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, October 6, 2009

The proof of the pudding

New Artists show: Fresh Gallery Otara, Newcall, None
5 September - 10 October 2009

We have here one of those classic scenarios where a show is tortured by internal philosophical conflicts that disrupt pragmatics: an exhibition which normally involves a yearly curation of work from new (hitherto comparatively unknown) artists - selected from a national pool so they can be exposed to a big Auckland audience. However this time, for reasons of hoping to embrace a wider democratic participation so she is not a ‘gatekeeper’ (though if you take on the job, I think it is something you can’t escape) the director/curator has delegated the responsibility to three artist collectives. They do the inviting and are part of a process where the Means is more important than the Ends.

Despite the honourable philosophical intentions, this is not a happy result – for Ends count, and Art and philosophy are not interchangeable. The curator should not have got sidetracked by artist communities and sub-committees. She is paid to make decisions that achieve certain outcomes - like quality shows; not to share power.

Yet although the curatorial deferral achieved by passing the baton to Fresh, Newcall and None hasn’t worked, there are some good things. A few.

First of all Fresh Gallery Otara handle the situation really well. The film Small Axe 09 made by Tanu Gago, Leilani Kake, Visesio Siasau, Serene Tay, and Angela Tiatia is a fascinating series of conversations between Pacific Island and Maori women about the pros and cons of hair straightening, and its relationship with the dominant Eurocentric culture. It is related to some of the projects that some American black artists, like Lorna Simpson for example, have created, but using direct spoken language and music instead of poetic written texts or rarefied, elegant images. The issues raised seem to include freewill, personal taste, self esteem, changing community codes of ‘ethnicity’ perhaps, and new mores for ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’ bodies.

Fresh present a united front and have come up with a good product, an excellent ‘Otara’ brand. They save this exhibition from being a total disaster. Newcall in contrast to Fresh seem split by different factions. Their work is fragmented in its content and aspirations. The reading library in the main space is excellent – but those books and magazines were always available in the ARTSPACE office previously anyway, and more of them. Newcall’s idea of splicing a trimmed page of a theoretical text into each shelved book, and then reselecting some such books to be taken to the English collective Form Content in London via hand luggage is inane with its decontextualization. It is a trans-global group grope where the ARTSPACE gallery visitor is forgotten, because the best books disappear.

The theme of democratic process is the content of much of the purple ARTSPACE brochure, particularly in the Newcall section, and this continues with some significant discussions in the publication of Matters 3, now edited by John Ward Knox. However writing and art that awakens enthusiastic reader/viewer interest doesn’t achieve that through bald content alone. It requires layers provided by style, tropes, and poetic inflection - so that audiences are not excited primarily by political rhetoric, guilt, or desire to be pious, but through pleasure – mental or bodily. Information or argument by itself is tedious.

There are certain artists in the Newcall ‘team’ whose work I personally hold in high regard but this ‘democratic’ project turns their conspicuous talent to slush. Everything gets muddied up with incompatible elements made into a sort of thematic cold porridge. Scrape away that conceptual sludge and Clara Chon’s vertical glass slot in the wall, Sunday Minimalist, is witty as a self-portrait (it is like a negative version of Robert Morris’ Box For Standing In), as is Layla Rudneva-Mackay’s semi-autobiographical computer audio-text, A Wire To Fire Into His Heart, with its changing loop structure and vivid language.

None is a studio collective in Dunedin with a space set aside for projects that are implemented when the need arises. Consequently putting a live stream into their gallery when all they can think of is solving storage problems in the basement is like a lot of this show, a waste of time and money. Instead of being paralysed by fears of being perceived as a ‘benevolent auteur’ Emma Bugden should have accepted her salaried role as ‘Prime Mover’ more fully, travelling high and low seeking out under-exposed artists from all over the country (some connected to collectives, some not) and who are in fact ‘new’ – very few here are. A tragically wasted opportunity caused by a failure of nerve.

No comments: