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.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Whaaat according to Art?

Existence: Life according to Art: curated by Leafa/Janice Wilson for Waikato Museum of Art and History Te Whare Taonga o Waikato.14 July 2007 -13 January 2008.

This is one of those crammed cluttered shows that Waikato Museum is famous for, a sprawling dog’s breakfast of an exhibition involving close to fifty artists. Much of it is local talent linked to Wintec Media Arts, and a lot of the work is also borrowed from the Chartwell Collection in Auckland - its borrowing part of the deal negotiated when WMAH lost the collection to AAG.

The theme is life itself and the ability of the human species to fabricate stories that explain how we all came to be here. The show is slightly pompous but also shambolic. Its potentially coherent theme becomes featherbrained because of unity lost when ideational ingredients go off in multiple tangents.

Wilson’s show seems designed to promote the careers of a large group of Hamilton’s Christian artists by mixing them in with a national pool of non-believers and creating a forum about Creationism versus Darwinism. Into that forum a whole range of normally irrelevant artworks are seconded in the hope that they will bring substance: lots of mediocre portraits, images of chimps, dogs, flowers, and trees for example. It is all about using art to support a predetermined discussion that mainly revolves around Biblical and scientific narratives.

Despite the abundance of dross there are ten or so true treasures that accidentally got here. The stunning art provided by Dan Arps, David Cook, Richard Malloy, Amit Charan, Yvonne Todd, CK Reynolds, Angela Singer, John Lyall, Emit Snakebeings, Ricky Swallow and Janice Abo Ganis makes a visit to this horrendous exhibition worth while. Arps' sculpture of a faceless mud man laying an egg from out of his shoulder blades, and Malloy's gorgeous toy terrier covered with thick blue paint are fabulous treats. You just have to grind your teeth while looking for such rarities.

Existence the exhibition may be a shocker but the published book is far superior. It is blessed by the contributions of several highly competent science writers (Nicola Harcourt, Michael Graham and Bartholomew Karalus) whose efforts make this project far more than what it might appear to be - a Christian attempt to do a Waikato version of the big Darwin show currently on at Auckland Museum, and toured by the American Museum of Natural History. That Auckland show is a better visiting experience but it has no art. This one has little coherence, but at least it has some taonga and several stimulating essays.

Images by (working downwards) Meredith Collins, Gregor Kregar, Michael Shepherd, exhibition logo.


Olga Krause/ Leafa Janice Wilson said...

Disclaimer: The views of OLGA Krause are not necessarily shared by Waikato Museum

"Wilson’s show seems designed to promote the careers of a large group of Hamilton’s Christian artists by mixing them in with a national pool of non-believers and creating a forum about Creationism versus Darwinism. Into that forum a whole range of normally irrelevant artworks are seconded in the hope that they will bring substance: lots of mediocre portraits, images of chimps, dogs, flowers, and trees for example. It is all about using art to support a predetermined discussion that mainly revolves around Biblical and scientific narratives. "
besides the usual rhetoric around what is considered an 'horrendous', 'cluttered' show full of dross, your review and totally narrow reading of the show is exactly what I expected. How you can call it a 'Christian'exhibition is really bizarre. Lisa Benson, Meredith Collins, Natalie Davies, Mark Hamilton,Zena Elliott, Mark Curtis, Andrea Wilkinson, Emit Snakebeings, Rosie Percival, Janice Abo Ganis, Stefanie Young, Mary Macpherson, John Lyall, Michael Shepherd and the Squidbunny would probably take great offence to you calling them Christian artists to balance your antagonism towards the work of the likes of Tim Croucher and David Cook. The fact that you totally omit to even include the works by Aimee Ratana, Hemi Macgregor, Natalie Robertson and Dion Hitchens uncovers somewhat of a lean towards curating as an essentially European occupation and exclusive of an indigenous worldview.
If there was direct reference in each work to the person of Christ, then the reference would be valid. Maori and Darwin are far flung from Christianity and your own attention to the fact that one or two of the artists in the exhibition are of the Christian faith seems to be your own fascination with dogging anything remotely of a spiritual nature. Yes of course the show is utilising artworks to flesh ideas out, that was the intention. But Darwin and Creationism are not set at odds here, rather, they are on a continuum of hypotheses.Of course it is impossible for the intention of each art work to be articulated.
You are correct that it seems like an attempt at supporting local artists, which I do so unashamedly , I don't believe they had very much opportunity in the past things have changed a little. Waikato Museum is at least attempting to create viable opportunities to support of local artists but it seems to be considered an 'art crime'to you.

