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Art World G8 Notices New Zealand

By Penelope Borland, New Zealand publicist at the Venice Biennale Manager, Communications and Advocacy, Creative New Zealand 11 June 2001

Fifteen hundred golden tortoises have stormed the Gardens of the Venice Biennale of Art. They crouch mutely along grass verges, underneath trees, nestling beside the pavilions of the 63 countries exhibiting in this, the oldest and most prestigious of all the great art exhibitions of the world.

The tortoises have come to Venice, like everyone else, to get noticed by the G8 of the art world - the greats gathered in the Gardens for a meeting of the greats, according to the "Cracking Art" group, creators of the tortoise installation, SOS World. New Zealand is here for the same reason and despite our seemingly tortoise-like progress over the decades in coming to this meeting of the greats, our first presence has gained not only the attention of the media and art world assembled in this epicentre of art but the word is also out that our exhibition is not to be missed.

The Vernissage, the three-day preview of this six-month exhibition, opened on 6 June and by day two the media, curators, critics and collectors were arriving at our space behind Piazza San Marco saying they'd heard at the Giardini that ours was one of the stronger shows in the Biennale.

The sumptuous, sophisticated, narrative-laden fabric and wire sculpture work of Jacqueline Fraser and the strikingly cool, stripped-down installation of Peter Robinson playing with the concept of the abyss, of the void, are in complete contrast to one another. Their work is our first letter to the international art world in Venice and undoubtedly our presence here is one of the high points in the history of New Zealand art internationally.

We're seen as fresh, interesting, different and sophisticated, and we like it. We came to Venice, finally, in a hurry with only six months to bring the exhibition together and we didn't know what to expect. Both artists have often exhibited internationally and New Zealand has exhibited in other international Biennales. But perhaps our isolation as a nation has meant that we are sometimes unsure about how we stack up internationally. We put in hard work and had high hopes for Venice and they've been hugely surpassed beyond any of our expectations. We're all thrilled and the hundred or so New Zealanders in Venice for our first presence have been able to stand very proud. We're different, we stand out and we're confident in this milieu.

Critics, curators and media have commented that people are reacting differently to our show than to many of the others. When people enter the Museo di Sant'Apollonia with its New Zealand banner outside, they are captured initially by the beauty of our space with its rare Romanesque cloister. Climbing the stairs and entering the L-shaped exhibition space, they are immediately engaged by Jacqueline and Peter's work, and come out beaming. People are taking in the work and interacting with it in a way that is not commonplace in the context of the Biennale - with its shows all over Venice, large, permanent country pavilions and the huge curated exhibition in the Arsenale. All too much for any one stay here.

Top curators have admired the work and the way we have used our space and we've been told that this is best exhibition there's been in this venue, which is often used for this purpose. Quite spontaneously, many people have commented that we should be really pleased with the reaction we've had. Around 500 media and many of the world's reputation-makers in the international art world have been through, and Jacqueline and Peter have given countless interviews.

On our second day the San Francisco Chronicle reporter rushed in saying he'd heard over at the Giardini that our show was not to be missed. At times, five or six major media representatives were looking around our space at the same time and conducting interviews. The New York Times and Art in America arrived together at the press desk telling us that word had spread that the New Zealand work was good.

So far, only articles about the overall Biennale have appeared and a good number have led with the first New Zealand presence and Pounamu Kai Tahu's dawn ceremony in Piazza San Marco on 7 June. The art criticism will come later.

Our first presence has had much more impact that we could have hoped for and we need to build on the ground work firmly imprinted here in the floating world of La Serenissima. At the official opening of the Biennale on Saturday, 9 June Commissioner Jenny Gibbs spoke to the President of the Biennale, Paolo Baratta, who said: "You have been a big hit, we do hope that you are coming back."


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