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.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Friday, January 25, 2008

Sculpture as Eccentric Furniture, Architecture or Clothing

Allan Wexler
St. Paul St. Gallery, AUT, Auckland
January 17 - 29 February 2008

Right now - unless you are using a laptop in the manner that its name suggests - I bet you are just like me, sitting in a chair in front of a computer that is placed on a desk or a table. Such items of domestic furniture, how do they serve us exactly? The table for example: what are our assumptions about this normally rectangular horizontal plane supported by four vertical stalks? And the chair? What are our expectations for that?

These ludicrously basic questions – that demonstrate the field of endeavour called ‘design’ – spark off two exhibitions at AUT by the New York teacher, artist and architect, Allan Wexler. One room shows the results of a three day workshop involving AUT students, Wexler himself, and his design consultancy partner, Ellen. This large gallery presents an assorted group of wooden kitchen chairs that have been discreetly altered by seemingly furtive carpenters so that some aspect of their functionality has been physically subverted or satirised. The other gallery shows a series of slides documenting Wexler’s own art practice, his consultancy work, and various public commissions.

The chair of course has been used by artists for a wide range of purposes. In the mid-eighties Australian artists like Mike Parr and Robert Owen used them in installations as a symbol for the presence of the individual Self (in Parr’s case conflating himself and Artaud; in Owen’s, himself and Yves Klein), just as Lucas Samaras did in the sixties with his outrageous extrapolations of ‘chairness’. With Wexler, the chair is not ornamental but closer to a restrained Shaker sensibility, and much more about social function. His chairs are often connected physically to other chairs, or mischievously separated by screens. Likewise his tables are large, with wide slots so several people can get into the centre of the flat plane and move closer for conversation at the perimeter.

Or if the furniture is for one person, Wexler moves into satire so that the table or chair is worn like an item of clothing. If the concern is practical and easy storage is required to get more working space, folding panels can be collapsed and even slid into slots that extend into containers outside the living area.

As some of these photographs show, much of Wexler’s sculpture shows a preoccupation with the body as a source of humour, a malleable raw material similar in attitude to the slapstick sculpture/photography of Erwin Wurm and Martin Kessels.

Wexler has been working and exhibiting for over thirty years and though not well known, has influenced several other, more famous, artists. Andrea Zittel’s caravan works, for example, owe his notions of compacted storage a great deal.

This is an excellent exhibition, especially Wexler’s slide programme, which takes the viewer far beyond quite the slightly conventional (but entertaining) student exercises of the other room to demonstrate a very unusual form of public sculpture. One can speculate – and hope - that his influence (or actual practice) might be seen in future such sculpture projects around Auckland.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Incompatible Perhaps

New Painting Digital Age
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Pakuranga, Manukau City
17 November 2007 -10 February 2008

This ‘new painting’ exhibition is toured by Porirua’s Pataka gallery, and curated by Pataka’s Senior Contemporary Art Curator Helen Kedgley. She has picked Darryn George, Sara Hughes, Andrew McLeod, Kelcy Taratoa and Tim Thatcher so with such disparate styles it is quite idiosyncratic. Plus much of it is traditional oil painting. No Andre Hemer (repeatable pseudo gestures), Simon Ingram (robot painting) or Leigh Martin (digital painting machine) here. But there are some nice surprises.

In New Zealand the pioneering work mixing painting with digital technology was done by Richard Killeen in his investigations of the properties of language, especially the paintings made in 1986-7. Over twenty years later such digital methods have become commonplace, and Killeen’s influence very apparent.

With Kedgley’s selection, the obvious choices are McLeod and Hughes.

I’m not sure about the significance of the others though. In some, digital technology is not absolutely essential to their image making process, as say the methods of Andre Hemer or Julia Morison might be. And from looking at the catalogue, the reduced touring version here does not seem as successful as the original Pataka hang. While Sara Hughes only has one painting, Tim Thatcher has five, yet a lot of wall space in the outer corridor is unused. Because there is no even distribution of work for all five artists, the show seems slightly ad hoc.

