Now See Hear!: Art, Language, and Translation

Exhibition date:
15 July 1990 to 30 September 1990
New Zealand
City Gallery Wellington

In 1990, New Zealand celebrates its sesquicentennial—150 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Gallery marks the occasion by presenting four shows addressing New Zealand art: Putting the Land on the MapMana TiritiArt and Organised Labour, and Now See Hear!: Art, Language and Translation.

More is more. With ninety-five exhibits, Now See Hear! is the largest exhibition the Gallery has ever staged. Curators Gregory Burke and poet, novelist, and art critic Ian Wedde describe it as 'an adventure in communications’. Key themes include language and the role it plays in art, and the link between fine art and the commercial art and design we are bombarded with daily.

Exhibition design is a vital component. The languages of art, advertising, comics, design, computers, logos, videos, and billboards are brought together in an intentionally cacophonic display. Reviewer Rob Taylor compares the show to walking through a mall or TV channel hopping. Exhibition designer Leon van den Eijkel explains, 'What I was trying to get at was my own sense of disorientation when first walking into the exhibition space—a disorientation which in retrospect was also quite liberating in the sense that, rather than dictating, it encourages initiative in viewing choice.’

What's the point of all this visual bombardment? Burke says, 'It is just a metaphor for the fabric of visual culture at large … there is a real risk of confusing people ... what the show communicates is a texture, and you've actually got to work hard to pull the single images out. And with some of them it is quite hard to do so.’ He tells the Evening Post, 'We're inviting people to talk about images, how they are valued and their relationship to a cultural context which is usually framed up by language. Language is integral to any image having meaning.’ A Saatchi & Saatchi ad clarifies: ‘Open your ears and flap your eyes. From comics to computer graphics, newspaper to neon, and Colin McCahon to Coca-Cola. Now See Hear is all things to all eyes and ears. An opportunity to make your own sense of art as language, and language as art.’

There are words, words, and more words. On the opening wall of the ground floor gallery, there’s a word chain: 'Art talking to language, language picturing meaning, meaning writing value, value translating picture, pictures speaking culture.' Poets Bill Manhire and Michelle Leggott also produce texts for the walls and for textlites and rotographic machines. Famous New Zealand artists (including Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Ralph Hotere, and Robyn Kahukiwa) feature alongside international art stars (Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Ed Ruscha0—key players in the art/language area).

High meets low as art and advertising are scrambled. Two billboards are commissioned from New Zealand artists: Billy Apple produces Tales of Gold for Cobham Drive and Ruth Watson takes over the billboard at the Railway Station, replacing an Elle Macpherson lingerie ad with her mysterious feminine image, What You Get Is What You See. There are numerous examples of commercial design, including work from Wellington Media Collective, Attwood Design, and Van der Roeg design, and the Gallery cafe includes a display by VMS comics. One of the most popular exhibits is thirty years of Coca-Cola ads.

The show intentionally eschews chronology or historical overview in favour of juxtaposition, but it does claim a starting point: Augustus Earle’s The Meeting of the Artist with the Wounded Chief, Hongi, Bay of Islands, November 1827 is exhibited alongside a Gordon Walters’s abstract koru paintinginviting a comparison between their colonial approach to Maori subject matter. In radically different moments, Earle and Walters both place Maori content into a European-art framework. For the cover of the accompanying book, Earle’s painting is 'translated' through a computer programme. The bicultural dimension in commercial art is also examined. A section of the show addresses the use of the koru in New Zealand branding. It also includes the 1990 Commission campaign, which seeks to market a sense of unity about Treaty of Waitangi.

The show’s chief sponsor, Telecom Wellington, is an exhibitor. They lend an optical-tone phone, which viewers can use, and Network Navigator, a touch-screen computer game that takes players through the stages of making and connecting an international call. ‘The exhibition is about images, sound, and language’, explains Telecom Wellington Managing Director Tone Borren. 'Through our sponsorship we want to show how telecommunications are a vital part of communication between people. communities, and cultures. People will find it a lot of fun.’

Interactivity is promoted. Upstairs, a computer-graphics studio demonstrates the Corel Draw program. The Gallery educator runs a project called Talkstory across four schools. Students use images from the show as creative-writing prompts, and the stories they write are exchanged via computer with the assistance of the Wellington City Council City Net network. Later, the students visit the gallery to take part in a computer-graphics demonstration.

Now See Hear! is accompanied by an extensive public programme including a symposium, lectures, performance art and a film-and-video programme. The film-and-video programme includes Australia’s Peter Callas (a visiting artist in the Gallery programme), England’s Peter Greenaway, and New Zealand’s Philip Dadson and Lisa Reihana. There's Joan Does Dynasty (a hilarious deconstruction of US soap opera Dynasty) and music videos (by Headless Chickens, Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, Chris Knox, and Tall Dwarves) are shown. Guest speakers include three Australians: poet, curator, and editor Nicholas Zurbrugg, artist and writer Ian Burn, and artist and art historian Terry Smith. A series of performances, poetry readings, and film and video screenings are held on Wednesday evenings. There’s a huge book, with thirty-eight essays and artist pageworks.

Now See Hear! is postmodernism writ large. More than 8,000 people see the show in five weeks. 'This is as many people as we normally expect in three months, new director Paula Savage tells the Eastern News. It is her first show as Director.


Text extracted from City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi website. 


The catalogue of this exhibition can be found at the City Gallery Wellington website. 

A publication on this exhibition can be found at the City Gallery Wellington website. 

Exhibition artworks