Peter Ireland – 8 June, 2016
First of all, big is not necessarily better, and as an exhibition it's something of an endurance test to process. Secondly, given the lay-out on Level 5 it's not easy to get your bearings as to where the show might start: the wall-sized introduction signage is over to the right, with galleries of photographs beckoning beyond, but straight ahead is the gallery where the chronology largely ends. Thirdly, the larger, more general labels in each space intended to link the bodies of images are so general and having to cover so many different images and spans of time they are virtually meaningless.
A selection from the national collection of 165 years of photography
New Zealand Photography Collected
6 November 2015 - 7 August 2016
“What came first, the chicken or the egg?” It’s a vernacular statement of a classic dilemma. A new answer to the question, a child of the corporate world and destined to become a classic, avoids that pesky “or”. As the Te Papa publicity department has it, the chicken and the egg simply coincide. It’s no coincidence though, that the Museum’s biggest ever photography show has also opened at the same time as the launch of a book about its photography collection by resident photography curator Athol McCredie. So, this exhibition is, fundamentally, an ad. The only way the show makes sense - can make sense - is as an adjunct to the publication.
The publication has been reviewed earlier on this site (1), but given the intimate relationship between the book and the exhibition it’s necessary to make reference to the former throughout this piece. However, the focus here must be on the exhibition, what it is as an exhibition, what its advent means for Te Papa’s commitment to exhibiting photography and the institution’s record on that score since the Museum opened early in 1998.
For the bigger picture it’s necessary to track back to the later 1980s when an already well-advanced plan to build a new National Art Gallery on a site opposite Parliament became stalled in a reconsideration of the site’s future (2), and a small group of museum professionals and others took advantage of the hiatus to promote a bigger concept of a combined gallery and National Museum initially denoted a Pacific Arts Centre somewhere on the Capital’s waterfront.
It was an ‘80s fad to combine galleries and museums, and while provincial centres such as Hamilton, Napier and Palmerston North succumbed to the fashion, none of the major cities opted for it. Take this as evidence or not, but in the decades since the Waikato Museum, Te Manawa and what’s called MTG in Napier have never shown the initiative, energy and flair characterising them in the 1970s. All three still struggle finding an identity and their audience.
The big exception, of course, was Te Papa, and it’s exceptional in two unique ways: firstly it’s the national museum, and secondly, being a child of the ‘80s, its organisational structure is uniquely corporate - the sexiest model going in that tempestuous decade - and a structure key to the way Te Papa has developed and the source of most of its continuing problems.
The Te Papa project promised much. In order to sell the idea to both politicians and the general population - the building itself was to cost around $315 million dollars - its promoters’ vision of the future was necessarily couched in terms that denigrated what the existing institutions of gallery and museum had been achieving - for example, in an early website, the term “fuddy-duddy” was used to describe them. Te Papa was going to be a vast improvement on fuddy-duddy: vanguardist in global terms, it would offer visitors a superior experience, employing space and exhibition technologies to deliver relevant stories of national identity, attracting fully qualified staff not labouring under out-dated roles such as ‘curator’ but ushering in a new world of ‘concept developers’ etc. That was the libretto. Had Wagner been still alive and taken New Zealand citizenship he may well have been commissioned to prepare the score.
This nationalist (rather than national) enterprise came to pass - practically, the last of the “Think Big” projects of the 1970s. The government, having ignored the plight of its national art & museum institutions pretty much since 1936 when the (still incomplete in the 1980s) building opened in Buckle Street, poured formerly unimaginable resources into the Te Papa project, the politicians seeing the fit with their national identity and tourism agendas. From being largely local Wellington museums the new, combined museum saw itself - without much in the way of consultation - as having a national, leadership role, and since then has continued with this assumption, somewhat unquestioningly, despite accumulating evidence that many sister institutions do a lot of things more economically in terms of time and cost (3), as well as more pertinently.
Having saddled itself with this brief of authoritativeness, Te Papa seems unable to do anything but on a grand scale - nearly always a temptation to the earnest and ponderous (4) - as if mere comprehensiveness were confirmation of its national status or offering substantial evidence for the reality of its trend-setting dreams. Ironically, given its ‘80s predictions, such an over-processed approach leads not to fresh brie at a farmers’ market but to a wedge of Chesdale at Countdown.
