There was veruschka, the '60s supermodel, doing needlepoint for Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli's installation in the old rope factory at the Arsenale. There was the leashed peacock, sent by Belgian artist Francis Alys to strut around the Giardini di Castello. There were the cacophonous bleeps and burps from Austrian group farmersmanual's "Ship of Fools" sailing the canals. With nearly 300 artists from over 60 countries vying for the attention of critics, curators and collectors at last month's launch of the 49th Venice Biennale of contemporary art, the crazier the better.
But perhaps the most surreal sight came with a misty dawn in St. Mark's Square. Under the shadow of the Doge's Palace, a warlike haka was sounded as 16 performers wearing facial moko tattoos, greenstone hei-tiki pendants and feathered cloaks took to the stage. Over the next 20 minutes, the members of the southern Maori Ngai Tahu tribe sang poetry, evoked long-ago canoe voyages and spun the poi, a ceremonial swinging ball. They had come to pay homage to Hinetitama, maiden of the dawn. "She is the child of light, of the horizon, and the mother of the sea," explained elder Sir Tipene O'Regan. "And in that sense today we were greeting a new dawn, a new experience for our culture in this place."
For New Zealand's debut at the Cannes of the art world, it was an appropriate gesture. And Hinetitama would surely approve of her country's choice of artists: both Jacqueline Fraser and Peter Robinson are descendants of the Ngai Tahu. But for visitors to San Marco's Museo di Sant' Apollonia, where New Zealand is exhibiting till Nov. 4 away from the main national pavilions in the Giardini, expectations of traditional Maori art are quickly subverted. Climb the stairs of the 10th century cloister and you enter Fraser's enchanting fabric-draped salon, A Demure Portrait of the Artist Strip Searched. Pinned to the walls amid the maze of Rubelli brocade, ribbon and taffeta, green garden wire figures and poetic text tell the story of an artist's encounter with a delinquent youth. Around the other side of the L-shaped gallery, Robinson's Divine Comedy has the feel of a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey, with wall prints of ascii computer code, a quotation from Dante ("All hope abandon, ye who enter here!") and a fiberglass mobile of a stealth bomber.
Where many pavilions happily obliged with statements of national identity (Australian Lyndal Jones' video Deep Water/ Aqua Profunda was multicultural and relaxed, Masato Nakamura's neon golden arches nicely parodied Japan's consumer fetishism, Frenchman Pierre Huyghe's retro cool interiors were the visual equivalent of music by Air), the Kiwis preferred to tantalize. "There is a bit of a seduction going on here," says New Zealand curator Greg Burke, who came up with the theme of "Bi-Polar" for the show. "We wanted something that was able to shift and move."
Look beyond the European drapery of Demure Portrait and the '60s Op Art aesthetic of Divine Comedy and an indigenous presence can be felt. Fraser's veiled figures evoke the moko, while her text cites places like Te Kao, a small town with a high Maori youth suicide rate, and the kawakawa, a leaf used in traditional medicine. Robinson's ascii prints recall the decorative tuku tuku panels of Maori meeting houses, while his black-and-white wall painting echoes the koru motif of an unfurling fern frond. But the language these artists reference, from Sylvie Fleury to Brancusi to Bridget Riley, is international. "I'm very proud of my tribe and my heritage," says Robinson, 34. But, he adds, "both Jacqueline and I are trying to escape the ethnic box."
Through ingenuity and craft. Where Robinson's early work was concerned with race (his satiric Percentage Paintings, for instance, advertised his 3.125% Maori blood), a move to Berlin in 1999 saw his cultural compass points change. "In a sense I had left my context and entered a vacuum, and from this position of the void, the abyss, I decided I'd make this the subject of my work," says Robinson, whose Divine Comedy explores black-hole theory, quantum mechanics and parallel universes.
Fraser's artistic universe, too, has expanded. While earlier work followed traditional ... waiata storytelling, recent narratives have broadened to include the cultures of Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia and Cuba. Her work has traveled just as widely, for which Fraser has developed what she calls "the Southern Hemisphere solution to freight." Her delicate wire figures fold up into small stationery boxes, one per work ("This is 11 boxes, this show"). As a 45-year-old single mother, Fraser uses her exquisitely fragile assemblages to express triumph over adversity. "I've been on the bottom of the world in New Zealand because I was a single parent, the bottom of the art world-you name it, I've been at the bottom of it, and I'm still here," she says. "It's cool, you know. You just have to turn it around."
Along the way, both Fraser and Robinson have managed to rise from under the shadow of Colin McCahon, the father of New Zealand painting, alongside whose text-laden works they were exhibited in the 1999 European show "toi toi toi." "They are making their own careers and history very effectively without having to think about McCahon," says curator Burke, "and are going a lot further a lot sooner than McCahon ever did." Already Robinson's work has featured at biennales in Johannesburg, Sydney and Lyon, and this October will see Fraser's solo debut at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art. Such accomplishments "have lengthened the piece of runway that's available for New Zealand artists," says Burke. "They seem to have lifted their sights somewhat." Like Hinetitama, they're children of new horizons.