place: auckland, aotearoa, new zealand

Gail Priest, in Luc Peire's Environment III, Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tomaki

Gail Priest, in Luc Peire’s Environment III, Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tomaki

Gail Priest, in Luc Peire’s Environment III, Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tomaki

reason for travelling

An unabashed holiday involving campervanning around the North Island

alternate realities

For Cayce Pollard, the hypersensitive American cool-hunter in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition (2003), the sensation of being in London is like inhabiting a mirror world, everything the same, just horizontally flipped. I was reminded of this as a Sydney-sider in Auckland where things can seem alarmingly familiar, but rather than flippage it’s a sensation of slippage—a parallel universe where just a few small details have been altered. There’s a stunning harbour, great eating, interesting galleries, underground cool, an ancient indigenous culture overlaid by a recent colonial history and a city skyline dominated by a building that looks like a giant swizzelstick. However it’s the Sydney-that-would-be if we had a quarter of the population (New Zealand’s total population is roughly equivalent to that of Sydney’s alone), and if we had demolished fewer old buildings and embraced a more visible presence of our contemporary Indigenous culture (though this is by no means straightforward). And of course New Zealanders are so laidback and friendly!

Auckland skyline

Auckland skyline

Auckland skyline

I had a curious introduction to Auckland via an in-flight video by local New Zealand personality Marcus Lush, who conducted an A-Z tour of Auckland as part of his TV series North. At the risk of stereotyping, he’s the New Zealander we’ve come to know from the Flight of the Concords—an understated mix of cynicism and sweet sentimentality. His tour guides us to strange rusty sculptures in out-of-the way parks; jogging paths (he suggests jogging was invented in Auckland); a tap at the back of a property that provides water from a genuine artesian spring; and a volcanic cave that’s just under someone’s garage. At first glance I thought, “Wow, he’s hard pressed to find things of interest in Auckland,” but in fact he introduces the idea of seeking small, nuanced pleasures in the niches of this beautiful city. (You can view the episode here, just ignore the error message saying you can’t view it outside of New Zealand; it seems playback is not blocked for Australia—we are honorary New Zealanders after all.)

for culture…

Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tomaki

Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tomaki

Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tomaki

The thing with quick trips to other cities is that you end up spending more time in the CBD than you would perhaps if you were a local, but Auckland’s city centre (and suburbs within walking distance) hold many of its key cultural features. Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tomaki is on the edge of Albert Park and, like many art centres, is an architectural amalgamation of an historic building, here in French Renaissance style, and a beautiful modern extension, which features sweeping canopies of glorious Kauri timber. Renovations were only completed in September last year. The gallery houses an extensive collection of art from New Zealand and the Asia Pacific region as well as some international masters. It also offers thematic exhibitions, such as Home AKL featuring contemporary artists from the Pacific region such as Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Niue, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu, who have made Auckland their home (July 7-Oct 22, 2012). Particularly impressive is Whizz Bang Pop, an international overview of op, pop and kinetic art featuring some stunning works such as Luc Peire’s amazing mirror room, Environment III (pictured above), as well as smaller works by Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy, Australia’s John Nixon and Rosalie Gascoigne and New Zealand’s Daniel von Sturmer and local legend Len Lye (on until April 7, 2013).

Surrounding the Art Gallery is a precinct of smaller galleries, mainly commercial, but a bit further down into the centre is Auckland’s newest, and totally thriving artist-run-space, Snake Pit. Housed in a three-level commercial building which the owner has offered free of charge (for the moment), Snake Pit operates as a gallery and a music venue drawing on a strong student base and alumni from the Elam School for Fine Arts, University of Auckland, which co-founder Sam Thomas attended. It is also a hub for young fashion designers with its own shop, headed by co-founder Rosie Thomas. It’s ambitious, well attended and pretty darn cool.