Kedgley doesn’t fully show how painting can be more flexible or more adventuresome with digital technology. Even though her selection is limited, her quirky tastes can provide pleasant surprises. For example, I’d never seen Tim Thatcher’s work before, but I enjoyed his paintings of tree parts. They are sumptuous oil renditions of Andy Goldsworthy-style sculptures, but scrawnier and weedier – perhaps as envisaged by a comic artist like Chester Brown. They have an appealing stoned nuttiness about them, and seem to be a sort of tongue-in–cheek meditation on a woman (‘The Log lady’) in David Lynch’s TV series ‘Twin Peaks” who is always cradling a log: a satire on ‘tree-hugging.’

Despite my enthusiasm for Thatcher’s oils, I’m not convinced he should be here. Simply because he uses Google to download tree images is hardly a valid reason to put him in a ‘digital‘ show, and in fact his (and McLeod’s) traditional painterly sensibility show Kedgley’s thematic premise to be a bizarre oxymoron. Why the hang up on paint? A print or photography show would have enabled a far more focussed examination of digital technology. Yet Kedgley stays true to her passion for old style painting: she prefers Andrew McLeod’s sensual painting over his more innovative (Guillermo Kuitca influenced) prints. Really she is using artists’ digital interests as an excuse for a painting show. That is her priority, not the other way round.

For example Kedgley’s choice of Darryn George’s work includes roughly made, less pristine examples. His ‘The Equaliser’ - five alternating red/black pairs of repeated size and motif - looks terrific on one wall by itself, but this Māori synthesis of Walters/McLaughlin formalism with Lasker tactility has a surprising casual rawness close up. George is uncharacteristically sloppy.

Yet to be fair, Kedgley hasn’t deliberately ignored painting with a fastidious industrial finish – it is just that in Te Tuhi it happens to be downplayed. Sara Hughes’ dazzling synthesis of Stella, Anuszkiewicz and Held is hard to ignore, and the suite of Walholesque Kelcy Taratoa paintings fits into Kedgley’s theme well. His work though, despite its appropriate method, is tiresomely similar to a lot of Pop art in this country – like Rudolf Boulee for example – and is not distinctive. His fixation on war comics, action heroes and media manipulation is too heavy handed and didactic to be significant.

This show tries to be both painting and digital but doesn’t embrace either satisfactorily. Maybe the entire original exhibition has to be seen for the argument to work; perhaps it could have gained from a more detailed examination of the technology particular to each artist; but I think Kedgley’s choice of artists is the problem. Too few of the artists really tackle the implications of the theme full on – they are too busy being painters. The grouping doesn’t convince.

Beautiful but Disturbing Grids

Tom Nicholson biilboard project: Action for Another Library
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Pakuranga, Manukau City
15 September 2007 - 10 February 2008

Tom Nicholson is a Melbourne artist currently presenting a group of billboards on a high fence on Reeves Rd opposite Te Tuhi in Pakuranga. Like his namesake Nicholson Baker the American novelist, Nicholson is preoccupied with the fate of libraries. Baker is upset about the disappearance of old books and newspapers from American libraries, a consequence of municipal management decisions reflecting concerns about storage and user statistics. Nicholson on the other hand is concerned about the consequences of the war in East Timor and the systematic destruction of libraries by the withdrawing Indonesian forces as a method of suppressing dissenting opinions.

Nicholson’s large photographic hoardings show grids of charred shelving and walls along with traces of incinerated publications. They are surprisingly beautiful black and white images, deliciously large so they can be easily seen by passing cars. They have real impact in an outdoor setting.

As artists often do (like say Eve Armstrong) Nicholson’s project comes in two parts: there is the visual display with the hoardings; there is also the interactive component in the Pakuranga library, where he displays a dozen didactic artist books about the events in East Timor. Nicholson has a pragmatic purpose behind his artwork, a desire to bring about palpable change through education, generosity (he is appealing for replacement books) and publicity.

