How New Zealand's Millennial Artists are Confronting Generational Stigma

Are millennials equally lost and lamentable the world over? A recent trio of forward-looking exhibitions in New Zealand suggests that youth remains a truly international—and consistently problematic—art-world obsession.

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Sep 20 2017, 6:30pm

Model dressed by Clara Chon for Blue Blank at the opening of The Tomorrow People, Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, Wellington, July 22–October 1, 2017. Photo by Shaun Matthews

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"We can all agree that millennials are the worst." So begins a recent article in The Wire, giving unabashed voice to a sentiment that, justified or not, is widely shared. Composed—according to William Strauss and Neil Howe's generational theory—of those born between 1982 and 2004, this much-maligned group is characterized by its witnessing of transformative advances in technology. And in their 2009 book Millennials Rising, Strauss and Howe also tag its members as "special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving." It's not difficult to see how this awkward mix of attributes might rub Generation X-ers, and the baby boomers that preceded them, the wrong way. The terms are generalizations, of course, but the term—here as elsewhere—has stuck.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the conversation around millennials has been a highly particular one, powerfully influenced by neighboring Australia. In a notorious television interview for 60 Minutes Australia, luxury property developer Tim Gurner (a millennial himself) accused his peers of throwing away their money on overpriced avocado toast, a decadent taste which he suggested was leading directly to their inability to climb the property ladder. Across the ditch, New Zealand is in the midst of a housing crisis; Auckland is now the world's fourth most expensive city for homeownership, with the median price for a house a cool million New Zealand dollars (upwards of $700,000 USD). Of course, local media jumped on the avocado comment, castigating millennials for their profligacy and overlooking such major problems as inadequate urban planning and extant economic turmoil—not to mention the lack of foresight exhibited, arguably, by previous generations.

The media thrives on labeling people, but so does the art world. Over the past year in Aotearoa New Zealand, we've seen curators jump aboard the millennial gravy train, with a number of recent exhibitions seeking to define how the generation's art looks and feels. The first of these was last fall's New Perspectives (September 23–October 29, 2016) at Auckland not-for-profit Artspace, which trumpeted the ambitious, albeit nebulous, intention to "distill a panoramic picture of young artistic research and production in Aotearoa." The 21 artists were selected by the gallery's curatorial team of John Mutambu and Misal Adnan Yıldız with help from Simon Denny, through an open call that attracted 120 proposals. Denny, a New Zealand artist currently based in Berlin, was the country's representative at the 2015 Venice Biennale. He's also, along with Mutambu, a millennial.

View of New Perspectives, Artspace, Auckland, September 23–October 29, 2016. Photo by Sam Hartnett

New Perspectives was, perhaps predictably, overwhelming, and pushed the gallery's physical capacity to its limits. But it was astutely considered, too. Metro Magazine critic Anthony Byrt opined that it showed "just how dangerous and pointless it is to tar an entire generation with a single, vicious brush. At the same time, and somewhat contradictorily, it also makes a bold generational statement." What show and critic alike attempted to survey was how young New Zealand artists were responding to the uncertain state of the wider world. And since the exhibition wrapped, the divisive politics that were beginning to erupt at the time have now surfaced fully; we're in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world teetering on the brink of nuclear conflict. And while we've been to similar places before, the key distinction this time around is the dominance of the Internet. Technological advances have, selectively, democratized space and information, providing a platform to those who were once denied a voice. With the rise in white supremacy and other forms of intolerance, we're also seeing the discourse around people of color, indigenous populations, and LGBTQI rights attaining new visibility.

Unlike New Perspectives, The Tomorrow People at the Adam Art Gallery in New Zealand's capital, Wellington (July 22–October 1, 2017) benefits from the political changes that occurred in the intervening nine months, focusing on emergent artists who offer "urgent, resourceful, and playful possibilities for navigating troubling times." With a similarly large number of participants—25—the exhibition, curated by Christina Barton, Stephen Cleland, and Simon Gennard, does what the title suggests, looking to define the interests of a rising generation, but through a more traditional curatorial model. The show's problem is that, in spite of some of its organizers' youth, it reads as a cherry-picking exercise, speaking for artists and striving to fit them into an extant thesis rather than working with them to amplify their own visions. Thus it falls on the sword of its own curiosity, any sense of curatorial urgency appearing entirely absent. This unfortunate condition is emphasized by the fact that, as Chloe Geoghegan points out in a review for The Pantograph Punch, six New Perspectives artists also appear in The Tomorrow People—some with the same works.

If we accept the stated interest of The Tomorrow People in "navigating troubling times" as common to much current practice, then few artists are better qualified to offer an opinion than Melbourne-based Hamishi Farah. In April 2016, the 25-year-old garnered international media attention while en route from Melbourne to the NADA art fair in New York. Having travelled under the waiver scheme that allows people from member countries such as Australia to stay in the US for up to 90 days without a visa, Farah—an Australian citizen of Somali heritage— was fingerprinted and had his passport and phone confiscated before being handcuffed to the wall of a cell for some 13 hours, eventually being deported without explanation. Farah was interrogated by guards who asked him, bizarrely, whether he was able to produce art without the aid of drugs. "I was mocked by them for being an artist when I tried to explain my story," Farah told Australian daily The Age. "They called me an idiot and a prima donna."

Fresh and Fruity, Manifesto vol 1: Fresh and Fruity is a sexy new look, 2014/17. Printed poster and vinyl text. Installation view: The Tomorrow People, Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, Wellington, July 22–October 1, 2017. Courtesy of the artists, photo by Shaun Matthews

This experience of racial profiling certainly ties in with the aforementioned notion of urgency; so did another exhibition at Artspace, Dirt Future (August 4–September 2, 2017), in which Farah also took part. As the gallery's artist in residence, he worked with seven young artists in a mentorship role to confront the question of who speaks for whom. Markedly different from the two previous examples, the resultant show enjoyed further millennial support in the shape of Artspace staffers Bridget Riggir-Cuddy and Cameron Ah Loo-Matamua. The selected "verging on emerging" artists worked with the institution's team on the allocation of time and money, without specific formal expectations. They went on excursions, invested in self-care, and spent as little or as much time at the gallery as they liked. The exhibition that they ultimately assembled was devoted to "undoing the colonial endeavor," "bearing witness to histories that manifest through the body," and exploring "the trace of violence as found through self-sovereignty."

Of these three exhibitions, it was, ironically, Dirt Future that had the strongest premise. And since its curatorial decisions were made collaboratively, the result at least appeared to express a unified millennial position. While not framed publicly as a "new artists show," its emphasis was on the ongoing investment in its participants, an approach that transcended mere institutional critique to establish a new model, a real attempt at sovereignty by and for a new generation. One result of current political volatility is emboldened artistic practice, in which irony and ambiguity have surrendered ground to more direct strategies. Perhaps painting a generation in broad strokes when it labors under such a heavy inherited social burden, and remains in such a vulnerable position, is counterproductive. Why don't we just let it work?

Lana Lopesi is a writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa New Zealand. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Pantograph Punch and Contributing Editor for Design Assembly.

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