Photos courtesy of Artspace Aotearoa
In an essay titled Woodcarving, penned during his time at the Royal College of Art in London, Guy Ngan writes, “Through the creative impulse inherent in man, woodcarving has been a universal vehicle of expression.” Yet this hope he held in 1954, that woodwork and other forms of public art would take its place in society as a force of social cohesion, was never fully realised. In fact, the question of whether public art counts as “art” has been disputed throughout history and is a discourse that remains contentious. The multitude of sculptures and installations that we flit past like ghosts, decorating hotel lobbies and office buildings, seem to support the argument that public art should be relegated to the realm of decorative at best. But Ngan’s vision was a more democratic one: a world in which art permeates our everyday lives as naturally as the act of breathing.
Either Possible or Necessary, on display at Artspace Aotearoa until the 17th of August, aims to recover the histories of Ngan’s vast contribution to the public art space in New Zealand, connecting the many threads that spanned the artist’s career and highlighting his ideas about public spaces and identity. It runs concurrently with Habitation, an exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum in Wellington – two of the only retrospectives ever curated to focus on Guy Ngan. In fact, Ngan’s career flew under the radar and is rarely broached in discussions of contemporary New Zealand art history. After a series of solo exhibitions in the 1970’s, the artist was never exhibited again, with the exception of a show at City Gallery Wellington in 2006. Ngan, however, didn’t go without formal recognition: he was named Director of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in 1976, and received an OBE for his services to the arts in 1983 – though this perhaps makes his lack of institutional (galleries and museums) accolade all the more surprising.
Newton Post Office Mural (Guy Ngan, 1973)
Entering the exhibition space, I’m immediately greeted by the largest work in the show, Newton Post Office Mural (1973). An attention-grabbing colossus standing at almost 3 metres tall and over 7 metres wide, the mural is comprised of forty separate panels of carved and engraved aluminium pieced together. Its façade is Kandinsky-esque in its abstract geometry, a plethora of lines and curves crisscrossing to evoke the dynamism of transport. The mural was created specifically for the Newton Post Office Building, and the contextual influence of the location on Ngan’s process is clear, as Karangahape Road and the surrounding area became a bustling commercial hub. The sheer scale and grandeur of the artwork means one would be forgiven for considering this the centrepiece of the show. Actually, the guiding force of the exhibition is Star, a large bronze sculpture that hangs outside the gallery building.
And yet, I walked right past Star as I entered the building, as anyone would unless they either knew it was there or stroll with their head tilted towards the sky. The placement of Star, at least two metres above eye level on the façade of the building, means that it attracts almost no attention – I only realised it was there after the exhibition map pointed me back outside. This brings us back to the question of public art, and its tendency to be ignored or disregarded as space-filler rather than art in and of its own merit. Ngan’s belief in its importance was unrelenting. He wrote and spoke frequently about the capacity for public art to not only naturally occupy a space in people’s lives, but to build a cohesive national identity.
This commitment to the perception of public art comes through most abundantly in a panel wall spanning an entire room of the exhibition. Ngan had mounted a similar wall in his own home while planning for a retrospective, with panels of wood that captured his entire body of work. He rearranged these panels along different configurations to find the best way to show how works of art fit together, a reflection of his dedication to design and his architectural background. Either Possible or Necessary has recreated this wall, with the addition of panels featuring images that inspired Ngan’s work, such as gulls and Tiki hands. This vivid imagery is in dialogue with Ngan’s printed works and the effect is striking; I find myself marvelling at just how vast Ngan’s output was throughout his career.
Either Possible or Necessary is also, of course, a migration story. Ngan’s cultural heritage is paid credence to throughout the exhibition, while an oral history of Ngan’s life is printed in excruciating detail along one wall. We are made privy to the artist’s own account of his immigration first from New Zealand to China, and then back again, through a series of handwritten journal-style entries accompanied by sketches. Understanding Ngan’s identity as “Pacific Chinese”, as he called himself, is central to his work as an artist. It informs his conception of the New Zealand national identity that he hoped to contribute to building through public art, and prominent Maori imagery runs through his entire body of work. What this identity may also reveal is the reason why Ngan never received the critical claim that many would expect. Ngan lived through extreme anti-Chinese sentiment and outright legislative discrimination, and there are notable instances of his art being rejected by New Zealand communities. In 2005, the residents of Parnell protested Millenium Tree (2005), a sculpture Ngan crafted as a gift from the Chinese-New Zealand community, stating that the artwork clashed aesthetically with the surrounding Victorian gardens. (The sculpture now stands in the Auckland Domain.)
Either Possible or Necessary asks us to ponder these questions surrounding public art and national identity, and perhaps whether New Zealand is even ready to accept a national identity that embodied the values embraced by Ngan. The exhibition shines light on a scant discussed artist with a substantial influence on the trajectory of art in New Zealand, aiming to leave the viewer with more questions than it answers – what do our national attitudes towards artists of colour tell us about the way that New Zealand art history has been recorded? Will public art be written in the annals of art history as its own canon thanks to the efforts of artists such as Guy Ngan, who devoted their careers to its popularisation? Ngan finished Woodcarving with the following: “Surely it is up to us whether or not we make or mar these future possibilities”.
Star (Guy Ngan, 1973)