Cheek by Jowl
Mark Amery writes of the opening of the Len Lye Centre and its relationship to the Govett Brewster Art Gallery, its first exhibition Our Hearts of Darkness, its province of Taranaki - and us.
On a Clear Day
Marsland Hill quietly crouches behind the city centre of New Plymouth. At first it appears just bushy backdrop to the settler stone Taranaki Cathedral Church of St Mary. A climb reveals a fascinating mishmash of telling incongruities and incompatibilities. Taranaki’s history doesn’t so much collect up here, as get awkwardly staged.
Terracing and levelling were the work of Maori settlers in the 18th century, creating Pukaka Pa. During the Maori Land Wars the British lopped even more off for troop barracks, and to provide a safe house for the new European settlers.
Here still stands the grand stone plinth for a statue of a solider, dedicated to those who fought in the wars. While the plinth remains, the statue itself was destroyed by ‘vandals’ in 1992. Nearby, an ornate fountain sits surreally, far from any spring, filled with succulents rather than water. It is dedicated to those locals who fought in South Africa’s Boer War. Further across is a sculpture I found as surprising as my first encounter with Len Lye’s ‘Universe’ at the Auckland Art Gallery back in 1985. A ‘70s carillon, or tower of enormous bells which plays 25 tunes, including Rod Stewart's We are Sailing and Tom Jones's What's New Pussycat?.
On the side of the hill as you walk up is the grave of Charles Armitage Brown, best friend of the poet John Keats. At the mountain end of the hill squats an observatory, its domes sitting atop some workmanlike white wooden sheds. On a clear day Taranaki sits next to it -white mitre next to white cupola against the sky. This was once captured beautifully by Laurence Aberhart.
From Marsland Hill on a clear day you may be able to gaze over the city across twinkling waters to an oil rig on the horizon. Nearer, the iconic smokestack of New Zealand’s first big thermal power station (powered by natural gas). Now in view between them is the recently opened Len Lye Centre, glittering in the sunlight like some Oz Emerald City.
The church St Mary’s opened in 1846. Its gravestones honour those who fell fighting “the natives”. Bishop Selwyn had hoped to establish a Taranaki diocese here but war got in the way. It finally happened in 1998, the church consecrated as a cathedral in 2010.
There’s always this sense when I visit Taranaki - of cultures and ideals in battle. A wide-open beauty, across which floats an air of palpable unease. Injury not healed, things unable to be at peace. The legacy of Parihaka on the on hand, the dairy, oil and gas boom on the other, the damaged land beneath. So it is elsewhere in New Zealand, yet in Taranaki it seems so much more visible
Into the Light
The local battles over the Govett Brewster Art Gallery and its groundbreaking contemporary art programme since 1970 in Taranaki are legendary. So have become those in the past few years over the establishment next to it of the city’s glorious new temple, the Len Lye Centre. Two councilors refused to attend the opening weekend powhiri, despite no ratepayer money being put into building.
Designed by Andrew Patterson, the building as experience is a triumph. ‘Destination architecture’ is a terrible expression but nonetheless in this instance in New Zealand proves singularly apt. The towering stainless steel exterior curtain presents the ripple of a wave, an undulating roll of film, and an interlocking series of koru curls, around two sides of a square. On the opening morning the sun was hitting with an intensity that led easily to connect the experience to Lye’s recount of his earliest memory. That, as recorded in the recently published book of his writings Zizz! of “a great flash of quivering sunlight” coming from “a large, shiny square-sided kerosene can” that he was kicking. “Not quite four and in a tantrum”.
True to Lye and his kinetic temple aspirations, it is the most interactive building I have experienced in the world. The Bilbao Guggenheim may constantly shift before you as you move, but it remains a monument you gaze at. As fun fair mirror, at the Lye you’re in charge. You can literally disappear into its deep folds. So to inside, where the concrete undulates as a frill offering wee chambers with slit windows and ingeniously engineered blinds.
On a sunny winter day the exterior is a heater, leaving you chasing waves of warmth down the street to bathe in. The building is constantly changing with the light and like some futurist-cubist shattering from the last century does dramatic things by reflection to the beautiful wooden White Hart Hotel of 1886 on one side, and the 1906 clock tower on the other. As they did for the opening weekend, they’ll need to close those adjacent streets regularly. Motorists, look out for dumbstruck photographers.