Half-hearted Hole

Maddie Leach: Andalucía 2007
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Pakuranga, Manukau City
14 December 2007 - 28 February 2008

Andalucía is the area of Spain around its southern tip, the bottom quarter of the Iberian Peninsula. It is famous for the pronounced Muslim influence of much of its architecture, a result of its Moorish settlement for over 500 years during the Middle Ages. In the history of Art, the most famous Andalucians have been Picasso and Velasquez, and Bũnuel and Dali’s surrealist film ‘An Andalucian Dog’ is considered by film critic Roger Ebert to be the ‘most famous short film ever made.”

Maddie Leach is interested in the fact that there is an antipodal relationship between Andalucía and Auckland. In other words, if you drill a hole smack dab through the middle of the earth’s core from Pakuranga, it will come out in Andalucía. Using a website she has discovered that the exact antipodian site of Te Tuhi’s sculpture courtyard is an olive grove in Cortijo del Granadal, east of Olvera.

You would think this information would be the most exciting aspect of Leach’s project, that she would (like the Boyle family say) go to the site and either collect samples, or meet the grove owners or leasers and perhaps bring them back to Te Tuhi. Get a little communication started between the globally separated communities. Even a failed attempt would be interesting. But no, her project consists of getting a 4 metre hole dug, fencing it off with orange plastic netting for safety, and having a video loop indoors of the sun moving down across the sky, alluding to the famous Spanish heat. No social interaction at all, apart from the artist organising contractors to get the hole dug.

This is a lack-lustre project working with only half an idea: a global concept that should have been better developed and backed with trans-national resources such as satellite images or air travel. Leach is normally an impressively astute artist distinctive for her unflagging tenacity in overcoming the most technically difficult of physical and social obstacles, but this time she has been going through the motions, asleep on her feet.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Drawing Classifier For Games

Douglas Bagnall: Te Tuhi Video Game Machine
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Pakuranga, Manukau City
17 November 2007 - 10 February 2008

Douglas Bagnall is well known for his interactive robotic or computer installations, works that often make films or select television programmes, or even classify cloud shapes. His practice tends to have a community inflection, a strong sense of the relational.

Like his Cloud Shape Classifier, he is in this current Te Tuhi project interested in the morphology of shape structure. This time it is children’s drawings the Bagnall robot scrutinises, with the aim of incorporating them as visual ingredients in electronic video games.
The computer looks at each coloured crayon drawing that the children or their teachers or parents scan and decides if they are ‘boring’ and worthy of being abandoned, or ‘interesting’ and able to be fitted into competing sides of missile firing villains or heroes.

Obviously there are templates involved that assess the scanned images of animals, plants, buildings and people to decide if they are to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guys. And different games with set rules that devise point scoring. I particularly like the genre-mixing idea behind this project but as I’m not a video gamer, am ignorant of the nuances around different sorts of contest. My own efforts at drawing tended to get rejected by Bagnall’s software system (so much so my graphic skills jammed the cyber programme) so I’d be interested to see a bunch of successful games demonstrating new ‘avatars’, and how the standard rules can be reapplied, and if visual patterns in players are detectable.

If there are seasoned ‘gamers’ reading this that can comment on Bagnall’s project, it would be stimulating to hear your views. Maybe the ‘primitive’, smudgy and graffiti style of children’s art lessens the emotional impact of these games, making the images less compact and sharply defined. Perhaps they are design disasters that impede the efficacy of the rules and procedures? Yet as bizarre gaming concoctions they do intrigue, especially with the unnerving mix of innocence and brutal aggression in their codes. I enjoy Bagnall’s perversity and cynicism in corrupting the very young while pacifying the macho military.

Albanian Treat

Armando Lulaj: Time out of Joint
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Pakuranga, Manukau City
17 November 2007 – 10 February 2008

This video installation was recently presented in last year’s Venice Biennale, and so lucky Aucklanders – who didn’t travel to Italy – now have an opportunity to check it out.

And they should. It is a wonderful work made by Lulaj, an Albanian artist living in Bologna. In a squalid, smoking rubbish dump found on the outskirts of the Albanian city of Tirana, he has positioned a large vertical block of ice and filmed over one day the activities of all those who discover it. Most that do are children and animals, with the occasional rag picker: a hunched up, arthritic old lady with a cane; or a rag-and-bone man with his horse and cart.

