Virgin on the Ridiculous, Hugh Roberts
Te Papa displays a condom-covered Virgin and all hell breaks loose. Outrage is the order of the day. Irate Catholics drag their children to Te Papa’s foyer to be the shock-troops of an emotive protest rally. Noted an expert and theologian Tau Henare is somehow coaxed onto the Holmes show to share his wisdom. John Banks blows a frou-frou valve and tries to issue a fatwah against Cheryll Sotheran. Rosemary McLeod in the Dominion turns 27-year-old artist Tania Kovats into a 17-year-old prankster, a gross blunder which quickly becomes “fact” in a hundred outraged letters to the editor; sadly, this is only par for the course in the media’s shabby treatment of the affair. Meanwhile, art lovers everywhere can be heard sighing wearily, “Did we learn nothing from, say, the fuss over Frances Hodgkins’s Pleasure Garden back in the forties? Do we really have to go through this argument again?” Well, yes, it seems we do. Some fights have to be fought all over again in each new generation.
The essential elements of this argument are all-too-familiar. To remove the statue would set an appalling precedent. Where do we stop? If they can ban the statue from a show which people have to pay to enter, why shouldn’t they also be able to ban the sale of books which depict the statue (is a photo of the Virgin in a Condom any less “sacrilegious” than the real thing?). But if such a book can be banned – “because it is offensive to Christians” – why shouldn’t the Communist Manifesto be banned, or Voltaire’s Candide, or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound? Surely these works are offensive to Christians – far more unequivocally so than the Virgin in a Condom.
But if the problem of “where do we stop” is difficult, equally thorny is the problem of “where do we start?” How many people have to be offended, and how badly, before we ban something? Those who argue that “Our Place” must not contain any display that offends someone’s deeply held religious belief might be surprised to learn how little that would leave in the Museum. How many Creationists have to assemble in the Te Papa foyer before we take down the display about Gondwanaland and continental drift? Contrary to popular belief, Te Papa is currently showing several works which have been controversial in the Maori community. Should we take down the Gordon Walters because some Maori believe he infringed cultural property rights in adapting the koru design? Should we remove the Dick Frizzell because some Maori have objected to his use of Maori designs? If we are to ban a work of art every time some group feels offended, there won’t be much art of any kind left.
If Te Papa staff might justly be criticised for failing to do some pre-emptive consultation and PR management for this show, it has to be said that their response to the controversy after it developed was exemplary. They bent over backward to show that they were listening to the complaints. They did everything they could to engage in an informed debate with those who felt hurt and affronted by the image, although the protesters were less interested in debating the significance of the piece than in getting it removed. Even if this work had been no more than the childish prank the protesters proclaimed it to be, the Museum would have been wrong to remove it from display. This image was part of a show whose intention was solely to provide a survey of recent trends in contemporary British art. The Museum would not be doing its job if it censored itself in what it chose to reveal to us about those trends. Tania Kovats’s work is controversial and influential in the British art scene. Not to have shown it would have made the exhibition deliberately misleading and intellectually indefensible.
Whatever the merits of Te Papa staff’s response, the controversy has confirmed many people’s suspicions that the decision taken to amalgamate the National Art Gallery with the Museum of New Zealand when the MONZ project was first undertaken was a bad one. The Virgin in a Condom controversy has been complicated by a confusion in the public mind between Te Papa’s roles as National Museum and as National Art Gallery. Some of those who were outraged at the statues display in “Our Place” – a place we take the kids to learn about Our Past and Our Natural Heritage – might have been willing to cut a National Art Gallery a little more slack for audacious intellectual experimentation. Despite Te Papa’s willingness to stick to their guns over the Pictura Britannica show, there will in the future be increasing pressure on the Museum to avoid morally controversial and intellectually challenging exhibitions.
Not only is this compromised institutional structure a problem, but the attempt to cram a National Museum and Art Gallery into one building has resulted in a woefully inadequate display of the national art collection. What other National Gallery has no proper galleries for its permanent collection? The art spaces proper in Te Papa are sad jokes: the so-called Boulevard a short, out-of-the-way corridor which many visitors never find, the Aorangi Room a dingy attic you can only reach by the elevators (and not all of them). The Parade jumbles together “art” and “design” in a cluttered display that serves neither well.
It is a curious irony that in its displays of Maori artefacts the Museum has almost entirely done away with the many objects which in the old National Museum served to illustrate the “daily life” of pre-contact Maori culture, and has worked hard to make us see Maori taonga “as art” – mounted on pedestals, beautifully lit, given space for appropriately awed contemplation. This is post-“Te Maori” display of Maori art. Meanwhile the modern art (much of which was in fact created with normal gallery presentation in mind) is displayed as so much indifferently valuable ethnographic material. Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels and a Kelvinator fridge are to be seen as representative samples of “twentieth century pakeha design activity” – “culture” with a small “c”. A slogan on the wall of Parade reads, “What you make depends on who you are” – we, it seems, are the kind of people who make boxy fridges and expressionist landscape paintings. This kind of dépaysement has its uses, and if Parade were a temporary installation it would only be its incoherence and lack of focus t’olwlT1Thpne’-would object. But as the only place where one can see the Northland Panels for the foreseeable future (to take but one prominent example) it is an outrage.
If the prospect of fighting the “freedom of expression” argument all over again was wearying for New Zealand’s art lovers, I have bad news. It seems we must rally our forces to start lobbying for both a new building and a separate administration for a National Art Gallery. If Dunedin,
Christchurch and Auckland can afford to support excellent art galleries with more or less adequate display space for their civic collections, surely the people of New Zealand can afford at least comparable facilities for our national collection?