When the extremely dull building with its back to the harbour and front door to the southerly opened in 1998 it was, or course, a huge success in terms of visitor numbers, which, when controversy arose, were used as virtually sole justification for what had been done (5). The Virgin in the condom issue (6) right at the beginning put the museum into defensive mode, from which it has never really recovered. Having religious groups unhappy was one thing, but having the prime minister and minister for the arts unhappy was another. Helen Clark sensed widespread unease at the museum’s lack of space devoted to showing art and, within two years of opening, space on level 5 devoted to resource and activity centres became galleries at a cost of four and a half million dollars. The corporate style admits no mistakes, so a wondrous thing came into being called The Greater Te Papa Plan which ‘explained’ this development. Of course, in terms of planning it pretty much resembled the current situation in the Mediterranean regarding an immigration strategy.
But, space aside, the new millennium saw no basic change in the museum’s philosophy of having concept developers construct a series of very mixed-media shows, with a continuing, almost exclusive, focus on New Zealand and an obsession with ‘national identity’ at the very time globalisation was becoming a daily reality. Someone was holding the telescope by the wrong end. Still convinced of the rightness of its mission and having no model with which to effectively compare itself, Te Papa began - as the corporate model tends to in such circumstances - to descend into a self-referencing, self-perpetuating bureaucracy where most of the energy goes into sustaining itself and where process triumphs over any consideration of result.
Management theory rightly holds staff to be a firm’s or institution’s most effective asset, and in a museum you might assume the most valued staff would be its specialists. But Te Papa’s corporate model has, from the start, privileged its marketing and human resources staff over its specialists (7), and consequently (and this is hardly the proverbial rocket science) the very staff who constitute the museum point-of-difference feel undervalued and powerless, which is why - surprise, surprise - their commitment becomes less than enthusiastic and their aspirations blunted: hardly the conditions for energy and enterprise. Additionally, the staff has to endure a constant round of restructuring as each CEO comes and goes (8), which only further dispirits the hapless specialist employees who are left.
This situation also explains the museum’s on-going difficulty in finding and keeping staff. There’s hardly a queue at the door. It’s a small country, word gets around: facts Te Papa management seems determined to ignore. Despite all the grand claims of the 1980s, Te Papa has become after almost two decades a hide-bound, confused and largely directionless institution that any faffing about with the latest technologies is not going to change. The problem is far more systemic than the wave of a digital wand could redeem.
Since 2000 Te Papa has gradually set aside its futurist rhetoric (9) and has settled back into a much more conventional museum mold, including the designation and role of curator. From Seddon Bennington’s time (2003-2009) each CEO has predicted a golden age of further exhibition spaces being opened up to show more of the ever-expanding collections (10), but as with so many announcements at the museum, once the fanfare dies down there’s another lurch in policy or financial crisis rendering these promises hollow. Does anyone know, for instance, what’s happening with the earlier, much-trumpeted “Te Papa North” proposal? (11)
So, how has photography fared in this scenario where the predicted soaring eagle has turned into a creature resembling a stumbling turkey? There can be few questions around the general matter of collection-building (12): the museum’s financial resources and often strategic acquisitions of historical material have ensured significant and intelligent expansion of the combined collections of the former National Museum and National Art Gallery (13). But in the matter of exhibitions Te Papa’s record has been demonstrably abysmal, even in the mere comparison with the former fuddy-duddy National Art Gallery’s during the 1980s (14) Over the six years between 1984 and 1989 the Gallery mounted 23 discrete photographic exhibitions. During the nine years between 2003 and 2011 Te Papa mounted almost none (15).
At one time, in the first quarter of 1988, the National Art Gallery hosted simultaneously three photography shows, two of which had been curated in-house: Barbara Kruger at Shed 11 and Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos at Buckle Street, and also there from Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art Rodchenko as photographer. In its entire 18 years on the waterfront Te Papa has never once achieved anything like this configuration and international range of historic and contemporary.
The National Museum’s nationalist focus and bureaucratic processes have resulted in there being not a single major international photography exhibition appearing there over almost two decades. Such exhibitions, and those with relevance, depth and bite have been left to institutions such as the City Gallery and Victoria University’s Adam Art Gallery, and over a period where the medium has advanced significantly both technologically and in terms of public acceptance, to say nothing of its growing prominence in the art world generally, and its being key componentry of social media. In this wider context Te Papa’s lack of initiative and disengagement with contemporary culture begins to look almost like wilful blindness and a mockery of the institution’s claims to be “leading the way” (16) - if the assumption is forwards.
Te Papa’s early, announced policies of context and mixing media might be advanced for the lack of single media shows. Well, scattering a few photographic images through themed and period exhibitions doesn’t require much specialist photographic expertise, and such random inclusions are more likely to illustrate an institutional policy or an art curator’s take than enlighten anyone about the nature of the medium or its relationship to other visual art forms.
