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Peter Robinson exhibition opening, Saturday, 14 December 2013. The Dowse Art Museum, 45 Laings Road Lower Hutt, New Zealand T 04 570 6500 Photo by Mark Tantrum | www.marktantrum.comI wasn’t sure what I was expect­ing when I went to Peter Robinson’s Tribe Sub­tribe. The pub­li­city pho­tos showed a series of multi-col­oured sculp­tur­al ‘sticks’, and the blurb said, “Vis­it­ors are asked to con­trib­ute to the cre­ation of this col­our­ful exhib­i­tion.” Mmmmm.

The exhib­i­tion is in the Dowse’s large north gal­lery. I had to pass through a very charm­ing exhib­i­tion of ban­ners to get to it. Moment­ar­ily dis­trac­ted by the ban­ners – com­mis­sioned to cel­eb­rate the tenth anniversary of the Dowse in 1981 – I was unpre­pared for a room full of small felt circles.

Well, I’m exag­ger­at­ing. The floor was covered in felt circles. These had been organ­ised into strict bands of col­our – red, orange, yel­low, black and brown – but by the time I got there, the felt circles were becom­ing mixed up and the floor looked like an Abori­gin­al dot paint­ing. At the entrance to the gal­lery, signs ask you to remove your shoes and a swathe of instruc­tions tell you what to do.

To par­ti­cip­ate, you are asked to thread fel­ted circles onto spun alu­mini­um poles of dif­fer­ent lengths. The walls of the gal­lery were already lined with a good num­ber of works cre­ated by mem­bers of the pub­lic, so I didn’t hold back. I got going and threaded a pat­tern of brown and orange circles onto my pole – it was my homage to the 1970s.

And that’s the thing with this install­a­tion: it’s full of homage. That felt circles and sticks threaded with felt circles could provide so many art ref­er­ences is aston­ish­ing. Partly it’s the restrained palette. For me it evokes the Abori­gin­al land rights flag, as I’m sure it’s inten­ded to do, and the com­pleted poles lean­ing around the walls remind me of Arnold Wilson’s Pou When­ua works from the 1980s – large-scale wooden posts whose shapes and col­ours are echoed in this installation.

Then there’s the felt, with its Joseph Beuys ref­er­ences. Felt was one of Beuys’ favour­ite media, as was the idea that any­one can be an artist. Is Robin­son sug­gest­ing that for the pur­poses of this install­a­tion any­one can be a Māori artist?

But the sur­prise of the pro­ject is the rela­tion­al aes­thet­ics aspect. Accord­ing to Wiki­pe­dia, rela­tion­al aes­thet­ics means that the art­work cre­ates a social envir­on­ment in which people come togeth­er to par­ti­cip­ate in a shared activ­ity. Robin­son has nev­er struck me as that sort of an artist, but there you go. While I was there some friends arrived, and we hung out mak­ing our sticks. I’ll be cheesy and sug­gest this is Robinson’s way of show­ing that art can bring us togeth­er – and hence the title.

When I vis­ited the exhib­i­tion it was in its first phase: the mak­ing. As I write, it is in its second phase, where all the com­pleted sticks are lean­ing around the walls of the gal­lery. By the time you read this, the exhib­i­tion will be in its third phase and all the sticks will be lying on the floor. I want to see that – I think that’s the moment when the work will cre­ate its own ref­er­ences. Tribe Sub­tribe is on until 30 March.


March Art Recommendations

The Hutt Val­ley is the place to be in March. Shape­shifter returns as part of the New Zea­l­and Inter­na­tion­al Arts Fest­iv­al visu­al arts pro­gramme (until 16 March). Cur­ated by Dowse dir­ect­or Court­ney John­ston, it includes 3D works by 64 artists from around the coun­try, installed in the Hutt City Civic Gar­dens. Artists include Tim Wraight, Lucy Buck­nall, Mia Hamilton, Rick Rudd and Guy Ngan.

At the Dowse itself, Fran­cis Upritchard, Suji Park, Kate Newby, Paul Maseyk, Madeline Child, Iso­bel Thom and Kate Fitzhar­ris fea­ture in Slip Cast, an exhib­i­tion that con­siders a revived interest in ceram­ics by con­tem­por­ary artists. Slip Cast runs until 2 June.

Mary-Jane Duffy

Mary-jane is a Paekakariki-based poet and essayist, and FishHead's art columnist. She teaches poetry and academic writing on the Whiyireia Creative Writing programme, torturing students with half-rythmes and pantoums, zombie haiku, and line breaks, referencing and structure. Duffy has a background in museum and gallery work, making a lucky escape from the basement of the City Gallery Wellington in 2002 and opening the Mary Newtown Gallery with Paula Newtown in 2004. Art (across all the disciplines) feels like the closest thing she has to religious experiences - seeing, reading or hearing things that make her brain fizz.

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