The same feather-brained curator of the show was the same person who carefully selected the writers with the intention of broadening the ideas presented, so of course the catalogue will have some substance - stating the obvious there John. This critique really serves to emphasise the misbelief that curation and reading shows should be directed only to .5 of a percent of the population, usually all of whom are tertiary educated middle-class people.Curating exhibitions shouldn't equate to alienating much of the population.
One thing you keep forgetting too, is that the show is not curated by a white male, but a polynesian woman with a completely different sensibility and aesthetic sense to yours, your lean towards homogeneity is a bit of a worry... if I was to curate shows that you totally approved of then I may as well just BE you.
Wouldn't the curation of art at the museum be perfect then. I am aware that Western art history is a Western construct/ but this type of gate-keeping is surely an out-moded modernist approach to an exhibition targetting young people and bi-cultural/multicultural audience interested in pop-culture of the last 30 odd years in a gallery which also shows accessible art... it is a shame that you remain in entrenched in your archaic thought on curation. Anyway, glad to be able to provide you with some material to slag off. Nice work, please, keep it up. It is truly a pleasure to read.
See you for coffee some time John :o)HO HO HO

Leafa/Janice Wilson
Curator of the HORRENDOUS Existence: Life According to Art.

John Hurrell said...

I think it is obvious that this exhibition is just plain twitty and that such a show could only surface in Hamilton and at the Waikato Museum. Its vacuousness has nothing to do with the curator's ethnicity, gender or religious beliefs, but is apparent through the structure of the hang and the way the images are used to bounce off a dominant narrative. While my view is that the show is laughable, if there are readers out there who've seen it and who think I've got it wrong, let's hear it.

Olga Krause/ Leafa Janice Wilson said...

Bah Humbug John.
Of course, the Waikato Museum only ever operated at its best in the time that you were there, you need to constantly underscore that point, we ALL are aware of your GREATNESS and your ability to curate. So where was your last curated show held John and what were its reviews like?
If this isn't about bitterness, what is it really about John? Your mean-spirited words don't actually inform anything or anyone in any educational sense, it is mere unprofessionalism.
You assumed that this show was even slightly informed by the Darwin show, wrong. This project was started long before the announcement of their 'superior' show. I wish you all the best John in your endeavours towards grandeur. You might be right in one art critical sense, and good on you! The world should now function as it should, now you have seen fit to annihiliate another colleague with swift ease. Unfortunately, anything I could have learned from this has been shrouded with a profound sadness that there really are 'grinches' in the world. Is this what I need to become to become successful - I will concede now that I am a twit! YOU WIN!

John Hurrell said...

Leafa, I'm talking about the exhibition not you personally, though we all have to take responsibility for our actions: you/'Existence'; me/ the words I write. I dislike the show because it is so open ended as to be meaningless, a flimsy structure designed to include anything at all. After all what does not 'exist'? Everything does, in reality or imagination. The show claims profundity when it is obviously banal.
Okay so I'm blunt in my criticism, but this country needs more open debate about its exhibitions. Blog-forums are more democratic than magazines or newspapers, and any reply is instant and untampered with. What could be fairer?

Olga Krause/ Leafa Janice Wilson said...

what could be fairer, though you may not be talking about me, you are talking about a process, which initially took place in my HEAD which is an attack on my intellect.
I do agree with you that of course, everything does exist, the difference is that human's ask the questions which are included in the exhibition. The premise was not meant to actually evoke intellectual debate, that I can concur with, it wasn't meant to be the answer to documenta or any such grand notion of that at all. It's basically an exhibition directed at most people, not, all.

I am a public servant so the idea of trying to make it all things to everybody ( by that, I mean as an academically robust exercise in stimulating profound theoretical debates/discourse) is near impossible. Museum exhibitions are attending to the public requirement for interpretation. If it appears to be meaningless to you, that's fine, but various works and interactions with the exhibition will hold some meaning to others. Sorry that you were not one of them.
It's good that this is a public exchange, and it is good that this is a democratic and instantaneous place for response. I would hope that there would be an element of the didactic, positing more relevant questions directly to the curator as opposed to nuking the show, the curator and the institution with no real possibilities for a productive interaction. Whilst it is fair to say what you like, I still think it is wiser to use your power with much more compassion than to use it like a loaded weapon.
All's fair though. You need to shout me a coffee John! or a hot of tequila .ha ha ha :oP

John Hurrell said...

Well Leafa (forget the 'Olga Krause' bullshit), if I was at a bar and I spotted you, I'd buy you a drink because I'm an affable soul - not out of some misguided guilt because I hurt your feelings. Art criticism has nothing to do with compassion or being nice to curators or artists. It is about providing an assessment for the reader and examining the show in detail, drawing out issues that need to be aired from within it, scrutinizing the structure of its presentation, and speculating about the thinking that underpins the selection and placement. There is very little of such writing happening in this country, and I think a lot more of it is desperately needed.

Olga Krause/ Leafa Janice Wilson said...

