Andrew Paul Wood – 3 September, 2019
I realise it is the tenor of the times, but I struggle with Emma Ng's attempts in her essay “Guy Ngan, on his terms” to have her cake and eat it too, acknowledging and trying to negotiate around Ngan's 1983 OBE, the many public commissions including the 1977 Beehive 'Forest in the Sun' hangings at the very heart of New Zealand government, and his presence in the collections of Auckland Art Gallery and Te Papa, while still pushing the narrative of an artist of colour being ignored by Pākehā critics and curators. I'm sure many artists wish that they were that ignored.
Edited by Sian van Dyk
Essays by Sian van Dyk, Emma Ng, Sebastian Clarke and Remco de Blaaij.
Illustrated, with timeline by Pip Oldham and photo-essay by Annie Lee.
The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, 2019
The book Guy Ngan, published in a handsome edition of 400 by The Dowse on the occasion of this year’s two Ngan shows (The Dowse’s Guy Ngan: Habitation, 17 May—15 September, and Artspace‘s Guy Ngan: Either Possible or Necessary, 7 June—11 August) is so much more than merely a catalogue. It is a beautifully bound in red (excellent feng shui) cloth-covered board, intelligently designed tribute to a fascinating and important artist. Born to Chinese immigrant parents in Wellington in 1926, Ngan would go on to be one of New Zealand’s most visible artists through his public sculpture, creating a distinctive syncretic aesthetic out of biomorphic international modernism and elements of Māori visual culture with forms from Chinese calligraphy and the bronze work of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. It is difficult to think of many New Zealand artists who have received official endorsement with so many public and governmental commissions. He passed away in 2017.
It is a generously illustrated volume, and a necessary one for a general audience who will no doubt have seen Ngan’s work on buildings but may not know much about the artist.
Sian van Dyk provides an excellent overview of Ngan’s life and work, although perhaps a little too quick to defer to third party general sources on the Chinese New Zealand experience, which, while illuminating, could have been paraphrased as they distract from the biographical detail. Statements such as “While New Zealanders have been connecting with Ngan’s work for seven decades, his contribution to art history in this country has been largely dismissed because he was measured against Pākehā-centric criteria” are both leading and themselves deploying Pākehā-centric criteria that excludes Chinese New Zealanders like Jung Eun Lee and her 2008 University of Canterbury MA thesis “Tracing the rise of Chinese New Zealand artists: Guy Ngan, Denise Kum, Yuk King Tan”.
Putting art world elitism to the side, if one looks at New Zealand’s vibrant craft scene, no doubt primed for Asian aesthetics by the visit of potter Bernard Leech in 1962, we also find considerable critical engagement with Ngan’s objects, and his artist file in the E. H. McCormick Research Library at Auckland Art Gallery is not exactly thin when it comes to clippings, reviews and catalogues. That aside, van Dyk’s essay is a solid piece of scholarship that establishes much needed context and she writes very well.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Sebastian Clarke’s essay on the home Ngan built for himself and his family in Wellington’s Stokes Valley, redressing as it does the house’s absence from most discussions of New Zealand architecture, accompanied by a beautiful documentary photo-essay made by Annie Lee as part of her second year documentary assignment in 2017 at Massey University’s College of Creative Art in Wellington.
I realise it is the tenor of the times, but I struggle with Emma Ng’s attempts in her essay “Guy Ngan, on his terms” to have her cake and eat it too, acknowledging and trying to negotiate around Ngan’s 1983 OBE, the many public commissions including the 1977 Beehive Forest in the Sun hangings (in collaboration with Joan Calvert with the assistance of Dorothea Turner and Jean Ngan) at the very heart of New Zealand government, and his presence in the collections of Auckland Art Gallery and Te Papa, while still pushing the narrative of an artist of colour being ignored by Pākehā critics and curators. I’m sure many artists wish that they were that ignored.
Ng gives us peculiar constructions such as: “He … was a well-known popular figure; newspaper clippings refer to Ngan in familiar and respected terms. But, with the exception of his 2006 exhibition at City Gallery Wellington, no notable solo showings of his work were brought to fruition by public galleries after the 1970s.” I find this naïve to say the least. Most artists of a certain age plateau at some point in their career. The market is a fickle and brutal place obsessed with novelty and many very successful New Zealand artists never get a show in a public gallery at all.
Occam’s razor would suggest that tastes change and by the 1980s and ‘90s, not only was Ngan’s work looking a little dated, the Māori renaissance was very much coming into its own, nor did Ngan particularly engage with the gallery system in his own practice, preferring public projects integrated with the urban fabric. By 1970 he was the Director of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, a role he carried for twenty years, with all the institutional politics that entails, and his energies were largely concentrated on promoting other artists, particular when the corporate funding dried up in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash.
Ng writes: “But it seems that Ngan was not an artist forgotten, but one who New Zealand’s art institutions struggled to fully appreciate, even during the most productive decades of his career”. This, even while noting the Dowse’s exhibition of Ngan’s sculptures in 1972, and two provincial solo shows in 1979 at Hastings City Cultural Centre and Southland Museum and Art Gallery in Invercargill. What of the group shows? What of the dealer shows like the 1976 solo show at New Vision Gallery in Auckland? What of the National Bank Mural Awards he won in ‘68, ‘69, and ‘71? What of his presence in seminal publications like Peter Cape’s Please touch: A survey of the three-dimensional arts in New Zealand (1980) and Doreen Blumhardt’s Craft New Zealand: The art of the craftsman (1981) illustrated with photographs by Brian Brake. What of his enrolment alongside Julia Morison and Matt Holmes in Massey’s College of Creative Arts Hall of Fame in 2012? Ngan, like most Chinese New Zealanders, experienced serious racism in his daily life, but let’s not undermine his very successful career because we need him to be a victim. I think he would have been appalled to be described in that way — ironic in an essay asking us to see Ngan on his own terms. Arguably he got something much better than critical recognition. He got seen and paid.
Artspace director Remco de Blaaij offers a personal response to Ngan’s work which doesn’t really add much, although it was interesting to learn that the immediately recognisable Ngan sculpture on the old Post Office façade of the Artspace building references both the Auckland motorway and Matariki. The piece concludes incongruously and for no obvious discernible reason with the afterword: “This text was written in the aftermath of the Christchurch Shootings in March 2019, a solo album by British and New Zealand musician Finn Andrews and the Ihumatao [sic] SOUL campaign, which collected more than 19,000 signatures and was delivered to Auckland Council.” Eh? Um… Okay… Moving on…
The essays conclude solidly with a reprint of Mary Mountier and Geoffrey Nees’ article “The Right to be There: Guy Ngan’s Sculpture”, first published in a 1972 issue of Designscape, the magazine of the former New Zealand Industrial Design Council (tell me about that historical lack of Pākehā critical engagement with his work again?). Mercifully free of handwringing, Mountier and Nees simply accept Ngan’s own “right to be there”, like his sculptures, as a contemporary on his merits as a modern artist. It almost sits as a rebuke to some of the claims in the other essays.
What noticeably gets lost in this publication is Ngan’s own voice, which seems odd given how straightforward it would have been to have included actual extracts from Pip Oldham’s 2011 interviews with Ngan. Also, if it were me, I’d probably have included essays that specifically dealt with Ngan’s interactions with Māori art and maybe one specifically on the Ministry of Works builds, or craft, or a whole essay on just the Beehive hangings. All that said, however, this is an important and essential text, not least because there is an enormous gap generally in the record when it comes to Chinese contributions to New Zealand culture — even if Ngan is a bit of an anomaly in that regard and nobody’s martyr.
Andrew Paul Wood