Sarah Farrar

Double Vision: Art in an Age of Uncertainty

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This article was originally published in the Gallery's Art Toi magazine, issue 11, December 2023.


Recently, I was tested for double vision. As I sat in the optometrist’s chair, I peered through her various contraptions, lining up green and red lines and trying to focus on clusters of dots and squares of vertical lines. After analysing my response to the various visual tests, she gave me a new prescription: anti-fatigue lenses to reduce my blurred vision, eye strain and headaches. This experience feels like an appropriate metaphor for making sense of the confusing amalgam of signs and symbols we’ve experienced throughout 2023 in Tāmaki Makaurau. From the January floods and Cyclone Gabrielle to the turmoil of an election year, amid escalating violence on a national and global scale, and the long Covid hangover – I suspect we all need some relief and space to regain focus.

According to New Zealand poet Cilla McQueen, ‘The hardest thing is seeing / straight and saying plainly.’[1] Seeing straight is hard enough, but saying plainly is harder still. How do we find and articulate meaning amid so much uncertainty? How do we counter the ensuing fatigue? What role can art play?

<p>Ryan Gander, <em>The End</em>, 2020, animatronics, sound and electrical components, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with assistance of the Lyndsay Garland Trust, 2021. Image &copy; Ryan Gander, courtesy Lisson Gallery.</p>

Ryan Gander, The End, 2020, animatronics, sound and electrical components, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with assistance of the Lyndsay Garland Trust, 2021. Image © Ryan Gander, courtesy Lisson Gallery.

An unlikely oracle is a little mouse who speaks in a childlike voice at the entrance to Portals and Omens: New Work from the Collection, an exhibition of contemporary art from Auckland Art Gallery’s collection which opened on 21 October. Curated by the Gallery’s Natasha Conland, the exhibition brings together a selection of works acquired by the Gallery’s curatorial team in recent years, including during the Covid-19 pandemic. This article examines some of these recent acquisitions to reveal interrelated themes and their relevance for our present moment.

The mouse, which has burrowed its way out from within the gallery wall, reminds us that one of the key differences between humans and animals is our ability to daydream, to cognitively transport ourselves back in time or into the future to imagine alternate realities. A work by British artist Ryan Gander, The End, 2020 is one of a number of his recent works which explore metaphysics, mortality and time. ‘Time,’ opines the mouse, ‘is your greatest asset,’ as it warns us of the attention-seeking and mind-numbing attractions of the internet and social media. In the attention economy, it plaintively asks, ‘Will you remember me?’

Opposite Gander’s mouse is Sisyphus, 2021, a figure made from ecologically harvested wild balata rubber who buckles beneath the weight of a boulder raised overhead. London-based New Zealand artist Francis Upritchard created this work in 2021 in the post-earthquake ‘Red Zone’ of Christchurch, when it was an incredibly challenging time for New Zealanders living abroad to return to Aotearoa due to Covid-19 restrictions. The work refers to the Greek legend of Sisyphus, who attempts to defy death and is punished by spending eternity in the exhausting and ultimately futile task of pushing a rock to the top of a hill only for it to roll back to the bottom, ad infinitum.

The crouching, gnarled Sisyphus contrasts with the teeteringly tall Arcangelo I, 2020, by Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere. This tender, realistic human figure swaddled in animal skins was also created during the pandemic. The artist notes, ‘. . . a journalist asked me if art could bring some comfort during lockdown. Then I discovered a painting by Giorgione of an angel holding the body of Christ. I saw in it what was happening around us, what was happening to the people in hospital, who had to die alone. And I thought of all the people who had become anonymous angels.’[2] De Bruyckere’s archangel reminds us of the isolation many people experienced in recent years and the consolation that can be found in community and in the kindness of strangers. Although the human-like beings in this exhibition may be mute, they communicate volumes about the frailty of humanity, our trials and tribulations, and our corporeal existence.

Actual human bodies, belonging to artists Angela Tiatia and Sun Hailiang, are put on the line in Sāmoan New Zealand artist Angela Tiatia’s three video works from her series Soft Power, 2015. Created during an artist residency in Beijing, Tiatia continues, a tradition of endurance in performance art while also drawing attention to gender and race and exploring the long history of geopolitical relations between Sāmoa and China. Tiatia is interested in ‘the spaces where power and control shifts – on both intimate and global levels’.[3]

Suspended in the foyer at the entrance to the exhibition is French artist collective Claire Fontaine’s Foreigners Everywhere (If you were to live here . ..), 2013. In brightly coloured neon, the phrase ‘Foreigners everywhere’ appears in the artists’ original French, as well as in te reo Māori, Samoan, Yue Chinese, Hindi and Korean – the languages most commonly spoken after English in Tāmaki Makaurau in 2015 when Claire Fontaine was commissioned to contribute work to Hou Hanru’s 5th Auckland Triennial, If you were to live here . . . Originating in 2005, the series was first created in Arabic and displayed in New York in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States of America and its allies. It has since appeared across the globe in different languages to continue to expose xenophobia and highlight the shared experience of feeling foreign in a globalised world.

