Hamish Coney assesses the winner and three finalists in the Walters Prize exhibition and is taken by the way they decode our multi-channel culture.

The 9th Walters Prize finalist exhibition is a double whammy. The complex installations of five contemporary New Zealand artists demonstrate just how far our art scene has travelled in the past two decades. Also, the 2018 exhibition powerfully articulates art’s traditional role of speaking truth to power.

Art prizes around the world are big news. First, because the naming of finalists, judges and winners is one of the few times contemporary art actually makes the news and secondly because, and this applies particularly to the art scene here, an award such as the Walters Prize provides an entrée for finalists and winners to gain traction internationally.

This year, the 2014 prize winner Luke Willis Thompson is a finalist in perhaps the most significant art award in the English-speaking world, the Turner Prize in Britain, the winner of which will be announced in early December.

Like the Turner Prize, the Walters in New Zealand is named for one of our most impactful and pioneering artists, Gordon Walters (1915 – 1995). The format is pretty simple. A panel of eminent artworld curators, writers and influencers selects the four best, in their view, solo exhibitions of the previous two years. These are then re-presented at the Auckland Art Gallery under the careful eye of curator Natasha Conland and an international judge jets in and picks the winner. Earlier this month the winner was announced as Ruth Buchanan for her installation Bad Visual Systems, originally exhibited at the Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, in 2016.

The judge this year was Adriano Pedrosa, Artistic Director of the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). On the evening of the announcement at the Auckland Art Gallery, the artists, award sponsors and the artists’ significant others such as gallerists, family and collectors listened with some anticipation to the judge’s comments in the moments before the announcement of Buchanan as the winner and recipient of the $50,000 prize award.

In the moment the excitement is palpable. But in the wider context of global events that seem to crash about us unbidden, contemporary art and institutions such as the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki or MASP increasingly appear as much needed bastions of sanity: safe spaces in which to engage in vital discourse on issues we hold dear and must negotiate to ensure the maintenance of civil society.

We’re in choppy waters right now. Walters Prize judge Pedrosa may feel the barbarians are at the gates. While he was in New Zealand, Brazil elected its new President Jair Bolsonaro, whose politics are incendiary on what we may think as resolved issues such as LBGT rights.

Prize finalist Pati Solomona Tyrell’s elegant installation of photography and video entitled Fagogo unpacks long standing Polynesian cultural traditions towards gender fluidity and expression with compassion, elegance and joy.

It seems incredible here in New Zealand that in some parts of the world such an abundant artwork may struggle to be displayed or discussed without placing the artist or the gallery in peril. But that is now the case in Brazil and increasingly elsewhere. As recently as November 7 The Guardian  reported artists in Brazil are contemplating fleeing the country or employing bodyguards after they have been the target of threats. Exhibitions dealing with gender or religious subject matter have been closed down or subject to censorship.

But concepts such as the Maori takatapui, the Samoan fa’afafine or the Tongan fakaleiti which describe shifting gender identities have been integral to those cultures for centuries, describing traditions as old as Christianity itself as Tyrell so eloquently enunciates, ‘I am not an individual. I am an integral part of the cosmos. I share divinity with my ancestors.’

Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s virtual reality, moving image exploration Whol Why Wurld plunges into the inferno that is cyberspace. These pulsing, slow paced digital renderings are layered musings with a vast midden of reference points. Nothing is off limits – and surely that is art’s highest calling, its greatest good? This is an artwork that stares directly into the abyss that is the crisis of faith we are currently experiencing online as social media is being dismembered bit by bit, infected with hate speech, yet another perverted ‘commons’.

The Making of Mississippi Grind by Jacqueline Fraser posits as an after the fact storyboard for a mockumentary and was first exhibited at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2017. For the Walters Prize Fraser, who represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2001, has re-proposed the work as The Making of In the Heat of the Night (after the 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier). You get the drift – these installations take as a starting point documentation of an iconic film and slows the moving image down into a set of deeply personal expositions, a collage of torn magazine images, fashion ads, fabric swatches, ephemera and a dash of showbiz glitz.

A soundtrack of dialogue snatches and dance music conflate into an environmental exploration or diary of culture as experienced by the artist. Nothing is privileged or weighted, the whole presents as a hymn to daydreaming about what such things might or could mean. The shifts of time, place and cultural point of view acted as an imaginative call and response enabler for this viewer. It has been some time since I have been so energised by spending time ‘inside’ an artwork.

The winning installation Bad Visual Systems by Ruth Buchanan creates the most clearly articulated architectural environment, unfolding as a very cool reading room or library space with the restrained yet playful assembly of vitrines, texts, gnomic slogans and grabby references that feels on point as a contemporary art experience in 2018. But what raises this installation into something special are the meditative and collaborative elements that hold the viewer in a giddy zone between word and (moving) image.

This is an artwork about the joy of sharing. Buchanan has used the space to point to and celebrate other artists, namely Judith Hopf and Marianne Wex, two German artists with whom New Zealand audiences may not be familiar, but the Berlin based New Zealand artist explores her kinship with them by inviting them and us into the territory of Bad Visual Systems.

The installation becomes an essay on the architecture of artistic friendship as the one authorial voice in the form of Buchanan melts into a more choral and nuanced encounter. This is a dense work, ‘polyphonic… at times verging on the poetically cacophonic’ was how judge Pedrosa described Bad Visual Systems in announcing his decision.

That description is a stepping point into understanding what Buchanan and her fellow finalists are seeking to achieve as artists in the contemporary now. Now is complex, multi-layered, contested, fast and frequently ‘truthy’ at best.

By standing firm against the manifest forces and their unrelenting demands that our most cherished societal structures are, by fair means or foul, assets to be privatized, rendered and atomized, these contemporary artists by deploying collaboration, cultural and gender sensitivity advance a collective manifesto, a joint and several approach to the most pressing issues of our time. For this reason alone, a trip to the Auckland Art Gallery is highly recommended.

It is worth comparing the work of the 2018 Walters Prize finalists with that of the artist after whom the prize was named in 2002.

For the first few months of the finalists’ exhibition Auckland viewers had the rare opportunity to contrast the development of art-making and the mechanics of exhibition presentation between Walters in his pomp in the mid-1960s when the first of his iconic Koru paintings were exhibited and the ‘worlding’ that describes much contemporary art production.

Walters’ beguiling modernism is presented in traditional form: elegant canvases within which we see one crystal clear idea addressed in the crisp lines and bulbs of the potent Koru works. It’s a big idea and vital to the New Zealand visual arts discourse – namely the confluence of two distinct traditions into one satisfying whole – European modernist conceptual thinking and Maori cultural visual systems and their manifestation.

Fast forward half a century and we enter (literally) immersive multi-media installations or ‘worlds’ that traverse sound, dance, moving image, textual references and perhaps most importantly a more irregular, asymmetrical approach to authorship, production and viewer engagement. Today’s viewer is asked not just to look and think, but to jump in, explore, maybe do a bit of reading or join the dance. Above all, visitors to the 2018 Walters Prize will need to be available to collaborate with the artist in charting a course to meaning.

By their nature these are discursive artworks as opposed to the didactic certainties of Walters at his most imperious. However, the more porous, theatrical and less binary the works are their collective potency comes from the (at times) dramatic notion that these artists are up to the task of decoding our multi-channel culture.

The 9th Walters Prize exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki until January 28, 2019

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