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, January 6, 2010

God’s ginormous cube-shaped spaceship

Richard Grayson: The Golden Space City of God
Te Tuhi
12 December 2009 – 31 January 2010

Richard Grayson is one of those extremely rare creatures who started off as an artist, became a municipal gallery director, then even an international Biennale director, yet still managed to sustain his own art practice. He is highly regarded in both roles. He even has a work in the Chartwell Collection.

His show at Te Tuhi is a remarkable installation, a small darkened cinema set up in the main gallery space, showing a forty-five minute film of a choir of 26 men and women singing under the guidance of a conductor, Kristin Roach – and filmed in San Antonio, Texas.

Working with the composer Leo Chadburn, Grayson has written a libretto based on the prophecies of an unusual American religious organisation, The Family. Here is his source material, and here in this link is a description of his writing. The startlingly detailed narrative he has taken from this unorthodox Christian group looks like the Book of Revelations blended into a Science Fiction fantasy.

Grayson presents their dramatic prediction in ten stages: (1.) It starts with the total collapse of the dollar based economy, followed by world chaos, famine and terror. Then the Antichrist arrives (with UFOs) to bring peace and a One World government. (2.) He redistributes the world’s resources, sets up a one-world economy, and after initially helping both Jews and Muslims, forbids all traditional varieties of religious worship. (3.) He declares himself to be God and builds a robotic statue to be worshipped, and starting to execute or starve all those who refuse. Possessed by Satan, he brands a bar code onto all his followers or a chip implant. (4.) God’s people resist, leading the struggle, helped by believers in other faiths. (5.) For three and a half years, God lets loose a series of plagues and monsters upon the earth – followed by a time of constant darkness. (6.) Jesus returns bringing more terrible plagues and natural catastrophes. (7.) The Battle of Armageddon occurs and the Devil is defeated. The climate then improves, the world population becomes vegetarian, animals are used for all transport, and goods are exchanged so banks and money disappear. (8.) Resurrected saints who can fly, change their bodies, become invisible and indestructible now appear to help God keep his enemies under surveillance, but after a thousand years the indefatigable Satan eventually remerges to have another attempt at gaining power. Happily God wins out, incinerates all his enemies and cleans up the planet, making it into a New Earth. (9.) He then brings down a massive Golden Space City in which to live. That craft will then be used to take the Saved off to colonise other galaxies. (10.) When that happens they’ll go off into outer space, not knowing what challenges lie ahead.

Much of the appeal of this work lies in its deadpan humour – based on Grayson assuming his art audience is not convinced these events are very likely. The singers enunciate the words with utter indifference to their content, aiming instead at aural clarity. And because the music, a blend of Minimalism with old English choral music like Byrd and Tallis, is not particularly varied in its structure, that evenness creates a foil to allow Grayson to mix the tone of his appropriated texts, something only detectable by reading – not by listening. This you get by reading the lines of libretto at the bottom of the screen; these nuances are just like reading any novel or play script.

Here are some examples to illustrate this variation:

He will brand his followers with their own credit barcode – or inject them with a pre-programmed sub-skin PIN 666 chip implant. He will put this in their right hands or foreheads to make a fool-proof identification system that cannot be falsified. (Section 3)

And for three and a half years, the leading nations of the European Union will unite with Russia and turn on America with a nuclear first strike. It will destroy her and burn her with fire in one hour and after that, Capitalism and its merchants are finished. (Section 5)

The Great Space City is 1,500 miles long, 1,500 miles wide and 1,500 miles high. The greatest space vehicle ever created, the most wonderful spaceship ever conceived, built by the Lord and on its way down to Earth now. (Section 9)

And compare those with these more informal lines:

God’s People, the Lord will take care of us, even if He has to drop bread from Heaven supernaturally. (Section 4)

God knows how much more we’ll have to conquer after we’ve conquered the Earth and all the souls who have ever lived on it and all their problems. (Section 10)

The sheer incongruity of having a choir sing such texts is a vital component to its success. Being straight-faced is essential, as is the clothing of the singers crucial to ensure the visual mood doesn’t distract from the precision and complexity of the various interweaving musical threads. (There are 2 soprano parts, 2 alto, 2 tenor and 2 bass – distributed amongst the 26 voices). Formal dress is avoided: no white shirts, frilly ruffles, ties, cuffs or jackets. The singers wear casual clothing that is instantly forgettable, with subdued colours via t-shirts, unpatterned shirts or blouses, and jeans. They look relaxed (and alert) and seem to be enjoying the occasion.

So the experience we get from Grayson is a mix of reading from the screen, listening and watching. Reading the libretto by itself doesn’t cover it, nor does just attending to the music or observing the expressions of the choir. Those elements can’t be separated out. The film in its totality, within its specially prepared venue, provides a complete experience - for there are no DVDs or CDs for sale at the door - and it is rich enough to repay several visits. This fascinating project, one not to be missed, is easily the best show on in Auckland over the holiday period.

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