The dump is huge and very flat, with many distant smouldering fires, and roving dogs and goats - some of which come over to lick the ice. You can almost smell the rotting detritus and acrid, eye-watering haze. The site has an apocalyptic, Beckettian ambience, and reminds me of the absurdist Spike Milligan play, The Bed-sitting Room, set in a dump during the aftermath of a nuclear war.

Amidst all the filth and decay, the melting ice becomes an idealistic symbol for rapidly diminishing purity in a hostile world. In the stinking heat groups of transient children out scavenging, come to rub their hands and arms over its pellucid surface so they can lick off the water. The frozen obelisk seems to stand for ‘hope’, the artist’s faith in a future Albania free from corruption in a post-industrialised age. He sees a parallel with this situation and that of Hamlet who, after encountering his murdered father’s ghost, says: “the time is out of joint; O cursed spite!/ That ever I was born to set it right.”

Pakuranga Soundscape

James McCarthy
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts, Pakuranga, Manukau City
17 November 2007 - 10 February 2008

James McCarthy is a well known figure in the art/musical scene in Auckland, remembered for the five years he spent playing in the highly esteemed, Phil Dadson - founded group ‘From Scratch’, and widely respected as a sonic artist. For this project at Te Tuhi, McCarthy has used little projecting bolts with piano wire and guitar strings, to construct a large wall drawing depicting the Pakuranga Motorway heading towards Mount Wellington. It is a landscape drawing that can be played, with each taut line potentially explored by the attentive listener/watcher, so that the whole wall becomes a vibrating instrument.

And like the firecracker drawings of Yuk King Tan, the drawing changes through viewer participation. The cumulative effect of repeated plucking is that the wires acquire mottled lines of smudgy fingerprints on the white walls underneath. The process of musical exploration entails inevitable alterations to the visual properties of the instrument. It starts off pristine and gradually becomes worn and grimy.

The positioning of the wires and strings on the wall seems to have been done according to visual properties, not acoustic. There is no visual/aural logic so that notes within significant scales are in close proximity or harmonic chords easily accessed. Nor does the sound of the drawing materials reflect the content of the image. We don’t hear the sound of the motorway as well as see its representation - though perhaps that depends on temporal structure; it is possible McCarthy has composed such a work.

I’m not sure how well the visual and aural properties interact in this drawing but it is an entertaining, very unusual exhibition that becomes less refined and less aesthetic the more it is played. The tattier its appearance the more successful it has been as an interactive device ‘drawing out’ audience participation.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Santa isn't always bad

A Greater Plan: Works on Paper. Gow Langsford, Auckland. 11 December 2007 to 2 February 2008.

I detest most dealer gallery Xmas shows: they seem so grasping, so transparent. I hate in principle the idea of galleries behaving like shopping mall retailers. And while group shows can be innocuous and reveal surprising connections between normally disparate items, most of the time they seem to compromise the integrity of solo works, works that would be more comprehensible surrounded by others made by the same individual in the same series. At Xmas time when all the stylistic smorgasbords suddenly materialise, the commercial vulgarity of the art world is just all too much.

Yet some Xmas shows are thematically focussed and surprisingly restrained, even containing….(gulp)..rigorous works of quality. Items that are not overtly easy to sell. This Gow Langsford show of five artists is an interesting example. No tacky junk here. The prices are not cheap, but the product is excellent. Some works could be better – as I’ll explain – but damn good nonetheless. Some of it is very expensive. You have to ask to find out the price of a dazzling Frank Stella print (a hybrid screenprint, aquatint and etching), and the very unusual Maddox of gridded crosses painted in oil on a scroll map of Matakaoa is 38 grand.

The stuff that really interests me in this exhibition is in the three mini shows by Martin Ball, Judy Millar and Simon Ingram.

Martin Ball’s graphite studies render three strips of paper sellotaped to a larger sheet. They are a meditation on representation and manual dexterity that follows a tradition of such illusionistic image making (painting and drawing) in Auckland that includes John Lethbridge and Ross Ritchie, and often depicts simple objects such as drawing pins holding tightly stretched string against the flat plane of a wall.

