Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Another review of Existence, and a look at an earlier exhibition at Waikato Museum of Art and History - from Deborah Cain

“Extended Summer Musings on Two Art Shows in Hamilton’s Waikato Museum of Art & History Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, 2006-2008”

Tale To Tell: Victorian Narrative, works from the collection of Auckland Art Gallery, 28 April-October 2006.
Existence: Life According to Art. 14 July 2007–14 January 2008.

Two separate art shows, over a two-year period, one titled Tale to Tell and the other Existence, provide an opportunity for mid-summer musings on some art in a public institution in Hamilton. Due to renovations to the main building of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki in 2006, a number of art works from its Victorian art collection were on display in an exhibition A Tale to Tell in Hamilton’s Waikato Museum. The works in this show were mainly from the Mackelvie Trust Collection, and the focus was on narrative painting. Strategically placed bronze sculptural pieces of Hercules and Pan-like figures atop blue octagonal plinths, representing classically posed nude forms of mythic man and youthful boy, complemented the overall installation in its blue room. A mood simulating Victorian New Zealand settler aspiration was decoratively set by the opulence of some large fabricated floral arrangements (coincidentally, the work of La Faux Floriste), as well as by the historically elaborate gold frames, the Prussian or Royal blue painted gallery walls, and, the dark and gloomy staging of spot-lit art. The latter is a notable feature of certain types of shows at the Museum, although the low LUX also prevents the art works from being damaged by too strong light: its romantic drama of dark to light is another thing. The gallery visitor, as participant, was drawn in to peer closely at the infinite detail by this lighting and in order to read the wall texts.

There was a certain art to all of this. To start with, it was a refreshing change. For a long period a crop duster and agricultural-show-like installation had occupied the upstairs’ gallery space of the Museum in support of the region’s considerable farming history. So finally, some art was on display? But things are never that simple, and a story can spin out in different directions if one is open to this possibility. It all depends on one’s view of Victorian art, society, and politics. But this was notably an era dominated by Darwinian science, and the idea of empire and progress, which coincidently connects with the theme of the second exhibition Existence, to be discussed shortly.

The word ‘Victorian’ is double edged—indicating a historic period, or nostalgia and fuddy-duddy values, as has been discussed by historians like Miles Fairburn—and along with the ‘kitsch’ of the faux Egyptian and imperial or colonial-esque décor it is a many-sided notion, likewise the terminologies of ‘art’ and ‘history’ themselves. For example, Fairburn has pointed to the naming practices of Antipodean historians (of Victorian studies in Australian and New Zealand), where the era, age, or period of history so designated is more frequently referred to here as the ‘colonial era’, with diverse connotations that are often negative.

This exhibition promoted some interesting and important thoughts on the subject. It was coincident with the Tainui celebrations of Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu’s reign as monarch in the Kingitanga tradition that started with the crowning of the first Maori king, Potatau in 1858. And, that, in turn, connected with the mid-19th century struggles over land and the interpretations or translation of Victorian ideas and values, coexistent with people like Sir George Grey, for example. Waikato Museum also marked another 40th anniversary in its exhibition Aukaha, 40 Years of Maori Contemporary Art, one floor down from A Tale to Tell.

James Tannock Mackelvie who helped establish the Auckland Art Galleries’ public collection—a canny Scot we were told, indicating the complex layering of Victorian era colonial politics—was a careful purchaser of art and bought work to benefit the “young, vital but raw New Zealand society” of the 19th century. Thus, due to such like-minded collectors as Mackelvie and Sir George Grey, we saw in Hamilton works like Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “Cleopatra” (1877), itself a smaller replica of another painting by the artist held in the Sydney Art Gallery of New South Wales, and, John Waterhouse’s “Lamia” (c.1905).

It was all very stunning, reminiscent of devices and structures seen today more in the advertising industry than contemporary art practice, or perhaps only as pastiche. Yet it should not be taken lightly. Victorian art already has its own element of sentimentality and kitsch, which became popularist in its own time from the perspective of artists like Alma-Tadema, whose renown was to be diminished with the demise of the age of idealistic illusions in art, by modernism, and by the decline of Empire in the post-WWI world.

