Hamish Coney: Immigrant Songs
Hamish Coney examines the legacy of a little known but highly ‘visible’ public artist - Guy Ngan – who is the subject of not one but two fascinating exhibitions in Auckland and Wellington.
Guy Ngan at Artspace Aotearoa and the Dowse.
Concurrent exhibitions across two cities simultaneously are usually the province of rockstar contemporary artists with some artworld ‘heat’, a growing international rep and beaucoup de street cred.
So to see such an honour bestowed on an artist who is little known outside the inner sanctum of the artworld, a figure whose prescient take on cross-cultural ‘spiritual abstraction’ is very much ‘on brand’ makes for a viewing experience both exhilarating and for want of another word, wistful.
The excitement comes from finally being able to comprehend the full range of such an accomplished artist. One whose breadth of achievement, in terms of facility across so many media, is almost unparalleled within the story of modern New Zealand art. Only three New Zealand artists come to mind as being equally accomplished in both two and three dimensions: Russell Clark in the immediate period before Ngan’s full flowering in the 1970s, Ngan’s contemporary Para Matchitt and more latterly Michael Parekowhai for whom Ngan set a pre-digital era template.
But there is still a slightly mournful tinge about the range of works and supporting archival material on display at the Dowse in Wellington and at Artspace Aotearoa in Auckland. In their totality they speak to a gentler, kinder age of public and corporate patronage, one blown to smithereens by the market ideologies of the late 80s and 90s. Ruthenasia and the Mother of All Budgets in 1991 pulverised notions of the public good to which artists such as Ngan contributed so ably. The apocryphal stories of artworks walled up, lost, damaged or simply turfed are legion and shameful. In this context it is pure joy to see anew Ngan’s 1973 Newton Post Office mural in all its polished aluminium glory at Artspace Aotearoa as the centrepiece of the exhibition Guy Ngan, Either Possible or Necessary.
The mural was the star turn of the aforementioned Newton Post Office that for many years was located at street level below Artspace Aotearoa. Here it reappears like the prodigal son after many decades of neglect and ultimate rescue (by the Auckland City Art Gallery). The seven metre mural stands today as a mute, yet eloquent emissary (or memorial) from the age of correspondence. That now arcane age, like the once ubiquitous post office has slid into the past. Those of us born before the email era will fondly recall the livery, elegance and allure of that most pre-millennial of artefacts, the letter.
The mural also reminds us that Ngan did much of his best work outside the confines of the art gallery. Ngan’s murals and sculptures still adorn many of our urban environments. For example if you stand admiring Russell Clark’s Anchor Stones behind Auckland’s Civic Theatre on Wellesley Street and turn your eyes up to approximately the 2 o’clock position you will see Ngan’s elegant 1965 frieze encircling the Bledisloe building. Another mural dating to 1957 is still embellishing the Archives New Zealand building on Thorndon Quay in Wellington. The exterior of Artspace Aotearoa on Karangahape Road is where you may have seen his 1973 bronze Star many times on your travels.
Ngan (1926 – 2017) was a contemporary of both Gordon Walters and Colin McCahon for whom 2019 represents the 100th anniversary of their births. The latter half of the 20th century is largely defined by their contribution to the creation of the New Zealand modernist art historical story. They were not the only players of course, but it is fair to say that if museum shows, biographies and critical debate are any measure their voices have been well heard and recorded. This was not the case for the avowed ‘Pacific Chinese’ identity of Ngan’s own oeuvre in the same period. Post World War II saw the New Zealand art scene fitfully untether itself from the academies and critical frameworks of the ‘mother country’ and international modernist tropes and begin finally, belatedly, to fix its gaze on its own indigenous art practice, traditions and whakapapa. There was, perhaps understandably, little room for ‘another’ Pākehā articulation of identity, albeit one with access to an ancient tradition and visual culture as distinct as that found waiting to be ‘discovered’ within Aotearoa.
Ngan, who spent his formative years in New Zealand working as a furniture designer and in something of a twilight zone at the Ministry of Works Architectural Division, found his voice relatively late in life, but as these two exhibitions demonstrate when he did, he articulated a vision of his Aotearoa as singular as more celebrated figures. However when, in 1970, at the age of 44 he embarked on his career as a full time artist and gently dipped his toes into the waters of the nascent cross cultural discourse in the arts with his celebrated Tiki Hands paintings, his attempts to broaden the debate from the bi to the multi-cultural found precious little critical response or evaluation.
Ngan brought formidable credentials to the conversation, from his own art training and via personal experience and worldview. Ngan was born in Wellington, but shortly thereafter returned with his large family to Guangzhou, where in his childhood he received a traditional Chinese education. The onset of war, as it did for many immigrants to New Zealand in the 1930s, resulted in a hasty change of plans. In Ngan’s case the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 resulted in a still young Ngan and his brother being sent back to New Zealand. There at the age of 16 he studied at night school (as did Gordon Walters) at the Wellington Technical College with the sculptor Alex Fraser who facilitated further study at Goldsmiths College in London and then the Royal College of Art where he graduated in 1954. He ultimately returned to New Zealand after a scholarship at the British School in Rome by way of Scandinavia and North America.
Few practising artists or architects in New Zealand at the time had such a wealth of international experience or firsthand reference to the cutting edge of thinking across these disciplines. Those who did, such as the photographers Frank Hoffman and Marti Friedlander, the ceramic artist Frank Carpay, the architect Ernst Plischke and of course Theo Schoon, went on to have a decisive influence on the direction of art and architecture in New Zealand from the 1950s. The role of these new immigrants dislodged by war was recently chronicled by the art historian Len Bell in his superb account, Strangers Arrive, Emigrés and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930 – 1980 (Auckland University Press, 2017).
From the early 1970s Ngan made up for lost time with a prolific output of sculptures, paintings and large scale public commissions, frequently in partnership with the architect Ron Sang, which emerge across the Dowse and Artspace exhibitions as one of the most coherently modernist corpus of any artist operating in New Zealand over the period.
Perhaps what makes this exhibition most timely and to use that old fashioned art reviewers' favourite term, ‘lively’, is Ngan’s dexterity as a maker. All those years of training, furniture making and imbibing from many wellsprings of sculptural thinking, Chinese, Maori and European modernist amongst those on record, enabled Ngan to tackle his domestic scale Habitation and Anchor Stone sculptures and his larger public works with a confidence and sensitivity to materials that are the hallmark of a sculptor of the first rank.
In our current age of 3D printing and an at times tiresome reliance on installations of found and arranged materials there is at the moment a renewed interest in the genius of the hand crafted, in making and in the accidents and providence of the creative process defined by that wonderful Japanese term wabi-sabi.
The curators of these two exhibitions, Sian van Dyk at the Dowse and Remco de Blaaij and Lachlan Taylor at Artspace Aotearoa have charted some new territories in the presentation of Ngan’s career. Not the least of which is revealing both the painstaking research that underpins Ngan’s creative choices but also in facilitating some urgently needed debate on the role that art plays in our urban spaces. In a curious case of serendipity, in 2019, this year of the Wellbeing Budget, Ngan, an unusual immigrant from the 1920s, makes a compelling case for art and all its potential readings being (re)placed firmly inside the national discourse as it was in our relatively recent past.
Guy Ngan, Either Possible or Necessary at Artspace Aotearoa, 300 Karangahape Road, Auckland until August 17, www.artspace-aotearoa.nz
Guy Ngan: Habitation at the Dowse Gallery, 45 Laings Road, Lower Hutt until September 15 www.dowse.org.nz