Often bitterly ironic or aggressively humorous Peter Robinson’s works of the 1990s have emerged as iconic in contemporary New Zealand art. Around this time questions regarding the efficacy of centralised policy for biculturalism flourished in New Zealand and fittingly Robinson’s works of this period address interracial politics and the commercial consumerism of cultural identity.
The Great Plane Race (1995), a model aeroplane covered in coloured fabric, is a central piece of the exhibition and delivers pointed commentary on aspects of cultural exchange in New Zealand history. The red, white and black colour scheme associates the work with post-colonial Maori art and the exotic materials (linen, blankets and velvet) ambiguously suggest the complexities of cultural exchange. Blankets, while a universal symbol of comfort and protection, also played an injurious role in trade between Maori and settlers with damp and infected blankets markedly increasing mortality rates in Maori.
The aeroplane itself is inspired by the Maori religious movement Ratana’s interpretation of the plane as a symbol of spiritual leadership, and by the Maori belief that ancestors take their place in the sky. It also references McCahon’s ‘Jet Out’ series of the 1970s which used the plane to represent the soul departing into the afterlife. The stylised form of the plane also suggests the shape of a waka canoe, the historical and mythological bearer of the original ancestors, and a sign of genealogy.
The physical presence of The Great Plane Race, suspended up-side-down from the ceiling recalls European versions of the origins of civilisation, in which the Antipodes were widely understood as being the “wrong way up”.
o.T (box) (1994) is an open wooden box resembling a storage unit or temporary shelter, covered in handwritten signs with commercial slogans. “Cash in this week only”, “Import specialist”, “Don’t miss out” also in red, white and black, make mockery of capitalist consumerism. Robinson, while acknowledging the deadly effects of the contact period on Maori, also raises questions regarding perceived takeover bids by Pakeha on Maori resources in colonial history and its attempted reversal through the financial settlements of the Treaty of Waitangi, which can be perceived as cashing up and making a fast dollar through cultural exploitation. A placard that reads “3.125 % pure” refers to Robinson’s earlier paintings in which he defined his “Maoriness” as a percentage and gibed at the way in which ethnicity is quantified in commercial terms.
The cultural exchange is extended to include global economies in o.T (box). Made at a time when Robinson was living in Germany, statements including “ish fairshtate nikht” and “Vee feel kosted dus” are phonetic interpretations of “I don’t understand” and “how much does this cost” in German. Reverting the idea of the upside down plane in The Great Plane Race, European countries in o.T (box) are depicted up-side-down, as if seen from the southern hemisphere. The idea of cultural commodity is extended as iconic European landmarks and land forms appear to be for sale. Slogans showing the euro, dollar and pound symbols suggest that many currencies are accepted in this exchange. One image shows a simplified drawing of Notre Dame with the notation “tsoo fairowfin”, again phonetic German, here meaning “for sale” while an inverted Poland is apparently “bilikh” or “cheap.” More poignantly perhaps, the “sorry sold out” painting inside the empty crate has the final say. (exhibition text, Anna Jackson, 2009)