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, September 30, 2009

Aqua (mass) media

Simon Denny: Starting from behind
Michael Lett
9 September - 10 October 2009

For this show the title is clever in at least three ways. First of all, the artist is using Michael Lett’s office as a display space, so Lett’s desk is now presented close to the Karangahape Road window - in the entrance space on the corner. The back room’s main contents are now in this front room and the first thing you see.

Secondly, the works in the large middle room are presented as four large trays standing vertically on the floor. In them are the backs of various TV sets - the plastic casings that enclose the tubes. The gallery visitor examines them from behind. And thirdly, the large room has four rectangular holes cut into the gib of the Edinburgh St wall – the same size as the trays - exposing the normally hidden outer wall of the gallery building; the inside plane of the double weatherboarded outer wall that is. Again, we are looking at it ‘from behind’.

The four vertical trays lined up on the floor have textured aluminium sides, mdf backs, and wrinkled or torn plastic fronts. For three of these trays, there are single, screen-printed, tropical fish on the plastic and mdf. These works are called backwards aquarium videos, and have either Grundig or Telefunken casings. The fourth has two suspended towels, each showing a screen-printed TV announcer with a monitor TV image behind him.

Denny’s dominant simile here is that of the goldfish bowl or tropical fish tank. His towels seem to allude to Marshal McLuhan‘s theory of ‘the medium is the massage’ where the tactility of various methods of mass communication has considerable physiological impact on our bodies and hence our minds.

The hermetic, watery world of the mains-stream media could perhaps be intended to parallel the ‘art world’ too. Beyond through the rectangular holes in the wall, there exists the so-called ‘life world’. Where folks like you and me fit in – in terms of these options - huddled over our various computers, I’m not quite sure.

In the end room, in a large cabinet holding a Philips television, is a DVD. Deep Sea Vaudeo is ostensibly a promotional video for selling televisions of different varieties of screen, one that extends the watery connection by having some ripples and a dark permeating tone as if immersed. We see these appliances on stands, or stacked, or on tables, about fifteen set up on a small stage in a showroom. Each screen depicts tropical fish and we see a camera crew filming the display.

Using slow pans and a background soundtrack of bubbling, bland muzak and softly spoken Japanese, it presents these televisions in the dark with glowing screens, or illuminated in a warm reddish glow. Sometimes they are lined up so we can see them in cross-section; other times we see them frontally.

With these televisions Denny includes some magazines and newspapers on stands. He seems to be making jokes about his Gambia Castle colleagues Fiona Connor and Nick Austin, the former with her exhibition of fake newspaper stands, the latter with his paintings of tropical fish on newspapers.

Late last year at Center in Berlin Denny had a small exhibition with Austin where he exhibited earlier Aquarium paintings in the same aluminium trays, but enclosing the front screens of televisions, not their backs. The properties of mass media is obviously a theme he is much preoccupied with.

As also shown by the Recent Haircuts show at Gambia Castle last year, his work is getting tighter and tighter as focussed gallery installations. And subtly funnier too in the way he alludes to the art community’s self reflexivity and sealed containment. Like Fiona Connor he is here making great use of the windowed frontage of Lett’s gallery, and the fact that it is situated on a corner like a sort of glasshouse. A structure easier to look into (like a fish tank) than look out of.

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