The frame of the Victorian era was Queen Victoria, who came to the throne in 1837 and died in 1901, although the time span is not strictly fixed to these dates. Here Victoria’s marriage, and then fairytale-like seclusion from public life when her ‘lost love’—Albert, her German Prince died from typhoid—replicated an aspect of the narrative tradition seen in the exhibition.

Thematically, the show followed a series of costume-like dramas: queens from classical antiquity, exotic dancers, great loves, and a veritable classificatory taxonomy of female types in biblical and legendary scenarios, or from modern life. There were images of dying poets and lovers, a funeral for a child, sentimental genre paintings of marriage proposals, and pretty women reading letters, sleeping, or seen seated in gardens.

Of particular interest were the paintings and etchings by the French artist James Tissot—a refugee in London during the 1870 Franco-Prussian and ensuing 1871 Civil War in Paris—who had an academic training but associated with avant-garde artists like Manet and Degas, and whose work fitted between academic art and the modern of the Impressionists. An etching of a larger painting with the figure of a woman decoratively silhouetted against a background of chestnut leaves, depicted an everyday subject matter in its simplicity of form influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e printmaking.

Another image, a drypoint of the same woman who in real life was Mrs Kathleen Newton, a Tissot obsession, depicted her sleeping on a summer evening in a garden idyll. She was dressed in fashionable ruffles and lace of Baudelairian ‘iridescent clouds of stuffs’, but there were intimations of mortality and poor health, shown by the dark shadow under her eyes and the fine black mittened hand awkwardly curled up on her lap. It’s another story of love and loss, in that Mrs Newton soon after died of consumption, leaving Tissot to become bent on contacting her spirit through the occult and turning to religious painting. Mirrorings of this sleeping beauty could be drawn in Queen Victoria’s story: the period of her reign beginning in the year of John Constable’s death and ending when Walt Disney was born.

Flowers decorated the Waikato Museum space and underlined an astutely doubled narrative-frame of the exhibition. Like the copies of nature that they were, they simulated frozen ‘still-lives’ in their abundance of exquisite, yet imported floral attributes, forming a reminder of mortality and the art of contrived stories in time and space. In part they brought to mind The Consolation of Philosophy photographs by Michael Parekowhai of European flowers made in China: silent images of whiteout, death, vases of flowers, and the names of French localities signifying the places and ‘remembered losses’ of WWI.

