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, May 10, 2008

Reading?...Who, What, Where?

Reading Room: A Journal of Art and Culture
Issue Two: Transcendental Pop
Published by Auckland Art Gallery
Edited by Christina Barton, Natasha Conland and Wystan Curnow
200 pp, b/w and colour illustrations

It is hard to believe it has been a year since Reading Room 1 appeared. Hot on its heels we have RR2: Transcendental Pop, another good looking, substantial, academic publication set to consolidate the initial impact of the first. Its theme moves Pop Art’s perception of the ‘everyday’ as an all immanent surface towards what might now (without irony) be beneath it. It rejects Warholian ‘shallowness’ to seek out a foundation behind or above what could be a mirage.

Several of the essays touch on themes and issues raised in Mystic Truths, the international group show on the Occult that AAG curator Natasha Conland presented early last year. They present a broader context for her exhibition, particularly the papers by Lars Bang Larsen (on the Occult) and David Craig (on Mystic Truth participant, David Hatcher). When it opened Conland’s project was somewhat mystifying. Larsen’s essay now makes it less so as he explores his fascination with the paranormal and its growth as a theme of growing relevance to mainstream art. Amongst the artists he discusses are two Conland included, Joachim Koester (who looked at Aleister Crowley’s temple in Sicily) and Maria M. Loboda (who prepared a curse within a particular configuration of carefully selected flowers).

In terms of ‘Transcendental Pop’ Larsen sees this renewed interest in the unseen as a symptom of a prevalent global sense of tragedy, the rise of a developing biopolitic and a flight from capitalist spectacle. The attraction of the otherworldly is part of a reversal of Frederic Jamison’s ‘waning of effect’ where capital turned everything into surface. Now there an ‘increase of affect’ where new states of the communal psycho-physical body have become a sought after resource for advanced capitalism.

In her examination of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film, Zidane, on the French goalkeeper, and Harun Farocki's Deep Play, a twelve screen video installation, Conland explains the presence of the transcendental within the motion and action of sport. She discusses the structures of subjectivity embedded in such mass spectacles, within a tension between the individual and larger group, and how these films and installations explore that through the use of different forms of presentation and treatment of the ‘live’ narrative.

Morgan Thomas’ discussion of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho starts by describing the different permutations of Gordon’s project and the role of Warhol in its genesis. Thomas analyses this artwork’s treatment of time, and views it as Baroque, with qualities such as folds, weightlessness and elevation. Although the later two aspects are feasible, to me ‘folds’ don’t seem applicable. Nor is it apt to compare this very unusual work with Baroque painters. It might be better to ponder the work of some eighties performance artists like the Butoh dancer Min Tanaka who is famous for his use of extraordinarily slow movement. The film is not wavelike (it doesn’t double back on itself to then repeat) but is about stasis as a referent, and incremental changes having an ongoing momentum.

Probably the most crucial text to the theme in this journal is Rex Butler’s discussion of Warhol, especially the films which he examines in the light of later developments by Koons and Hirst. He examines the notion of Warhol’s religiosity (as proposed by Jane Daggett Dillenberger) and how this actually contradicts the postmodernism normally associated with him, for it uncharacteristically introduces transcendence and depth.

To my mind the clearest and most pleasurable discussions in the journal are by Tan Lin and Daniel Palmer with their essays on two artists new to most New Zealand art enthusiasts: Eric Baudelaire and Darren Sylvester. While the former is particularly intriguing as a maker of films that defy category (they blend posters, still photography, performance and moving image), Sylvester’s images remind me of the late seventies portraits of children and teenagers by Jeff Wall, but with group compositions. They are images I would not personally normally be drawn to, but I especially enjoyed the content and style of Palmer’s argument, his use of surprising quotations from the artist, mixed with an accessible crafting of language.

In this vein the smaller sections at the back by Robert Leonard and Ron Brownson – on the late Giovanni Intra and Ed Ruscha – are a real treat. The much loved - and still sorely missed – Intra is given a much needed, insightful discussion by Leonard. With a Teststrip anthology of reviews appearing a couple of months ago, one hopes that perhaps a collection of Intra’s writings will appear soon. Brownson’s detailed account of Ruscha’s 1978 visit and Auckland Art Gallery Graphic Works survey is also a perfect contribution to the journal.