Since Te Papa opened in 1998 there have been only three major photographic exhibitions curated in-house: 2001’s Striking Poses, 2011’s Brian Brake survey Lens on the World, and the current New Zealand Photography Collected. Striking Poses was mounted largely to celebrate the museum’s acquisition of noted photographic historian William Main’s collection, but while the content was rich and wide-ranging, the exhibition’s installation was perversely unengaging (17). The Brake survey was essentially part of a deal made between the museum and the Brake Estate over their acquiring the late photographer’s images and papers (18). And now we have the sprawling New Zealand photography show on Level 5, a show which is - as already has been observed - essentially an ad for the publication (19). So, these three exhibitions have all been generated largely incidentally. Consequently, after almost two decades, we have yet to be delivered by Te Papa a significant photographic exhibition having its own raison d’être and capitalising on its vast collection to say something fresh, relevant and memorable about a lively medium with an intimate relationship to the life and culture of this country.
New Zealand Photography Collected functions right now as the tip of a large and complex iceberg that is this country’s national museum. But as it’s the only part visible it must now be addressed as the exhibition it claims to be.
First of all, big is not necessarily better, and as an exhibition it’s something of an endurance test to process, even for aficionados of photography. Secondly, given the lay-out on Level 5 it’s not easy to get your bearings as to where the show might start: the wall-sized introduction signage is over to the right, with galleries of photographs beckoning beyond, but straight ahead is the gallery where the chronology largely ends. Thirdly, while each of the images is labelled as-per-usual with title, photographer’s name, date etc, the larger, more general labels in each space intended to link the bodies of images are so general and having to cover so many different images and spans of time they are virtually meaningless and don’t provide the linkages required to make sense of the vast assemblage.
Anyone tempted to suspect that many of the plates in the book had been chosen to illustrate the story - rather than the other way round - would have grounds for scepticism as to why this exhibition exists. Without the book’s story providing a guiding framework, too many of the images seem like fish stranded on a desolate shore, gasping for the oxygen of context. Near the chronological end there’s a free-standing screen on one side of which are four photographs: by Laurence Aberhart, Les Cleveland, Andrew Ross and Peter Black. These four images are together in the show only because they’re in the book, and the fact they’re together in this configuration is only because they fit on this screen of a wall. The only connecting element is they’re all male photographers. Remember, one of the central planks of the Te Papa project was context - objects no longer discrete art objects but objects set securely within a cultural, social and even political context. The only context in which these four photographs finally make sense is as nails in the coffin of Te Papa’s credibility in the matter of the promised context.
The exhibition aims to showcase the range of the museum’s photographic collection and attempts to achieve this through the framework of a chronological history of photography in New Zealand. While the book - very minimally - includes collection works not of this country’s origin in a largely pointless gesture towards context, the exhibition itself reverts to the customary nationalist angle as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. Of course, when it comes to the medium of photography - the most seamless international visual medium ever - this is the least sustainable stance of all.
The historical account underpinning this exhibition hardly strays beyond the narrow path of the conventional, and tends to be more coherent the further back one goes (20). Oddly, if only the period after about 1970 could’ve been more conventional instead of being unfathomable. But there could be a reason for this. Athol McCredie made his name putting together exhibitions pre-dating this period (21) and there is no conspicuous instance of his either curating or writing about contemporary photography over that period (22). Of course, it’s never easy to get a fix on your own time, especially one so broad and volatile as photography’s has been since the 1970s.
There are two major issues. Firstly and seriously, the highly significant relationship between evolving feminism and developing contemporary photographic practice in the country from the mid-1970s is hardly mentioned let alone addressed visually. In the early ‘70s there was practically a revolution in photography here, and as with elsewhere in the Western tradition (that elephant in the room) it was dominated by the very masculine, black and white documentary style. Feminism was a parallel revolution then, and it had major impact on not only what photographs looked like but how they were done. The exhibition contains just two photographs “covering” this phenomenon (23): both black and white images, by Rhondda Bosworth and Jane Zusters. Even stranger, many women opted to use the Polaroid SX-70 as their means of expression, and these tiny and blurry gems of colour became a kind for symbol for both a more personal approach and signalling a refusal to buy into the documentary mode (24). It’s not that the Te Papa collection lacks myriad examples of the humble Polaroid, but there isn’t a single example in either exhibition or book.
