Aotearoa Reviews its Official Participation in the Venice Biennale
Special Feature with comments from the Arts Sector
Anna Brown, Bruce Barber, Heather Galbraith, Hutch Wilco, James Goggin, Jennifer Flay, Jhana Millers, Julia Holderness, Laura Preston, Michael Stevenson, Ron Hanson, Sophie Thorn, Tessa Giblin, Tessa Laird
At HUM, we are very concerned that the current review instigated by the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa could result in a pause of Aotearoa New Zealand’s ‘official’ presence at the Venice Biennale in 2024, or even cessation of participation in future years.
In partnership with Art News New Zealand’s substantial coverage in their Spring edition, HUM invited responses from New Zealanders on- and off-shore who have visited or been involved in ‘New Zealand at Venice’ projects, as artists, pavilion attendants, exhibition installers or designers, to enable insights into how involvement in (or experience of) our previous national pavilions and other projects mounted within Collateral Events have influenced people’s own careers, and the profile of contemporary art from Aotearoa.
Heather Galbraith, Chair of the Contemporary HUM Arts Trust
In June 2022, Creative New Zealand (CNZ) announced an independent review of our official presentation within La Biennale di Venezia. A review was last commissioned in 2006 and involved a delegation of Aotearoa arts professionals visiting the Biennale in 2007 (with New Zealand pavilion participation paused). While we agree any review process needs to be rigorous, the idea of missing a year again in 2024 seems a serious lost opportunity.
Aotearoa has been participating since 2001 and we have been learning and iterating as we go, adapting to socio-political, cultural and environmental developments. The Biennale is a complicated space, with a long, rich, bumpy history that reflects aspects of the evolution of capital markets, and waves of colonisation. Yet it remains the largest gathering of contemporary art, with the broadest reach of geopolitical participation.
Covid-19 has forced major rethinks of how we achieve a healthier arts ecology within Aotearoa, as well as our thinking around international arts projects and investment, which is reflected in revised priorities for CNZ and Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage, focusing strongly on resilience and regeneration in a domestic frame. This is a tough balance, but ultimately shouldn’t be an either/or decision about onshore/offshore. Aotearoa will always be a relatively small-scale context for contemporary art practices. Global markets, audiences and collaborations are vital for growth, and for us to sustain important conversations and collaborations with international peers.
The raised awareness and connections formed through our participation in the Venice Biennale have fuelled and propelled careers of artists, curators, writers, commissioners and broader networks of creative professionals. There are regular critical provocations that rightly interrogate and offer alternative structures to a market-led art world, yet it is important to recognise that the Biennale still presents an extraordinary opportunity for seeing, meeting, connecting and exchanging for a wide range of professions, and to note that for many artists participating, their work operates within commodified markets, and these are systems that they are directly engaged with for their livelihood.
In order for Aotearoa to achieve sustained visibility within this context, ongoing participation is essential. As a seven-month-long exhibition, it is a significant undertaking to present in one of the more expensive cities in Europe.
A question frequently asked is are there appropriate returns on public-purse investment? In considering this, it is important to note that, throughout our participation, public funds have been joined by patronage (private and corporate), artist contributions (well beyond the allocation for the artist fee and production costs met by CNZ), gallerist contributions, and in-kind support from galleries and museums all around Aotearoa (through staff time, specialist skills, resources, etc.). Benefits also extend well beyond the participating artist in a given year, and keep playing out for years after participation. The intensification of international interest in the broader Aotearoa visual arts scene has been fuelled directly by participation in La Biennale di Venezia.
In terms of artist/project selection, different modes have been used, including an open call for artists and/or artist/curator teams, and a direct approach to an artist (both involving a selection panel of specialised arts-sector representatives, including artists, many of whom have been prior exhibitors at Venice). Now is the right time for a direct invitation, to maintain participation in 2024. There are artists with projects that are ambitious in scale and ‘Venice ready’, and organisations keen to partner.
— Heather Galbraith, Chair of Contemporary HUM Arts Trust and Professor of Fine Art at Whiti o Rehua School of Art, Toi Rauwhārangi College of Creative Arts, Massey University, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Co-curator of Francis Upritchard: Save Yourself and Deputy Commissioner for the New Zealand at Venice presentation in 2009 (including the partner project Judy Millar: Giraffe Bottle Gun), Deputy Commissioner for Bill Culbert: Front Door Out Back in 2013, and Commissioner for Simon Denny: Secret Power in 2015.
