Just opened exhibition Face Time: Portraits of the 1980s is all about that ‘Big Eighties Energy’, as curator Milly Mitchell-Anyon puts it: all big hair and bold fashion wrapped up in a coming-of-age tale. The decade was an influential era for Aotearoa’s creativity and fashion industries, from TV series Gloss to the launch of Fashion Quarterly and Cha Cha magazines, and brands including Zambesi and Workshop.
The 1980s were also a period of immense upheaval as the nation underwent seismic shifts that forever changed its social, political and economic landscape. Muldoon, the 1981 Springbok tour protests, Rogernomics and Homosexual Law Reform are but some of the major events that defined and redefined the decade.
Face Time speaks to these pivotal moments in our nation’s history and celebrates the unapologetic energy, colour and cringe synonymous with the ‘80s.
The exhibition at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pukenga Whakaata features works in a wide range of mediums including photography, ceramics, books, T-shirts, sculpture and painting, from important public and private art collections. Artists represented include Mary McIntyre, Pat Hanly, Deborah Bustin, Jeffery Harris, Trevor Moffitt, Tony Fomison, Michael Illingworth and Fiona Clark. Think of it as a bold, colourful and thoughtful collection of NZ’s national and creative history.
The exhibition’s curator, Milly Mitchell-Anyon, answered a few questions for us about the new opening - and what makes the ‘80s era so important still today.
What is it about the 1980s that you think resonates with today's young people (read: those not born in the 80s)?
I think the 1980s lives in all our collective consciousness as a decade of protest and change. At school, you learn about a number of events that happened during the decade, like the Springbok Tour or New Zealand going nuclear free. But there is also a proliferation of ‘80s pop culture that is still relevant today or being revisited.
What do you think will appeal most to those who were born in, or who were young adults in the ‘80s?
I hope that the exhibition has the ability to transport people back to the 1980s. Stuart Page and Michael Shannon’s screen-printed portfolios of the Springbok Tour protests document a pretty memorable event in history, it was divisive and people who were around then will know better than anyone what that was like. But for those who were slightly too young, maybe they might enjoy the mixtape I’ve put together for the show.
Given that the subject matter of Face Time: Portraits of the 1980s is specific to the events of the decade, how would you pitch the exhibition to millennials and gen-zers (as a child of the ‘90s yourself)?
I think there are a number of events and values from the ‘80s that are very pertinent to millennials and zoomers. The School Strike for Climate and Black Lives Matter movements are very reminiscent to some of the things being protested in the ‘80s, like the nuclear free movement, LGBTQIA+ discrimination and protesting against apartheid South Africa. It’s nice to remember that change is possible, even though it feels like it is an uphill battle sometimes.
You’ve described the ‘80s as “a coming-of-age story for Aotearoa”. Tell us more about this, from your perspective.
Within a very short space of time, Aotearoa radically shifted in a number of ways. We decided what we stood for, and there were a number of people doing the hard yards, protesting for equality and justice. I think about the activists who were out protesting to have Te Reo Māori recognised as an official language, to have the Waitangi Tribunal recognise historical claims. Or how we decided overwhelmingly as a country that we would rather risk diplomatic relationships for a nuclear-free country. That’s pretty hard core.
Are there any standout works in the exhibition that capture the fashion and style of the day?
There are a number of very ‘80s portraits in the exhibition – probably what stands out to me the most is Paul Hutchinson’s Self-Portrait (1984), which I love because even though it is very ‘80s, it looks very contemporary. His shirt and glasses are kind of trendy right now, and he also reminds me of a friend.
Then there’s Peter Hannken’s photograph of John Reynolds in front of his diner in Auckland. Wearing a polo shirt with rolled cuffs, a scarf, rounded sunglasses while standing in front of neon signage. It’s got that ‘big 80s energy’ that I associate with the decade.
The exhibition includes T-shirts alongside more traditional art mediums. Slogan T-shirts have long been used as a form of protest: what is the particular significance of the t-shirts included in Face Time?
There are only a couple of T-shirts in the exhibition but they are significant. They were donated to Te Papa Tongarewa by Neil Anderson and Michael Eyes. Neil and Michael were members of the Wellington activist group Queer Planet and the T-shirts featured were worn by the pair throughout the 1980s. They used to attend protests in them. Your T-shirt could be a protest banner, a political statement, anything you want it to be. I chose these particular ones because they had portraits on them and are significant to the Wellington region, queer rights and activism.
The ‘80s were a monumental decade for Aotearoa’s queer community with the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform in 1986. Which works in the exhibition speak to this time of change and what feeling do they capture?
Yes, there are the T-shirts worn by Michael and Neil but another one that I’m particularly fond of is Diana Lee Gobbitt’s Lavender Scandal (1980). It’s a collage made from glitter, plastic and magazines and it references the “Lavender Scare” in the United States. It resulted in a policy that allowed the government to dismiss gay and lesbian employees from their departments based on suspected queerness. It is important to remember that in the 1980s, it was a very different climate to be queer. And one of the reasons that the Homosexual Law Reform Bill passed, other than affording gay people equal rights, was that it made health services more accessible during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
What were some of the ‘lighter’ cultural highlights of the ‘80s?
Music! Although sometimes it still feels like we are living in the ‘80s when you hear Crowded House playing at the pub on a Friday night. But I do really love Dalvanius Prime and the Pātea Māori Club, Poi E is a cultural icon and taonga. The song should be recognised by UNESCO as an important cultural heritage. Also in Face Time is a work made by an unknown artist and it is of Robert Muldoon painted as if he were a hamburger. It’s pretty funny, and slightly disturbing.
How would you describe the (art) style of the ‘80s?
For the past few years, I’ve been obsessed with the Memphis Group, who have nothing to do with Memphis at all but were a group of postmodernist Italian designers. When you think of those abstract colourful shapes, triangles and block colours – that’s them, they are a big reason why the ‘80s look like the ‘80s. David Bowie was a big collector of their furniture. Or if you remember Kozmik Klothing, the hand-painted New Zealand clothing label – that is next level ‘80s but it’s getting harder and harder to find these days.
Do you see a revival of this art style in work produced today, in the same way we see the reinvention of the ‘80s as a trend in film, fashion and beauty?
I think for sure, ‘80s postmodernism is coming back in a big way in craft and furniture. Last year, I kept seeing TikToks of people replicating the iconic Memphis Group mirrors, the Ultrafragola mirror (or maybe I’m just on the postmodernist furniture side of TikTok?).
What are some ‘80s trends that you would like to see brought back?
Can I say unionism?
Does art have a role in politics and politics in art?
I do think art has a role in politics. Think about Sister Corita Kent’s screen-prints that were synonymous with protest in the ‘60s and ‘70s, or closer to home – Wellington Media Collective. Politics affects us all, and so it makes sense that it is reflected in contemporary art.
Are there any recent campaign posters (here or abroad) that have caught your eye for their art influence - whether cleverly executed or just plain cringe?
Not art per se, but last year during the election the Green Party re-made all those ‘90s crew neck sweaters to sell as their campaign fundraiser after Chloe Swarbrick wore an old one out. They sold out so fast, and I am still sad I missed getting one. They might be cringe to some, but they looked sick.
• Face Time: Portraits of the 1980s is on show at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pukenga Whakaata, from November 25 - February 13 2022. Entry is free. For more details, click here.