A litmus test of New Zealand’s foremost contemporary artists since its inception in 2002, the Walters Prize is as much a vindication of homegrown art as it is the platform to generate further discussion and outward focus. Occurring biennially, the accolade is awarded only for outstanding works of art produced and exhibited over the past two years.
Pieces by the four finalists – Joyce Campbell, Nathan Pohio, Lisa Reihana and Shannon Te Ao – have been re-exhibiting at the Auckland Art Gallery since mid-July. “With a selection of entirely photo and time-based media works, this year’s prize shows the effects of digital culture on our visual lives. The selected artists work with moving image in diverse ways, however one thing becomes clear: historic events and materials are very much on the minds of these artists.” says Natasha Conland, the Gallery Curator of Contemporary Art.
A sentiment shared by Gallery Director Rhana Davenport, who said “The vital force of camera- and time-based art in this country is unmissable in this year’s Walters Prize as the works trace across primordial time, imagined spaces and generational memory, to become meditations on mortality and life, while asking unanswerable questions about love, yearning, empathy and time”.
With one month left to run (the Walters Prize remains on display at the gallery until 30 October) the eventual winner – announced at the Prize’s gala dinner by guest judge Doryun Chong, Deputy Director of Hong Kong’s M+ museum – was Shannon Te Ao, for his piece Two shoots that stretch far out 2013-14. “As I left the space of his art, I felt as if I had not only been teleported but also had been transformed. I imagined him citing those lines [of an historic Maori song] to the end of time, with the rabbits, ducks and chickens, wallaby, swan and donkey by his side, while the plants wither and die, and come back to life again, and then again” Chong explained at the gala, “I would like to thank Shannon for helping me remember that a powerful work of art is sometimes created by an elegant formula of a simple gesture and repetitions”.
Te Ao’s work, described as a deceptively simple piece, recalls traditional element in the artists video recording of the recital of a waiata (song) to a variety of animals.
Another piece on exhibit by Te Ao, Okea ururoatia (never say die) 2016, visually arrests the gallery’s visitors with its tangle of unnaturally paired plants – to Chong, a provoking arrangement “Is this a strange asylum for plant migrants? Is this a wry statement on the artificial nature of human manipulation of protecting and preserving nature? The somewhat unsettling overgrowth seems to lead to, or to be audiences for the nearby video”.
This year’s Walters Prize final presents a markedly different flavour of contemporary art in New Zealand from what came before. With palpable references to the country’s origin and cultural history explored in meaningful new ways – a snapshot of right now and an earnest and exciting glimpse of the future, ripe for dissection when The Walters Prize 2018 rolls around.
The Walters Prize remains on display at the Auckland Art Gallery until 30 October.