El Barroco de Aotearoa

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This exhibition is my second international curatorial project. It was staged at MUCA Roma in Mexico City and featured six artists,  Catherine Bagnall, Simon Morris, Joanna Langford, Jae Hoon Lee, Terry Urbahn and Reweti Arapere, invited to explore the baroque through their work. It is the first significant show of contemporary New Zealand art of its kind in Mexico, and featured in print, TV, radio and online media. MUCA Roma, part of Cultura.UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) and one of the most important venues for experimental contemporary in Mexico City. The project received developmental support from a number of institutions including Massey International Visiting Researcher Fund, the College of Creative Arts Strategic Research Fund, the Mexican Embassy, Film Archive and Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Finally, it was realised with a $30,000 Arts Grant from Creative NZ. The New Zealand Ambassador to Mexico, Christine Bogle, spoke at the opening, and the event was attended by the Directora General de Artes Visuales Graciela de la Torre Perez, the Australian Ambassador Katrina Cooper, the artists and around 300 guests.

Rebecca Wilson’s review on EyeContact

Link to the MUCA Roma exhibition site site

catalogue essay:

If Mexico figures in the New Zealand imagination, it does so through film, food and perhaps tourism: the final destination in a hundred cowboy movies, baroque churches nestling within megacities, chocolate, chilli and corn masa becoming El mole poblano… el platillo típico de México. And how do Mexicans understand New Zealand? Verdant middle-earth landscapes empty of people eating Anglo-Saxon roast lamb, bacon and eggs[1]? On the surface Mexico and New Zealand appear so very different. We have in common neither language nor history; our lands are not even in the same hemisphere, summer is winter. But we do share occupation of folded post-colonial space, and this exhibition El Barroco de Aotearoa explores how the baroque articulates this place as an alternative to a unified and singular national vision. Here is the work of six perhaps baroque New Zealand artists, away from home in Mexico City, arguably one of the most baroque of 21st century cities.

The project of which this exhibition is a part is an experiment, for the proposal that Aotearoa New Zealand might enjoy a baroque present is contentious. Unlike Mexico, we do not have a history of the baroque, rather one in which the British Empire encountered and bargained with (using force of arms, of course) Maori, the Tangata Whenua[2]. Neither was baroque, the one because in 19th century England the style, not being to Protestant taste, had been superseded by neo-Palladianism and later the neo-Gothic, the other because its visual culture has a history entirely outside Europe. If, as in the Latin American colonial experience, when Maori encountered European modes of cultural production, they appropriated what was useful, and European missionaries encouraged the use of traditional Maori motifs, styles and technologies (such as carving) in the decoration of churches that serviced Maori congregations, then, unlike in the Americas, this early hybridity was quickly nipped in the bud by Progress.

Like most colonies of the British Empire, the ‘New Zealand identity’ in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries developed on the Modern principles of forward thinking progress, an interventionist State, Modernist principles of essentialism and the avant-garde, and, in regard to the indigenous population, Maori, appropriation of the traditional culture where useful and assimilation otherwise. It was not until the 1970s, not coincidentally with the breakdown of New Zealand’s stable economic place in the world – Britain joined the European Economic Community and severed the guaranteed trade privileges its former colony enjoyed – and the beginnings of Postmodernism, that other visions for the New Zealand identity became possible. Maori began to re-discover their political and cultural voice in the face of disillusionment with their economic and social wellbeing, and Pakeha[3] intellectuals began to recognise the value of living Maori culture[4].

While it is an over-simplification to claim that Aotearoa New Zealand has become a truly bicultural nation, it is not unreasonable to say it is a becoming post-colonial place that is developing a particular understanding of ‘biculturalism’. This is based on a relationship between Maori and non-Maori, in fact a legislated partnership foundered on the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between the British Crown and about 540 Maori rangatira[5], that attempts to give equal weight to both parties. The interpretation of what this partnership means is open to legal challenge, and fraught with an uneasy tension between the expectations of a western style democracy (on which the country’s political system is based) and the demands and rights of an indigenous minority. This is in no small part made complex because individuals adopt identities dependant on context and inclination: amongst Maori it might be by iwi[6] affiliation (Ngai Tahu, Arawa, Ngati Porou, etc), as an indigenous peoples, or as the original (Polynesian) migrants, and amongst non-Maori as Europeans, colonials, subjects of the Crown, Pakeha, or any of the places from which they or their forbears migrated. It does not seem inappropriate, therefore, to frame this biculturalism as a complex, dynamical baroque system: it has many components that are constantly developing identity in relation to each other, and to ‘work’ it must reconcile a multitude of differing and often contradictory values. This biculturalism embodies, as Robert Venturi writes, the “difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion”[7]

Somewhere in, or out of, this space between comes Reweti Arapere. His Pou[8] reference and exceed traditional Maori carving, engorged and full of mana. Yet the bro’s[9] wear sneakers, markers of Polynesian youths’ ready adoption of international street culture, and the materials he uses are those of the street: spray paint and paint-pen, hoarding plywood and cardboard boxes. A local mediates the global.

