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, September 13, 2008

Auckland 08: Walters Sweepstake

The Walters Prize 2008
New Gallery
13 September - 23 November 2008

It is hard to believe it is six years since the inaugural Walters Prize exhibition opened at the New Gallery with its line up of Michael Stevenson, Gavin Hipkins, John Reynolds and the then unknown, Yvonne Todd. For a country that doesn’t have a national gallery the occasion was something all Kiwi contemporary artists were ecstatic about - a ray of hope that this country might see its artists not as 'dole bludgers' but as creative people with vocations. This new show reveals a lot about the event at this point of its short history, and the weaknesses of its organisational structure. For an Auckland-based prize that is meant to be championing the excitement of New Zealand contemporary art to the rest of New Zealand and the world, it is clearly floundering.

When I was at art school in the early seventies there were only four tertiary art education institutions in the whole country. Now there are more than that in Auckland alone, and the number of artists has escalated astoundingly. So when the selection committee for this year pick two past finalists (Reynolds and Robinson) to resubmit, something has to be wrong. The message is that Aotearoa doesn’t have the quantity and range of exciting practices to keep the exhibition continually fresh. In this country the inherent vibrancy needed doesn’t exist.

That is clearly not the case. More likely the committee didn’t do their homework and thoroughly scour through all the dealer exhibitions the length and breadth of the land. But with no South Island curator on the panel there was no incentive to ensure that. And with two of the four selectors from Auckland alone, the result seemed predestined to ensure Auckland parochialism, especially when the two repeating artists live in Auckland.

Enough about the politics. What about the work? The four exhibitions?

My personal favourite of the four line-ups of different years (so far) is the second one of 2004, with et al and von Sturmer. The other two exhibitors, van Hout and Fraser, though unquestionably superb artists, somehow couldn’t do themselves justice in their allocated spaces. That seems to be the regular pattern in all of the four biennial shows: in each - two crack shows; two forgettable ones.

Edith Amituanai’s Déjeuner, with its four photographs, seems only half an exhibition. She seems to have drawn the short straw in terms of space, but it shows her inadequacies as an artist as well. She is a consummate documenter of Samoan living spaces and rugby players living in France, but not an exciting thinker. Her approaches to photographic presentation are dull and conventional, even though the details of her recorded living rooms are rich and engaging. When clearly superior artists like Simon Denny (at Michael Lett) and Fiona Connor (at Gambia Castle) are ignored her inclusion looks like tokenism. I’m not saying it is, I know the panel is smarter than that, but it looks suspect.

(To briefly digress, am I here directly contradicting what I said earlier about a South Island panellist? I don’t think so. I’m not saying a South Island artist must be included, only that the panel has a South Island representative who can do the research and initiate a discussion of the issues – like what I’m doing here.)

Cloud, the work of John Reynolds, was shown in the AGNSW in the 2006 Sydney Biennale and consists of over 7000 little canvases bearing written phrases taken from Harry Orman’s ‘Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English.’ Occupying the stairwell space and first room on the New Gallery's first floor, this sprawling installation of row upon rippling row of small stretchers, from floor to ceiling, looks pompous - in the tradition of overkill exemplified by the installations of Ann Hamilton and Anthony Gormley. It’s an academic exercise about language that if chosen well could be interesting, but instead ends up all surface and triviality. As few of the paintings can be read anyway it becomes the dumbest sort of spectacle.

Lisa Reihana’s Digital Marae uses her two darkened rooms of glowing spot-lit photographs, moving image and sound to really stir her audience. It’s not subtle but it is innovative and entertaining - especially her images of mythic personalities within the Māori cosmology that in her hands become Neo-Gothic and Sci-Fi. There is even a hint of Hollywood productions like Batman. Though at times fragmented (her elegant images of a cane carrying dandy wearing tailored colonial attire and moko look out of place) her installation has considerable impact and will be the crowd favourite.

