A Toga-Wearing Tattooist Creates an Antipodean Contemporary Art Experience

01/16/2014 05:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It is the first Friday of the New Year in the coastal town of Gisborne, New Zealand. The town has almost doubled in population with the influx of summer holiday-makers attracted by the relaxed beach lifestyle. On this balmy summer evening however, a mixed crowd of visitors and locals have foregone the beach in favor of a contemporary art experience.

There are two exhibitions opening at contemporary art venue PAULNACHE, both by New Zealand-born artists now based overseas - Matthew Couper in Las Vegas, and Matthew Arbuckle who has spent the last couple of years in Berlin. Matthew Couper and I have traveled 6,690 miles to be here, as the first show of the year at PAULNACHE is renowned for offering something beyond the traditional, sedate, gallery experience.

As we enter the space, we are confronted with a tableau of two figures, both wearing togas and head-pieces. There is a buzzing sound - the young woman seated on a giant beehive, is being tattooed. Sculpted bees surround her head, and piles of cash are heaped around the tattooist's feet. The scene is drawn from Couper's 2012 painting 'Burden' and the tattoo design has been created by Couper comprising elements from previous artworks. PAULNACHE has brought together a group of Gisborne creatives to contribute to the performance event - Brian Campbell, Owen Williams, Matt Nache and Jack Straker created the props, Matthew James is the tattooist and Rubyjean Fielder is the tattooed muse.

The audience is comprised of local regulars and collectors from further afield, who at this time of year, enjoy taking a break from the cities to combine an art and beach holiday experience. Local band The Broken Stone start up and people relax on the gallery's balcony - constructed after the 6.8 magnitude earthquake in 2007 demolished the historic building's verandahs. By the end of the night, Couper is out on the balcony, drawing Burden whips on young women's togas.

The following day is all about relaxation, and a convoy of us head 20 minutes north along the coastal road lined with campervans and tents. Our destination is Te Tapuwae o Rongokako marine reserve at Pouawa Beach where swimmers with masks and snorkels can explore the rocky ocean channels where protected crayfish, kina and other sea creatures are abundant.

That evening I sit down with PAULNACHE Director Matt Nache and ask him about the development of the gallery. He talked about his strong connection with Gisborne itself, having grown up there, and how it has nurtured the gallery's growth.

I like the honesty of the place, and its isolation. If you can do things here you can pretty much do them anywhere else. I'm not competing with other galleries down the road, or for an audience. It's a different set of rules. Being based in Gisborne allows me to experiment with shows and dedicate a lot more time to my artists and clients. I've become much more transient and have created a new model of business, breaking down limitations of geographical boundaries, enabling me to move out into other main centers like Wellington and Auckland.

The freedom to experiment has allowed PAULNACHE to break the mould in a number of ways. In 2012, Matthew Couper represented the gallery at the Auckland Art Fair and his popular live 'painting monkey' was the first time a dedicated performance art event had featured at the Fair.

Matt Nache sees the white wall gallery space as going through an evolution. "Dealers need to
become a lot more mobile. It's about being spontaneous and accessible. Artists and dealers can go to a fair or a gallery and make conceptually tight and technically sound work on the spot." Building on this philosophy, PAULNACHE will be participating at the Melbourne Art Fair in 2014 and is also building strong links between Gisborne, Europe, India, the Philippines and the United States.

As well as showing artists with international links, PAULNACHE has contributed to the development of the local art scene, showing both leading Gisborne-based artists and graduating students from Toihoukura School of Māori Visual Arts, a whānau-based program which works closely with hapū, iwi and other Māori community organizations.

Due to its position close to the International Date Line, Gisborne holds the unique status of "First to See the Light". Matt Nache summarizes its appeal, "Gisborne is a healthy place. It's good for your soul". And for those who enjoy a little surfing alongside their contemporary art, it's the perfect destination.