I personally don’t warm to these drawings, preferring in this genre images with more nuance and sense of the infinite - like those by say, Vija Celmins, who is famous for her renderings of the sea, spider-webs, and the night sky. Nevertheless in this show, Ball's drawings do provide some lind of strange foil to the other works in their examination of the papery picture plane.

The paintings on paper here by Judy Millar feature finger painting where a top coat of dark paint is wiped off to expose a highly saturated undercoat. These seem less holistic than earlier works, having a dynamic pictographic quality that alludes to not only the Roman alphabet but also to Chinese brushed characters. These 'negative marks' hover in front of a field of horizontal bars. Millar here seems to be edging slowly towards a new sort of narrative in her work, hinting at something we normally don’t think of as occurring in her practice: spoken and written language and its codes.

Simon Ingram’s group of small gridded paper works are surprisingly loosey goosey and gestural with their use of thin paint. The best mix regimented order with chaos, with patterned sections that might have been painted by a slightly tipsy Gordon Walters, alongside middle portions that disintegrate into randomness. They are not as courageously challenging as Ingram’s robot painted works, but they are nevertheless beguiling. The black and white works are especially intriguing. They really improve the more you examine them.

Despite this I tend to think it is a shame Ingram doesn’t limit himself only to the latter projects, especially the oil on linen paintings. The hand painted works conceptually compromise the programatic /anti-manual/anti-improv ideology of his cybernetic project. (Imagine if Billy Apple started exhibiting his private working sketches after all the years of hiring craftsmen to make his paintings.It would pull the rug out from under his fanaticism.) It irks me Ingram’s practice has no hardheaded rhetoric that disdains hand-applied marks because of their overtones of visionary individuality. Instead of dabbling in cliches of painterly expressivity (even within the tiny modules of graphpaper) he should be severe. Tough uncompromising stances are a European phenomenon that is, alas, utterly unknown in this country.

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.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A report from Stuart Shepherd on the Basel art fair in Miami.

Art Basel Miami 2007

It's a nice challenge to try to sum up the experience of Art Basel Miami 2007, and a further challenge to consider what that experience might really mean.

My particular experience came filtered by a cocktail of pseudoephedrine, chinese herbal pills and copious courtesy coladas (the latter provided by the various “cross marketing” stalls of the fair). I was fighting a N.Y. winter flu amped up by the hot/cold of air conditioning, but I was determined to get my N.Z. dollars worth and see everything. There was a lot to see. Art Basel comprises about 20 separate art fairs, design, photography, print, all with attendant openings and special events; Iggy Pop and the Stooges opened the fair with a terrific free concert on the beach; I was there, body aching eyes streaming, courageous...sick...contagious.

Not only by my state, this art fair deserves to be further contextualized by its own state: Florida, U.S.A. It is BIG…bigger than from Cape Rienga to Upper Hutt. It has a backdrop of thousands of mega hotels lining the dumb beach and thousands of miles of freeways and overpasses to connect them. Traffic jams and palm trees. Big hotels and freeways are symptoms of a big economy and the key reason why this art fair exists. Other draw cards must be the established fashion scene of Miami’s South Beach, its promise of underdeveloped real estate and the further promise of a tropical getaway... particularly for collectors, curators and dealers from Europe, all high on a flattering exchange rate.

Meanwhile, aesthetically and culturally, something else happens down here, down on the latitude of Cuban salsa....Versace, hi-healed sandals, inflated breasts, Ferraris and bling, all become perfectly sensible when wrapped in the cashmere warmth of the evening air...and viewed, with cocktail in hand, from any one of the gorgeous foyers of any one the deco hotels that make up the worlds best collection. Even with my antipodean reserve, even with my flu, I could feel that inclination/obligation to... indulge; and to throw my hard won and puny N.Z. dollars at something.

