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, 14 April 2008

Summoning the surreal

Box, digital photograph

Art plugs us into an upside-down realm. This “art realm” helps us understand reality from a perspective that brings the shadows of culture to life. In other words art
has the ability to re-image life in a way that reveals thoughts that would otherwise be hidden and suppressed due to societal conventions. One particular art movement that became rather successful at this was Surrealism which started in the 1920s. Informed by the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud the surrealists aimed to unlock the doors of the subconscious. To gain access into the hidden chambers of the brain the surrealists’ paid close attention to dreams and also made up intuitive games and exercises. One of Salvador Dali’s strategies was to lie-down with a spoon in his hand with pencil and paper close by. The moment Dali started to fall asleep the spoon would slip out of his hand and hit a saucer. Startled by the spoons impact he would immediately grab the pencil and record the first random thing that popped into his head. By juxtaposing random assortments of objects, images and text the surrealists revealed entrenched primordial human traits. For instance, a famous sculpture by artist Man Ray comprised of a household iron which he welded on one inch spikes to its smooth surface. This alteration transformed a domestic tool used to smooth out clothing into a torturous device - an artistic act that draws to mind underlying tension or latent sadistic desires within the home. Therefore, the surrealists’ bizarre creations made apparent very common human emotions, desires or thoughts that moral society would deem sordid and debased.

Maree Horner a Taranki based artist has devoted her practice to investigating how the random assortment of imagery can reveal such latent understanding about human habitation and relationships. Horner has exhibited throughout New Zealand and has been collected by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Having studied at Elam art school in Auckland during the 70s Horner was involved in the early development of conceptual and post-object art in New Zealand. She became known her sculptural works that demonstrated a sensitivity of material and form. These works included precarious glass constructions, rubber tyre experiments, ice monoliths, sand forms and one work consisting of an electrified domestic arm chair. Since the mid 90s Horner has focused almost entirely on drawing, painting, printmaking and digital photography. The inquiry of Horner’s practice is somewhat similar to the surrealists’ investigation of juxtaposition and psychoanalysis. However, her work doesn’t share the wild imagination or maddening delusion of early surrealism - rather Horner’s imagery is cunningly unobtrusive, persistently repetitive and more enigmatic.

Often working at a large scale and reduced palette of pink, black and white Horner’s mixed media works present us with familiar but uncanny imagery. The imagery depicts a lexicon of objects ranging from humble domestic items such as sofas, baths, dressing tables, jugs, paper bags and cardboard boxes juxtaposed with grand architectural forms like pyramidal columns and in her latter works a illustrative style donkey. Horner repetitiously rearranges this array of imagery in each work by pairing up different objects. Each new composition creates an absurd surreal situation. Rather than diminish the symbolic power of each item the repetition makes us consider the possible meanings of the pictured objects even more – to the point were we are less concerned with what each object is and more interested in the relationship suggested between their contrasting forms. Successively we become aware of a female and male narrative as grand pyramidal columns are reduced in scale and pictured inside paper bags or a donkey trodding on a bed – odd sexual innuendos that draw attention to the social conditioning of gender relationships and suppressed sexuality.

In a new body of work entitled Furniture of the World Horner has further developed her visual language but this time using digital photography. These works depict domestic furniture and objects containing pounds of flesh. On closer inspection you notice that each fleshy lump has a belly button. Considering the belly button being the umbilical cords port and source of foetal nourishment – together with the receptacle nature of these domestic containers – suggest complicated but very instinctual meanings. The domestic containers could indicate the influence our lived environment and family structure in which we develop as a secondary womb – a place were we learn about how to behave and belong. However, there is a touch of horror to these works bringing to mind news stories of troubling psychopathic killers – usually in the US - that mutilate the innocent and hiding the dissected corpses in fridges or boxes - playing out their sick fanaticises. Therefore, these works sit on a tenuous line being both comfortably homely or horrifically debauched - a betwixt and elusive conclusion that reveals more about the animal within us and how little we understand our suppressed psyche.

