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.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Call for Action (Beyond Art)

Jim Allen: Hanging by a Thread II
Michael Lett
4 February – 7 March 2009

The strangest of images greets you through the glass doors when you enter Jim Allen’s latest exhibition at Michael Lett’s: a photograph of a collage of an angel. It seems to be a life-sized self portrait, made up of flayed body parts from medical text books and collaged newspaper texts. This thin-skinned and ‘sensitive’ artist-angel has winged feet like Mercury, is wearing a halo in which is embedded the word ‘saboteur’, and carrying at crotch height a small Greek temple in which is burning the flame of liberty.

I thought at first this image was laden with irony, that Allen was doing some kind of self critique (especially with the nimbus and flame) that re-evaluated his earlier interventionism - but now I think it is more complicated. Though there definitely is humour, a lot of self-mockery, this is still serious. Very much so.

This is confirmed by the urgency of the show’s title and by the fact that below the collage on the right-hand side is a small inverted photograph of a hooded Iraqi prisoner of the American forces, being tortured at Abu Ghraib. The ‘real’ world here is presented in vivid contrast to that of the sincere but sheltered realm of art-activism and pedagogical models.

Going past the collage and entering the inner gallery, we find three types of presentation: three coloured photographs at eye-height on two of the walls; four small sculptures on long sticks at eye height in the middle of the oblong room; and on the floor two small LCDs with videos connected to earlier performances.

There is a hierarchical structure here in this multilayered installation. As you would expect from such an influential artist and teacher, Allen has positioned his components with eloquent precision. The photographs show a bandaged tree (‘heal our ecosystems’ it seems to say), some bones stacked on a chair (inaction leads to disaster?) and a hospitalised Arab boy sitting up in bed (protect the innocent).

This last image has an abstract formula placed on the wall alongside it, taken from a cybernetic coursebook. Here Allen seems to be ridiculing art that is over-academicised and deterministic. The dry, impenetrable theorem seems motivated by sarcasm.

Even more in your face are the sculptures. They are about human agency and the viewer’s ability to act. A bloody bandaged finger (the nurtured body’s power to heal) and a piece of hair (the body’s ability to replenish) are in juxtaposition with a quote from Brazilian artist Lygia Clark about righteous anger (“the mouth which is transformed into a language of itself to the bite of rage”) and a dirty cloth (power to wipe away ignorance and clarify?).

At some distance below eye height and comparatively isolated on the floor, the two LCDs let Allen comment on the gap between art and life, elaborating on the ironic heroics detectable in his collage. The right-hand one shows the movements of Peter Wareing, a flim-maker who was recording Allen’s recent performance of News, the newspaper crumpling work, in New Plymouth, but reveals nothing of the performance he was documenting. The other on the left shows a section of Parangole Capes, an older work where four tied up and blindfolded performers, swaddled in layers of calico and hessian, try to wiggle and roll their way to the centre of the gallery where they can help release each other.

The first seems to be about losing sight of a clear objective, about not being cognisant of a ‘bigger picture’; the second about the inability to feel (physically and emotionally), about desensitisation. Both LCDs refer to art’s remoteness from global issues currently acknowledged as urgent. Allen appears to be implying that art is irrelevant now, it is ossified and dead and political action should move on without it. He is using art to reprimand itself, perhaps even repudiating his own past as artist and teacher – and waving the flag for much bigger issues instead.


John Ward Knox said...

Just a small clarification - an LED is a Light Emitting Diode, an LCD is a Liquid Crystal Display - a flatscreen that is.

John Hurrell said...

Thanks John, for pointing that out. Have fixed.

Readers, if you ever spot any factual or grammatical errors or misspellings, like John has done, I'd appreciate it if you let me know. Sometimes certain errors are staring me in the face and the penny never drops. Once told, I'll sprint to my computer and fix it.