There is little doubt that Peter Robinson is one of New Zealand’s preeminent contemporary artists. His early work in the 1990s cut a swathe with controversial, subversive and often cheekily ambivalent takes on biculturalism and our late colonial context, evoking parallels to American artist Jimmie Durham. This led to recognition in the 1998 Biennale of Sydney, and the national showcases Cultural Safety and Toi Toi Toi which toured to Germany in 1995 and 1999 respectively. With Jacqueline Fraser he represented New Zealand in our first Venice Biennale in 2001, won New Zealand’s most prestigious art award, the Walters Prize in 2008 and made a New Zealand Art Foundation Laureate in 2016.
Robinson first came to public attention as one of a wave of Ilam graduates grappling with a rapidly changing New Zealand at the end of the 1980s, but his art has never kept still. It continues to evolve with research and experience, heading in unexpected directions. With tongue firmly in cheek, Robinson disowns the previous body of work.
“I do it consistently,” he jokes. “Sometimes it’s simply a way of playfully confusing and disrupting the secondary market.” More seriously, he says, “disowning my early work is a way for me to keep moving the work along. It prevents stagnation, a psychological strategy to keep opening things up as well as a kind of insistence that the audience moves with me rather than getting hung up on the past.”
Robinson first made his name with the 13.125% series and related works based around the politics of indigenous blood quanta and his own relationship with his Māori identity. “However, when I look back at those works I have to say I enjoy the small cultural contribution they made. Particularly as the percentage paintings seemed to have a real-life effect of encouraging a few people to reassign their identity from Pākehā to Māori when they were otherwise reticent to do so.”
The title of Robinson’s new exhibition, Peter Robinson: Fieldwork, at the Centre of Contemporary Art Toi Moroki (CoCA) in Christchurch, suggests experimentation, a signalling of something new.
The location of the exhibition is significant. Robinson is Auckland-based and Associate Professor at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts. However, he was born in Ashburton (arable farming and dairy territory, and one of the most Pākehā places in the country), trained in the concrete bunkers of Canterbury University’s School of Fine Arts, and is of Ngāi Tahu descent. Robinson’s time at Christchurch Teachers College was also significant, particularly in the efforts of artist/educator Bronwyn Taylor to promote gender, class and ethnicity issues with reference to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Robinson would go on to teach art at Christchurch’s Christ’s College from 1991 to 1998.
Fieldwork coincides with the 50th anniversary of the construction of the purpose-built Minson, Henning, Hansen and Dines-designed gallery building for the old Canterbury Society of Arts (CSA, 1881–1995). The CSA cast a shadow over Robinson’s approach to the building as a symbol of both the conservative art establishment Robinson rebelled against as a student, though it also hosted work too edgy for the Robert McDougall (forerunner of Christchurch Art Gallery). The building is a jewel of mid-century Canterbury brutalism: dominating and monumental, with a richness of quirky detail manifest in brass fixtures, the pyramidal skylights, down to the occasional crack or sheared nail embedded in the polished concrete floor. It’s a strong presence in its own right.
“Although this show may seem completely new, there has been a series of shows leading up to it,” says Robinson, pointing to After Party (Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland, 2017) and Pronto Proto (Galerie Emmanuel Hervé, Paris, 2017). “Nevertheless, there has been a shift, and this is because of the pressure that the CoCA building placed on my practice. This has occurred before, for example, at the Govett-Brewster and Artspace in Sydney. A positive effect of difficult architecture is that it often helps to move the work along.
“Early in the year-long developmental process I became very aware of the difficulty of the space, such as the cavernousness of the Mair Gallery and the unusual rhythms of the space throughout. It took a long time to resolve but I think I got there eventually.”