For more information and images of Maree Horner’s work visit her website: www.mareehorner.co.nz

This is Bruce’s last article as he is leaving New Plymouth to curate an exhibition in Chicago.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Curios Contraptions

one of Leonie Smith's Transducing camera obscuras

We create illusions so that we can understand reality. Our concepts of time, the calendar, including all taxonomies and measurements no matter how sophisticated are simply conventions that humankind has created. These conventions help us form a perception of reality that can be cut up into fragments and understood through abstract symbols. Reality, however, is far more complex and will always elude our attempts to rationally understand it. The revelation that reality is influenced by our perception came to be understood by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Werner Karl Heisenberg, a quantum physicist studying molecular particles in the 1920s, came to the realisation that the more accurately one attempts to observe or measure an object, the more an object will be physically affected by the observation. This and other investigations of the quantum sciences have had a profound and muddling impact upon our contemporary understanding of reality. In light of such theories it could be said that reality is so far beyond our sensory perception that the closest understanding is through philosophy, mystical belief and altered states of being.

Reality, and our uncertain perception of it, is the conceptual terrain of Taranaki based artist Leone Smith. Despite only recently graduating from art school Smith’s work has received much attention. In 2006 Smith exhibited a large installation at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and is currently developing projects with organisations in the US. Including a research fellowship in San Francisco followed by a project at Burning Man - a renowned art festival held annually in the Nevada desert. Since art school Smith has investigated the potential of optics to explore the notion of flux - an alternate state of being where reality is perceived as a constant flow without being reduced or rationalised. This investigation has led Smith to the creation of numerous camera obscuras that resist convention, are aesthetically perturbed and have a strange malignant function.

Camera obscuras, also known as pinhole cameras, use the refraction of light through a controlled aperture - usually a tiny hole rather than a lens - to produce an image the same way our eyes do. Traditionally camera obscuras are geometric boxes or small buildings that are carefully designed and constructed to get the most precise image. Smith’s camera obscurers, however, are oddly shaped and constructed out of poor materials such as papier-mâché, cardboard and modified found objects. They also produce soft blurred images rather than a clear cut photo like picture. What’s more is that Smith designs them to be worn like a helmet rather than a static object. If there is any sense of tradition in Smith’s work it is found in her disquieting aesthetic. Painted black, roughly crafted and sometimes incorporating parts from functional objects – these wearable devices appear as though they were dreamt up by a mad 19th century inventor. An aesthetic that entices curiosity but at the same time makes one question the accuracy or agenda behind these odd contraptions.

This dated pseudoscientific aesthetic also reflects the experimental nature of Smith’s practice. Usually an artwork is designed to be exhibited the same way every time. Smith’s work, however, is reused and modified each time as if part of an ongoing series of laboratory experiments. She has also been known to change the contexts and situations that the camera’s appear in. In her exhibition …version 1 … at the Govett-Brewster Smith created a strange labyrinthine environment. In this instance her wearable camera obscuras were used by gallery visitors to navigate a maze of light and fabric. Other experiments using the same cameras include a disorientating installation of glowing words and in another instance where Smith staged a tour group outing into a park.

Smith is somewhat reserved about the purpose of her camera obscuras but what she does let on is that each one is designed for a unique use. However, instead of the camera providing the viewer with an experience Smith believes that the opposite is actually the case – claiming that the visitor entertains the camera obscura. This twisted relationship makes sense when you experience one of for yourself. Like a parasite that feeds off its host Smith’s wearable camera obscurers befuddle the human participant’s regular view of reality and disconnect visual perception from the rest of the body. A wondrous but uncomfortable experience that fulfills the cameras designed purpose.

Smith’s more recent series of camera obscuras that she calls Transducers - a device that converts one form of energy into another – create even stranger relationships with the viewer. The Transducers function by converting the light within the camera into heat which can then by sucked up though a tube. This function however, is very puzzling since cameras are all sealed up so we can’t see the image that is projected inside. Our only experience of the image is by sucking on the tube. So instead of inducing a visual spectacle these works present invisible possibilities - a more dubious and cunning tactic that either dupes us like a placebo or entices our imagination. Like a type of strange fashion designer Smith has created Transducers for various types of people and occasions. Including, a range for newborn babies, a high healed shoe ensemble and a wheeled walking stick creation made for promenading along the seaside.

