Tuesday 22 November 2011
One of the highlights of the developed Gallery building is the Mackelvie Gallery, which has been painstakingly returned to its former glory as a Victorian neo-classical picture gallery. The interior of this 1916 room was removed in successive renovations in the 1950s and the 1980s. The last time its decorative columns saw the light of day was in 1979 when Billy Apple temporarily exposed them as part of an artwork titled Revealed/Concealed.
Apple is best known for his self-branding, for his witty and conceptual Pop worksand for his sly investigations into the workings of the art market. In 1975, and again in 1979 he turned a critical eye on New Zealand’s art galleries, touring around the country creating works which explored the ideology and politics of art exhibition spaces – the behind-the-scenes mechanics of an art gallery.
At Auckland Art Gallery in 1979, Revealed/Concealed literally exposed the architectural history of the gallery, as Apple cut away the walls of the room to show the 1916 columns which were hidden inside. During the ‘modernisation’ of the Mackelvie Gallery under director Eric Westbrook in 1952, the columns had been walled over to create a sleeker, cleaner and more modern look. By 1979, no-one remembered what they looked like – as Wystan Curnow has recorded, when Apple’s project was being discussed, wild speculation about beautiful orange marble columns began to circulate around the Gallery. When the walls were cut away and the columns were finally revealed, they turned out to be rather less spectacular concrete.
Revealed/Concealed was a two-part work: Apple counterbalanced the revelation of the historic columns by concealing a strange wall niche. This shallow alcove had been built into the wall above the Mackelvie Gallery’s famous curved staircase during the 1952 renovations – for what purpose was unclear exactly, but it spent more time covered by a wall hanging than performing any useful function for the display of art. Apple filled it in, erasing this odd eccentricity from the otherwise undisturbed smoothness of the gallery wall.
As Wystan Curnow wrote in a 1980 article on the project, “For the artist the art gallery space is a given. For any artist. The gallery wants to give the artist a show, he wants to make something of it. What space does it give him, this show? Which space is it, exactly? What is it? I mean, what does it amount to? These are questions REVEALED-CONCEALED brings to mind. Because it makes changes to and shows changes in the gallery space, the work brings particularly to mind the instability of that given over time. History as a given, then. The record of change; itself subject constantly to revelations and concealments.”
By displaying the spaces that were themselves designed for the display of art, what Apple ultimately revealed was how these containers for art are flexible and unstable – they are subject to change both physically and ideologically.
The recent reinstatement of the Mackelvie Gallery’s 1916 design was a triumph of heritage restoration. The interior of the room was almost entirely stripped out in the 1980s, and the original intricate plasterwork has been carefully rebuilt using only two surviving historic photographs. Revived again 95 years after it was first opened, the current (and original) design of the Mackelvie Gallery forms an appropriate period context for the Gallery’s Victorian painting collection. The resurrection of the Mackelvie Gallery acknowledges an important period in our building’s history, and also shows how in art galleries, as in art, history can be accommodated, referenced, revealed and concealed.