Revisiting Polyphonic Chords

Author: Courtney Johnston, Director

A documentary in the New Zealand International Film Festival revisits an early - and colourful - exhibition in The Dowse's history.

From our archives: Michael Smither in his studio with the Polyphonic Chords

From our archives: Michael Smither in his studio with the Polyphonic Chords

Wellington filmmaker Tony Hiles is half-way through a ten-year documentary series about celebrated artist Michael Smither.

'Michael Smither: Music' (2014) is screening twice on Thursday 7 August at City Gallery Wellington as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Tony Hiles was kind enough to write us this short piece about his film project and the original 12 Polyphonic Chords exhibition at The Dowse:


I clearly remember going to the Dowse Gallery in 1980, with my partner, Judith Fyfe, to the opening of Michael Smither's exhibition of 12 Polyphonic Chords, with Jim Barr the curator. I recalled a string quartet 'playing' the works, and buying one of the panels.

A few years later Michael and I made our first film together – One Man and the Sea, and in 1986/7 our second film – Flight of Fancy – won awards and screened in the Cinema du Reel in Paris a couple of years later. Whilst both keen to work on films together again it was not to be until 2009, when Michael turned 70 and announced planned retirement from the dealer gallery scene in order to complete his own collection of unfinished works. He estimated he had ten years worth. That was when we agreed to document those years, and immediately began filming – on the 30th of May, to be exact. Episode one was a video catalogue at Artis gallery and the next year episode two premiered at the Wellington International Film Festival. Each succeeding episode (of a planned ten) has been accepted in festivals, and Michael, despite his original retirement concept, has continued to exhibit.

We are now up to episode 5 – half way through the series, and like the original well-laid plans of Michael's, he reveals a reluctance to stop exhibiting, and a sharp mind still exploring old and new ideas.

2009 – 2019 Michael Smither: The Next Ten Years, Episode 5: Music screens twice on 7 August at lunchtime at the City Gallery Wellington. Central to the theme is a gathering of six of the original 12 Polyphonic Chords, and the motives for painting them.


You can read more about that show and Smithers work with painting and music in this ArtNews article, and of course book tickets for the screening on the NZIFF site.

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