of Tate in Great Britain being one of many to praise the work at its opening.
The first thing you notice is that New Zealand has had an upgrade in location since 2011, with the National Pavilion in 2013 being housed inside the Istituto Santa Maria della Pieta; this beautiful old building, a former orphanage, sits within a ten minute walk of the Arsenale, one of the two major venues of the Biennale. The venue’s increased visibility and ease of access is undoubtedly beneficial, however what is also noticeable is how well the work itself fits into the venue. In a city where architecture and history threaten to overshadow everything else around it, this is no small achievement.
As you walk into La Pieta, the installation comprising Drop and Bebop leads you down the hallway into the rest of the exhibition. Comprised of old wood and Formica tables and chairs fashioned in a sort of playful cascading cloud, the furniture has been refashioned from its former purposes and activated by single bolts of fluorescent light. The work feels light hearted while simultaneously commanding attention, its effect heightened by the tall space.
At the end of the hallway, you pass through a small corridor into a larger courtyard. Within the corridor itself sits Strait, a single line of anchor milk bottles with another bolt of fluorescent light through them. The bottles themselves are solid white plastic; however the thinner tops light up to reveal the effect of Culbert’s activation. In the courtyard stand the works Walk Blue and Walk Reflection. Again Culbert repurposes the mundane and typical and transforms them into contrasting light boxes, with one reflecting light during the day and the other releasing blue light in the evening.
This courtyard leads into another room, containing a further large scale light work, Daylight Flotsam Venice. This seemingly chaotic work combines more of Culbert’s repurposed plastic bottles in a sort of semi-chaotic patchwork with 150 florescent light tubes. Justin Paton alludes to the interesting relationship between the “cult of Venetian light” and Culbert’s seemingly subversive response. The use of cheap plastic bottles is likewise suggested as a further subversion in the face of Venice’s historically famous glass-blowing industry.
Some media commentators have mentioned the use of “junk” in Culbert’s work, which feels more like an attempt to stir disquiet over the cost of sending the work to Venice than anything else. More significant and worthy of note perhaps is the way that Culbert’s work incorporates these objects in such a way as to render them almost totally removed from their former purposes. The familiarity and levity of the milk containers remains, but additionally there is a sort of joyfully convincing transformation at work.
The relationship to the exhibitions surroundings is furthered by the work Level, which sits just past Daylight Flotsam Venice on the very edge of the water. These seven glass jugs all contain water aligned to the same level, and speak to the floating city’s never ending discussion of its slow and impending sinking beneath the waters of the canals, as well as once again referencing Venice’s history as an innovative centre for the craft of glasswork.
The second to last work as you make your way through into another courtyard is perhaps the most poignant, and also arguably the most clearly referential to New Zealand and its recent history. HUT, Made in Christchurch is a skeletal structure of a shelter built from nine longer bolts of fluorescent light. The relationship to the tragedy in Christchurch is clear, but it also speaks to a more primal and human element of the need for shelter and protection. At a Biennale where much of the curatorial focus is on the nature of human knowledge and understanding, and its development, Culbert’s frame conjures strong notions of human endeavour and their limits.
The final work in Culbert’s exhibition, Where are the other two?, returns to the artist’s repurposing of the mundane, this time activating florescent a room full of old furniture such as desks, chairs and what appear to be old bedside tables. The room seems almost like an after-thought in some ways, perhaps lacking some of the directness of the other rooms, although it may simply be the one example of the venue and the work not complimenting each other as well as elsewhere. Individually the works are beautiful, with the varied shapes of the aged furniture all starkly cut through by Culbert’s merciless bolts of light. In separate images, the works as they stand on their own have a similar sculptural dignity as the two wardrobe pieces, suggesting perhaps they simply overcrowd each other when put so close together.
The show as a whole feels successful not just in the way it fits together, spreading through the venue and equally matching the grandeur of the building with the concentrated forethought of the works, but also as an interesting and dynamic reflection of what New Zealand art can be, and where it can go. While others may seek to keep the fiery debate about the worth of sending New Zealand to Venice every two years alive, here sits a show which taken on face value, is able to sit comfortably within both the city and the event itself.
To read a transcript of the panel discussion “Whose Oceania?” held recently in London, and more on NZ arts abroad, CLICK HERE
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