Inside the centre you move clockwise, slowly ascending a ramp around the perimeter, notable for its grand high stud. A cinema and education space are set in the centre. In the first of two Lye galleries it is 10 metres to the ceiling, as if specially created to show off the engineering prowess of the Len Lye Foundation in realising Lye’s visions of giant versions of his works. The first is a giant eight-metre high version of ‘Fountain’. Initial impressions are wow-wee grandiosity rather than anything that inspiring of the human spirit. Like a cathedral it’s a terrifically impressive space of itself, but looks like it might sacrifice much in flexibility for the showing of a range of art - a case of architecture over functional display space. Certainly what is on display currently isn’t a patch on the outstanding Len Lye survey exhibition at Govett Brewster back in 2012.
A wide public aren’t likely to mind. They’ll be here for the building and a hit of Len’s ‘zizz’. Indeed it’s an easy prediction to make: within 5 years the Len Lye Centre will no longer be dividing council. They will be in thrall to the tourism and iconic stature the building has brought to the city. They will cherish the ‘battler’ spirit that got it built. Instead the question will be why the Govett Brewster isn’t serving the Len Lye Centre better as a trinket shop, rather than an increasingly conceptually and non-object based world-leading contemporary art gallery.
All eyes on the Govett Brewster and its new Director Simon Rees then - for how they will reconcile two buildings that not only sit cheek by jowl but whose spaces flow into one another. Critic John Hurrell has written well on this in a piece entitled ‘Compatible Partnership or Domination?’ at Eyecontactsite. On the face of it, it looks like a tough but fascinating curatorial challenge.
Programme wise future shows by the likes of light artist Anthony McCall make natural exciting sense. For others however actual exhibition space has been significantly compromised. In particular, the one big white box space that was an add-on to the buildings original cinema architecture - ideal for major artist projects - has gone altogether. It’s a worry for a gallery that also holds a significant permanent collection.
Into the Darkness
The opening exhibition for the reopened Govett Brewster (closed since 2013 for earthquake strengthening) smartly frames the gleam of the new Len Lye Centre by painting things very black. Light sits next to darkness. Exhibition Our Hearts of Darkness reflects a very different part of the region’s character.
All weekend I watched visitors to the new centre lightly enter the darkened Govett Brewster, only to become muted, and sometimes visibly disturbed in the face of the hints of sexual submission and violence in the work of Jacqueline Fraser, the weighted colonial chains of Ngahina Hohaia’s ‘Te Kahu o te Karauna/This is why I won’t stand for the national anthem’, and Peter Robinson’s crude swastika with the words daubed ‘Pakeha Have Rights Too’.
Billed as charting “the way violence is embedded within New Zealand identity and used against people different to a mono-cultural ideal” you’re left in no doubt, even when its not explicitly stated, that the exhibition is speaking to cultural tensions felt deeply in Taranaki. Just take a trip up Marsland Hill.
You could call this brave of new Director Rees - in the face of the many locals looking for a friendlier, more family-friendly gallery - but you could also call it safe, given the long persuasiveness of this theme in New Zealand culturally and a reliance on well established artists.
Either way, the exhibition is strongly put together by Rees. Strong works speak to the different underlying strains of darkness that get considered tied to our national psyche. All in the face of a general indifference by most galleries these days to explore ‘New Zealand concerns’ and to talk firmly of injustice to Maori. The artists and artworks, Rees writes signal “it is time for a change”. If so, it’s been a long time coming.
While the exhibition does nothing to introduce what the Govett Brewster’s contemporary concerns might be looking ahead, it does allow the gallery by way of introduction to acknowledge its past and its legacy. Excellent work by Taranaki artists Peter Peryer, Michael Smither and Fiona Clark are included (curiously absent given the themes is Don Driver), as are works by Darcy Lange, an artist the gallery under curator Mercedes Vicente did much to champion. Big hitters McCahon, Hotere, Fomison and Parekowhai feature.
McCahon’s Parihaka Triptych is a strong lynchpin. Placed at the top of the stairs, it visually gestures to the division of light and darkness between galleries old and new.
- Our Hearts of Darkness, Govett Brewster Art Gallery, until 29 November