OPINION: The New Zealand Festival does some things well but, when it comes to the visual arts, it could do better.
I spent Writers Week thinking about Artists Week. Joining the throngs at the Embassy listening to Eleanor Catton discussing copy editing, economist Loretta Napoleoni on the decadence of globalisation, and essayist Terry Castle on reviewing, I was struck how the voices of contemporary artists - increasingly as interested in ideas as they are form - are by comparison isolated from wider public forums.
We have no Artists Week. We do have strong public programmes in our many public galleries. During the festival, we have visits from brilliant thinkers such as Britain's Simon Starling and American experimental cinema legend Ken Jacobs (via Skype in a rather smaller cinema, the Lighthouse Cinema Cuba on March 27). We have exhibiting visitors from the north like Shigeyuki Kihara and Tiffany Singh who are fierce, passionate and articulate speakers on our complex identity and the role of art in society.
The Kete art fair in craft and design held a symposium early in the festival with numerous international guests. Far more people deserved to know about it. As they did Performance Arcade's day-long symposium on art in public spaces. Meanwhile, we have many artists resident in Wellington exploring interesting questions and even fascinating historical episodes. Take Ann Shelton's consideration of the legacy of Neil Roberts' bombing of the "Wanganui Computer", for example. If only you heard about it.
We have a wealth of strong voices in the visual arts. What we lack, in this city that celebrates thinking and talking, is a framework for selecting and drawing together strong strands from this wealth to provide a crucible of vital ideas and stories. Adelaide Festival, on at the same time, has an Artists Week and a Biennial of Australian Art. This year it is explicitly about art as a lens to consider different perspectives on contemporary issues in Australia.
Despite efforts by the festival to market the visual arts programme together this year, curatorially over recent festivals it has weakened. There are many things this festival does well, this is currently not one of them.
Arts festivals are platforms for opening people up to new ideas across art forms. The intersections they create are vital. Working across disciplines suits Wellington's size and temperament as this festival has time and time again proven. Meanwhile, festival visual art events in traditional genre, the Adam Portraiture Award and Shapeshifter garden sculpture event truck familiarly on. There is yet another Festival Frances Hodgkins show at Mahara in Waikanae - a gallery elsewhere in the year not afraid to explore ideas.
With the exception of the outstanding Simon Starling show at City Gallery and a smashing Tracey Moffatt film Other at Expressions, Upper Hutt (of all places) this festival, you'd be hard-pressed to notice much difference in the galleries' programming. Te Papa has nothing.
Unlike Wellington, the Auckland Festival employs a visual arts programme manager, who works with the galleries, both public and private, to pull together a distinctive programme. I can recall a time in Wellington when the dealer galleries made a special effort during festival time because they asked to be in the festival programme. For most it is now business as usual.
Bowen Galleries in Ghuznee St is one exception. An excellent corollary to Writers Week and the festival's meld of the arts is an exhibition of artists' books on the subject of music, curated by Brendan O'Brien, featuring an impressive 44 artists. You could say it would benefit from a prune, and yet what makes the show zing is the general excellence of quality, and its exuberance and openness to a plethora of different approaches and artists - from Phil Dadson's sound-generated marks on grease paper to Alison Clouston's downloadable Bird Cry iBook. The theme of music encourages playfulness with design and material every which way.
There are tributes to fine small-book publishing (O'Brien's own work and Kowhai Press' hand-printed volume of Peter Stapleton lyrics with a Jason Grieg print) and strong textural experiments with design (Sarah Maxey's braille music and Dutch typographer HN Wermann's visualisation of the drumming of Mo Tucker).
Mostly, however, it's an opportunity for artists to impishly extend their work in a different format. Seraphine Pick takes to the fandom of Uncut music magazine with paint, Leon Van Den Eijkel pop-collages together a selection of those greeting cards that play music when you open them, Tracey Williams responds to Blue Smoke with images of skies, and Pauline Rhodes dazzles with pinprick pencil markings as a form of notation listening to Frescobaldi and Scarlatti. This exhibition alone could provide a rich discussion programme.
O'Brien's show provides what a festival like this needs, more intimate reading rooms and spaces that challenge the way you read and see, while entertaining you along the way.
Like the festival itself, it's an embarrassment of riches squeezed into a small space.
Notes: Artist books on Music, Bowen Galleries, Wellington until March 15
MUST SEE Dance Cards - Joanna Braithwaite, Bowen Galleries Joanna Braithwaite's small, warm and witty paintings of dancing couples in ridiculous costumes in the gallery window are elegant and telling. Offering clever and delightful pairings as a dancing alphabet, they're both nostalgic and playfully slippery in their theatrical, hokey dressing up of people as everything from broccoli flowers to smoking cigarettes.
- The Dominion Post