Either presenting a baffling stream of blurred light or a psychological puzzle - Smith’s bizarre contraptions induce alternate perceptions that lead us to question our notions of what is real.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Junkshop Universe

artwork by Ben Davis

Life is a list of fantastic but very odd phenomena. Due to this, our brains are continually filtering and ordering the world so that we can grasp understanding and be productive. This cognitive process is influenced by biological, experiential, societal and cultural factors that determine each person’s idiosyncratic take on the world. There are many ways in which to study or analyse the complexity of our cognitive processing. Observing a persons collection is one good example of this. The act of collecting is not merely the acquisition and possession of objects. Rather the significance of collecting is found in the collector’s specific selection criteria and in the meaning that s/he derives from the objects themselves. Once collected the meaning that is invested in an object extends far beyond anything related to its original use - to the point where objects can be transformed from the banal to the sacred. Therefore, collecting acts as a tangent connecting objective and subjective perception through which one can create understanding. This betwixt rendezvous of imagination and reality allows both the collector and the observer the chance to experience a personalised slice of the world.

This week I visited the studio of artist Ben Davis who’s current artwork could be defined as a collection of the odd and unsightly. Despite being a recent art school graduate Davis has amassed an intriguing body of work. Davis’ art is based on an intuitive process of collecting that is unconsciously informed by an eye for the strange and a habit of reading randomly assorted literature. His work slips between many conventions of contemporary art including assemblage, installation, experimental sculpture and photography. Revealing that Davis’ practice is not media specific but rather reliant on the skills and materials that are immediate to his use. The result is a complex and ever-growing collection of things and stuff – that is to say - strange ephemeral sculpture, found objects and digital photographs.

Davis’ ephemeral sculpture could also be described as experiments. One work for instance consists of marmite smeared upon a clean white wall. However when your eyes adjust a boldly illustrated self-portrait begins to emerge from the sticky substance – referencing Jesus or Mary faces that people claim to mysteriously appear in clouds etc. The fact that the marmite resembles a foul excretion also references the Freudian claim that faeces are ones first creative act. In another work a mysterious white wax form rests tentatively on a Formica tabletop. The ambiguous shape resembles a sublime glacial landscape or an exotic fungal growth. Despite being repellent and abject these sculptural experiments evoke a surprising beauty. Creating a type of debased catharsis that melds the sacred or pure with the squalid.

Viewing his found object works add more insight to this. Of particular note is a new and currently untitled work pictured above. On a white plinth sporting scrapes and dings from an abused past life, rests a gleaming glass object. The glass form seems to be made of a thousand or so pearl tinted glass spheres of various dimensions. The multitude of glass spheres has an alluring effect much the same as gazing at the stars. Indeed, the spherical form resembles a scientific model of the universe or a molecular structure. Investigating the object further you discover that it is actually an outlandish kitsch lamp shade. The exploration of the sacred and profane or the humble and profound is further emphasised in Davis’ photography. Here Davis uses a camera as a receptacle to collect odd phenomena and refuse – and thereby rescuing fleeting moments and discarded rubbish as if precious gems.

For instance, a series of photographs that documents a roadside industrial area in North Taranaki draws attention to something that most people would unwittingly drive by. One photo in particular features a pile of gravel that has been labelled “contaminated” in spray paint. Framed by an enclave of Native bush this documentation insights question about our supposedly clean green country or evokes the many urban myths of suspect environmental infringements within the province.

Davis’ work escapes easy analysis. However, at the core of his practice is a collection that investigates the odd and dysfunctional. A type of collecting that is governed by an elusive process of intuition and coincidence - an odd practice that is more akin to a type of meandering with a sense of wonder. However futile or incongruous this may seem Davis’ work nevertheless exposes the myth of normality and leads us to celebrate the strange occurrences of daily life.

