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.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Two Te Tuhi performances

Louise Menzies: Talking while Swimming
Riverside Ave Reserve
Harrell Fletcher: Come together - Manukau City 2008
Te Tuhi Centre of the Arts, Pakuranga
14 June 2008

These two performances were organised by Emma Bugden as part of Te Tuhi’s continuing Land Wars exhibition, and co-ordinated with a free Saturday bus trip out to Te Tuhi from ARTSPACE. I was curious to see what was going on, so I came along for the ride.

I don’t know the outer suburbs of Auckland at all, and had never been to Riverside Reserve or the Tamaki Estuary. Panmure was a foreign country as well, but the spacious beauty of the park and estuary was quite a thrill.

The suddenly inclement weather though, wasn’t. Before she started her routine, Louise Menzies wisely shepherded the 15 or so artlovers off the open parkland to under a tree on the shoreline, to gingerly step over the ubiquitous discarded condoms and keep out of the biting offshore wind.

Her carefully prepared talk was a mixture of anecdotes about parks, an analysis of Antonioni’s sixties film ‘Blow Up’ (a movie in which a park was a crucial element), the Parisian novel on which the film was based, the history of parks in general, and a commentary on the features of the Riverside reserve and its context. From the work’s title (Talking while Swimming), she might have originally planned to deliver her oratory while submerged – wearing a wetsuit perhaps. It’s a shame that she didn’t because the work needed theatricality. This despite it being extremely informative and at times funny. Menzies is not a charismatic speaker and the project was a bit like a school lesson. Not art that was particularly memorable, unless it was ‘Listening while Shivering.’

American artist Harrell Fletcher couldn’t make it as planned to attend his Te Tuhi performance, but his absence might have improved it. I like the idea of artists placing physical and psychological distance between themselves and their work, incorporating a ‘disembodied’ practice.

Fletcher’s project was a request to have an introduction by a group of Manukau residents to the region. Six people linked to Te Tuhi approached six local residents (whom they subsequently introduced to the audience) to speak for ten minutes on some subject they were passionate about, some topic that also reflected the region. The resulting six subjects were conservation of the Tamaki wetlands (Ros Nicholson), coaching a school soccer team (Harry Jekel), Pacific Island visual and community arts (Ema Tavola), the relationship between religion and science as elucidated by Swedenborg (Susan Heeps), and the complexities of beekeeping and honey harvesting (Terry McColl).

Both Menzies and Fletcher’s works tangentially raised questions about quality. The work was indisputably art (the roots of Relational Aesthetics go back via Fluxus to dada) but was it interesting? Could one care about it as Art, as distinct from caring about its subject matter? Can one separate the two? I certainly think so.

Information alone is not sufficient to engage an art public. The method of conveyance, the ‘conduit,’ the works’ materiality, is all important, its structure and efficacy. In these performances the speakers were the keys to any success the work might have, as were the frameworks for the works’ recognition and enjoyment as Art.

The distinction between Art and Life was not obliterated, or even attempted to be. The two are normally assessed differently with separate expectations, but in these works Art got in the way of Life. More so in Menzies’ case than Fletcher’s because Te Tuhi is, after all, a community centre. In Menzies’ project she had a specific art audience who would not have attended if she were not an artist. The work was more about delivery of style and persona, than information, though what she said was certainly interesting – but it was clearly bracketed as Art.

In Te Tuhi, the situation seemed to be the opposite, with an artist planning procedures which lacking his bodily participation, soon seemed invisible. Yet most of Fletcher’s speakers would have been indifferent to his absence, or to being elements of his artwork. They performed because friends connected to Te Tuhi had asked them to, and they could use their passion to convert others to their interests. A commonplace life situation where art was forgotten.

Images above are from Louise Menzies' poster for 'Talking while Swimming' (top) and Harrell Fletcher's 'Come Together' performance in Los Angeles last year (below).

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