Coaxed on by some encouraging Facebook messages, I made my way to the TVNZ webpage for Garth Bray’s coverage of Bill Culbert’s show at New Zealand’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The title was promising: “New Zealand Artist Receives High Praise at Venice”, the reality was something altogether different. Interspersed with the “high praise” (from foreigners, of course), was the dull and dim commentary of Simon Dallow and Garth Bray on everything from the state of modern art to Creative New Zealand’s controversial decision to commit public funds to the pavilion. “Another man’s trash is another man’s art” Dallow says, though I must confess I’m unsure if he was referring to Culbert or TVNZ.
Are we really meant to think that the direction of $650, 000 to this exhibition is so criminal? When it takes several of our best curators and one of New Zealand’s finest artists months to prepare and months to stage? When TVNZ still manages to collect public subsidies through NZ on Air on top of its not inconsiderable advertising revenue, how can Dallow – whose predecessor seemed to have no qualms about receiving an $800, 000 salary – honestly bemoan the allocation public funds to showcase New Zealand art at the world’s premiere international art event? Will the same debate resurface when Team New Zealand take the Government’s multi-million dollar subsidy to San Francisco later this year? When Richie McCaw held aloft the William Web Ellis cup to an adoring nation, did we pause for a second to question the not inconsiderable salaries of the players – the haughty expression on the face of our leering Narcissus of a Prime Minister suggested that he, for one, did not. The message to young New Zealand artists from the establishment is quite simple – go somewhere else and many, Culbert included, do just that.
Culbert is a fine artist. As a Wellingtonian, I encounter his sculpture every day. The ominous presence of Fault, his collaboration with the late Ralph Hotere, adorns the exterior of the City Gallery in Civic Square – Culbert’s iridescent neon light forcing it’s way through Hotere’s obsidian blackness. His Long White Cloud, which he references in the Venice show, hangs on the wall of the Victoria University Art History Department. A work from the 80s, I see it as a prescient jab at New Zealand’s irritating ‘clean, green” self-image. A literal Aotearoa constructed from discarded milk-bottles – the neon light playfully tries to escape its plastic prison. In Venice, Culbert takes it one step further – perhaps inspired by our current ecological malaise. He reconstructs the piece from Anchor’s new “light-proof” milk bottles through which no light can escape. It’s a compelling statement as well as an amusing in-joke for New Zealander’s familiar with Anchor’s extensive marketing campaign for the product.
Light is the most basic tool of the artist. For Christians (among whom I do not count myself) light was created by God on the first day – indeed, light created the first day after God created light. No painting, no photography, no sculpture would exist without light. From Carrivaggio’s incandescent illumination of grimy Italian taverns to Picasso’s ghastly all-seeing light bulb in Guernica, light has always been the artist’s most important and beguiling tool. Culbert’s voice is an important one in this discourse. He understands the light of the 20th and 21st centuries better than most of his competitors. New Zealanders have always been a parochial bunch and, as Sir Nick Serota of the Tate Britain said at Venice, we will claim Bill Culbert. He’s an artist we should be proud of and one we should feel no hesitation of pushing to the international art community as we do our most accomplished sportspeople.