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.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Devouring envelope

Sonya Lacey: From what position do you speak and in the name of what or whom?
Window, Auckland University Library foyer
16 October - 14 November 2008.

Recent Elam graduate, Sonya Lacey, is normally associated with sculpture or drawings, so this interactive, conceptual project is unusual. The title implies an interest in the political positioning of the viewer through their background demography – economic status, race, gender, education, sexual orientation and so on – looking at characteristics of privilege and power relationships within the Window audience and examining what they might assume about themselves in relation to the wider community.

Yet ostensibly, at first glance, her project is more about public speaking as a performative skill, sourcing material from various online questionnaires in teaching programmes to form questions which when answered, feed into the Window project and shape it. You yourself, if you wish, can click into the online component here and participate by answering the twenty or so questions.

In the Window gallery there is no direct reference to the online questionnaire, only a large papier maché ball on the floor and a stack of essays in the foyer by Cherie Lacey (The artist’s sister perhaps?) Her wordy meandering text centres around Emmanuel Levinas’ ideas on face–to–face encounters, while exploring the anthropological notion of ‘the gift’ as presented to the artist, a theme that vaguely continues within the online project, with the free use of other people’s questionnaires, and the reader’s possible contribution to her project. Basically though, the work seems to be this dull and indulgent essay - not what is in the gallery – that hogs the spotlight.

In other words the frame is the art in this show. The contextualising supporting material has usurped the exhibit. What was the footnote has gobbled up the essay, smacked its lips with a quiet burp, and caused the art to disappear, only to take its place. Like a cuckoo in a sparrow’s nest.

See what you make of the online questionnaire? Though hardly riveting, it is more absorbing than the gallery project. Only slightly.

What is interesting is the existence of galleries like Window, and how non-art students using the library might feel about such esoteric presentations. They probably, like me, believe in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and that – as in any field - experimental research, no matter how inaccessible or dry, is a good thing. However it is only a small community that enjoys this kind of practice and its very public presence in the foyer probably antagonises the rest, turning off any empathy they might have hitherto had for art.

There is a case that this ostrich-like attitude is damaging, this confrontational stance that deliberately ignores an opportunity to win a new audience. It prefers to waste it in favour of an agonistic rhetoric that only a few highly educated extremists will understand and where there is no artwork at all to be considered. Only family musings.


Charles Ninow said...

I have often thought about the way in which passers by, who do not have a vested interest in contemporary art, may view some of the work that is shown at Window.

The Window program, over the years, has been quite varied. However ‘antagonistic’ one exhibition might seem, it is only one moment in the space’s ever-cycling program. If ‘entertaining to look at’ could be considered a mark of accessibility, then in the last twelve months there have been plenty of shows that could be said to be fairly accessible; Three examples being Paintings, Mark Harvey’s I’m okay, you’re OK and Xin Cheng’s A Research Show. Contrasting these shows (that have a larger physical presence) with one like From What Position Do You Speak And In The Name Of What Or Whom? seems like an interesting move, rather than a wasted opportunity.

If you think it is important for Window to foster a relationship with those outside of the art world, then surely it is a far better strategy to show them interesting work, rather than treat them like idiots by showing them safe work that could only be read in one possible way.

John Hurrell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Hurrell said...

Thanks for responding, Charles. I used the word 'agonistic', which often describes avant-garde values in confrontational or territorial/ biological (and also Marxist) terms, as it seemed a political stance in terms of the site. I take your point about the range of Window shows, but while even an empty gallery would still be art, the ball seemed only cursory - so that the 'real' art was in fact the essay. I agree absolutely with what you say about the risks in only presenting safe work, only I dispute your claim that this show is interesting. I'd be keen to know more about why that should regarded as a serious possibility

Unknown said...

I misread agonistic as antagonistic - my mistake.

My stance on the essay is that perhaps it was used as a framing device. Even if an ornate frame appears more substantial than the work, it does not necessarily override it and become the art.
What I’m getting at perhaps is that, even if the conventions get in the way of the actual art, they are still just conventions and therefore need to be taken as a given. The subtleties can be criticised, but they are still something that exists outside of the work. Claiming that the work was cursory to the essay (an essay you didn’t particularly like), seems a little diminutive; it is a criticism that offers no way forward.
For me, wether or not a show is interesting, isn’t necessarily tied up with wether it is successful or not. I think we’d both agree that we can learn allot from our failures (that’s not meant as a judgement on this show); and we can learn just much from our successes. It may sound like a cop out; but just the fact that this show can be the subject of this sort of dialogue makes it interesting.

John Hurrell said...

You surprise me. I thought you'd happily say the essay was the work, and so what? - as if it were an Art and Language project or something.

I still wonder about the paper ball, as an exhibit. A token gift I guess, a very casual focal point for the show to kick-start talk like this.