<p>Anicka Yi,&nbsp;<em>Half Water, Half Mud, Half Sun</em>, 2023 (installation view), aquazol, glycerin, crepeline, acrylic, LED animatronic insect, courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York</p>

Anicka Yi, Half Water, Half Mud, Half Sun, 2023 (installation view), aquazol, glycerin, crepeline, acrylic, LED animatronic insect, courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York

In one of his final books, Polish-British philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925–2017) considers the condition of ‘liquid modernity’ – a particularly apt concept in our own recently waterlogged times – which he describes as ‘endemic uncertainty’. ‘Much of the power to act effectively that was previously available to the modern state is now moving away to the politically uncontrolled global (and in many ways extra-territorial) space; while politics, the ability to decide the direction and purpose of action, is unable to operate effectivelynat the planetary level since it remains, as before, local.’[4] As we wrestle with an urgent planetary climate crisis, nation statesare challenged to reach transnational agreements. From the heyday of the globalisation of people and goods, we have entered the era of global consequences. Covid-19 and climate change have made it clear that we cannot operate independently without impacting others – human and non-human alike.

In this context, many of us turn to the natural world for refuge and remedy. The environmental and medicinal properties of sea kelp, the main material in Korean American artist Anicka Yi’s Half Water, Half Mud, Half Sun, 2023, have been elucidated through active international research. In addition to sequestering excess carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere, kelp contains phytonutrients which can reduce inflammation and offer myriad other health benefits. Yi’s sculptural installations, which sit at the intersection of art and scientific research, suggest an alternate reality in which we cohabitate with hybrid natural and robotic beings.

<p>Pauline Rhodes, <em>Pleasure &amp; Pain</em>, 1980&ndash;2019 (installation view), painted and stained plywood, painted and stained canvas, silk, stained cotton, matagouri cuttings, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with the assistance of Michael Lett Gallery, Auckland, 2020</p>

Pauline Rhodes, Pleasure & Pain, 1980–2019 (installation view), painted and stained plywood, painted and stained canvas, silk, stained cotton, matagouri cuttings, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with the assistance of Michael Lett Gallery, Auckland, 2020

New Zealand artist Pauline Rhodes’ performative installation Pleasure & Pain, 1980–2019 employs natural materials to explore ideas related to the land, weathering and exposure, and the symbolism of colour. The red in this work relates to the dye used as a biomedical marker in chronic pain research to help visualise the intensity of pain sensation. The inclusion of the prickly native matagouri plant offers another isual metaphor, recalling an Indigenous history of mark-making in which matagouri thorns were used by early Māori as needles in tā moko. The overall effect of the installation, according to critic Lucinda Bennett, is to render the gallery ‘baroque, carnal, ritualistic, biblical’.[5]

The symbolic gift of oak seedlings to athletesparticipating in the 1936 Berlin Olympics is the focus of New Zealand artist Ann Shelton’s in a forest photographs. Shelton documented the present-day locations of some of these seedlings, also known as ‘Hitler’s Oaks’, to prompt contemplation on history, memory, symbolism of trees and their implication in a Nazi agenda of military domination and cultural genocide.‘These trees,’ observes Shelton, ‘have since entered the historical vernacular as complex and highly conflicted signs; embodiments of memory and marks of forgetting.’[6] The complex and loaded symbolism of the forest in German culture is further unpacked in the exhibition in a four-channel video work by German artist Julian Rosefeldt, Meine Heimat ist ein düsteres, wolkenverhangenes Land (My home is a dark and cloud-hung land), 2011, originally commissioned by the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

<p>Natalie Robertson, <em>Buried house &mdash; Barton&rsquo;s Gully (Mangarārā stream flowing into Waiorongomai river)</em>, 2018, from <em>Tātara e Maru Ana &ndash; The Sacred Rain Cape of Waiapu</em>, 2018&ndash;20, C-type photographic print, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2023</p>

Natalie Robertson, Buried house — Barton’s Gully (Mangarārā stream flowing into Waiorongomai river), 2018, from Tātara e Maru Ana – The Sacred Rain Cape of Waiapu, 2018–20, C-type photographic print, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2023

