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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mentally engaged (floating and gliding)

Bruce Barber: Reading and Writing Rooms
Te Tuhi, Pakuranga
13 December – 25 January 2009

Bruce Barber first became known (in Auckland anyway) in the early seventies as a performance artist, one of several taught by Jim Allen at Elam. Barber is unusual – then and now – for he is also a skilled writer with a passionate interest in Marxist theory. He considers himself a ‘littoral’ artist, though it might be argued he as an educator is too much a part of the established ‘art world’ and not sufficiently immersed in the ‘life world’. In other words, not politically extreme enough. Still caught up in the baggage of ‘an art career.’

Whatever the case, because Barber has spent the last thirty or so years living and teaching in Canada, his work is rarely shown here and so a mini-survey like this one at Te Tuhi - because of the esteem he is held as an artist and teacher – is of national importance. It is a twin of the excellent O-AR Jim Allen exhibition held in January 2007 at AUT, for both shows, with their documentation of Auckland City Art Gallery projects, highlight the brilliant radicality of John Maynard – the first director of the Govett-Brewster who then worked as curator at ACAG - while Ernest Smith was director in the mid seventies.

As the title states, three of the works (Vital Speeches (1982), Novel Squat (1998) and the gallery library where Barber’s notebooks and publications are made available) provide facilities for reading and writing. However thinking tends to be generated by the physical activity of writing, for as Roland Barthes used to say, reading begins after you’ve closed the book and start mentally responding. However these days you often don’t need books. Some Barber essays are available online, as are the speeches found in the magazine Vital Speeches that he places in his installation, and which you are invited to read (sarcastically or with sincerity) aloud into a microphone linked to speakers. You are invited to perform to an imaginary audience seated in rows facing confrontationally – in opposing parts of the room with no compromise possible. A surrogate for the artist perhaps, inside his installation.

Even more than the activities of reading and writing Novel Squat invites you to add to an ongoing novel on a computer in an elegantly fitted space with red chairs, a couch, pot plants and two canaries in a cage), the dominant image in this show is the door. All eight excerpts from Vital Speeches, on the installation walls, feature door images somewhere. The writers include Henry Jackson, Pope Paul VI, Ronald Reagan, Leonid Brezhnev and J.H.Warren, and are so varied the texts never fail to surprise.

There are two other works that discuss doors, like Vital Speeches, using them as metaphor. One uses a LED electronic signboard of moving words to spell out a drastically pruned down quotation from Kafka’s The Trial:

Before the Law stands a door keeper and I am only the least terrible of door keepers. The third door keeper is so terrible I cannot bear to look at him. No one else could ever be admitted here since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.

The work speaks of many things to which one might want to gain access: artistic intentions, career positioning, community status, personal happiness, economic stability, certain forms of knowledge or skill.

On the wall below the noticeboard is a large peephole, like those commonly found in doors, next to the locks and security chains, through which the gallery visitor can be scrutinized.

The other ‘door work’ is Work to Rule, a large very elegant installation in the main Te Tuhi gallery. This is Barber at his best, a powerfully direct, spatial and linguistic experience not mediated by photographic documentation – as in many of the other works. The square room is divided by a long white wall consisting of ten doors that alternate with their hinges so that half open towards you, half away. The front doors have red letters that say ‘Worker Rule’, and the back ones have black that state ‘Work to Rule.’ One implies trade union solidarity, the other employer-enforced contractual control. Like Vital Speeches you are invited to take a position, to stand on either side of ‘the fence’.

There is another dimension to this work, in that the sign writing was executed by an experienced professional teaching a younger trainee their skills. With modern computer-cut technology, this manual method is rapidly disappearing, especially now more than in 1981 when Barber did the first version of this work. Each of the two signwriters had to negotiate their own terms of employment, either an hourly rate to do all twenty letters (Worker Rule), or a fixed fee (Work to Rule).However these artisans are not mentioned on the wall label. That their names are missing is a political statement in itself, just as putting them on would be.(Perhaps they could have been asked - and that stated?)

In Barber’s exhibition there are fourteen works (including the library display) giving us a representative sample of his career. Most of them consist of black and white photographic documentation (printed images or video) of performances in the seventies. Some of them I think you really had to be present to grasp the event. Bucket Action (1973), for example, whether in Auckland City Art Gallery (see W. Curnow and J. Allen’s New Art book) or later in Kerikeri Community Hall (See Splash magazine #2), seems a lot more than merely Barber’s blind-folded spatial negotiation through a difficult set of obstacles in order to perform certain tasks. The smell of the thawing fish, the sound of slopping water in his alternating buckets, the sound of his bucketed head accidentally hitting the horizontal iron pipes – all would have helped create a vivid experience for all who attended – and the displayed visual documentation only captures a small part of that.

Likewise some works, like Hand Game (1974), Like a Bat Out of Hell (1974), and Talking to Myself (1971) simply lack precise information as to what actually occurred. They need detailed explanatory wall texts, maybe even sound recordings – though perhaps Barber’s recently added audio tour guide has helped remedy that.

Gum Box (2004), a Perspex box filled with chiselled off chewing gum ‘patties’ acquired during a performance of thirty hours of voluntary ‘community service’, is intriguing as any such box in the style of Arman would be, yet which community did Barber think he was servicing? Personally I enjoy seeing dried gum on the footpaths and lamp-posts, it doesn’t offend me, and in fact it makes city life more visually pleasurable – though I am repulsed by seeing it in people’s mouths. It is like tagging, hoardings, and posters, part of the visual richness of a modern urban environs, and not physically dangerous like broken glass. Picking that up, like Billy Apple once did as a work, is far more community oriented.

The earliest work, Untitled (Float/Glider) from 1972, is a sculpture made of railway sleepers (balanced on rollers) which support two parallel steel strips from which is suspended a sleeper ‘floating’ in a central steel trough. It intrigues because its use of equilibrium, and various horizontal and vertical balances and counter-pressures, implies something more than just playing with the physical properties of the materials. Like Hans Haacke’s Water Box (1968) a glass cube containing condensation, or later works by Jeff Koons with basketballs floating in tanks, there seems to be a larger metaphor present, one alluding to economic forces, factors that ensure the positioning and sustaining of a GNP or phenomenon like (say) the art market.

Barber’s best works are visually compelling and ‘read’ more effectively than any written text, having an inherent logic that gradually reveals itself to applied thought. The experience they provide draws you in, and curiosity kicks off processes that invite you to research further and perhaps use the facilities provided. Well worth a trip to Pakuranga.

Photographed works, from top to bottom, are: Vital Speeches, Kafka’s Castle (detail), Work To Rule (both sides),Bucket Action documentation Talking to Myself (Walkie Talkie, Tape Recorder Performance documentation), Gum Box (part of Diddly Squat)

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