Two inclusions in Reading Room 2, though, baffle me. One is Aram Moshayedi’s article on Kamrooz Aram’s paintings (I can see the ‘transcendence’ but not the ‘Pop’); the other is David Craig’s article on David Hatcher. Craig used to write great pamphlets in the nineties on Michael Stevenson, but the freshness in his style has now been replaced by tedium. The sparkle has gone. There are several contributions like that, where the writing is somewhat turgid.

This issue worries me. This publication is deliberately pitched at a sophisticated, but very small audience, yet there is a growing market for more accessible publications that at the same time, don’t dumb down content. I am grateful for getting a free reviewer’s copy but one might speculate about how many people will actually purchase this Mayo Foundation-subsidised journal for their own libraries and future research. With a plethora of diverse tertiary institutions now established in this country maybe the hordes of newly educated art historians, artists and theorists will sustain it. Is that a realistic expectation? I wonder.

What this country needs is a classy magazine devoted solely to contemporary art that can win over a large audience. Reading Room though is not that. It is in essence a university publication, even though it is published by Auckland Art Gallery, and as such is closer to October than say Tate Magazine. So for a small country like New Zealand Aotearoa it is far too rarefied. It is pitched at post-graduate readers. Doctorate candidates.

The fact that it is not solely devoted to New Zealand contemporary art for its one issue a year, says a great deal about the background and interests of its editors, for it shows there are not, right now, sufficient NZ writers researching NZ art in this manner to sustain it or please them. I am delighted it exists, very happy indeed to read its enclosed discussions, but also aware that it is an opportunity lost – for what we have with Art New Zealand, our main national art periodical, is not a contemporary art mag but a promoter of historic art too. While Art News, the second contender, is good readable journalism but lacking in pithy issues.

There is a big audience of contemporary art lovers out there not catered for – desperate to learn more about this country’s contemporary art scene. Maybe the newly arrived Australasian publication Art World will help fill that need. Reading Room certainly won’t. It is the wrong sort of publication for Auckland Art Gallery (with its comparatively low door numbers) to be associated with. Something more accessible like Midwest would be infinitely more sensible, especially if it were smaller and came out more often. Having said all this - and declared my ambivalences - I'll still be first in the queue when Reading Room 3 comes out.


Catherine Hammond said...

As Reading Room’s managing editor my bias is obvious in regards to the value of this journal. However, you are absolutely right when you say there is not a big enough audience in NZ to sustain Reading Room. It depends on a small NZ audience and a growing international one – we had a flurry of orders following our recent eflux ad. One of the ideas behind RR as a journal was to position NZ art writers alongside international ones, and to have NZ artists discussed alongside international ones. We wanted to raise the game a little - that game being scholarly, academic art writing - in the hope that NZ artists (particularly contemporary ones) would get some serious attention in this regard. The same goes for NZ art writers who might be writing about local artists, but who might just as easily might be writing about Douglas Gordon or On Kawara or Harun Farocki. We’ve set high standards, true, but the rewards are there as well. RR sits on the shelves of most large NZ tertiary libraries, and international subscribers include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Institute, Centre Georges Pompidou, Chelsea Art & Design Library, Monash, AGNSW, NGV, Queensland University to name a few, and our publication exchange programme means that RR reaches libraries at the Tate, SFMOMA, many MOCA’s and about 100 other overseas art libraries. We encourage NZ art writers and academics to contribute – please! www.aucklandartgallery.govt/research/journal

John Hurrell said...

Thanks enormously, Catherine, for your very thorough reply. I guess I'm really puzzled why AAG is doing this and not say Auckland University. AAG could do something like Midwest or Tate magazine, sold through NZ bookshops and promoting NZ art for an NZ audience. Something much grittier than what is currently available, but also user-friendly, that would promote the municipal gallery locally too.

One great thing about RR is the lack of ads and its elegant look. This country needs something like what I've described out in the shops, a mag that is very smart while also easy to read - but also not crammed with ads. Something classy.

Catherine Hammond said...

Public galleries do have a research function too, just like universities. RR is actually published by the Gallery's E.H. McCormick Research Library (I'm also the Research Librarian) so it is closer in nature to an annual research bulletin, something that many public galleries with research libraries do in fact produce. So it's not really that strange. Where we depart from this model however, is that we're less inward-looking and publish research on things other than the Galleries own collections, with the intention of engaging with the wider art research community - but we also try to centre it in the Gallery's Research Library with the well-received (may I say!) archive section. That's not to say there isn't a need for the sort of magazine you advocate for. I'd certainly subscribe to it.