Te Papa prides itself on its bi-cultural stance - but effectively it seldom strays beyond having labels in both languages. A more recent revolution here over the past forty years has been an awakening of Māori consciousness, for both tangata whenua and Pakeha. And over the past decade or so Māori - most of them women - have joined the ranks of contemporary photographers, using the medium in its honoured function of bringing discomfort to the comfortable as well as illuminating in a unique way aspects of maoritanga. Whether Te Papa has caught up with this in terms of collecting is hard to tell, but the phenomenon is, practically, totally absent from this exhibition (25).
New Zealand Photography Collected is fundamentally a display of the contents of a book rather than an exhibition, and while it’s interesting to see - at last - some of the riches of the collection, the display’s over-arching volume and incoherence almost cancel out its value. Given the way Te Papa is run, it’ll be assumed that “the big New Zealand photography show” has been done, leaving its hapless “customers” waiting in a queue another two decades long.
(1) See Examining Te Papa’s Photography by Andrew Paul Wood, posted 10.12.15
(2) Under then Prime Minister and lawyer Geoffrey Palmer the site was eventually allocated for a new High Court building.
(3) An instance is Tairawhiti Museum’s recent W J Crawford photography exhibition (see this writer’s piece on this site 14 March 2016), an extensive survey of a significant historical photographer from the later 19th century, and a show nominated for this year’s Museum Aotearoa Awards. In its 18 years Te Papa has never done such an exhibition, and given the central part such photographers played in the colonisation process as well as establishing what’s termed “national identity” - both of which just might be of interest to such a nationalist institution - this lack is both inexplicable and lamentable.
(4) One bright spot throughout has been the many award-winning publications out of Te Papa Press, an expert and innovative team which later last year was decimated by the actions of the current regime. The present CEO may have been heard to express the opinion that no one reads books anymore, but even minimal research would reveal that this is, in fact, a golden age of art publishing by galleries and museums globally.
(5) As Jim Barr pointed out during his tenure at the Dowse, during another fuss about McCahon that erupted within the then Lower Hutt City Council, when someone suggested it attracted public attention he said, “So does a car crash.”
Again, when Te Papa’s most popular exhibition ever opened in 2014 - Weta’s current take on Gallipoli - the Barrs pointed out on their blog Over the net the show’s close resemblances to Soviet Realism - a triumph of crowd-pleasing political manipulation in either case.
(6) This was the title of a work by YBA Tania Kovats included in an exhibition of contemporary British artists toured by the British Council (but curated by Australian Berenice Murphy). It was originally slated to be shown at Wellington’s City Gallery, but because the building had to be closed unexpectedly at the time, Te Papa took it on - which deepened the controversy because of its being the national museum with branding claims to be “Our Place”. Many religious people, especially Roman Catholics, felt it wasn’t their place at all and protested vociferously accordingly.
(7) The current Tate director, Nicholas Serota, when responding to questions about his perhaps imminent retirement said: “The trustees are absolutely committed to the idea of eventually appointing someone with a curatorial background who will drive the public-service ethos of the institution rather than just run it.” The Art Newspaper, 2 June 2016. The Tate doesn’t need a corporate structure to have a brand-recognition any company would envy.
(8) In true corporate style, the latest restructure, because it comes so close on the heels of the previous - clearly failed one - is called a “re-alignment”, now apparently in a “renewal” phase. It might seem a shame the word “exhibitions” doesn’t start with “r”.
(9) Including, it would seem, the moniker “Our Place”. Given all the secrecy surrounding long-term plans and the restructures, the evidence might suggest it’s become “Their Place”.
(10) The previous CEO Michael Houlihan spoke about this with apparent conviction at two Te Papa openings: Brian Brake’s in 2010 and Kahu Ora/Living Cloaks in 2012. The only development in this direction was a new exhibition space in the former library’s location: there were about three successive shows there, but since the last one closed a year ago - a history of Air New Zealand - it’s been a crate store.
(11) The quality of Te Papa’s management must be seriously questioned over the matter of the series of semi-permanent exhibitions installed for Day One in 1998. One of the Te Papa project promoters’ central planks was the new museum would have none of the long-running shows characterising the fuddy-duddy institutions it would replace. Well, ten years into its history surely someone at Te Papa may have begun considering the staged replacement of these aged Day One shows such as Golden Days, Awesome Forces, Passports and Mountains to Sea. But, last year, fifteen years after the new museum opened there was a sudden panic about this major issue, and because the financial implications were major, equally suddenly many medium and longer-term projects have had to be postponed or cancelled.
