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.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Performance in downtown Auckland

Living Room
Curated by Pontus Kyander
Auckland CBD
19 - 26 April 2009

Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen: Complaints Choir (arranged and conducted by Sean Donnelly)
Gaia Alessi, Richard Bradbury: Cargo/Host
Cho Duck Hyun: Dark Water – The Antipodes Project
Aki Sasamoto (assisted by Arturo Vidich): Secrets of my Mother’s Child
Wen Yau: i-(s)wear – Tena Koe

Pontus Kyander is the current Manager of Public Art for the Auckland City Council. Pontus comes from Sweden, has been in Auckland for little under a year, and has become a well-known council figure among artists - approachable and friendly and regularly seen at gallery openings around the city. Here is a discussion of five of the dozen events he organised for Living Room, a week long, international performance fest held downtown. Any readers who attended those other performances I’ve left out - I’d be keen to hear your impressions.

First of all, a couple of gripes to clear the air.

The event was badly publicised. Most art enthusiasts didn’t know about it and I only found out by accident. This was the opposite of the Auckland Festival earlier in the year which was amazingly efficient in communicating with prospective audiences.

Also details for the artists’ talks at the end of the programme were not effectively communicated. I went to AUT on the Monday to hear the talks promoted in the handout and nothing was happening. No one knew what I was talking about.

Of the events I saw, the most amazing was the Complaints Choir - as witnessed in Kitchener Place, Vulcan Lane and Aotea Centre. The uniquely Auckland musical arrangement and performances were superbly polished, playing off delicious harmonies and witty lines (about the trials and tribulations of living in the City of Sails) through alternating male and female voices. However despite having about 23 singers the work needed a good sound system to really broadcast dramatically the achievements of the enthusiastic performers and Sean Donnelly the composer, and to compete with traffic noise and pedestrian chat. I hope recordings of this hilarious (but also gorgeous) song are played by the media - for the piece deserves to be heard nationally and internationally. Even non-JAFAs will love it.

On a less sensual but more ideational level, the two works by Gaia Alessi and Richard Bradbury were impressive as exercises in mischievous anti-ocular perversity; Fluxus style events that had a Dadaesque feel. Using the onsite shipping container as a sealable metal box they organised for the mid-day lunchtime crowds a invisible, very muffled performance by a suitably enclosed, small orchestra (a dozen members) of Handel’s ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ – apparently 260 years after it was first performed. The sequence of movements for brass and strings were clearly set out over a twenty-five minute period, the musicians filing in at the beginning, playing their baroque melodies exquisitely within the confines of the container, and then filing out after completion.

The night-time fireworks display was, despite itself, spectacular. White smoke billowed out of apertures in the cordoned off, fireman-guarded container and phosphorescent flares could be discerned through the horizontal door cracks. Now and then some irresponsible, sparking and whizzing jumping jacks would leap out and attempt to make a getaway, but to no avail.

This performance within the echoey metal box seemed cunningly arranged, using the aural properties and sound textures of the explosives in a knowing manner. Rockets would regularly ricochet off the clanging metal walls, and strings of cacophonous crackers make surging rumbling sounds. This work was impressively stupid. I loved its boneheaded disdain for common sense – denying its audience all that eye-shredding colour and dazzling white light they’d be longing to see.

Another artist who made good use of the available container format was Cho Duck Hyun with his installation. It featured a third-sized version. Using graphite and charcoal, he skilfully copied onto canvas enlarged photographs from his own Korean family history, incorporating into the installation European and Japanese images too. The container was then immersed in the sea for a few days so that the effects of saltwater on the images become a metaphor for time, physical decay, suffering and memory loss resulting from the cataclysmic forces of history.

After this dunking the box was hoisted up on to Princes Wharf for Living Room’s official opening. The works were then displayed in the Project Room at Starkwhite in a black replica box, with good lighting.

Nothing particularly dramatic resulted to the images from the saltwater, apart from the occasional streak and various migrating flakes of paint that came off the walls. The emphasis throughout was on the artist’s manual skills, and that the ideas potentially produced by juxtaposing different photographs from different cultural contexts, depended really on the viewer’s understanding of Korean history. Somehow, despite the ablution process, the works seemed dry.

Aki Sasamoto and Arturo Vidich’s performance in Khartoum Place was a lecture to the crowd about the search for personal happiness in life, starting with a discussion of categories of pupil in class and degrees of social success and goal reaching. Starting her talk by drawing chalky Beuysian diagrams on the back of a chest of drawers (she retreated inside those bottomless drawers later on) Sasamoto - in green jumpsuit – blended good advice with autobiographical anecdotes. At one point she elucidated about her own conflicted relationship with her mother, whom in the symbolic form of juicy grapefruit, she proceeded to chop up with blades on her boots, on the pretence of making chutney.

Vidich, taking the role of an oppressed self impeded by psychological baggage symbolised by a rickety stack of chairs, crawled around the space in a suit, dragging the useless furniture with him until it was pulled off him by invisible strings. The work was reminiscent of performances by the German artist John Bock, but without his wildly extravagant props, and had a refreshing looseness and spontaneity that endeared the performers to the largely non-art world bystanders.

The interactive performance by Wen Yau was more mysterious, obliquely about the transmission and loss of culture, involving initially a friendly chat at a desk in Khartoum Place about the passer-by’s family and where they are based. I told her about my sister who is living in Hong Kong (where the artist lives). After I had chatted for a short time about this she invited me to write my surname on any part of her body, and she would stamp her name on the same part of mine. She pulled back the collar of her blouse and showed me her neck and shoulder painted with several inked pictographs.

It occurred to me then that this work had overtones similar to Yoko Ono’s famous scissors and cut clothing performance where she provocatively invited people to cut and remove sections of her garments, but I wondered if I was being overimaginative. Thinking that writing on the neck or shoulder of a complete stranger would be alarmingly intimate (even if she did offer) I wrote my surname rather clumsily on her right cheek, and she stamped her name on mine. We were then photographed by her assistant, and I left to make my way home where I later I looked at her website. I found that Wen Yau is a ‘guerrilla’ critic who challenges (male?) supremacy with ‘her unusually tender and meandering writings’. Wen Yau's texts range from ‘perversion in the sexually seductive stories’…to ‘cultural reviews and other writings.’ It appears her interactions via artworks serve as some sort of catalyst for her literature. She sets up these situations that spark off her writing.

I hope Kyander does more of these performance based festivals. Next time he needs to circulate a lot more pre-show publicity about who is on their way here, and why. The event needs to be bigger in scope so that the art institutions beyond the Council’s footpaths get involved. That way a wider range of performance practice – a sort that is more varied in mood and concept, beyond entertaining coincidental pedestrians on the street but aimed at the art community already familiar with the genre – would get looked at.

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