The Parisian Tie Factory, home of the Audio Foundation, on the edge of Myers Park

The Parisian Tie Factory, home of the Audio Foundation, on the edge of Myers Park

The Parisian Tie Factory, home of the Audio Foundation, on the edge of Myers Park

New Zealand has a reputation for fostering a vibrant alternative and underground music scene and in large part this has been fostered by the activities of the Audio Foundation. Established and run by Zoe Drayton it now even has its own space, with an office, gallery, small performance room, CD shop and zine library hidden away in the sub-basement of the Parisian Tie Factory just near Karangahape Road. In the week that I was there they presented a night of experimental electroacoustic music by visiting artists from Amsterdam, Shackle, an evening of contemporary Indian ragas and hosted an exhibition opening, so they certainly keep things rolling. Interestingly they have also recently published a book celebrating experimental music in New Zealand titled Erewhon Calling (edited by Bruce Russell). Its back cover blurb is remarkably similar to the Australian equivalent—Experimental Music: Audio exploration in Australia (2009), which I edited for UNSW Press. Parallel worlds indeed.

For cross-over experimental/alternative rock music there’s the Wine Cellar and Whammy Bar, literally 50 metres from Audio Foundation, hidden down the back steps of the historic St Kevin’s Arcade (was there really a St Kevin?). The Wine Cellar comprises a small room at the front for intimate gigs and the Whammy Bar, a bigger backroom. On the night I popped in I was treated to some amazing multitasking by Hide and Tallow, a one man band on drums, foot-pedal activated synth and spoken word, and the ridiculously epic and quite virtuosic post-rock-prog-hair-metal of Shepherds of Cassini.

On Monday nights, I was told, the Wine Cellar is home to Vitamin-S which is Auckland’s improv organisation, running weekly events as well as workshops. Programs generally consist of random trios drawn from “the pool” of Vitamin-S artists (open for anyone to join). It also plays host to travelling improv troubadours and masters.

view of Auckland harbour from the Sky Tower

view of Auckland harbour from the Sky Tower

view of Auckland harbour from the Sky Tower

for refreshment…

Auckland’s baristas are testament to the fact that the Antipodes has it all over the northern hemisphere when it comes to coffee—not a single bad soy latte in my two-week trip. And plenty of good places to imbibe not only coffee but other beverages and local produce. My favourite was Imperial Lane, a large converted carpark with great breakfasts such as the genius concept of a breakfast salad—lettuce, mushrooms, avocado, bacon and a poached egg; or Danish creamed eggs with smoked salmon and pickles on rye bread; not to mention the French toast with tamarillo and crème fraiche. I regret I never got back to try the lunch/dinner tapas menu. Above Imperial Lane are another two floors of bars in what was once an old theatre.

Late night dining can often be a problem earlier on in the week in a foreign city, but we managed to stumble upon the simply titled Mezze Bar that always seemed to be open when we needed it. Again not crowded, candle lit, comfortable rustic furniture and with a large enough selection of wines, including sherries, and tapas style dishes to warrant repeat visits.

Across in Ponsonby, just out of the city centre and known for its shopping and gallery strip, I stumbled upon my best dining experience. Long Room offers a fascinating menu of Asian and Mexican dishes side by side, and it kind of makes sense. The confit of duck salad on Asian greens with mandarin and cashews was great and I only wished I’d been there with someone else to share a platter of Long Room fishcakes, chilli salt squid, green lip mussels and akaroa salmon gravlax. The wine menu featuring those famous crisp New Zealand whites also impressed.