Tavola Aperta with Paulo Bruscky and Francis Upritchard, 11 May 2017, Viva Arte Viva, The 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Contemporary HUM.
Comments from the arts sector
As an impressionable young Aotearoa artist I was fortunate to be invited to participate in the Paris (1977) and Sydney (1979) biennales. I had important early experiences and met several international artists and curators during these events, which provided me with evidence of subsequent career benefits (both visible and invisible) of such international exhibitions, which as we all know have not been without their active supporters and increasing numbers of detractors.
More recently, I was invited to be a participant in the European Cultural Centre’s curated exhibition, running in parallel to the Venice Biennale in 2015 and 2017, which enabled me to subsequently receive invitations to other exhibitions, including the 2020 Florence Biennale for which I was awarded a video prize for a short piece titled We Are not Terrorists. It could be argued that many of these opportunities would not have been possible without the early invitation/nomination to represent my country of origin, Aotearoa, at an international Biennale. I have also been a member of a local Nova Scotia committee which has been investigating long-held opportunities to establish an international exhibition modelled on a biennale, triennale or documenta, which several other Canadian cities have already instituted.
I have been very pleased to witness Aotearoa’s continued participation at the Venice Biennale and have been very fortunate to visit all of these exhibitions in person—one of the benefits of living in Canada. These visits have enabled me to view and experience powerful installations by fellow Kiwi artists such as Michael Parekōwhai, Francis Upritchard, Judy Millar, et.al., Lisa Reihana and Simon Denny, and I look forward to seeing Aotearoa's representation this year with the work of Yuki Kihara in the company of artists representing many other countries.
— PhD, Professor Emeritus at NSCAD University, Halifax, Canada.
The Venice Biennale is an extraordinary platform for contemporary artists from Aotearoa. It provides visibility and significant value to participating artists—however, these outcomes are not limited to the artists alone. It is also an immensely stimulating and career-boosting experience for all the associated members of the artistic entourage.
As a practising designer and academic, the commission to design the vernissage and book publication for Bill Culbert: Front Door Out Back in 2013 provided me with an international and national platform that has furthered my design career. The design process and engagement with the curatorial team provided me with invaluable professional experience. Designing and overseeing the printing at Graphicom in Verona for one of the premier international art events of the world is a career highlight.
I was also fortunate enough to attend the Biennale in person and experience the transformational power of art. From the connections and varied perspectives through to the fierce political narratives and pure joy, the experience was remarkable and showed the deep and important work that artists do in our world. Let's keep these opportunities alive for the many benefits they bring to our artists and wider art community.
— Anna Brown, Director of Toi Āria, and Professor of Design and Public Good, Toi Rauwhārangi College of Creative Arts, Massey University, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Designer for the 2013 New Zealand Pavilion in Venice, Bill Culbert: Front Door Out Back.
The absence of an official Aotearoa New Zealand participation at the Venice Biennale would be perceived as an incomprehensible sign of the lack of government support for contemporary creation and effectively dismiss the possibility for Aotearoa artists of being considered alongside their peers.
In 2005 I was struck by a publication mysteriously titled The New Zealand Altruism Review. Part of the presentation of et al., it is still treasured and proudly conserved in my collection of artists’ books and ephemera. The title still rings true, and I have faith that it always will.
Aotearoa’s presence at the Venice Biennale, with artists including Simon Denny, Francis Upritchard and Lisa Reihana, has successfully revealed new talents and confirmed the significance of others, through memorable pavilions that rocked the art world during, and subsequent to, the event. It likewise honoured artists of historical weight such as Bill Culbert, who, like many, ultimately achieved recognition at the cost of life as an expatriate.
Having worked in the international art world in different capacities for 40 years, I can confidently state that the sporadic presence of Aotearoa artists in institutional exhibitions at home and overseas is insufficient to effectively promote their work on the global stage, as is their representation in a scattering of private galleries across the world. Indeed, the market context, essential to their survival and wellbeing, is difficult, if not impossible, to infiltrate if they are seen to have little or no backing from official sources. Physical distance and budgetary considerations should not mean that artists in Aotearoa are excluded from the international dialogue in the field of contemporary visual arts.