Against this backdrop of highly charged, symbolic landscapes is Ngāti Porou photographer Natalie Robertson’s striking image of a house almost entirely buried by sediment from erosion. It recalls the Burton Brothers’ 19th-century photograph of the buried whare of Te Paea Hinerangi (also known as Guide Sophia) in the aftermath of the 1886 Tarawera eruption, yet it depicts a more recent, unfolding environmental disaster in Te Tai Rāwhiti. Robertson’s photograph captures the devastating impact of extensive forestry in the artist’s ancestral rohe, tribal homelands, which has led to severe erosion and destruction caused by rising sediment and forestry slash. She poignantly describes her role as a photographer to ‘elevate and amplify the voice of the taiao, the river and voice of the species that are at threat here . . . how might we bring their voices forward?’[7]

Another terrifying image of environmental apocalypse is Goshka Macuga’s From Gondwana to Endangered, Who is the Devil Now?, 2020. Created in response to the bush fires in Australia and California that year, this mural-sized embroidery can be viewed through 3D glasses for startling added effect. Strange animal-human creatures bearing protest placards gather before a raging forest inferno. Writing about this work in a 2020 issue of this magazine shortly after the Gallery acquired the work, curator Natasha Conland observed: ‘While adult protesters dressed in animal costumes may appear absurd or even comical amid the harrowing documentation of a very real crisis, Macuga deploys them to illuminate another kind of truth. Here was a moment when humanity’s simple empathy for the plight of animals cut through the complex bipartisan political terrain to engage careand empathy for the natural environment . . . we may need furry creatures to help us see devastation and not run a mile.’[8]

<p>Goshka Macuga, <em>From Gondwana to Endangered, Who is the Devil Now?</em>,<em>&nbsp;</em>2020, woven tapestry (3D), wool, cotton and synthetic fibres, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Friends of the Auckland Art Gallery, 2020.</p>

Goshka Macuga, From Gondwana to Endangered, Who is the Devil Now?, 2020, woven tapestry (3D), wool, cotton and synthetic fibres, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Friends of the Auckland Art Gallery, 2020.

Why do we collect contemporary art? Why does art matter? What does art have to say about the times we live in? These are questions we ask ourselves again and again. In different ways, each artwork in Portals and Omens implores us to slow down and to spend time in contemplation, perhaps considering the wisdom of our current actions or, worse, inaction. They also, as Conland suggests, reinforce the power of creativity and the imagination as vehicles for navigating uncertain times and envisioning alternate futures. They may even help us to develop a planetary consciousness. And, when our own vision fails us, through art we can regain a sense of perspective and, possibly, hope.

Returning to the challenge of seeing straight and saying plainly, the words of another New Zealand poet, our current poet laureate, Chris Tse, come to mind: ‘. . . even when my vision stutters and I have no / reason to believe in hope – even when the deceits and / machinations of the present day seem unavoidable – it’s / enough to look up at a sky blushing red and / see possibility – to not worry how the end will reveal itself’.[9]

1. Cilla McQueen, ‘Vegetable Garden Poem (i)’, 1982, from Homing In, reproduced in Cilla McQueen, Poeta: Selected and New Poems, Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2018, p 32.
2. Rajesh Puni, ‘In and Of the World: A Conversation with Berlinde De Bruyckere’, Sculpture, 18 April 2023,, accessed 10 October 2023.
3. Jane Llewellyn, ‘Angela Tiatia’, Art Collector, 77, July–September 2016, p 104.
4. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, Polity Press, London, 2007, p 2.
5. Lucinda Bennett, ‘Pauline Rhodes’, Art Collector, 95, January–March 2021, p 105.
6. Ann Shelton, ‘Seeing the Wood and the Trees: A Complicating History of Hitler’s Oaks’, in The Dendromaniac: The Occasional Journal, eds Alice Tappenden, Ann Shelton and Jessica Hubbard, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, March 2015, the-dendromaniac/seeing-the-wood-and-the-trees-a complicatinghisto, accessed 10 October 2023.
7. Natalie Robertson, quoted in a video interview, ‘Natalie Robertson: Tātara e maru ana – The sacred rain cape of Waiapu’, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2023,, accessed 8 October 2023.
8. Natasha Conland, ‘Goshka Macuga, From Gondwana to Endangered, Who Is the Devil Now?’, Art Toi, 2, November 2020, p 41.
9. Chris Tse, ‘Photogenesis’ in Super Model Minority, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2022, p 100.