The Complexity of Acting Out

Published in:
Online Review
11 July, 2017

"What then are the stereotypical characteristics of that typical New Zealander? He belongs to a ‘passionless society’ where people are reticent, where sensuality is suspect, where men do not cry … Much of New Zealand music is characterised by an emotional restraint that borders on inhibition." 
—Jack Body

The Adam Art Gallery exhibition Acting Out is introduced by this quote from the influential New Zealand composer Jack Body (1944 - 2015). The conservative society that Body describes is a common caricature of New Zealand in the early 1970s. Despite this prudish kiwi identity, the 1970s were a radical time for art by being a period of experimentation, political expression, and antiestablishment thinking around gender and sexuality. Think of the wild, ephemeral, sexual or political performance works of Jim Allen and Andrew Drummond; the photography of Fiona Clark and John Miller; or the sculptural works of Maree Horner and Christine Hellyar. At least, as a gen-Xer, this is how it has been presented to my generation and I assume this might be the case for millennials as well.

But now, transposed into our current time, does Body’s assessment of New Zealand being a sexually repressed and taciturn populace still have relevance? And in 2017, where are we at with the discussion on sex and the representation of the body in New Zealand art? Over the last decade there seems to have been significant setbacks in our nation’s political progress on issues concerning of sex and the body - ranging from the shocking exoneration of rape culture in the ‘Roast Busters’ scandal, to the debate around reviewing the abortion laws and the recent street harassment reported during the recent Lions rugby tour. And in terms of art, there have been a number of recent exhibitions foreground sex and body politics with varying degrees of awareness making including Body Laid Bare at the Auckland Art Gallery; Dark Objects at the Dowse; Making Space at CoCA; Coconuts that grew from concrete by Yuki Kihara at Artspace; Fāgogo by Pati Solomona Tyrell at ST PAUL St Gallery and Statuesque Anarchy by WITCH BITCH at Enjoy.