— Jennifer Flay, former gallerist (1990 - 2003) and Director of FIAC (Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain, Paris) from 2003 to 2021.
Of course Aotearoa New Zealand should continue to be brilliant in Venice—but this review should happen. We need to keep evaluating, asking ourselves whether we’re making the right choices for the right contexts, and always considering how we’re taking the public at home on that journey with us. Even though it is easier to work with a known known—and certainly to present that through the press to the public—the dynamic, risk-taking, edgy, intelligent and enormously resourceful domain of contemporary art is not always a known quantity, which New Zealand at Venice must continue to seek out and value.
Looking back (and having moved away and represented another country at Venice) I can still remember the incredible impact that et al. had back in 2005—when I was honoured with the job of looking after the exhibition for a few months as a fledgling curator. To me it is still unsurpassed as a pavilion—and yet, what an uproar it created in Aotearoa, the effects of which can still be felt. This is where we need to evolve—stay with the trouble, believe in artists’ visions, but learn from our failed press approaches, briefing packages, cultural engagement strategies. And perhaps don’t try to achieve every cultural goal at one Biennale.
— Professor Tessa Giblin, Director, Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Exhibition attendant at the 2005 New Zealand Pavilion in Venice, et al.: the fundamental practice. Commissioner and Curator of the 2017 Pavilion of Ireland in Venice, Jesse Jones: Tremble Tremble.
I was excited and honoured to develop the visual identity for New Zealand at Venice in 2009, featuring the artists Francis Upritchard and Judy Millar, in collaboration with CNZ and curatorial colleagues. It was a joy to help draw attention to Aotearoa NZ artists and their work in the crowded biennale context and also online. I’m deliberately saying “Aotearoa NZ artists” in a broad sense, meaning beyond just the two artists chosen to represent this country. Because no matter how small or humble or selective our country’s presence is, its participation acts like an arrow, simultaneously drawing attention to other Aotearoa artists, and the nation’s art scenes, cultural productions and critical debates. It makes people stop and think about our islands in the southwest Pacific and our people.
Physical presence is very important, with the crucial responsibility for all levels of participant to bring more than just their own work with them (their knowledge, their community, their colleagues), and to then bring more than just themselves back from Venice (connections, reports on other artists, works, nations, communities, ideas, approaches) and to share, act on and disseminate these experiences locally (and then again, back out into the world—in a cycle).
Onsite presence in Venice could be humble, agile and inventive, if needed. Publishing can be approached in equally resourceful ways, perhaps digital first, with print-on-demand or small-edition print versions for various situations. Different approaches can reach different (and sometimes, usefully, overlapping) audiences. Ideally, the work shown in Venice can also be shown in Aotearoa too, to make the experience more accessible.
— James Goggin, Founder and Creative Director, Practise, Tāmaki Makaurau. Designer for New Zealand at Venice, 2009.
I've never been to the Venice Biennale but writing about et al.’s Venice representation in 2005 was a big deal for us. It's a crystalising event that can significantly lift an artist’s profile and significantly expand a country’s art networks. For Aotearoa New Zealand to maximise its return on investment it really needs to stay the course. The benefits build from a consistent engagement. Venice is a unique opportunity for a country to put its artists on a global stage. I really hope Aotearoa continues to have a pavilion at every Venice Biennale.
— Ron Hanson, Editor, White Fungus, Taichung City, Taiwan.
In 2009, I was in Venice for six weeks as a venue attendant for Francis Upritchard: Save Yourself and Judy Millar: Giraffe-Bottle-Gun. This experience helped me to scope out my various modes of creative practice: writing, research and exhibition making. I remember the large visitor numbers; a stream of curious art lovers from all over the world. They were keen to engage in conversations about the work, the artists, Aotearoa and our recent history at the Biennale.
