Thursday, June 24, 2010

Catalogue essay for "Choice", C3 Gallery, Melbourne


I remember first coming to New Zealand from Malaysia and wondering why a friend said “Choice” when I lent her my pen, also after I worked out that it wasn’t a pin she wanted. It dawned on me, of course, that Kiwis are fond of abbreviated phrases, so “Choice” is an adjective and not a noun, as in “the choicest of vegetables”. The whale is simply “beached as”. Doubt is expressed with a “Not even!”
In this new exhibition at Gallery 2, Pippa Makgill, an expat New Zealander currently based in Melbourne, has invited twenty artists from New Zealand, some who now live in Melbourne, to exhibit with her in Choice!. The exhibition's title is synonymous with "Awesome!", its tone celebratory and affirmative. Art of varying shapes and sizes was mailed to Pippa over a two-week period, resembling bulky postcards from home.
Pippa does not identify herself as a curator in this exhibition, since she has given the artists free reign to send her art that they feel comfortable entrusting into her hands, so this selection of art is limited to who she invited and what they were willing to send in the mail. She is more of a facilitator, creating a cross-tasman art channel. Her approach is that of inviting different friends to a dinner party and seeing who hits it off.
When I moved to New Zealand, my strategy for feeling less homesick for Malaysia was to learn more about the culture of my adopted country. I tried learning Maori because that was the language spoken here for hundreds of years. I put down roots – literally – and began a vegetable garden to feel as if I were being nourished by the land. I also turned to its literature because that taught me more about the nation’s psyche better than any history book could.
I learned, for instance, about the pakeha literary nationalists in the 1950s who struggled to find a uniquely New Zealand voice in their writing instead of looking back to England for an identity. This act of looking back interests me greatly, for I often 'look back' to whence I came - the distance provides a tension that is useful in my creative life. Hence I completely identify with CK Stead's sentiment that "remoteness is not something our writers should deny or regret, but something to be acknowledged, and exploited as an analogue for the immovable tensions which are universal in human experience" (from his essay For the Hulk of the World's Between, 1961).
These writers wearied of apologizing for New Zealand’s remoteness from the rest of the world. It seemed as though New Zealand were a question mark interrupting the ocean; a thin strip at the mercy of maritime weather, its face continually sculpted by the sea. Oh, to break free from its precarious identity!
Now isn’t that the same cry of the immigrant? I often wonder about things like whether my spiritual connection to my Malaysian ancestors goes from broadband to dial-up whenever I’m in New Zealand. Is my Malaysianness eroding the more time I spend away from home? It’s no wonder then that I identified strongly with the nationalist poets like Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch. They wanted to store up their own literary reserves to draw from, to be independent of geography in a way.
Since Brasch wrote the lines, “divided and perplexed the sea is waiting” (The Islands) in 1948, New Zealand has matured into a country comfortable in its own skin. As the contemporary New Zealand poet Bill Manhire puts it, “I live at the edge of the universe,/ like everybody else” (Milky Way Bar, 1991). With these lines, Manhire confidently (or indignantly) proclaims that he has learnt the trick of standing upright here, asserting his identity and ties with the land.
As a new migrant, however, it was my turn to form a question mark against the sea as I began to navigate this socio-political landscape that was foreign to me. I am still learning how to belong, as perhaps expat New Zealanders sometimes feel. This exhibition then is as much about the creative tension created by distance as it is about the choices we make in our creative practices.

Lydia Chai, Auckland

Choice! An exhibition of New Zealand artists: 
Opening Wednesday 23rd June 6 - 8pm
Runs 23rd June - 11th July
Gallery Hours: Wed - Sunday 10am -5pm

1 St Heliers St, Abbotsford Convent Foundation

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