In New Zealand’s post-apocalyptic film, The Quiet Earth (1985), three solitary protagonists survive a cataclysmic disaster in Hamilton. Surrounded by refuse and wreckage, the stunned survivors of this science fiction fallout yearn to connect with a place bereft of population. For Hou Hanru, “The remote New Zealand, a faraway ‘there’…can now be seen as a ‘here,’ a locality that is no longer situated on the margin of the world.” Hou’s latest curatorial endeavor astutely navigates the contested terrain of place and belonging under the rubric “If you were to live here…” while considering the impact of trauma and disaster following on from the earthquake in Christchurch. For the first time, the 5th Auckland Triennial was dispersed across nine venues, mobilizing notions of itinerancy, proximity, mobility, travel, and migratory patterns of displacement and occupation. The Auckland Triennial is a counterpoint to SCAPE Public Art Biennial in Christchurch and the highly successful “One Day Sculpture” (2008-09) curated by UK curator Claire Doherty in partnership with Massey University. All of these projects deployed place-based, situational modalities.

Place and terrain were amplified by triennial artists who undertook residencies leading up to vernissage. As a child, New York-based Amie Siegel recalls watching The Quiet Earth and its eerie end-of-the-world dystopia. Siegel undertook a residency in Wellington to research Ian Athfield’s cluster of late-1960s futuristic dwellings in Khandalla. Overlooking the harbor, these bleached, sculptural buildings became the set for Siegal’s Winter (2013). In this film, a lone female is trapped in the compound, self-absorbed and alluringly anxious as she roams through its interiors. A live score, voice-over booth, and mixing table accompanied the film projection, providing a disquieting ambience. During their own residency, Sydney-based duo Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro collected and configured domestic accoutrements—including a sink, disheveled bed, dining table, packaging and prefabricated furniture—into Dwell (2013), a conceptually agile installation color-coded with paint swatches and groupings of objects brimming with the do-it-yourself aesthetics of domesticity.

Hou Hanru’s ample biennial trajectory, which includes the Guangzhou Triennale (2005), Gwangju Biennale (2002) and Shanghai Biennale (2000), is often threaded with propositions of dwelling, habitation, and home. Moreover, Hou’s Luxembourg projects of 2007 activated the nocturnal aspects of a city with night pavilions for sleeping and dreaming. In the New Zealand context, Hou researched the complex relationship between the colonizers (Pakeha) and the indigenous people (Maori) under the political arrangement of biculturalism. Cities, however, return us to one of Hou’s early curatorial forays with Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Cities on the Move.” Currently based between San Francisco and Paris, Hou’s peripatetic existence follows on from his position at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Across the triennial’s various venues, Hou positioned the work of 35 artists, often occupying interstitial spaces, stairwells, landings, as well as permanent exhibition galleries. Collaborative Paris-based duo Claire Fontaine intervened with neon signage suspended in the permanent collection of nineteenth-century paintings with the inscription “foreigners everywhere” in five different languages, but not in English. Hou was careful to leave these collections intact, respecting their grandeur and historical resonance. Michael Lin’s diaphanous home for migrant workers was positioned in a tiered gallery of mid-century abstract paintings. Previously rendered in steel at Rockbund Museum in Shanghai, Model Home (2013) took up residence in the museum’s atrium, allowing for multiple viewpoints from the ground and balcony. Produced in collaboration with Tokyo-based architectural firm Atelier Bow Wow, this illuminated paper home was like a delicate lantern. With three landings and small apertures for habitation, Lin’s cut-out was inscribed with architectural dimensions and notations. Yet as a prototype for temporary living, the structure was impermanent, with vestiges of occupancy such as clothing, food remnants, and a can of Coke all carefully made out of paper.

By interrogating the proposition of living, Hou Hanru attained an emotional range spanning from yearning to humorous encounters with place. Luke Willis Thompson’s memorial garage roller doors mysteriously alluded to local crimes, while Maddie Leach’s video of a closed steel door in a local park belied hidden tunnels and excavated shelters. Guangzhou-based artist Zhou Tao’s whimsical performances in back alleys were accompanied by photographs with inscriptions produced while he was living in an urban village. Ennui was captured in Abraham Cruzvillegas’ footage of unremarkable locations in his hometown of Ajusco, a district of Mexico City, interspersed with explicit footage of couples fornicating without the filter of stylized glamour. Next to this salacious back room, artist duo Allora & Calzadilla beckoned viewers with a brass trumpet in the motorbike of a rider traversing Puerto Rico’s Vieques Island. Sound also amplified Ho Tzu Nyen’s thunderous audiovisual extravaganza culminating in a vaporous cloud, and Anri Sala’s hypnotic film of a jazz saxophonist in a tenement building filled Gus Fisher Gallery with sonic sorrow.

Occupying the entire third floor of the Auckland Art Gallery was the core of the triennial, The Lab: a think tank or agile structure that facilitated dialogue, workshops, and ongoing projects such as the rejuvenation of the Whau River in Avondale. Participatory and evolving with timber seating and displays of architectural and urban research, The Lab activated the triennial as a discursive site by providing an intellectual kernel. Programming focused on five themes: Rural-Urban living spaces, Emergency Response and Recovery (Christchurch as a case study), Multicultural Impacts on Urban Transformation, the Ideal Home, and Informal Markets. As such, this “design-based open laboratory” was a site of imagination and knowledge production, firmly positioned within the overall Triennial structure. Like a mini-university within the museum, The Lab became a place for learning and inquiry with content shifting around the Triennial concept.

Sarat Maharaj, from Lund University, delivered a quixotic keynote full of meanderings and word puns during the triennial’s opening, referring to himself as a “clueless connoisseur.” Specifically, Maharaj investigated the biennial amidst a pandemic of creativity: “Does the global assembly line of biennales offer a series of uneven, open-ended spaces of art practice against the wash of creativity fever?” Maharaj defended the biennial as an unknown event, preserving its condition of place and locality. Here in this intimate and thoughtfully choreographed triennial, Hou Hanru compounded this amplification of place across multiple venues. In activating the waterfront district, Hou embedded a Ryoji Ikeda soundscape in a silo, and greeted visitors at the community space Fresh Gallery Otara with Keg de Souza’s inflatable pavilion, Tropical Thunder (2013). Stitched from brightly patterned plastic tablecloths sourced from the adjacent bustling Pacific market and featuring a low table made out of brightly colored drinks, this hospitality project was a fitting echo of the Triennial’s welcoming call.