As well as managing the day-to-day flow of visitors across the two venues, a palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal and the circular church La Maddalena, we blogged about the experience on CNZ’s New Zealand at Venice website. I enjoyed this role of ‘dispatch’, the opportunity to shape my thoughts and images into reflections on what it meant for Aotearoa to have a presence at this global event. As well as chatting to visitors in Venice, I felt I could share thoughts with those back home. I posted captioned pictures of the diverse audiences, wrote about the glamour and clamour of the vernissage, Venetian food and drink, new ideas for marketing at City Gallery Wellington (which was my day job at the time), other exhibitions and national pavilions, meeting venue attendants from other countries. For CNZ, it was a way they could offer a platform for a range of perspectives, and offer insights into the daily life of the pavilions and their visitors, and for this content to reach broad audiences.
— Dr Julia Holderness, artist and researcher, Ōtautahi Christchurch. Exhibition attendant at the 2009 New Zealand Pavilion in Venice, Francis Upritchard: Save Yourself and Judy Millar: Giraffe-Bottle-Gun.
I have only been to the Venice Biennale once—because I believe in supporting local and regional, because Europe gets so much airtime in the cultural imaginary of the global contemporary art world, and because of the carbon emissions such trips entail.
However, I did go in 2017, the year that the New Zealand Pavilion featured Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [Infected]. I have never been so proud to see Aotearoa New Zealand on the world stage as at that moment. It was one of the best Pavilions by far, I had no hesitancy in recommending it to everyone I met while in Venice. I also witnessed an overwhelmingly positive reception from every viewer I observed, and even today, years later, it comes up as a Venice highlight with multiple people. This was such an important work to be seen in the heart of Europe, by an international audience. All the money and all the personnel that had made it happen were clearly so worth it. Probably not every New Zealand Pavilion will be as successful, or as brilliant, as Reihana’s, but I do believe it’s important that we keep showing up, kanohi ki te kanohi, to the global art world at Venice.
— Dr Tessa Laird, Lecturer in Critical and Theoretical Studies, School of Art, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, Australia.
It is important for artists living and working in Aotearoa to have opportunities to exhibit overseas, at events like the Venice Biennale, and be seen to be operating on a global level, alongside artists from Australia, the USA, Europe, etc. Our artists make work that is of an equal quality and relevance to that showing and selling in the large international institutions and fetching international art-market prices. Venice offers our artists an opportunity to enter into this arena that might otherwise not be available to them. I believe that our presentation at Venice should focus more on supporting artists living within Aotearoa, who contribute to our local arts ecosystem and who are already faced with the difficulties inherent in living in such an isolated part of the world. It’s important for artists to know that it is possible to have international success, and opportunities, while basing themselves in Aotearoa.
— Jhana Millers, owner of Jhana Millers Gallery, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Exhibition attendant at the 2015 New Zealand Pavilion in Venice, Simon Denny: Secret Power.
It has been many years since I have lived in Aotearoa New Zealand and although I have occasionally visited, it is different, of course, to living in the place and understanding in an embodied sense what is necessary, what the community needs.
Over the days of lockdown, I was part of the online art collective Town Hall, initiated by gallerist Sarah Hopkinson. It was a supportive, intergenerational conversation. What I learned from the experience is that my position, living and working from Germany, from Europe, is not so relevant to the conversation about art and its community in Aotearoa, where the discussion is already very rich and dynamic, and has been for a long time. This is not to be weary of an isolation of ideas, but it is an appreciation of the complexity and the problematics of internationalism, such as the Venice Biennale founded on colonial interests, carried forth as a front for the art market.
And yet, paradoxically, I believe it is important for artists to participate in such exhibitions of considered world-stage excellence and elitism. Why? Because other artists present there, and artists and cultural workers are an important audience; they come to be inspired, together and alone they think critically about art and its potential. So to say, that despite the undeniable expectations on the representative, there is still space for art in Venice.
It is important to take a pause and reassess from time to time, but without such continual doubt. My suggestion for the next iteration would be to invest in a ‘pavilion’ for Aotearoa’s ongoing contribution. This could be considered quite laterally. It could be, for example—and this is where I do bring in what I have learned from living here—modelled on a kunstverein, intelligently managed and politically determined by artists: an artist collective that would truly be inclusive, collaborative, with room to evolve; trusted and financially well-supported with artist fees; and exhibiting works confident in their own knowledge systems and visual languages.
— Laura Preston, art writer and editor, Berlin, Germany. Curatorial assistant of the 2007 German Pavilion in Venice and part of the editorial team of Speculation, a book as pavilion for New Zealand's presence that same year.
