An exhibitionof Asian video art in Wellington embraces New Zealand's closer relationship with its regional neighbours, writes Sue Green
It looks an unlikely place for a significant survey of Asian video art. The beige, art deco lump that is Wellington's City Gallery looms over the New Zealand capital's Civic Square, a stone's throw from its picturesque waterfront.
But looks can be deceptive - since opening in 1980 this gallery has been at the forefront of exhibiting contemporary art in New Zealand. And there's a clue: its dour frontage is illuminated by Fault, a 1994 neon light sculpture by New Zealand artists Bill Culbert and Ralph Hotere, a nod to the city's location on an earthquake fault line.
And now, the gallery is at the forefront of New Zealand's engagement with Asia through the arts. For more than four months it is hosting "Moving on Asia: Towards a New Art Network 2004-2014", an innovative three-part exhibition drawn mostly from the collection of Asian video art housed at Gallery Loop in Seoul.
As well, there are new works from artists represented in the collection and, from April 22 until June 3, the final phase will feature works by 10 New Zealand video artists, to be proposed for inclusion in the Loop archive.
This important collection of more than 200 single-screen videos by 130 artists, selected by 50 curators from the Asia Curators Network, is the brainchild of Loop director Suh Jin-suk. It tours widely, including to Spain and Germany, and was in Hong Kong at ParaSite Gallery three years ago.
Aaron Lister, City Gallery's acting senior curator, devised its show after visiting Loop in 2011 as part of Creative New Zealand and the Asia New Zealand Foundation's visiting curators programme - part of a growing willingness to engage with Asia in what was once a nation of white and indigenous Maori faces with a few Chinese, many of the families dating from the 19th-century gold rushes.
Now New Zealand's Asian population is its fastest-growing. Statistics from the 2006 census - the 2011 survey was cancelled because of the Christchurch earthquake - showed it grew 50 per cent between 2001 and 2006. There were 354,552 people of Asian background (9.2 per cent) in 2006, with Chinese the largest group, then Indian and Korean.
Asia NZ Foundation research released last month found three quarters of New Zealanders saw the cultural and economic benefit of maintaining ties with Asia - lower than in 2011, which researchers attributed to unemployment being at its highest level for 13 years.
"Culturally we are definitely reorienting ourselves in terms of the Asia-Pacific region rather than being this outcrop of Europe," says Lister, who curated the show with Mark Williams, who visited Loop in 2012.
"The cultural connection between New Zealand and Asia has been increasing in importance to us in New Zealand for the past decade or so. There is a lot of transfer of artists between New Zealand and Asia. A lot of our most interesting young artists have come here to study and stayed," he says.
"I found the whole idea of this Moving on Asia archive fascinating. I have been interested in video art in New Zealand and think about how can we collect and distribute this work, and here is Jin-suk in Korea doing just that."
Lister says everything about the archive is democratic. "The whole archive arrives on a hard drive, more than 200 works, and it's an open proposition. You can do what you want with this archive. It is the most remarkable and giving collaboration process you could hope for."
Some galleries previously hosting the show simply put up five monitors and looped work on them. "We decided we wanted to make a full gallery show of this," Lister says.
So, to ensure they hold the audience's attention, the curators have split the event into three. "No one wants to go to an exhibition and see 100 monitors. Video fatigue is the worst thing. Here you can bite it off in your lunch hour."
They also have an accessible events programme - from lunchtime tai chi to screenings from the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival, visiting artist talks and performances by Chicks on Speed - because Lister admits "video can turn a few people away", but says attendances have been encouraging.
"We obviously have had a few people saying, 'Where is the art?'. But the young audiences are certainly clicking into that."
Every two years the archive shows at Loop with a new publication produced. The latest includes an article by Ellen Pau, director of Videotage, Hong Kong's oldest not-for-profit video art collective. It has collected the work of more than 100 Hong Kong video artists since 1986.
Pau says that while Hong Kong has moving images on every second building facade, "little meaning extends beyond the torrent of moving images". That is changing, however: "Hong Kong people have been quick to pick up video cameras … Creating and sharing of videos has become a new favourite hobby, as with much of the rest of the world," she says.
Add "frustrations over brewing social maladies" and the result is "a unique rise in creative video responses in Hong Kong", according to Pau.
The artists chosen for New Zealand include several from Hong Kong. The award-winning 2008 work Stolen Times for Sale by Silas Fong, an Academy of Visual Arts graduate, records the reactions of strangers whom he surprises when elevator doors open.
Fong featured in the exhibition's first part, while media artist Eric Siu, Hong Kong-born but living in Tokyo, features in part two with Super Cop World (2005). He cuts and pastes scenes from Jackie Chan movies to subvert the classic game Super Mario Brothers, turning it into video art.
Siu says he knows little about New Zealand, but believes art is important in generating cultural exchange. "That's why I think artists should be sensitive about what we do, because we are presenting a perspective and representing our own culture. Not that we should all present some positive images, but at least be honest to ourselves about what we believe."
He thinks Kiwi audiences won't have trouble understanding his work: "Luckily Mario is universal enough for people to understand and make the link." He hopes that they will enjoy the humour, and the irony of bringing together a heroic movie character and a comical video character.
City Gallery enthusiastically embraces its exhibitions: when it reopened in September 2009 after a building work closure, it selected an artist unknown to most New Zealanders: Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama. Throughout, the building was covered in large, bright polka dots.
Lister says: "Often with video, you have this room round the corner and a monitor against the wall. We were conscious of taking the extra step and trying to entice people in different ways."
So the ground-floor windows are blacked out and the gallery filled with large screens, viewing pods and portals.
The entire archive is available for gallery-goers to explore if they choose. Lister relates this to YouTube: "I like the kind of idea that people can go through it. They have seen our selection and now they can make their own."