New Zealand lacks art identity

FREE FORM: Shane Cotton's The Painted Bird.
FREE FORM: Shane Cotton's The Painted Bird.

Is there such a thing as New Zealand art?

With the disputatious bromides of Waitangi Day safely behind us for another year, it's a timely question to ask.

The country's art galleries overflow with works that ostensibly shout "New Zealand". But how much simply reflects curatorial dictates? How much is simply a bland reinterpretation of cultural cliches and the global art market? How much is a series of cultural "borrowings" from other sources.

We're told that New Zealand art has its own distinctive artistic voice and profile. But ask what that identity is and you are unlikely to receive a clear answer.

For decades, New Zealand painting was dominated by the art of the landscape as a new land revealed itself to the European colonists.

Later McCahon became our god and you could be excused for assuming that other New Zealand artists followed in his footsteps. Dark, brooding, austere works with more than a hint of melancholy angst.

The pendulum swung and Polynesia swept across the gallery walls as Pasifika artists created a colourful, vibrant world which demonstrated an acceptance that New Zealand was indeed a Pacific nation. Now we're heavily into installation art which either illuminates or, more often than not, frustrates.

New Zealand art is many things. The swirling sweep of Maori carving. Cloud swept mountains and misty lakes by John Gully. A Don Binney bird hovering above familiar coastlines. A sculpture by Paul Dibble. A Barry Cleavin print or work by Bill Hammond. Did Bill Sutton trap the country's essential character in his paintings? Has Shane Cotton finally nailed the thorny question of identity?

A large component of contemporary New Zealand has evolved into a fusion of Maori and Pakeha. Depending on your perspective, the result is a statement of a shared identity or a bland concoction of ambivalent flavours and textures which ultimately fails to make a statement about anything.

Whatever its various qualities are, it's obvious that New Zealand art is a work in progress. The various threads - Maori, Polynesian and European - are still being woven into a final tapestry - and it's a fascinating process to watch and experience. But I doubt that the problematic question about a New Zealand identity will be answered soon.

Writing recently in the Australian magazine Monument, Elizabeth Farrelly asked the same question about Australian design, suggesting that by its very nature, the search for identity will be a lengthy testing one.

"Our very need to search for a national identity is proof of its intangibility, " Farrelly suggested.

In both countries, the search for these elusive qualities reflects questions of size, youth and disparity. There is one essential difference. In Australia, the indigenous culture stamped itself onto the broader artistic canvas comparatively recently. In New Zealand, the interplay between Maori and Pakeha has ebbed and flowed for nearly 200 years, both cultures borrowing influences from each other; both unafraid to dip their feet into the different cultural streams. This is where we have the advantage.

But can the essence of what makes us New Zealanders be distilled into our art? How should we depict ourselves? Sceptical, sardonic, pragmatic, judgmental, unsecure? Innovative and at ease with our environment? The Pacific's introspective Calvinists or new Polynesians? The debate about the design of a new national flag already demonstrates a deep-seated ambivalence and uncertainty about our identity.

That's where Australia has the lead. There's an adamant quality, a style, call it what you will, about Australian art which immediately reveals its cultural roots. Nolan, Boyd, Whitely all created works which could come from no other place than Australia.

We lack that confidence.

Too much of this country's contemporary art is second tier "anywhere" work which simply borrows from other influences. Surprisingly little speaks directly and confidently about who New Zealanders are in the 21st century. We appear uneasy about stepping outside our comfort zone into new artistic journeys. Witness what is currently happening in Christchurch's current rebuild. This should be an opportunity for all the arts - architecture, painting, and sculpture - to make new, bold, visceral statements about whom we are and where we are going. Instead we appear to be treading muddy, confused waters with no particular outcome in mind beyond an obligatory superficial nod towards art.

Waitangi Day shouldn't be the only day of the year that we briefly touch on the difficult issues of identity and belonging. A mature and intelligent discourse should be a daily experience.

This is a regular weekly column by Press arts commentator Chris Moore.

The Press