The aesthetic of Fieldwork is quite different from the bright felt and polystyrene we have become used to in Robinson’s work, though the fine spatial awareness that emerged from the three years he lived in Berlin in the early 2000s, and his ironic sense, are still there. These new sculptures are incredibly subtle, measured, and almost lost in the monumental brutalist volume of CoCA’s first-floor Mair Gallery – small and, as the cliché goes, perfectly formed. Evoking the aesthetic tropes of 1960s post-minimalism, they seem to grow organically like delicate plants out of their humble, everyday detritus: coils of wire, paper, metal rods, pipes, nails, aluminium and magnets reflecting the industrial textures of the building. As the American writer Jim Harrison once said, “Minimalism is that old cow, naturalism, rendered into the smallest of print.”
Net-like grids of wire hang from the ceiling, derived from last year’s felt forms, forming see-through walls that divide up the lion’s share of the Mair Gallery into something more manageably human. “There was so much to contend with,” says Robinson. “My work had moved into a more subtle and delicate language, but in order to resolve the problems with the space I was tempted to revert to something bold. Thank goodness I didn’t. Instead I was able to find a way to integrate recent developments in my practice to work with the space. A month and a half before the show was due to open, I conceived the two large grid walls. I was very sure these would provide the means of anchoring the exhibition.”
The art guides you around an invisible labyrinth, an immersive, meditative experience that exerts a subtly transformative power on the viewer. “My aim from the outset was to find a way for the objects to harmonise with the space and to bring out its qualities. I’ve found this is often the best solution with challenging venues. Rather than fighting a space, it’s better to go with it, to allow the space to be itself,” says Robinson. “Small sculptures create an open-ended trail around CoCA, pointing to the detailing in the galleries, while also maintaining their integrity.”
The American artist Robert Ryman, and his ontological enquiry into painting, also influenced his conceptualisation of numerous elements in the exhibition. “For example, the nails and magnets come from thinking about the way artworks are hung in the gallery space. But it’s not completely pared down in that minimalist sense – ideas are allowed to branch out and meander, seeding more pathways, and are less conclusive than in minimalist practice.” American artist Richard Artschwager’s “blps” also come to mind.
The installation is a homecoming of sorts, and the work subtly references that. “It was really important for me to do something significant for Canterbury,” says Robinson. “I wanted the work to be anchored in Canterbury, for example, in small incidents occurring across a large plain such as a haystack in the middle of a field or paddock, a quintessential Canterbury visual trope. This is the kind of thing that I’ve drawn upon to develop the exhibition. Additionally, the grids, to some extent, speak to the patchwork cliché of the Canterbury Plains.”
Along with the Canterbury landscape, he says, the title references the art movements that have influenced his practice, mostly post 1960, such as postminimalism, arte povera, Brazilian art concrete, and contemporary artists like Brazilian artist Fernanda Gomes, and Belgian artist Joëlle Tuerlinckx.
There are allusions closer to home, such as Michael Parekowhai’s Cuisenaire rods and Billy Apple’s interventions into gallery architecture. Robinson’s process is not a heavily premeditated one however, but reflexive and responsive. “A lot of the time I really don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m researching without any particular aim in mind and gradually these impulses seem to coalesce, forming something akin to a visual language.”
Most of the time we tend to think of abstract art as trying to free itself from messages, but there is a political element to Fieldwork as well. “A lot of what I’ve been thinking about,” says Robinson, “is how you make sculpture, as a male artist, in the age of Trump. This question has been really important for the development of this work. Anything resembling a vulgar display of wealth and power needs to be shunned. Anything macho, monumental, chauvinistic, unambiguous or conservative, is something to be rejected.”
Qualities such as ephemerality, delicacy, gentleness and sensitivity present alternatives, he says, providing forms of resistance to the kind of political violence that seems so prevalent at the moment. “The resistance that is necessary though is not merely passive, I believe aggression is also required and this is indicated within many of the works through their sharpness and potentially harmful surfaces. The works allow us to think about how entities occupy a space, about how some things are foreign while others belong.
“I’m interested in thinking about the problems and benefits of co-existence…which relates strongly to my current renewed interest in postcolonial thought and processes of decolonising.” This also accounts for his attraction to abstraction. “It seems to be a much more open way to communicate. I don’t want to tell people how to think, but leave many possibilities open to the audience’s imaginative play.”