And so to the fair. If you are a dealer representing art of a certain level of established credibility, you will be allowed, even invited, to take space in the main convention center. It will cost you around $US.10.000 per day for the four day event, and there will be contractual restrictions on how often you may replace the work as it sells off the prefab walls. The organizers do not want this scene to look like a garage sale. (Of course it actually IS a gigantic garage sale but art always needs to preserve its air of magic, cultural purpose, even divinity, especially when it comes down to haggling with a great white punter dressed in Bermuda shorts and armed with a pocket full of investment funds).

Then comes the art. And it is comes with a Lichtenstein ”POW”.

Yes there are the shallow waves of post-Koons pop, breaking onto the shores of the post-anime, and washing up the mutant and the uber-cute. There are acres of inventive recycling and the collaging of materials, and products, and positions. The grunge and the grotesque, the big manipulated photos, and the Chinese pop like B bursary art on steroids. But in and amongst all that are gems, and it was a treat to see seminal 20th C. works rub up against the very latest: a beautiful gouache by an unknown Latin surrealist next to clever painterly hybrids from London, sensational video work by Gary Hill next to industrial German kinetic stuff, Yves Klein’s blue bodies next to Anish Kapoor’s reflected distortions.

The effect of stacking one art experience on top of another is the experience of Art Basel. It’s unreasonable to expect any one thing to get fully digested. It’s like drinking a 6-gallon smoothy, all the tasty bits get blended, and you get bloated and hold your stomach and you don’t want to know about individual flavours.

Nevertheless, the blue chip galleries (with their gorgeously groomed staff) try to retain their distinct flavour with superior framing, lighting and more space allocated to the work. Lesser galleries aim for some kind of standout spectacle or signature effect designed to hook the cruising eye.

The competition to register a splash, to get press, is not a kind competition for quieter more reflective work. Nevertheless there is probably more art world democracy here in this pinnacle of late capitalism, than anywhere else. Every work on show here has a similar shot at recognition and sales. Given all that, a personal favorite work was the Paul McCarthy chocolate Santa with butt plug, cast in an unlimited edition...for the greatest consumer society on the eve of the greatest retail season ( Xmas) the artist was offering the masses a product to satisfy (or to stuff) the lust for food, sex, art and investment all at once. Good value at $100.00 a piece (contact me, I can get you one... add 35% plus freight...I’m serious)

Does this kind of big art fair have relevance for art in N.Z?

Yes…as an art lover this is where one gets to see the rip-tide current of ideas, moods and techniques of the day, and these are universal and relevant.
No... because this scale of market is not possible in N.Z. and maybe the work that is most relevant to the circumstances, audience, community of N.Z, would not have relevance here. (Although there would be no harm in slapping some big photos on plexiglas and hoping some German CEO on his way to snap up Warhols might, on a whim, drop 20 grand at your feet.)

Does this kind of fair do any good?

Yes. On the final day of the fair, a Sunday, a reported 220 private jets flew in to Miami to score, on last minute advice, whoever was hot. This was the most successful art fair ever in America.

Sales and visitor numbers were up 15 - 20% on last year. The type of visitor was interesting: it was not just those with the jets; there were family groups with children; people who hadn’t been advised as to what was cool but who responded to what was fun. And the whole thing was fun: it was a new popular sport, an alternative to the mall, the beach and college football. Not a bad thing... Art In America...a populist experience ...who would have guessed? It might even be significant.

Does this kind of fair do any harm?

Some artists and dealers whine about the inability for work to generate its true mojo in such a circus, and the damage done by the market in secondary sales to the credibility and visibility of hot contemporary work: art that is stalled in its ascendency
when retired matrons make investment purchases of work they hate on the advice of someone’s personal consultant, and the work sits brooding and scalding on a beige wall 18 floors up looking down on its owner out on the golf course, while she looks back, waiting for its value to double and while the Cuban gardener gets his own back by unnecessarily revving the leaf blower and destroying the retirement peace for around 14 holes.

And then another image comes back to me... back on South Beach on the opening night of the fair, drenched in adulation and bottled water, Iggy Pop, draping his arthritic hand over the microphone and rasping, ”Oh baby, these art fairs can get sooo lonely.”

Photographs by Stuart Shepherd