For quick eating, there seems to be an endless (far more than in Australia) selection of sushi bars and Korean barbeque restaurants. And not to be missed are the fabulous Taiwanese/French cakes and sweets found at La Couronne. And while I would not normally frequent a Belgian beer bar, the Occidental in the city centre was perfect for a late Saturday afternoon Lambic cherry beer and steaming plate of New Zealand mussels with coriander and lemon.

for wandering…

Albert Park, Auckland

Albert Park, Auckland

Albert Park, Auckland

The most impressive thing about New Zealand is its absolutely breathtaking natural beauty. Really any trip must involve leaving the city, so I highly recommend campervanning. But if you can’t get away, then the parks in Auckland are a good alternative. Albert Park, bordering the CBD’s north-east, has quite magical old Pohutukawa trees with huge knotty branches and twisted ropey roots. Myers Park runs through a small ravine heading up to Karangahape Road and boasts steep walkways and huge palms, while Western Park runs off Ponsonby Road creating a little micro-bushland in the inner suburbs and features a nice sculptural piece by John Radford.

Then of course there is the spectacular harbour and its lapping waves of queer milky green. Just last year for the World Cup, the new Wynyard Quarter was opened, creating a an expansive promenade along the harbour foreshore and marinas, with a range of restaurants (all huge and uncrowded, even on Father’s Day afternoon), the Viaduct Events Centre and an ingenious kids’ play area surrounded by industrial detritus and towering silos (although I was told the silos were going to be knocked down for redevelopment—a little bit of Sydney style after all).

Silt Line, Rachel Shearer and Hillary Taylor, Wynard Quarter

Silt Line, Rachel Shearer and Hillary Taylor, Wynard Quarter

Silt Line, Rachel Shearer and Hillary Taylor, Wynard Quarter

If you hunt around and listen very hard, you might just discover artist Rachel Shearer’s The Flooded Mirror, a sound installation under the pier of the articulated bridge, issuing mournful creaks and haunting tones. Alas the work is far more subtle than intended due to complaints from surrounding neighbours and businesses, but it is still beautiful and captivating perhaps more so because of its secrecy. The sound is accompanied by a permanent cast concrete design on the steps leading down to the water, titled Silt Line, created in collaboration with Hillary Taylor and graphically representing the sound clusters used in the audio installation. Shearer also has a major work in Albert Park hidden among the trees. In fact Auckland is really quite into public sound installations (as long as the volume is moderate) with the international airport also featuring an impressive audiovisual piece Pou Manawa, created by Ignite Architects in conjunction with artist Michael Knapp. In Sydney we’ll just have to make do with the sculpture outside the QVB of Queen Victoria’s dog sporting the voice of John Laws.

(Thanks to Zoe Drayton for alerting me so to some of these activities.)


Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tomaki http://www.aucklandartgallery.com/

Snake Pit http://www.snakepit.co.nz/

Audio Foundation http://www.audiofoundation.org.nz/

The Wine Cellar & Whammy Bar

Vitamin-S http://www.vitamin-s.co.nz/

Imperial Lane http://www.theimperiallane.co.nz/

Mezze Bar http://mezzebar.co.nz/

Long Room http://www.longroom.co.nz/

La Couronne http://www.lacouronne.co.nz/lacouronne/

Occidental http://www.occidentalbar.co.nz/

Albert Park http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Park,_Auckland

Myers Park http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers_Park,_Auckland

Western Park http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Park,_Auckland

Wynyard Quarter http://www.waterfrontauckland.co.nz/

Rachel Shearer’s The Flooded Mirror http://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/EN/newseventsculture/Arts/publicart/Pages/waterfrontsculpturetrail.aspx


Gail Priest is a Sydney-based artist whose multi-faceted practice focuses on sound as the key material of communication and investigation. She performs live electroacoustic music, creates sound design for performance and video and has created her own installations. She is also the Associate Editor and Online Producer for RealTime. She has just released a split vinyl 12inch with Kate Carr titled Blue | Green. http://www.gailpriest.net

related articles on new zealand arts

the sound already present
sally ann mcintyre: sound full, dunedin public art gallery
RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 50

figuring motion: a 20th century artist for the 21st
danni zuvela: len lye at acmi
RealTime issue #92 Aug-Sept 2009 pg. 26

rachel shearer (aka lovely midget) in typhoon: fine tuned turbulence
keith gallasch sees sound art at artspace
RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 47

6 November 2012