As I’ve said, Robinson like Reynolds should not be here - but seeing that he is, his installational revamping of his 2006 ARTSPACE project is my favourite anyway. It is all class, a polystyrene intestinal phallus run rampant, running down corridors and bursting through walls like an angry blind worm. Conceptually layered to include references from Tex Avery (Looney Tunes)and early Giacometti to Wittgenstein (duck-rabbit diagram) and Stephen Hawking (universe model), Robinson’s inclusion of blue beaks, rabbit ears, willies and doughnuts brings a festive chromatic musicality to his exuberant project.

So who will Catherine David give the $50,000 prize to in late October? David is not a person one would attempt to second-guess. Even as an expert on modernism’s relationship to - and blending with - post-colonialism, she is vehemently anti-formulaic. Though I think AAG messed up badly in the processes of this year’s exhibtion selection, I congratulate them on their selection of David as judge – an inspired choice that will help our profile globally if she relates to the diversity of our culture and the art made within it. And how can she not? Roll on October!


andrew said...

i dont think it even constitutes sitting on the fence to pick the judge as the winner, but to slate the finalists and praise the aag in their choice of international adjudicator is daft.

John Hurrell said...

Whilst I'd rather slate spineless commentators who don't identify themselves than artists,I do acknowledge you are doing me and eyeCONTACT readers a favour in getting the ball rolling. Artists though (me included - in whatever hat I'm wearing) are open to any sort of public response when they put their work on display. Are you advocating silence? Or do you want criticism to consist of bottomlicking flattery? I'm trying to provide a balanced assessment.

andrew said...

spinless perhaps, witless no: as for sycophancy picking catherine david as the best thing about the 2008 walters, may get you a special mention at the prizegiving.
I think balance would come from debating who could fill the shoes of this years most successful contemporary artist, and the definition of the terms, success and contemporary art.

John Hurrell said...

Well I've made a couple of suggestions already - though my gripe is really the structure of the committee meant to provide an accurate national overview. It's a waste of time discussing alternative definitions of 'success' or 'contemporary art' - most people reading this know exactly what they mean. Better to review the show and appraise the four contributions.

John Hurrell said...

Let me have a rethink about what I've just said about 'success' and 'contemporary art' - because admitedly it is complicated.
The Walters Prize aspires to be 'cutting edge' and innovative' but I imagine the relational aesthetic crowd must snort with laughter. Enjoy Gallery are consistently ignored -documentation of performances could easily be included - so that makes the WP very much Auckland biased. Some might argue Wellington is a bigger cultural player than Auckland nationally, thanks to Enjoy. That means that the WP is basicaly conservative because it doesn't methodically attempt to cover the spectrum. Where is the so-called 'post-object' stuff?

andrew said...

exactly, with the exception of Edith Amittuani, the Walters looks more like an artworld knighthood for establishment figures,. Rather than encouraging debate of arts issues it becomes a tired complaint of arts politics.

John Hurrell said...

Let's look at its history:
2002 (Todd was the unknown finalist).
2004(von Sturmer was)
2006 {mmm...perhaps Brennan? Nah. No such figure this time round)
2008(Amituanai is a known figure, but - in my view - unexciting. She has a lot of supportrs though.)

It seems to me it would make more sense if it was for established figures, but the selection has been so indecisive from day one. They can't make up their mind what kind of artist the prize should be for. Maybe the Arts Foundation should be for established figures and the Walters Prize for genuine, recently emerged innovators?

andrew said...

and there is the rub; a recent innovator as opposed to an established one (i know, its an oxymoron) could become a form of cultural engineering at worst. at best a self fulfilling prophecy.
meybe they should just keep up the policy of giving the wp to gorgeous women.

John Hurrell said...

That last comment,....., insults both the judges and the winners, and proves you are true to your name - with nothing but five tiny dots between your ears. My point about established versus recent innovators is a response to the confusion made evident by the four varied sets of finalists. Nothing whatsoever to do with self fulfilling prophecies or cultural engineering. Only a question of focus, and what the aims of the Prize ought to be.

andrew said...

.....and that comment proves you have nothing but john hurrell between yours.

John Hurrell said...

Quite true. I keep shooing the bastard away but he keeps tippytoeing back in.