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, January 4, 2009

In a silent way

Tahi Moore, Kate Newby: Run!
23 November - 28 January 2009

Moore and Newby are two well known Gambia Castle artists. Moore seems particularly interested in the ambiguities of the reconstructed moving image, and Newby, the spatial and corporeal possibilities of 'treated' found or given form.

For this collaboration we see stretched across the inside of the plate glass window of the university gallery, a large rectangular piece of translucent muslin, stained with yellow and red blobs. It is similar to the suspended screen in Newby’s August ‘Thinking with your Body’ Gambia Castle exhibition.

Behind it, on a monitor discretely placed to one side, screens a looped, silent video in slow motion – presumably made by Moore. It shows two male figures (occasionally a woman replaces one of them), dressed in black, chatting about what they come across as they walk around the public spaces of an inner city area. The image is blurred by the milky material, though you can peek through a small gap on the far left side to see the screen from an angle.

The show is about thwarting the viewer’s desire for clarity and assessable meaning. The obstructing painted fabric screen seems to serve several purposes.

Firstly as a symbol for cultural mediation when attending generally to art, it denies ‘the innocent eye’, representing other sources of ‘pertinent’ or ‘necessary’ knowledge such as conversations, essays, wall labels, magazines, books etc.

Secondly it represents mood shifts and fluctuating abilities to concentrate, on the part of the viewer. Looking at energy levels, not knowledge sources. Also, its unique marks can stand for the problems of a particular experience – as presented by this exhibition only. The contingent nature of this library foyer encounter on one particular day.

For all that, this installation is not a satisfying experience. Its obliqueness is clearly deliberate. It is also a poor show, one that seems insufficiently thought through. It is not that it is difficult; it is that it lacks structure, and needs more coherence. The painted fabric and the narrative of the video seem so disconnected, that any linking logic is doomed to remain vague. Yet such logic is implied but not underlined. It doesn’t convince, or even wish to.

As artworks go, Ash Kilmartin’s wall essay on the silence of a portrait of a mime (poirot) is a far more resolved project, beautifully executed but not helpful for those looking at Run! A sceptic might argue Kilmartin's involvement is a smart-aleck joke about detective stories and Agatha Christie, but that is excessively cynical (like a novel with its last page ripped out) and convoluted. The essay is not integrated into being part of Run’s discussion, but remains separate. That's a pity, but is a common situation for galleries like Window and Newcall, where provided texts often undermine and not assist comprehension of the presented artwork.


John Ward Knox said...

I can't presume to speak for the entirety of the newcall writing program, nor that of windows, but I would like to elucidate on the merits of writing for a pinch of time.

My understanding of the purpose of writing is to provide an additional realm of discursive activity, seperate though intertwined with the artwork on show. I don't think writing should strive to historicise artwoks by stating their factual attributes, the artists intentions or the intrinsic educational values surrounding the piece.

Comprehension of the artwork is something that surely the art should inspire, being language afterall. The texts that are produced with this in mind (I am thinking of Emma Phillipps piece at newcall, of my own various pieces, and perhaps Cherie Laceys piece for Sonya Laceys window show) are made with a high value for the power of the written word as something with its own deep subleties and not simply as an index for the artwork.

The function of these pieces of writing is not instruction. For example, the structure of Emma Phillipps piece served as a literary counterpoint to Sam Rountree Williams paintings, echoing the illusory forms and evasive content. There was a sort of transliteration at play. With Cherie Laceys piece, the sentiment of the writing produced a reflective state which infused your approach to the artwork.

On that note, I think often the texts are produced with the value of an artwork. This is certainly true in Laceys, and in some instances in my own.


John Hurrell said...

Great to get your contribution, John, and it may be as you sensitively imply, that I am too preoccupied with 'instruction' - a result perhaps of working at different times in municipal art institutions.

Like you, I place high value on the power of the written word. After all I have set up this site, greatly enjoy conversations like the one we are having, and often make art using texts. Yet I do not think it is a certainty that art itself is 'language, afterall' - as you put it. The two are clearly connected but they are not interchangeable.

The role of the essay in a gallery can be one that floats free of the act of viewing the art, but in providing another cognitive experience it runs the risk of creating static, of interfering with the mental processes of attending to the work.
Clearly artists can decide such issues for themselves. What works best for them.

Lately I've been looking at some discussions of Ron Silliman's 'New Sentence' concept, where lines within certain poems or texts are deliberately independent of those on either side. Calculated non sequiturs in other words, that avoid any logical continuity or narrative threads.

To pick an extreme, it is possible to have essays that uphold this position in relation to the art, just as it is to have clashing unconnected components within shows like say those of Dan Arps that (at times)do the same. Yet what the artist might lose in audience comprehension (which audience I hear you say?...there are several) they gain in a sort of agonist stance, a confrontational rhetoric. Some might say 'a posturing of radicality.'

I find though I sometimes greatly enjoy the essays they often seem to be in the wrong context and should go somewhere else. They end up being irritating obstacles that compete with and not aid the art. They cut into the art experience, or mess with the art sensation, not having anything to do with issues of instruction or clarity, but making things unnecessarily complicated.

Part of this is a result of the ideology of universities, which is not the same as the ideology of art practice. Universities promote a certain method of articulating thought through the use of words. Artists gaining degrees buy into that, and it is a reasonable expectation that they do so. Yet to make art and be good at it involves other skiils too. Some artists might even have no language skills at all, and that reflects no failure on their practice, only on getting qualified to teach.

What I'm getting at with all this is that verbal dexterity is a handy tool for thinking and for communication, but not essential for art. Art is far wider. I suspect academic circles (read 'galleries for post-graduates') often forget that.