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September 13, 2015 | by  | in Arts Splash Visual Arts | [ssba]

The NZ Flag Referendum as Art

The NZ Flag Referendum is the latest work of art produced by the country of New Zealand. While advertised as a collaborative piece inclusive to members of the public, the piece has been heavily edited behind closed doors by a panel headed by Auckland-based artist John Key. Key, who largely works in performance pieces, rose to prominence for his piece Haha I’m Prime Minister Now, noted for its overly long running time (2008–present). Since then he has raised controversy in the art world—an earlier audiovisual piece resulted in him being sued by Eminem, and his latest performance art piece I Looove Ponytails received strongly negative reviews and accusations of him being a “creep”.

Even before its completion, Key has received public backlash for his current project. As part of Haha I’m Prime Minister Now, Key was able to gain access to taxpayer funds (a surprising achievement for an artist of questionable talent), of which an approximate $25 million is being set aside for the NZ Flag piece. Audiences have reacted to this with both anger and confusion, though he assures us that NZ Flag will be “worth billions”, garnering further confusion. Further critiques include the edited choices lacking artistic merit, and the project’s questionable necessity and role as a distraction mechanism from Key’s other failed pieces like No You Kids Can’t Have Lunch and its sequel No More Refugees Either.

Undeterred, Key has continued to go headstrong with The NZ Flag Referendum. The piece is constantly evolving, though the final piece aims to be a rectangular image that will be printed onto various bits of cloth, tourist souvenirs and iron-on patches plastered to the backpacks of white adolescent males on gap years. The piece is now at the stage of four final options.

The visual result of Key’s piece makes it clear why it has been heavily critiqued for its lack of artistic substance. The piece shows a lazy response to cultural identity, have a dull colour palette and are generally boring, raising questions about the artist’s sense of taste. While Key aims to once again bring the piece to public collaboration (a vote will be held for one of the four designs), his position as head artist has let his fern fetish take over. Three of the four flags feature ferns, and the second and fourth are just indecisive re-colourings of one another. This was likely to have been done as the colour scheme of flag 4 is clearly uglier than flag 2, enabling flag 2 to appear more attractive in comparison. Key has publicly stated that flag 2, the tackiest of the four, is his favourite.

A response to Key’s piece, which has proven to be more popular with audiences, is Red Peak by Wellington-based Aaron Dustin. Although he had a very easy act to follow, Red Peak has definite merits. In a simple geometric gesture, Dustin subtly references Māori mythology and the special “first to the light” geography of New Zealand. Although the title of Dustin’s piece may bring up thoughts of one’s menstrual cycle, the minimalist, well-composed flag simply looks cooler than any of Key’s preferred pieces. However, so does pretty much anything else.

Although there is a strong public call for Key to collaborate with Dustin, it is unlikely that this will happen, because “paperwork”. Key’s four fave flags are set to be voted on in November this year. While a Dustin-Key collaboration may not be seen, it is believed that Key was “very impressed” by Australian artist Tony Abbott’s recent piece I Looove Onions, and has not said no to a potential collaboration with the neighbouring lizard creature.


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