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.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture
Issue 3: Art Goes On
Ed. Christina Barton, Natasha Conland and Wystan Curnow
pp.183, illust. colour and b/w
Pub. E. H. McCormick Research Library of Auckland Art Gallery, March 2009

They say, third time lucky, and this year’s Reading Room is especially good. In the past, because of editors Curnow and Barton being particularly passionate about sixties and seventies art, it has slightly been out of sync with a contemporary ethos. But no more. This issue is particularly current in some of its featured New Zealand artists (notably Gambia Castlers, Dan Arps and Fiona Connor – the latter with some drawings of Auckland Art Gallery as demolition site: a witty comment on the theme of newness); pertinent also in its discussion of the recession and the reduced market. And it is comparatively accessible – is not turgid. Still academic but comparatively clear and focussed.

The issue kicks off with a twenty-four page roundtable discussion where the editors trade emailed thoughts with invited guests Peter Brunt, Damian Skinner, Greg Burke, Gavin Hipkins, Robert Leonard and Emma Bugden. In response to Tina Barton asking what characterises the current moment, Peter Brunt and Damian Skinner talk about Ngahiraka Mason’s re-presentation of Turuki! Turuki! Paneke Paneke - 50 years after this pioneer exhibition of Maori art in Auckland. Brunt sees the included artists as creating a variety of western modernism, but Skinner perceives Mason as intending a repudiation of modernism and the achievements of nineties artists like Michael Parekowhai or Peter Robinson, saying the show “demonstrates the reality of what I would call Maori art history – art history that is conceptually different to Pakeha art history, a kind of writing that conceives of history and art differently.” (p.10).

There are many threads moving in and out of this complicated conversation, but the most exciting section is when Robert Leonard laments the oppressive attributes of social and cultural history when applied as “the dominant narratives or concerns of art”. He points out that they result in “denying art any wiggle room, the chance to make its own case.” (p.24). Damian Skinner agrees, praising the way “art exceeds and confounds the struggle of political decolonization and denies easy or obvious definitions.” In a deft bit of double-speak he says “I’m hoping art will muddle decolonisation as much as decolonisation will order art.”

Gavin Hipkins then makes a series of damning observations about the conformity and avoidance of risk-taking by graduates and post-graduates in New Zealand art schools, and in the shows curated by this country’s top municipal institutions. There is a lack of critical dialogue and a self-constraint that ensures content is kept away from over ambitious extremes, a voluntary flattening out of artists’ agency. (p.25). One wonders if some of these criticisms can even be directed at Reading Room itself in terms of some of its content.

This round-table discussion has an amusing ending when almost everybody jumps down the convenor Tina Barton’s throat, for asking “what is art for?…what purpose does it serve?” Greg Burke is troubled by “the rush of many to declare art’s functionality” (p.26) and Natasha Conland finds Barton’s question “troubling, as (she doesn’t) believe in (art’s) utilitarian dimension.” Emma Bugden too admits that she “harbours great suspicion of the term ‘useful’ ” and is critical of defining “the worth of an action purely by outcome.” (p.28).

Burke praises the uses of images that make no sense in isolation, suggesting that Deleuze’s term ‘any-space–whatever’ is valuable for linking cinematic moments “removed from the rest of the narrative”, while Wystan Curnow lashes out at the confining character of contextual meaning, for “narrowing art’s sphere of action”. Rightly so I think.

This long and richly layered discussion bears repeated readings to draw out the many responses and counter-responses. It’s a good start for the magazine.

Of the very experienced art writers contributing to this publication, Wystan Curnow, Terry Smith and Adrian Martin go back to the seventies and even earlier. Curnow’s text on Keiran Lyons 1975 Welder’s Weakness installation is a much needed supplement to an article he wrote on Lyons’ Superimpression (1973) for the New Art: Some recent New Zealand sculpture and post-object art book he put out with Jim Allen in 1976. It is not Curnow at his very best (for that you need his writing on Apple, Lye or McCahon), but it is more informative than its companion piece in the New Art anthology.

The Adrian Martin article here is his second contribution to Reading Room. It is about modernist film sequels (post WW2) and a whole range of ‘linked’ paired movies that he explores with characteristic precision. Martin does not talk about sequel in the usual sense of the word but as ‘gesture’ (a term also referenced by Jon Bywater in his essay on Dan Arps, and Anthony White in his discussion of Fontana) – not as continuation ‘of a coherent, mappable fictional world’ (p.50).

He emphasizes the fragmented nature of cinema, denying its often claimed coherency, and discusses Raúl Ruiz’s book series Poetics of Cinema, particularly his notion of ‘a film with 300 shots is 300 films’ as a fundamental discontinuity. There is an issue, Martin explains, for if film itself cannot have an internal continuity then how can a sequel be a continuation?

He points out how films like the Mad Max series shift as the central figure’s body and narrative context alter over time, this changing being also characteristic of documentary sequels. With their heterogeneous quality of film stock, black and white often mixed with colour, their inconsistencies create patterns within a bigger montage.

Martin’s main interest is to show how in over the last decade film-makers like Hal Hartley or Wong Kar-wai have let their characters stay static in certain sequels while the actors are allowed to age. Tone and genre alter drastically, links between films deliberately disconnected, and information methodically withheld. Displacements are created, and incongruous casts used with unrelated cinematic histories. Sometimes actors are recast to replay old roles; or there is a retelling and restarting of each sequel from scratch; a deliberate blurring between remake and sequel; or a rupture between the original film and its ‘contemporary correspondence’; or the retention of the same sound track – all these devices crating a new sort of mischievous adventurousness in a non-Hollywood film history.