(12) But some of them will be raised later, particularly in terms of post-1970s imagery.
(13) Regarding the National Art Gallery, during the 1980s the only guaranteed fund for acquisitions included in the annual government grant was $6000, and that, strictly legally, was reserved for the repatriation of NZ art works. Any other funds for purchases had to be obtained by application to the Lotteries Commission and other contestable sources. In comparison Te Papa’s funding is almost unimaginably generous.
(14) For the six years between 1984 and 1989 the National Art Gallery mounted the following:
Glenn Busch’s Working Men (in-house & national tour)
Monochromes (US photographers from permanent collection)
The Body in Question (from permanent collection)
Pairs: Laurence Aberhart and Walker Evans (from permament collection)
International Photography 1920-1980 (from the National Gallery of Australia)
Chelsea Project (5 NZ photographers, toured by Auckland Art Gallery)
Henri Cartier-Bresson: photographer (toured by International Center of Photography, NY)
Posing a Threat (from permanent collection)
Peter Peryer (toured by Sarjeant Gallery)
Bruce Connew’s South Africa (in-house & national tour)
Ritual in New Zealand Photography (from permanent collection)
The Trained Eye (from permanent collection)
George Chance (toured by Dunedin Public Art Gallery)
Politics and Photographs (from permanent collection)
Hollywood Portraits from Keri de Carlo Collection (collaboration with NZ Film Archive)
Barbara Kruger (in-house, at Shed 11)
Richard Misrach: Desert Cantos (in-house & national tour)
Rodchenko as photographer (toured by Museum of Modern Art, Oxford)
Peter Black’s Foliage portfolio (in-house, from permanent collection)
Mysterious Coincidences: contemporary British colour photography (toured by Photographers Gallery, London)
Frank Hofmann’s Object & Style: photographs from four decades (in-house & national tour)
From Today Painting is Dead (at Shed 11 - over 200 images from permanent collection)
Cindy Sherman (in-house, at Shed 11, later tour to Waikato Museum)
(15) In 2003 John Kinder’s New Zealand toured from the Auckland Art Gallery, and in 2007 Peter Black’s Foliage portfolio was show alongside Mapplethorpe’s flower portfolio Y - very like the NAG’s pairing of Aberhart and Evans back in 1985. Very occasional small displays of images in Te Papa’s tiny Ilot Room, the ante-room to Level 5 or the same Level’s works on paper gallery (not much bigger than a double bedroom) hardly qualify as “exhibitions”.
(16) Michael Houlihan, ‘Ground-breaking: Te Papa a Capital Treasure’, The Dominion Post, 29 July 2013, p.C24.
(17) See this writer’s piece ‘Flexing @ Our Place’ in New Zealand Journal of Photography, no.52, Spring 2003, pp 17-19.
(18) It’s generally understood that doing the Brake show was not exactly Te Papa’s photography curator’s first choice of a project on this scale.
(19) It appears that mounting this show was an idea coming late in the piece, and seems to have originated in the marketing rather than the curatorial department.
(20) This may be an illusion, because the further we go back in time there are fewer people left to argue with our interpretation of it.
(21) Witness to Change: life in New Zealand, photographs 1940-1965 (John Pascoe, Les Cleveland and Ans Westra), with Janet Bayly, PhotoForum/Wellington, 1985; Fields of Golden Daffodils; themes in New Zealand newspaper and magazine photography 1890-1970, National Library Gallery, Wellington, 1991; Brian Brake Lens on the World, with five others, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2010. His guest-curated show in 1987 Politics and Photographs for the National Art Gallery from the permanent collection is the honorable exception.
(22) McCredie’s Rear Vision of 1988, a history of PhotoForum/Wellington, is more about the development and achievements of the group than a critical analysis of the photography.
(23) There are, though, half a dozen images by Frank Hofmann. European New Objectivity-styled images are a notable feature in this country’s photographic history (more in retrospect, though), but that Modernist movement was of very little consequence compared to the influence of feminism in the 1970s and ‘80s.
(24) Not because it lacked worth, but because it was so male. In any case, women invented their own kind of documentary style, perhaps best exemplified in the photographs and films of Joanna Margaret Paul.
(25) One of Fiona Pardington’s hei tiki is included, but whether that’s adding much to tino rangatiratanga is very open to question.
Love to hear orchestral classical music live?
CLICK HERE to follow this orchestra’s adventurous performing programme
Comprehensive online access to contemporary art & leading galleries around the world
Two Rooms presents a program of residencies and projects
by leading international and New Zealand contemporary artists.