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.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Billy Apple ® paperback

Billy Apple ® : Source Book 7/2009
Edited by Zoë Gray, Nicolaus Schafhausen and Monika Szewczyk
Essays by Christina Barton, William Wood, Michelle Menzies and Bénédicte Ramade
Designed by Kummer and Herrman
112 pp, coloured illustrations
Witte de With Center For Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2009
$49.95 (Parsons)

It looks like 2010 is going to be a bumper year for exciting Billy Apple publications. Top of the list will be a sizable monograph from Christina Barton; then a selection of other authors in another Apple tome, and finally an anthology of Wystan Curnow essays on Apple and other artists.

In the meantime, just out in Auckland last month but published a few months earlier in the Netherlands, this small paperback - in English. It is a much needed addition to Wellington City Gallery’s As Good As Gold (ed. by Burke and Curnow, 1991), Tina Barton’s The Expatriates (2005), Leanne Pooley’s remarkable video documentary Being Billy Apple, and various assorted periodicals and catalogues. It is small - but crammed with detailed discussion - and fascinating for Apple enthusiasts because three of the four writers are new to New Zealand readers. And like Barton (the Director of the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University) they all are exceptionally knowledgeable. The book was designed to accompany last June's two part Apple survey at Witte de With, The History of The Brand, and Revealed /Concealed.

For her contribution Christina Barton has taken nineteen crucial years from the lives of Barrie Bates (b.1935) and his 1962 creation Billy Apple to present a chronology that contextualises for a European audience Apple’s career so far. Each of the selected years has been chosen from within a span of seventy-four years and used to elaborate on various key projects within his conceptual development, drawing out the historical and social contexts within New Zealand, London and New York. Barton’s grasp of Apple’s early life (as Bates) is formidable and her experience as a tertiary educator and curator comes through in the clarity and depth of her writing.

I can’t say the same for Michelle Menzies whose text on occasion is dryly academic and obtuse. Yet the approach she takes, the structure she uses, is clever and very interesting – using Gertrude Stein’s accounts of a masterpiece and selfhood to analyse Barrie Bate’s transformation, and most of it engages. Mixed in is Menzies’ account of her own friendship with Apple, expressing surprise that older artists would be curious about younger ones, as if such transgenerational conversations and bonding were rare for the art community.

What is intriguing about Menzies’ analysis is her discussion of Apple’s tenacity in parallel with Stein’s obdurateness. She compares these two resilient purists, their obsessive excavation and reconstruction of personhood and their very different use of repetition. Her description of Bates’ reification as ‘fossilized’ in the form of Apple is a wonderful foil to Barton’s nineteen ‘slices’ and Stein’s notion of ongoing-ness.

French curator Bénédicte Ramade provides a discussion of one aspect of Apple’s practice, focussing on his gallery critiques and what he calls ‘activities’ - actions maintaining gallery and community spaces and the Apple body as artwork. She gives a detailed account of his Witte de With gallery transformation and then discusses many of the seventies New York works Tina Barton included in the recent Adam show. Ramade’s footnotes, based on her conversations with Apple in Europe, are particularly lively - especially when Apple denounces (other artists') performance and narrative works as the product of failed actors or writers, or when he describes a drive to clean or tidy as a public need or community service. She doesn’t see Apple’s activities here as obsessive compulsive behaviour (which others do, as indicated on Being Billy Apple). Rather it is the result of a partnership with the spectator where “the ethics of his role as an artist are at the heart of this formal research.” A surprising (and I think unconvincing) take on this period of his work.

William Wood - a Vancouver-based art historian - provides essential discussion of Apple’s development of himself as a brand, and his fixation on art’s ubiquitous commercial underpinnings. As a non-New Zealand writer Wood’s take on Apple is highly illuminating, starting with an examination of the artist/patron relationship, Kant’s account of art with his ‘free’ versus ‘mercenary’ distinction, and moving on to Apple’s remarkable Transaction series of the early eighties, his related use of apples cast in solid gold, and his planned use of cultivated fruit to be marketed within the Billy Apple brand (a now registered trademark) – what Thomas Crow calls ‘a service economy’.

Wood's essay discusses the most crucial component of Apple's career in my view, even more important than his creation of himself as Artwork. Apple’s art about procedures of fiscal and other types of exchange is particularly fascinating because it gained acceptance in New Zealand long before anywhere else, and is I think his most unique contribution to Conceptual Art. Apple's desire to baldly present aestheticised receipts or contracts showcasing the commercial machinery of the dealer system (and mechanisms outside it) was too radical to initially gain acceptance with his northern hemisphere dealers. They were reluctant to present them – scared off possibly by the confrontational nature of his 1979 ‘The Given as an Art-Political Statement’ New Zealand tour.

This suggests something interesting about New Zealand in the early eighties, that an art climate had evolved where the Art For Sale and Transaction works could flourish. It might perhaps have been Apple's long friendship with Wystan Curnow that enabled this to occur (their collaborative text and design work in Art New Zealand 15 having positive influence here), or it could have been his friendship with then dealer Peter Webb – or both. Either way, that it happened is quite remarkable. Something extraordinarily special.

No comments: