Welcome to the Review Repository - an archive of reviews that were originally published in the Saturday edition of the Taranaki Daily News from September 2007 – April 2008.

The reviews were written for a general audience and therefore tend to be descriptive and educational in focus.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Culture Clash

Parallel universes II by Erica Sklenars

Considering a culture’s art can yield insight into the social dynamics of the people. Despite whether an artwork is appealing or not, or even if it is understandable or not, art will always contain significance. Often the significance or beauty of an artwork is found once you consider who made it and from what social / cultural context it was created. Decorated vases from ancient Greece for example, often depicted in elegant, illustrative style the daily occupations and leisure activities of the day. Looking at these vases historically they reveal to us the Greeks’ perspective on bodily beauty, gender roles, fashion and social hierarchies. Viewing contemporary art in a similar manner can reveal to us about the current societal condition. The Wanganui Arts Review on show at the Sarjeant Gallery presents such an opportunity to consider the diversity of our nations social/cultural make up. An annual event open to artists based in the Wanganui region, entries are filtered and edited by a panel of judges who select a list of finalists for exhibition. This year’s judges are Wellingtonians Mary-Jane Duffy from the Mary Newton Gallery and Aaron Lister, from the National Library Gallery. Their choice of artwork seems to emphasise all of the weird, macabre, humorous, naïve and insightful artistic talent that Wanganui has to offer. What is interesting about this year’s selection of artworks is what it reveals about the subcultures that inhabit Wanganui.

Two artworks on show particularly emphasise this. One of which is a work by the Rayner brothers entitled ‘Breakfast at every street’. The work depicts a quirky tea party where the guests and hosts of the gathering are the actual serving implements and vessels. The stage of the party is a Formica table. The guests are strange hybridised vessels, something in between a tea cup and an oversized egg cup. Each figure has a ceramic cup bottom, knitted woollen body and an overtly caricatured ceramic head. The host, much larger than the others, takes centre stage on the table, in the form of a ceramic headed tea cosy fitted on an oversize teapot. The oddly fashioned ceramic heads are a typical group of middle class Caucasians in their forties, who despite their ‘cultured’ and austere characteristics, appear as a snobby, conservative clique. The fascinating thing about this quizzical work are the personalities depicted and the perceived social situation at play. Some of the guests have a conceited manner about them, while the others seem jovial and overly polite. The host is the most revealing of all. Obviously a man conscious of his own appearance, with dyed blonde hair or toupee and gold-framed glasses, and the snazzy technicoloured woollen jumper, and a facial expression that resembles Julius Caesar. This host is one of inflated ego and self-asserted social superiority. Considering the work as a whole, it suggests the oddness of social gatherings, the personalities at play, what it means to belong, how we form groups of friends and why.

Parallel universes II by Erica Sklenars

Similar critique could be obtained from Erica Sklenars’ work entitled ‘Parallel universes II’. Consisting of two video works presented on separate TV monitors, Sklenars’ work juxtaposes subculture ideology with third world reality. In one video, we witness still frame footage of a group of neo-punk hipster white kids in their 20s enjoying a drunken fondue evening. The still frames are animated to some experimental electronic pop music, giving the footage the appearance of a low-budget music video. The young adults’ evening spirals into a hedonistic bender as clothes swapping shenanigans take place. The neighbouring TV monitor displays an entirely different world of a sewing factory in India in what appears to be sweatshop conditions. This time, it is amateur camcorder footage of a poor quality as if it was done covertly. The footage is also edited so that frames are repeated and looped, enhancing the mechanical nature of the women’s work. Comparing the two realities seems to draw attention to the inherent contradictions of youthful activists’ ideologies of such ‘alternative’ subcultures. It could also be understood as the comfort we take for granted in our country and the bourgeois lifestyle of small-town students.

The Wanganui Arts Review is an exhaustingly large exhibition which despite it being cram-packed with 177 artworks, is hung and organised well, divided into thematic groups which guides the viewer through the bewildering cacophony of art. There is plenty of work of high technical ability, a fair amount of conceptually clever work and some that is just out there. If anything, this exhibition proves that Wanganui is a twilight zone of creative talent and an enclave for interesting social / cultural groups.

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