The Maori phraseti he mauri ora [sneeze lustily, ‘tis the essence of life]quoted at the commencement of Existence: Life According to Art, is a powerful expression from a tangata whenua narrative of origins. So began a different curatorial storytelling exercise, from 2007, loosely framed as an anthology of art and ideas about aesthetic, cosmological, and scientific creation.
A sneeze can arrive suddenly, unexpectedly, and involuntarily, a surprise that shakes up the whole body, tip-to-toe. It can be associated with spring, and allergic reactions to the pollen of newly blossoming flowers. Cherry blossoms in their very brief seasonal appearance show the beauty and transient fragility of life. Museums and galleries offer a different story. It is now January 2008, and summer life is evident in the many private and public gardens of Hamilton, and in the surrounding Waikato river valley. The newest addition to the central, themed City Gardens, is a Maori area currently under development, but there is also a curious stone marker near a corner store along Peachgrove Road, which states that ‘near here was the site of the peach grove planted by the Maoris’ [sic]. With history things are introduced, changed (again), then pass away/disappear, to be revised and remembered by the traces left behind, like life in general.
The existential plays out against the spiritual, philosophic and scientific questions premised by the theme of ‘life according to art’. One is firstly confronted by a voiced ‘Thou shalt not touch’. Beaming intermittently from a loud speaker at the entrance of the exhibition, it is an authorative, dis-embodied instruction, which places viewers on their toes right from the start. This voice from above suggests that the visitor is under surveillance, reminding one how there are systems in place by this doubling of institutional ‘big brother’ mechanisms.
On the top step approaching the gallery entrance, one is met by what appears to be a drunken monkey lying face down. In his hand he holds a small video monitor that plays the moving image of his demise, while the song ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ can be heard, from one of two fake ‘stones’. Ronnie van Hout references art and science in a satire of evolutionary creation, urban development, and popular culture (music and cinema), in the form of a performance by his alter ego, the be-suited derelict chimp.
In the diminutive video narrative by van Hout one sees a vaguely familiar simulation of the Stanley Kubrik film 2001 A Space Odyssey, set in the outskirts of the city of Melbourne. At sunrise, over the prehistoric/urban skyline, a distant plane comes in to land. Then the scene shifts to a park landscape and the pseudo-metaphysical appearance of ‘the bottle’. A hairy hand comes into view, reaching out and grabbing this miniature monolithic upright, in its iconic brown paper bag. It in turn leads the drunken chimp on a journey to the motorway underpass, past the controversial red architectural artwork on the road connecting Melbourne’s CBD with the airport, to where monkey-man collapses into his ‘present’ state, dead-drunk, lying face down. The film ends with the darkness at sunset.
Van Hout inverts the 1960s sci-fi evolutionary tale of nature-to-culture, or monkey-to-technologywith man’s conquests of outer space eventually overtaken by the machine itself, HAL, and whatever you think Kubrik is saying in his film. Meanwhile on a nearby wall, outer space is re-imaged in the reproduction of random light from far off stars. This ‘old light’ was originally trapped using pinhole cameras tracking the night sky near Mount John Observatory at Lake Tekapo, with over night exposures of photo-sensitive paper, and digitally blown up here for Proof I and II by Lisa Benson.
So the scene was set for the exhibition. Forty-six artists, some well known and some less so, local and from wider afield, are represented in this joint Hamilton City Council (Waikato Museum) and Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) promotion. Conceptualised by Museum curator Leafa Wilson, it was accompanied by a catalogue publication co-edited by Dr Gaby Esser-Hall. The artwork brought together under the rubric of ‘existence’ both fit and don’t fit the collective proposition, creating discordant clashes between works on display. But one of the results of this somewhat chaotic aspect is that Existence does create questions for the viewer, without always producing answers to the topics it throws into the mix.
Grouped under subcategories with obscure catchy titles, the exhibition covers issues that fluctuate between serious and playful. These groups could be classified according to a number of obvious links, such as natural/cultural history (origins, myths, geology, astronomy, biology, genetics, physics), technology (manipulations, adaptations), popular culture (mimicry, masquerades, disguises, social realism, death), and modern living. Several works included taxidermy, with plant/animal/human metaphoric implications. Michael Parekowhai’s Driving Mr Albert, with a taxidermic dead bunny on an upright faux-tree trunk, is a case in point. One of a group of similar stele or pole-like works of different colours by the artist, the title is based on the book Driving Mr Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain, about the journey taken by a journalist and a pathologist to return the physicist’s body-part to family. [Michael Paterniti, 2000. Random House, Incorporated]

Parekowhai’s work deals by inference with the ethics and scientific attitude of dissecting and collecting human organs as curios in archival storehouses, for ‘objective’ research. It hints at the return to New Zealand of human remains collected here in the colonial period and exhibited overseas, though this is not explicitly mentioned in the Waikato show. By contrast, death and technology are differently associated processes implied in Francis Upritchard’s Untitled fibreglass and resin fake-shrunken head, and in Ricky Swallow’s iMan prototypes, where skulls are lined up in their Apple Mac simulated production line as variously coloured pastel replications.

