Rough sleeping in Auckland

During the week I visited the Walters Prize 2014 exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery.

Before I hit the exhibition halls, I had a coffee upstairs and sat outside, just casually observing the environment, doing some people watching and noticing the ‘rules’ of gallery life.

On my table was a sign:


It’s true to say that birds will fly down, pick at your food and then leave you the ‘bill’ on the table, making it unhygienic I guess.  I couldn’t help wondering though as I looked over to a rough sleeper on the Albert Park stairway if this was code for exclusion.  Was I thinking into it too much?  Was it just actually about bird poo?

I remembered a time when I worked in the inner city and the building managers were so incensed with the look and odour of the rough sleepers that they considered installing a sprinkler system.  The system would be on a timer and would go off at intervals making the spot uninhabitable for the vagrants who slept there.  There was always follow-up conversation about why they chose to camp out in town anyway.  Why not just stick to their own suburbs?

I had to bite my tongue.  The white middle class expectation is that everyone has a home and a ‘suburb’.  Everyone has access to everything.

I took my photo of the rough sleeper.  I don’t know why,  and didn’t think much more about it until I walked through the Walters Prize finalists.

It’s an astonishing exhibition in many ways.  Of four finalists, there is only one tangible artwork display; the Simon Denny installation, and some say for that reason he has been positioned as the winner.

When the international judge materialises to select the winner, he is going to be looking around for the other three works I imagine.  Hmm. Perhaps he’ll head for a coffee in the caf while he waits for them to be found.  I’m not sure if it’s deliberate but the amusement factor is high this year.

If the judge looks hard enough though, he’ll see a pile of personal effects along a lonely wall of the gallery.  When you exit the extravaganza of the Denny, you reach that corridor and you try not to fall over this pile of effects.  Is it a mistake?

And then you put it all together.

It’s the effects of the man outside the gallery, on the stairs.  He is one of the finalists.


Kalisolaite ‘Uhila is a performance artist.  Performance is a modern alternative to sitting in front of a canvas replicating your reality.  For many artists, that model is simply not suited for their outlook at all.  For a start, it’s European, somewhat academic and results in a work that is placed on a wall and given value judgements that may mean the intention of the work is transferred into notions of economics and ideas about beauty or skill that are irrelevant to the original idea.

As a Tongan artist, ‘Uhila is concerned with the Tongan experience.  In this respect, his practice is centred around the outdoors and the way we perform repetitive rituals.  For ‘Uhila, observing his mother and father living and integrating (such a European term) with their environment informs a great part of his practice.

So, ‘Uhila’s work is a concept.  The ratepayer will rage:

That’s not art

Well, it’s not John Constable’s Haywain, no.  That would not be appropriate to the experience of this artist, nor would the medium.

I love this work.  I was forced to laugh at myself for being such a privileged European, sitting there, sipping my flat white, thinking about ‘art’ and looking at the rough sleepers.  To find that he was one of the finalists is a revelation.

You can find ‘Uhila outside the gallery for the duration of the exhibition, until the winner is announced 26th September paradoxically at a swanky black tie event in the gallery.

This exhibition is FREE.  If you can get to it, it’s a must see.  Get enraged, ratepayers!


  1. This whole ‘what is art?’ discussion is interesting. On one hand, anybody with a passing interest in art will be aware of the historical reactionary outrages caused by the Impressionists or late period Rembrandt or Turner (for instance), all of which we now regard as ‘Classic Art’, so not all good art is immediately understood as being such. On the other hand, I think sometimes in our middle class stampede to be not so middle class we sometimes write off any art dissonant to our sensibilities as being good, seemingly on the basis that our white bread brains couldn’t possibly comprehend what is going on and that anything different is good.
    Only time will tell I guess…

  2. I know, every master was rejected at some point even da Vinci I think lost a competition in Florence – and that was simply a skill issue rather than a style issue. I still think the Auckland ratepayers expect good exhibitions like the Picasso of ’83 – that was a cracker and hard to beat. It’s hard to ‘enjoy’ displays like the Walters in the same way – it doesn’t bring that relaxing pleasure feeling. Instead it brings tension – like a lot of modern films do I guess. And then you go away and think about it for days after. Looking forward to going on the the taxi ride next week. I can’t stop laughing. Bet I’ll be laughing on the other side of my face though.

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