I am curious, as author of this experiment, to see if you, a Mexican audience steeped in your intense baroque history, see the baroque in this work? Do you also recognise it in Catherine Bagnall’s performances, the sexy glory of dressing up in one’s best and then going walking in the leafy, muddy sublime wonder of the forest? In this particular work she has collaborated with photographer Aliscia Young and the resulting document hovers somewhere between a fashion shoot and digital Rembrandt, with Bagnall playing animal. We live with the contradiction that animals are slowly destroying New Zealand’s natural heritage: where once birds were everywhere, now introduced rats, stoats, weasels and possums prosper and multiply. Cows and sheep both feed us and earn our foreign currency. But contradiction is inherent in our post-colonial baroque, do you not agree? Where Europe sees provincial pastiche and decline, we have lasting cultural vigour.  We make our own what was once a tool of imperial oppression.

It helps to know that the trash in Terry Urbahn’s work is rolling round in the river Tiber. He celebrates qualities that might otherwise be thought of as symptoms of decline: uncertainty, pastiche and a cheerful refusal to commit to the rigour of established systems. Urbahn went on his ‘European Tour’ and saw not the best of Art History, but refuse. And he made a video of it dancing to Motörhead, evidence of turbulent chaos in the most classical of classical cities. To me the non-linear structures described by Complex Dynamical Systems Theory look baroque. Or, to put it the other way, baroque structures look Chaotic. Nobody, I think, who has ever visited the Capilla del Rosario in the Templo de Santo Domingo can avoid the sensation of being lost in such a complex, turbulent space. This is architecture not of Cartesian structure or Modern grid, but order of a kind folded and full of contradiction: a monad greater than it appears from the outside, a global style in which the local hides. And it is the aesthetics of the sublime through which desire courses.

Do you know we New Zealanders call ourselves “kiwis”, after the small, brown flightless bird that was once endemic throughout the country, but is now endangered? Our sublime cathedrals, our places of desire, are not built, but grew from seeds blown on the wind or berries shit from birds. Aotearoa is conventionally translated from Maori as “land of the long white cloud”, and nature, very close, has always felt distant and incomprehensible, our melancholic occupation of the land somehow provisional, our dwellings are made of sticks and biscuits and perch on hillsides as though in a Dr. Seuss story. We live in tree houses, like the one Joanna Langford made when she was a child, or as hobbits down amongst the roots of trees. Of course, Jae Hoon Lee’s tree root is synthetic, serial and endless, a skilfully contrived artefact. The digital domain is like this, an infinite bifurcating space, iterated from a simple set of rules like: start here, make a line so long, stop, turn, make another line, and so on, and so on. As a non-linear equation generates complexity, so too Simon Morris’s simple rules make beguilingly sophisticated pattern out of modest means. His work is in love with Modernism but beholden to the conventions of painting, and too decorative to be essential.

This kind of sentiment, or perhaps it’s a feeling, that Modernism’s essentialism, attractive as it may be, was never quite appropriate, is one I think you may understand. Mexico, like Aotearoa New Zealand, appears to me as a place shaped by contradictions such as the indigenous and the colonial, the local and the global, the traditional and the modern, nationalism and internationalism. A third term such as the baroque is a useful way to on the one hand destabilise these binaries and on the other reconcile them. As Martin Jay writes, the baroque allows us to “wean ourselves from the fiction of a “true” vision”[10]. El Barroco de Aotearoa presents such an uncertain emancipating moment.


[1] National Dishes of the world… thanks Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_dish

[2] Literally “people of the land”, Tangata Whenua is the Maori term for the indigenous peoples of New Zealand

[3] A New Zealander of European descent; a non-Maori New Zealander.

[4] In “the Double Rainbow, James K. Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune”, John Newton describes how in the early 1970s pakeha poet Baxter foundered the commune on the banks of the Whanganui River with the express purpose of exploring Maori spirituality and ways of living. As Newton writes, “The double rainbow is Baxter’s symbol for a mutually regenerative bicultural relationship. He recognised that the Pakeha majority ignored Maori culture, not just at the cost of Maori… but also to its own detriment.”

[5] Chieftains

[6] The traditional Maori tribal hierarchy and social order made up of hapu (kin groups) and whanau (family groups) having a founding ancestor and territorial (tribal) authorities.

[7] Robert Venturi,  Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art; distributed by Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1966), p.16.

[8] Pouwhenua are carved posts erected to symbolise the relationship between Maori iwi and hapu and the land

[9] Bro, a corruption of brother, = ?

[10] Jay, Martin “Scopic Regimes of Modernity.” In Vision and Visuality edited by Hal  Foster. New York: The New Press, 1988

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