There are many artworks in the show that could be mentioned, but a life/death juxtaposition allows us to refer to Yvonne Todd’s light jet print on photographic paper, Fractoid. Here a woman in a pink dress posed with crutches, face blurred-out and hair-a-flurry, can be contrasted with Andrea Wilkinson’s My favourite outfit, large format digital posters that pose friends in a series of ‘round-the-world’ everyday ordinary locations, dressed in a set of her own clothes. The tensions between these artworks, and their relationship to notions of photography marking an absence or a death, overlap with the confluence of the Existence themes generally. The analysis of photography in association with notions of death, loss, and mourning has been discussed by a number of people. For instance, Roland Barthes (1915–1980), has written how photography is a process that freezes, or embalms the living subject into a rigid statue-like image, with death being the ‘eidos of that Photograph’. [Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard, 1981. Hill and Wang, New York, p.14-15. Eidos being the mental image, the specter, an apparition.]

If we consider Stefanie Young’s photograph Faux, a portrait of a young girl in her Goth-like costume of a teenage subculture — the tattoo, fake fur coat, body piercing, and neck ornament — looking directly at the camera. The subject is absent except for the image marking her presence in this guise, yet it is placed alongside Upritchard’s work that is an actual grotesque ‘plastic’ thing of death sitting there in its vitrine. Or there is the artificial light of the doubled image of Blue Water, a diptych by Janice Abo Ganis. This photographic representation of an iconic geyser makes its technological manipulation of a ‘natural wonder’ apparent as de-natured and reproductive devices.

The curation of thematics such as life/art, science/art, religion/art is not new. Writings by Siân Ede and Marina Warner, for instance, have covered aspects of this terrain, as has the art of Damien Hirst and Patricia Piccinini. Just as art and science are seen as opposites, like reason and feelings (a focus of the Sydney Biennale 2004, and a flip-side of ‘think with the senses—feel with the mind’ for the Venice Biennale 2007), their conjunction in this exhibition and in the Waikato Museum itself is a poignant statement. The late 1990s saw the incorporation of science and technology into the art and history museum on a more permanent basis, resulting in ongoing conflicts and debates.

Although tending towards the didactic and the cluttered, the Existence exhibition is nevertheless fun. Like the uncertainties experienced in everyday life, the confusions in this curatorial display somehow manage to work in its interest and allow the viewer to meander around and make up one’s own mind about the various strands that link the art on show with real life, real existence. In this same space, the Waikato Museum has gone from a crop duster-centred display, to a feast of borrowed Victoriana, on to some contemporary musings with a range of nominally linked ideas. Where to from here?

© Deborah Cain

Part of this text is reprinted here from an original version from CS Arts, issue 29, February 2008.

Top four images are from Tale to Tell, particularly works by John Waterhouse and James Tissot. The bottom image from Existence comes from a film by Rosie Percival.


John Hurrell said...

One aspect of these shows you could perhaps have commented on is that they both relied on the collections of Auckland Art Gallery. Looks like WMAH has become an annex of AAG. Good money in fees for the latter too, I assume.

Ali Bramwell said...

Is there anything fundamentally wrong with this kind of 'partnership'? Waikato has to drive its icepick into the cliff to stop the downwards slide of recent years any way it can. Credit to Wilson for making the effort whatever the flaws of the result. Cost sharing arrangements with better funded institutions seem like a sensible compromise if they are having difficulty mounting larger shows independently. Its a start anyway.

John Hurrell said...

Well do they slow the downward slide or speed it up? If art is in a weak postion and the art curator given a small budget and little authority to generate nationally significant projects, leaning on AAG as back up for its occasional national presentations reinforces the decline. It says we will put effort into researching local content but leave the national surveys to somebody else. The Museum is fixated on stroking local ratepayers and telling them how good Waikato is. It is not interested in educating them about developments outside the region except through importing packaged shows. It doesn't want to increase its national profile through wider research, and AAG inadvertently encourages that cop-out.

Deborah Cain said...

Yes John, it is interesting to note the contributions from art collections based in Auckland. Lost opportunities & all that, but also the way art in these shows seemed to be either accepted or dismissed without much debate in Hamilton or elsewhere. The art! Given contemporary writing on the Victorian era, its critical debates, and so on, as against the science, mysticism, religion of/in the 21st century, etc. And the different role of photography, for example, in both these shows/historic times?