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.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers looks at last week's Week of Goodness

Living Room 2010: A Week of Goodness
Various outdoor sites in Auckland's CBD
9 - 17 April 2010

Public art can be a tricky enterprise. Buoyed by the noble premise of engaging the masses, it can succumb to the pitfalls of pernicious advertising, forcing an unsuspecting public to see stuff that they might not want to. Art in civic spaces boasts a medley of different audiences each with their own motives and opinions when it comes to what we see in our daily commuter walks or sit-in-the-sun lunch breaks. Which is why the Auckland City Council’s Living Room project, an annual weeklong series of performative events that is now in its fifth year, should not be greeted with the kind of apathy or indifference it often engenders.

A Week of Goodness is the title of this year’s Living Room series, curated for the second time by the Council’s public art manager Pontus Kyander. Citing the Surrealist Max Ernst’s 1934 series of collaged books, Une Semaine de Bonte, this programme of performances and film screenings is said to explore notions of ‘giving and kindness’ in civic squares around the central city.

This altruistic theme relates somewhat tenuously to Ernst’s strange and intriguing collages—surreal fantasy scenes the artist constructed from clippings of pulp novel and encyclopedia illustrations. It is also difficult to see a purposeful correlation between these ideas and the Living Room performances themselves, at least the ones I witnessed.

Nevertheless, Kyander’s commitment to developing temporary public art projects and engaging international artists is strongly evident in this year’s programme. The curator has brought together a somewhat chaotic selection of artists and choreographers, both from New Zealand and abroad, to collaborate and produce performances.

Located in the fountains of Freyberg Place, Isobel Dryburgh and artist/dancer Mark Harvey’s project Beige involved a group of people clad in cardboard boxes dancing to a gradually sped up version of Tom Jones’ You Can Leave Your Hat On. The performance was invitingly anarchic—cardboard boxes got delightfully drenched, bits dropped off the dancers’ costumes, and the considerable crowd giggled at Jones’ ominously languid vocals.

Sarah Jane Parton’s audience also responded with tentative chuckles to her piece The Collection III. Parton staged her performance amongst the kauri trees of QEII Square where piles of snow had been dumped either side of a wooden walkway. A group of people dressed as giant fruit played nursery games while two children dutifully recited a sketchy version of Chariots of Fire on their recorders. Nearby, bored teenaged girls wearing 80s ball gown dresses sat on benches listening iPods.

I have a hunch that Parton knew it was school holidays and, while adult audience members tittered somewhat nervously, their kids took charge of the scene relentlessly grabbing handfuls of snow to throw at the giant fruit. Chaos ensued: the giant fruit returned a hail of snowballs, the young musicians giggled into their recorders and the teenaged girls managed to look even more disinterested.

Both Parton and Dryburgh/Harvey’s charmingly kooky works were reminiscent of fringe-festival performances. It was fun to see such playful and quirky activities occurring in ordinarily straight-laced public squares. Nevertheless, these artists and their participants had none of the street-savvy of fringe-festival performers or buskers—they basically didn’t know how to work a crowd.

I was reminded of bands like Auckland’s Golden Axe or Evil Ocean whose seemingly ad-hoc style of makeshift show biz is underpinned by an engagement with their audience. Watching these aimlessly rambling Living Room performances I couldn’t help but wish that at some point Evil Ocean’s Liz Maw would turn up dressed in her God outfit. I wanted a grander kind of theatre and a greater commitment to the drama and incongruity of it all.

Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen did not fare much better. After seeing a video of hers in Mash Up at ARTSPACE last year I was excited to attend her performance The Future is already way behind the Present doesn't exist in my Mind…. Having already staged this as a solo piece at several international venues, Cuenca Rasmussen collaborated with performer Charles Koroneho and extended the show to include a large troupe of dancers from Unitec’s School of Performing and Screen Arts.

The result was a full-scale sound and light performance that involved Cuenca Rasmussen singing passages of contemporary feminist prose while dressed in a cleverly designed skin-tight lycra costume. Her hour-long show was a concoction of theatre, female sexuality and slow-paced endurance performance. It drew on an assortment of genres reminding me variously of Grace Jones music videos, brazen Peaches gigs and Warwick Broadhead costumed spectaculars. While this collision of performative tropes might sound quite exciting its unpolished execution ultimately left me somewhat indifferent. I couldn’t help but think of the Smokefree Stage Quest, the annual high school performing arts competition.

Unfortunately, none of the Living Room performances I experienced left an impression that went beyond an initial amused chuckle. For the most part artists treated their allotted civic space as a bare stage on which to present their activities and this inspired a somewhat superficial experience. The sometimes contentious history and current social use of Auckland’s public plazas offers an artistic potential that none of these artists chose to engage with.

Although Cuenca Rasmussen’s gleaming white costumes were notably juxtaposed against the formal plaza of St Patrick’s Square, I didn’t see the need to have these works performed in outdoor public spaces at all—they would have had a comparable effect in a theatre or gallery. Ultimately, an opportunity was missed to develop performances that were richer than the brief fanciful strangeness they engendered.

Nevertheless, the superficial impression I was left with may have been due to the lack of contextual information offered for each artist and performance. I would love to know how Parton’s The Collection III related to her previous ‘Collection’ performances that took place in locations as diverse as Rarotonga and Christchurch. Was her choice of Auckland’s QEII Square significant in relation to these other venues? Did kids throw snow at giant fruit in balmy Rarotonga?

What the Living Room series seriously lacked is the publicity machine employed by One Day Sculpture, the similar series of temporary art projects that took place across the country during 2008 and 2009. The latter’s yearlong series of projects was promoted through a deluge of advertising. From txts and emails to postcards and a fantastically organized website, One Day Sculpture covered as many forms of media as it could to publicize its single day events.

Although the better part of their budget would have been funnelled into this advertising hyperbole (and away from individual art projects), One Day Sculpture successfully garnered a greater public engagement with their projects. The point here is that our conception of ‘public space’ is no longer limited to physical sites. To successfully exist in the wider public realm art projects must also exist in the virtual realm, in web and media based platforms. In this regard, the Living Room series holds onto an overly confined vision of the public sphere that works to the great detriment of both audiences and artists. Hopefully next year they will finally get it right.

Scrolling down, most of the photographs are by Rebekah Robinson. The third and fourth however are by Kate Brettkelly Chalmers.

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