Actually the Olga Krause bullshit happens to be my birth name.
I am shocked to see you use the word 'soul', a word that could be viewed to be too spiritual in nature.
I never once mentioned the idea of 'being nice to curators or artists'. That is your own construction. However, I would wager that should your approach be less antagonistic and verbally vicious, you would have far more sway. I do agree that we need a more objective approach to art criticism in Aotearoa today, yes there is a dire need for more rigorous and informed writing. It would be great if we could talk over a whiskey some time in the new year.

Unknown said...

Quite true - John and I disagree on everything almost on principle, but we actually get on rather well (though John, you have never bought me a drink in a bar, so I will have to question the "affable soul" part)
So many, particularly younger, artists and curators have very thin skins - I keep a file of hate mail for future publication at some point (and you know who you are).

John Hurrell said...

Why Leafa you would choose to believe in 'souls' or 'the spiritual' is beyond me, but then I know lots of people who would agree with you. However your private beliefs are not the reason I damned the show, and I hope that is clear in what I said. Being in a municipal institution, all aspects of the exhibtion are up for comment. The show deserves lots of forthright discussion, particularly from people unlucky enough to have visited the Museum.

Olga Krause/ Leafa Janice Wilson said...

to be honest John
I am really quite happy for the open critique and my feelings truly aren't hurt. I just love a good debate, I like that you don't pussy foot around otherwise I would take offence to that. I agree that it isn't
at all the role of a public institution, let alone myself, (and one should never assume that I believe in the soul) to proselytise, that is totally correct. But I think the show was balanced with Darwinian notions as well as 'other' notions on life on the planet. It is crowded, it is an intentional strategy stuff up the syntax of the show.
I am really keen to keep all lines of communication open, even if it means an out and out 'brawl'. I think you are right in saying that one shouldn't be worried about hurting feelings. Please note that what ever you say does not 'hurt'- there you are assuming you have the power to do so. :)
I am merely in response mode. I am still a newby in this domain, I have things to learn. Yes. But, in a public institution, when I am being paid by the public to give them something they can swallow, that's what I will do. That is part of my job. If I was a private gallery owner, then I would have things the way I would have them. That's not to say you would be able to engage with it in a way you would like to either, but it does rather delineate the distinctive purpose of Museum as opposed to 'gallery' space. ONe is obviously more discursive and the other takes a more interpretive approach. Neither is wrong. But, all things said, point taken John.

John Hurrell said...

Please Leafa, despite 'Olga' being your birth name, stick to 'Leafa' on this site as I want to be consistent to my editorial ethos. You protest that I am 'antagonistic' and have a grudge against the Museum, but if my response had been glowing I'd get others saying I was sucking up to the Council, so I'm damned either way. Actually I think I was comparatively kind. I could have provided examples of misspelling of artists' names on labels, inconguous use of irrelevant quotations, and various conceptual confusions, but the lack of professionalism by the Waikato Museum is nationally well known, so why overlabour the point.
APW is quite right about me rarely buying people drinks, so next time we meet you can buy me one for giving WMAH undeserved, free publicity.

Olga Krause/ Leafa Janice Wilson said...

yes, a few typos will occur; as per the irrelevant quotations, that's still subjective John as to how you apply it's reading. If you can possibly get any more vitriolic than you have toward the show, and I am not talking about the museum or HCC here, then probably, I should be thankful. I am not too sure how any more harsh you could have got. Here, I give thanks to Post-Modernity, because were it not for the fact that we are able to interpret text and image as we encounter life regardless of our academic backgrounds, then we would shrink as a society, unable to enjoy what seems to be the reserve of the few. I realise that the ROLE of the curator is to be the GUARDIAN of taste and there needs to be more selectivity and editing, and that the role is not to be overly concerned with kindnesses and sentiment, but there are other opportunities in the future for this to occur. YOu do need to curb your penchant for blanket condemnation of my practice, it is helpful to no one. I do have respect for your opinion, but not your delivery. I know you have much knowledge that I am yet to discover for myself, and I am open to learning still. If you have an opportunity, perhaps a panel would be good to discuss finer points with other curators.(independent and institutional of varying cultural backgrounds and worldviews...would be interesting yeah?)
It is really not that relevant to actually mention council, but it is relevant to mention visitor interpretation. The show was not , as I said before, meant for the 1 percent, but for the 99%. That's not a hidden fact. I think that you rightly point this fact out, albeit in very vile terms. That it is a civic show, and not for academic purposes is, I think where you are getting your knickers in a knot. Fair enough. Were I in a private gallery, I would no doubt curate a show that might be of some use. As for the free publicity, I think you are assuming way too much in the readership of your blogsite John. Perhaps the few informed will read it, but the bums on seats people do not. So I am afraid the drinks are still on you :o)
cheers and have a brilliant New Year John... LOOK OUT 2008... Hurrell is in the Hizous! x leafa