Another Australian, Terry Smith has contributed a meticulously structured, highly inventive essay that deals with Walter Benjamin and his ownership of the 1920 Paul Klee watercolour ‘Angelus Novus’, a symbolic ‘angel of history.’ Starting with a discussion of this painting, and a poem about it by Benjamin’s friend Gershom Scholem, Smith looks at the forces of history, the global community and the current recession, using three models of listed concepts and economic realities to display the forces of social circulation.

One is based on a diagram by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, of a top-down spread with globalization the key player at the top and agents, families and citizens at the bottom. Another is an inverted version of Friedman’s chart so that globalization becomes only one of many forces active in the world today, and the third is with the elements configured by nodal connections so that vectors move in all directions simultaneously, and any two elements can link up.

Smith then talks about the ‘civil society’ in global terms and starts to refer to various artworks that draw out a celebration of the values it upholds. Of particular interest are two works by Daniel Martinez, one a convulsing prosthetic humanoid, twitching frantically on the floor as if undergoing torture. Another is a gridded display of 121 gold-painted wooden panels presenting the names of various military organisations endeavouring to enforce a political position through violence. Such work Smith sees as espousing the vision of Klee’s Angel, and Jeff Koons’ Puppy as art that is operating contrary to it.

One of the difficulties of reading a text-dominant magazine like Reading Room is trying to get a clear picture of the art described, and then deciding if you will run with the writer in their discussion. Often the visual information (photographs and/or drawings) and the text don’t convince you. This is the case for many of the works in Helena Reckitt’s espousal of feminist and queer artists who search through art history (especially the seventies) for precedents that they can build upon - despite the rich content of her discussion. Such interactions Reckitt sees as a form of negotiation or conversation, not nostalgic celebration or fetishization. For me personally, only one work, Kajsa Dahlberg’s A Room of One’s Own / A Thousand Libraries, a massive printed edition of texts made by duplicating scribbled annotations found in a number of 1958 editions of Woolf’s book, really excites as a project.

In the archive section Liz Eastmond’s description of Fan (Feminist Art Networkers) projects in the eighties is highly informative and detailed, as is Mary Kisler’s account of the life and activities of the second AAG Director, the art historian Peter Tomory. I remember reading his and Hamish Keith’s pioneer set of three small books on NZ painting in the early seventies – long before Keith and Brown’s own historic publication appeared - and noticed then that he had disappeared.

Eastmond’s account of Fan though is unusual because of the breezy cadences of her written delivery. Most art historians use a standard tone which is ubiquitously standard in its emotional pitch, and a little dreary, but her crisp phrasing and buoyant expression here keeps the reading lively.

The highlights of RR3, in my view are the essays by Jon Bywater and Anthony White. Bywater has written several variations of an exegesis on Dan Arps and this version is the fullest and most richly layered. In it he analyses several recent Arps shows, documenting the themes and ingredients carefully.

Bywater considers that Arps’ practice reflects a ‘deep pessimism about the convergence of …the logics of artistic modernism and industrial or technological invention’ and that it ‘cynically parodies aspirations for art’s value’ by using ‘the market’s demand for novelty’ to coincide ‘with artistic invention’ as another symptom of a hegemonic capitalist mode of production.’ (p.107)

Bywater takes Giorgio Agamben’s notion of a sphere of aesthetic gestures (‘those means that emancipate themselves from their relation to an end while remaining means’) which Agamben sees as the ‘proper sphere of politics’ and applies them to a view that ‘the duty of the (film-making) director is to introduce…the element of waking.’ He sees Arps as doing something similar.

Though personally I think Arps’ work is more about a laboratory of semiotics (and not politics), Bywater has constructed an important document to be discussed. Yet Arps is more nihilistic than what Bywater indicates, though he does seem to have a programme where he systematically tinkers with meaning.

If there is any prevalent uniting theme in his exhibitions, it is more likely to be about the attaining of happiness. As for ‘the new’, he seems to be buying into it, and not critiquing it at all. I am not convinced Arps is a satirist.

Of the two remaining articles, Lee Weng Choy’s interview with Donna Ong is accompanied by some impressive black and white matt photographs of her installations. Choy is an exceptionally articulate and elegant writer but the conversation is too biographical and not sufficiently concentrated on Ong’s work. More on career than say practice, even though the notes with the images are richly detailed.

In commenting on the new, Choy says:

“Where I have been critical of the ‘new’ and how it is framed by the logic of relentless consumption… I’ve (also) wanted to point out how difficult it is to resist that. Criticism in general should attempt to slow things down and open up a space to reflect on the many processes we all get so caught up in.(p.86)”

Anthony White, in his lucid discussion of Fontana and Oldenburg’s attitudes to the new, points out that Lucio Fontana claimed his perforated canvases were devoid of gesture, and contained only cuts made mechanically without expressiveness. The ubiquitous egg shape Fontana used was often featured in the design of early sixties chairs and other European household items, and the bright hues he liked (emerald green, canary yellow and hot pink) were newly available fashion and design colours. He wanted to show his dismay at ‘inventions which follow one after the other’, and his alarm at ‘the speed of life’. His perforated ‘eggs’ had much in common with seventeenth century Dutch Vanitas paintings, intended as an allegory about life’s transience.

Claes Oldenburg’s 1961 installation The Store, with his enamel coated plaster ‘edible’ items had a similar theme. It was about a melancholic pining for the forties, the time of his childhood. The fake food products displayed in vitrines were based on what had been superseded by later novelties, only to disappear.

I enjoyed the pithy focus of this issue of Reading Room, and I say that (in contrast to much of its discussion) as someone who readily enjoys flux, the new and changes that regularly occur in art and social history. If art were static, I can’t imagine that I would be interested in it as a phenomenon, but possibly such a view is ideologically inculcated.

This Auckland Art Gallery publication is getting better and better. Looking forward to Number 4.

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