Venice is a challenging space to operate in but it’s also the only large global stage structured around national representation, and so in terms of statecraft, what alternatives are there? Nowhere else can Aotearoa New Zealand couple with such a broad spectrum of the industry and engage this level of experience, exposure and maturity.
Since its inception in 2001, New Zealand at Venice has had a distinct long-term positive impact for the artists represented—including myself in 2003—and for other expertise: curatorial, logistics, project management, exhibition management, etc.
The review of our participation in Venice is therefore a critical moment to consider the broader picture of artistic production. Since 2001 there’s been an enormous uptick in the visibility of Aotearoa practitioners and Aotearoa art in general. Venice is not the only factor in this equation but it plays an outsized role and so, when measuring the impact and financial commitment, its ‘multiplier effect’ needs to be recognised.
Looking forward, there’s of course no such thing as automatic branding for success, but we should by now work from a position of experience and plan for the longer term—maintain presence and develop a sustainable delivery model. It may be useful to look to other countries, such as Lithuania, for example, who have successfully managed their pavilion off-site from the main Biennale venues over multiple presentations.
— Michael Stevenson, artist, Berlin, Germany. His project This Is the Trekka was presented in the 2003 New Zealand Pavilion in Venice.
Without the participation of Aotearoa New Zealand in the Venice Biennale I wouldn’t be where I am today. It has shaped my career. I wrote my MA thesis on a work I saw at the 52nd Biennale. For eight wonderful weeks of the 56th Biennale I worked there as an attendant. I visited in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2015 and 2017. Venice is a magnet. It is sinking, it has its own slow time. Simple things are more difficult than they should be, and inventive solutions are found. The internet jams daily, then comes back as crowds vacate in the evening. There is something about the place that resonates with the Aotearoa psyche. Working on Simon Denny: Secret Power was electrifying. I stood in a room painted by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, and spoke to people about contemporary art, and about Aotearoa. Tens of thousands came through the exhibition while I was there; Hito Steyerl brought her class back twice; the patrons of New York’s New Museum came late for a guided tour. I know I will return to Venice, to the Biennale, and I hope I will find our people and our presence there, too.
— Sophie Thorn, Curator Collections, Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.
I’ve been involved in the New Zealand Pavilion at the Venice Biennale since 2009, either working to bring artwork back to Aotearoa or working in Venice on Bill Culbert: Front Door Out Back in 2013.
There’s something about actually being in Venice that cannot be captured in a summative evaluation. Generally, reports focus on two aspects: the project and visitation—numbers through the door being used as evidence of European audiences’ interest when reporting to the government.
Less time, however, is spent following up on the impact on those who have had the opportunity to work on one of our Venice projects, or the ripples that ensue through their careers and the careers of those they touch. My time in Venice connected me to other venue workers, curators, project managers, and artists from across the globe, resulting in residencies, exhibitions, projects and friendships.
The experience of working in Venice propelled me to seek other international opportunities, firstly returning to Venice in 2015 to work on several collateral events, including the Pavilion of San Marino, and eventually, in 2016, to take up the directorship of one of Shanghai’s leading local commercial galleries. This in turn led to seven years working across China and founding my own exhibition development company which resulted in numerous Aotearoa artists exhibiting or undertaking residencies there: Veronica Green at Cospace Shanghai and Richard Stratton in Dehua, in 2016; Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, and Lisa Reihana at Hubei Museum of Art, and Seung Yul Oh in Shanghai, in 2017; John Reynolds in Wenzhou, in 2019; Lisa Reihana, Christopher Ulutupu, Jasmine Togo-Brisby, Robert George, Lucy Aukafolau, Cathy Carter, Gavin Hipkins and Lara Lindsay-Parker across two exhibitions at the Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art, in 2020 and 2021.
While the impact of the Venice Biennale on the selected artists cannot be overstated, it is equally profound for the careers of arts workers who have supported Aotearoa’s contribution. Several are now managers and curators, project managers and registrars, at some of the country’s leading arts institutions, while others are now leading artists and writers internationally. We are the future of the arts that CNZ and our Venice participation were designed to foster, the impact of which is yet to be measured.
— Hutch Wilco, curator, writer, artist and project manager, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Attendant at the 2013 New Zealand Pavilion in Venice, Bill Culbert: Front Door Out Back.