Walters Prize 2008

New Gallery, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
13 September – 23 November 2008

The line-up of finalists for the 2008 Walters Prize caused a bit of a stir when it was announced in April. For the first time it contained two previous nominees—John Reynolds and Peter Robinson. It was not a violent stir however—more a rolling of the eyes and shaking of heads from those who surmised that the Walters Prize, like so many other New Zealand art institutions, had become yet another bastion of contemporary art conservatism, rewarding the stalwarts while overlooking emerging talent. Established in 2002, The Walters Prize is touted as New Zealand’s equivalent of the United Kingdom’s Turner Prize. Four solo exhibitions by New Zealand artists, shown over the preceding two years, are selected by a panel of four jurors (this time Andrew Clifford, Elizabeth Caldwell, Jon Bywater and Rhana Devenport). These exhibitions are then re-installed at Auckland Art Gallery for an international judge. The 2008 judge, French curator Catherine David came in late October to view and select a winner.

One wonders, however, that if Robinson’s Ack had not been nominated the stirrings might have been more vigorous. Shown at Auckland’s Artspace concurrently with Robinson’s re-showing of The Humours in the 2006 Walters Prize exhibition, Ack was a rare instance of an exhibition that really caused people to stop in their tracks. Huge forms hewn from polystyrene arched through the spaces, tumbled over each other and even punched through a gallery wall, forming a Dr. Seuss-like landscape. With an ambition in scale, use of material and space rarely seen in New Zealand, Ack set a much-needed example for local artists. It also signalled a revitalisation of Robinson’s practice, which saw him invited to install a major installation using the entirety of the Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth. In an echo of 2006, the Govett-Brewster show opened the day after the 2008 Walters Prize exhibition. Meanwhile Ack was carefully re-installed upstairs in Auckland Art Gallery’s New Gallery, alongside the other three finalists’ shows.

Round the corner from the icy forms of Ack, Lisa Reihana’s Digital Marae is a project that has been growing since 2001, and one which she intends to pursue for another two decades. Using digital techniques, detailed staging and photography, she portrays contemporary Maori as characters from myth. Shown in its most complete form at the Govett-Brewster, New Plymouth, earlier this year, this growing collection of life-size photographic portraits conflates the living with the mythological; past with present and future. Using the visual language of cinematic special effects and science-fiction, they take the place in a marae of figures once carved or painted. This highly manufactured slickness, assisted by skilful installation and lighting and accented by moving image and haunting sound, creates a dramatic atmosphere that ends up feeling overly contrived.

At the 2006 Sydney Biennale John Reynolds’s Cloud soared across an expansive wall at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, dwarfing the viewer yet still inhabiting the space lightly. 7000 small canvases bear a word or phrase from the Dictionary of New Zealand English, each handwritten in silver marker pen; these are the terms that have gradually slipped over 160-odd years into (or sideways through) the local language in a form of natural cultural drift. For the Walters Prize installation, Cloud settled across the walls of the stairwell and opening space of the New Gallery’s second floor, more like mist that hangs around the viewer as they ascend into it. Standing amidst this fog of words is an experience both intimate and strange, as familiar colloquialisms collide with specialised descriptors and the whole engulfs you with the same slightly claustrophobic feeling of finding yourself in a white-out.

The new kid in the mix is photographer Edith Amituanai. Awarded the inaugural Marti Friedlander photography prize in 2007, she was nominated for her series ‘Dejeuner’, first shown at Anna Miles Gallery, Auckland. Eschewing the high-tech glamour of Reihana’s works, Amituanai’s portraits show New Zealand Samoan rugby players who have moved to France to play professionally and the living rooms of the family homes they leave behind in New Zealand, with the gentle intimacy of a snap-shot. Named for the Sunday lunches with family that one player said he missed, this body of work quietly reminds of the possibility of contemporary art to speak both of and to a social moment.

Amituanai’s portraits could translate as easily from the temple of the gallery to the walls of one of the living rooms she depicts. Grouped in one small room they offer a quiet respite next to the drama and scale of the other three installations, yet they run the risk of feeling insubstantial in this context. On the other hand, despite still impressing with its irreverence, Ack at Artspace, irreverently bursting through the fixed gallery wall, has become a slightly tamer beast two years later, with its own purpose built wall to break through. Part of the problematic of the Walters Prize—but also part of what keeps it interesting—is that the success of the four exhibitions relies on their ability to be re-presented and juxtaposed, and to transmit to the international judge the qualities that attracted the jurors.