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The National Gallery of Victoria Present Unnerved: The New Zealand Project

There is a giant rabbit in the lofty foyer of the National Gallery of Victoria, crouching in a cartoonish pose that suggests both guilt and shock. Named Cosmo McMurtry , the inflatable 2006 sculpture by Michael Parekowhai is the signature piece of a new exhibition examining the last three decades of art from Aotearoa.
 
“Bringing together a range of aesthetically and conceptually diverse works including drawings, paintings, sculpture, photography, film and video art, Unnerved offers compelling views of one of our closest neighbours, reflecting the richness and distinctiveness of contemporary New Zealand art,” writes Jane Devery, Assistant Curator in contemporary art at the NGV.
 
Unnerved: The New Zealand Project has come to Melbourne from the Queensland Art Gallery, and many of the works exhibited in the show are from the QAG permanent collection. With over 100 pieces from 26 artists on display, it offers audiences an interesting snap shot of Kiwi art, focusing on discomforting inflections and strange resonances.
 
“Parekowhai’s bunny engages with aspects of New Zealand’s colonial history as well as with ideas of place,” says Devery, referring to the introduction of rabbits to the local ecosystem in early colonial times and the problem of their unruly reproduction. There’s something quite funny about the sculpture; something cute, evoking Disney movies, as Parekowhai intended, and fuzzy marketing images of the Easter bunny. But the size of the rabbit makes it monstrous; you don’t want to cuddle it so much as kill it. It establishes an odd, uneasy mood that follows you through the exhibition.
 
As you enter the gallery, there is a series of large scale photographs by Anne Noble showing a mouth – a child’s mouth? – highlighted and distorted by vivid accents of colour. Red lips pull against a wire; a luminous pink tongue protrudes, holding clear beads of some unknown substance; the mouth twists, creating a cavity, which the artist has filled in with a violent green hue. The photos have a pop prettiness to them, but again, the images are not quite right; there is violence in them.
 
Close by, Campbell Patterson’s video artwork Chewing Brothers offers a different kind of unnerving experience, as we are compelled to watch a chain of siblings share a large wad of chewing gum, staring enigmatically at the camera as one brother inserts the glutinous wad into the mouth of the next. A Super 8 film by Sriwhana Spong plays beside this piece, showing a garden dressed in paper and bunting, the two halves of the screen divided in a skewed mirror image that pulls in opposite directions while a delicate electronic soundtrack sets a dreamy tone. The dreaminess continues in the nostalgic and cinematic photo series The Homely by Gavin Hipkins, and in various other pieces in the show.
 
In her essay on Unnerved, QAG curator Maud Page talks about the impact of bi-culturalism – the plurality of white and Maori identity as equally essential parts of New Zealand culture – and its impact on the country’s contemporary art scene. There are many examples in the show of work by Maori artists, and specifically that of Maori artists who have used identifying motifs from that culture in a striking new framework. Perhaps the most dramatic works in all of Unnerved – and there are a few – are the digital photos by Lisa Reihana, which recontextualises Maori myth and social practice in hyperreal vignettes that are informed by gothic art and fashion photography. Glowing with life, the towering figures in the Digital Marae photos represent Reihana’s ancestors, who are given a formidable, god-like stature. The images have a room to themselves, a kind of hall of Valhalla, where the imposing power has you surrounded.
 
Towards the end of the exhibition, Yvonne Todd presents a collection of fraught women in white: one in a dressing gown, whose red eyes have been drained of tears, one over-dressed child bride and one who poses with a look of wounded sadness (this portrait has been woven into a huge hanging tapestry by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop). Each of these females is beautiful, but emotionally battered, and they succeed in stirring a sense of unnaturalness and disorder.
 
“The works in Unnerved reveal a prevailing darkness and distinctive edginess that characterises this particular strain of New Zealand contemporary art,” Devery explains, and it certainly feels true as you wander through the gallery. There are some creepy things afoot in the land of the long white cloud.
 
Unnerved: The New Zealand Project is now on display at the National Gallery of Victoria (International). It runs until February 27. Admission is free. NGV International is open 10am–5pm, closed Tuesdays.