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, August 3, 2008

Countering the Public Good

Public Good: Itinerant responses to collective spaceEd. by Paula Booker and Marnie Slater
110 pp, illustrated b/w, colour
Published by Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington, July 2008

Up the hill a couple of blocks from where I live in Kingsland, is the experimental art space JAR, a venue devoted to long term quality installations that can be viewed by anybody who happens to be passing down New North Road. The plaque on the front proudly announces “Art for the public good.”

My feelings about this are a little ambivalent. On the one hand I applaud the JAR trust for providing these exceptional exhibitions out of their own pocket. That’s fantastic. On the other I wonder to myself, who is this “public” that so benefits? (Me and who else?) What is this “good?” Do the regular frequenters of the nearby Morningside shops gain much, if anything, out of it? I doubt it.

Of course the slippery notion of ‘public’ has been under scrutiny for some time now. One forum I went to in Auckland on this was part of the Public/Private Triennial (2004), where the history of this spatial/social concept was discussed by media lecturer Misha Kavka in a memorable preamble to a discussion on reality television. Her observations about the history of the term ‘public sphere’ (looking at Habermas and others) were extended later that day when AAG Curator Ron Brownson delivered a paper by Nick Perry (who was away sick) about the social consequences of the invention of the telephone. Both discussions made me realise how little is widely known about such a ubiquitous term. This little book helps change that.

The achievement of Public Good lies in the way it questions its title. A beautifully designed anthology of essays, prose, poems and images, very aptly chosen and usually lucid, it has lots of surprises. One pithy (albeit obvious) question it asks on the back cover is whether the title phrase is used to maintain order and deny plurality. Such a theme is particularly well explored in what seems to be a ‘keynote’ essay by Simon Sheikh who makes parallels between preconceived notions of public sphere and the changing sites and practices of the contemporary art community. He develops Michael Warner’s Foucauldian concepts of counter-public (the ‘conscious mirroring of the modalities and institutions of the normative public….to address other subjects …other imaginaries’), stressing the fragmentation, and swinging the discussion to Chantal Mouffe who in her notion of ‘an agonistic public sphere’ sees the opportunity for group antagonisms to be repositioned so that the separated pieces are connected within a ‘conflictual consensus’ to form ‘chains of equivalence’.

Christina Barton’s paper looks at Rosalind Krauss’ ccncept of the expanded sculptural field and modifies it by blending in the social and temporal, which after considering Dario Gamboni’s ideas on the vandalism of public monuments, she sees as offering a counter-narrative to art through the notions of action and event. She regards the current repudiation of public monuments as part of a dematerialization made apparent in videos like Eric Baudelaire’s Paris metro video/poster installation/performance, Sugar Water – this work of course being recently discussed in Reading Room by Tan Lin. Barton’s comments on anti-monumentalism are paralleled later on by a wonderful suite of photos (introduced by Chaitanya Sambrani) showing an itinerant colonial monument (replicated in Portland stone by Tushar Joag) being moved across Bombay overnight, and posing in selected sites in transit.

Oddly though, in this book, the theme of the demise of monumental commemorative sculpture is a bit of a red herring, especially if it is seen as symptomatic of a scattering of social fragments anyway, but most obviously it scrutinises public space. Clearly most of the articles examine this - and some ‘porous’ private space too: you have a wonderful, richly detailed piece of writing by Shuddhabrata Sengupta (of the Raqs Media Collective) on telephone booths in New Delhi; a sprawling but excellent article (with great photographs) by Harold Grieves critiquing Christchurch suburbia; Rudolph Hudsucker excoriating the political control of inner city Wellington; and Dane Mitchell on streets as the mechanisms use to maintain and enforce urban control, and barricades to resist it. A photograph of Mitchell’s red flag (in Starkwhite) also provides a very striking cover for the book.

Paralleling these are artists commenting on the materiality of the physical social space (Kate Newby), or within a published zone the overlapping, off registered or even splayed relationship of constructed documentary image with fictitious interview (Fiona Amundsen / Tim Corballis).

Kate BrettKelly-Chalmers examines artist Kah Bee Chow’s public performances in downtown Auckland (Britomart) and Canary and Special Galleries, while Spiros Panigirakis elucidates on different alternative varieties of public art practice in Melbourne. Each typology he provides (research; the taught; the salon; the community; the commission) is accompanied by a wildly imaginative, mischievously humorous, finely detailed diagram – Panigirakis synthesizing image and text together perfectly.

Where Public Good morphs into Private Good can be seen in the prose of JC Borrelle. She has devised a fanciful meditation on creative endeavours such as photography and their relationship to private memories (especially those of childhood), skilfully mixing theoretical issues in with whimsy to create an intriguing, very entertaining, little fable.

The book’s theme drifts back to the Public Good with the humorous poem by Rachel O’Neill on the death of Socrates. His death is taking longer than expected (“the shiver of parliament”) and he is worried about his chickens - especially his activist ones (like Plato). A clever inclusion here from O’Neill.

Thoughtfully assembled with a snappy array of images to escort the texts into your mind, Public Good is a very fine contribution to art debate in this country. Any didactic polemic that you might expect from Enjoy is incredibly discreet. It feels light but not frothy. There is plenty of substance, but it doesn’t grind you down. The varied but stimulating contributions lock together well to create a publication of lasting value.

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