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.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Admirable Russian idiocy

Gluklya & Tsaplya (Factory of Found Clothing): The Greatest Idiot in New Zealand
Snowwhite (Unitec): 9 March - 20 March 2009
MIC Toi Rerehiko 7 March - 18 April 2009

Marcus Williams, the lecturer and curator at Unitec has done Auckland a real service in bringing out these two Russian women to introduce us to their Neo-Marxist and feminist interventionist practice. The last time we had Russian artist visitors was when Greg Burke brought Brodsky and Utkin to Wellington's City Gallery in 1992. So now, with this their utopian project that encourages peace and harmony, Gluklya and Tsaplya function in a littoral way, with one foot just barely touching the art community (like a tag-wrestler’s corner) and the other more firmly in the much larger ‘life world’ (the ring). It is so ambitious.

I’m also impressed by the thoroughness of this Unitec - MIC collaboration and how the two exhibitions both need to be seen for the whole project to be understood. (The Snowwhite show has far too short a duration.)

Now personally, and here is a point of contention, unlike these utopian, vehemently political artists, I don’t believe art has to be compassionate or ‘on the side of the weak.’ I’m not saying it shouldn’t, only that moral behaviour and good art don’t always march to the beat of the same drum. I accept that wonderful artists can be morally dubious. They don’t have to be noble. They can even be despicable – and so be deserving of derisive comment for their actions as people. However I see personal behaviour and private beliefs as separate from quality in art. Some artists – like Lena Riefenstahl, have done amazing work that had evil consequences. Great thinkers like Heidegger and de Man wrote dreadful things at certain periods of their lives, yet their contributions to the history of philosophical debate live on. When Gluklya and Tsaplya say ‘Compassion is an understanding of the weakness of others’, and we apply it to artists, that is exactly right.

Okay, the shows. Each has two parts. One focuses on The Idiot project in Auckland; the other on contextual material that sheds light on the modus operandi of the Factory of Found Clothing. In Snowwhite that is a display of modified women’s clothing made in Russia and not for sale, and in MIC it’s a selection of terrific, surprisingly entertaining videos.(The ones with the marching sailors and posing businessmen holding white dresses show just how persuasive these artists can be.)

The Auckland project is centred on finding somebody comparable with Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin, somebody who is totally forgiving, selflessly compassionate, and magnanimously generous to all. (Sounds impossible doesn't it?) All five nominated individuals who made up a short list from which one was to be chosen, are highly esteemed because of their openhearted community service, but are not necessarily innocent of the ways of the world like Myshkin.

So which one of the five was voted to be the ultimate, the ‘greatest’ Idiot? A community worker, Ivy Smith, won for her care of multi-cultural youth in New Lynn, and so she has a 'minishow' in MIC where she discusses her work, personal background, and what motivates her. The organisation she is linked to will receive the proceeds from sales of garments donated by the four other finalists, and proceeds from other sales from the Utopian Shop at Snowwhite. These articles of clothing have been modified by the artists and their helpers with stitched symbolic emblems, printed fabric photographs and personal motifs like tattoos. Her own modified garments will also be gifted to her.

There is something quite fascinating about these Russian intellectuals committed to building a better world by incorporating methods that sometimes suggest white magic and very ancient ritual. The Russian garments on display at Snowwhite are intriguing - even hilarious - with sewn on ambiguous references to sex and motherhood (such as nipples/teats or phalluses/rusks), or working groups in factories and families (with photographs or stitched on newspaper clippings).

Yet for me, it is not the social value or moral worthiness of the endeavour that makes it good art (such questions about it as ‘art’ are irrelevant to its pragmatics anyway) but the clever organisation of its interlocking components on different sites, the humour and energy of the clothes and video, and the depth of the knowledge and passion behind the project. We have so little involvement with Russian art anyway (if that is what it is?) so it is a great chance to see what the Unitec residency can do. Explore both venues if you can.

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