  • Dear readers I am sadly leaving Taranaki to curate an exhibition in Chicago. Instead of reviewing exhibitions I have decided to dedicate my last three reviews to Taranaki based artists that I haven’t had the privilege of writing about. Next weeks article will feature the artist Leonie Smith.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Revealing objects

View West Taranaki, 2008 by Bill Culbert Photo: Govett- Brewster Art Gallery

Objects are receptacles of meaning and memory. This is especially true of used everyday objects. Our familiarity of what objects are, how they are made and what they are used for influences the perceived significance and value of them. This is further complicated when we consider the age of an object and its potential to reveal historical information. However, this transference of meaning onto objects is so implicit to our daily lives that we are almost completely unaware of it. One of the great things about art is that it has the potential of revealing this hidden cognitive process. Art that in some way uses pre-existing or readymade objects is most successful at achieving this. The readymade was a term coined by an early modernist artist called Marcel Duchamp who first started making artworks out of everyday objects in 1913 - at a time when Pablo Picasso was also collaging news paper clippings in his oil paintings. The notion of the readymade was then taken up by dada and surrealist artists who began making alterations to objects or combining them together. The readymade was later developed during the 1950s-60s in movements such as fluxus, pop, conceptual, and performance art. When artists began using readymade objects as a medium - just as they would paint - they made apparent how we attribute meaning and value to objects. In doing so they unlocked a sense of wonder of the banal by helping us view the everyday moments of life as aesthetic and meaningful. This sense of wonder also lead to understandings of how we comprehend the world and what it means to live in an age of mass production and consumerism.

Bill Culbert – currently exhibiting at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery – has devoted almost half a century to investigating the potential of electrical light to reveal the meanings that are latent in everyday objects. His exhibition Groundworks features three large floor installations displayed in separate gallery spaces. Of the most alluring is the installation View West Taranaki which consists of 21 hard-shell suitcases within which Culbert has inserted rectangular TV like screens - converting the suitcases into light-box like creations. What makes the work transfixing is the assortment of red, blue, purple, orange and yellow lights that beam loudly out of otherwise nondescript and ordinary suitcases. The wall text accompanying the work proposes that these colours are an abstract depiction of a Taranaki sunset. Suggesting a contrived romantic longing for distant shores beyond the horizon – as one could deduce from the title. More interesting however is the potential for the work to comment on the post 9/11 geopolitical issues governing international travel. The vibrant glowing screens resemble the colourful images of boarder security x-ray technology. The physical piecing of the hard suitcase shell also indicates the invasion of privacy on the traveller by the all seeing eye of customs who treat every passenger as a potential tourist - typifying the government surveillance of our age. Furthermore, the random arrangement of unlabeled suitcases – as if abandoned for some suspicious purpose – could lead us to read the colours as the eruptive chemical hues of a terrorist explosion.

Flotsam by Bill Culbert Photo: Govett- Brewster Art Gallery

Colonising the GBAG’s largest gallery is the work Flotsam - which consists of a considered but haphazard arrangement of approximately 80 fluorescent lights and a large assortment of used plastic bottles. The result is a blinding vista of diagonal lines of light inter-dispersed with nuggets of pure primary and secondary colours. After your eyes adjust, the bottles become the focus of the work. Journeying around the vast length of the work you may identify a detergent, milk or oil bottle – on the most part however, the bottles are anonymous to their previous life having had their labels removed. With their commercial robes removed the alluring advertising campaigns that once convinced us to purchase vanish to reveal the naked plastic skins. A stark reminder of the very permanent existence of such plastic - that is freely disposed of today only to take hundreds to thousand of years to degrade. The title Flotsam - a maritime term for shipwreck debris – suggests that the buoyant refuse we are present is evident of a catastrophe – in this case the sinking of our planet under irreversible damage.

The third work entitled Flat Lighthouse is a hodgepodge collection of shabby wooden door and window frames configured in an irregular rectangular grid on the floor. Laid on top of the composition is a scattering of fluorescent lights and desk lamps. Built probably out of rimu and caked in lead paint the doors and windows lay discarded like the numerous domestic lives they once witnessed and concealed. This is enhanced by the fluorescent tubes which appear as frozen shards of light – evoking the memory of how these doors and windows were once useful for controlling the aperture of light within domestic interiors.

As if using the fluorescent tube as a modern day magical rod of glowing mercury vapour Culbert breaks the spell of everyday life. To reveal how the objects that clutter our world hold telling information about our contemporary lives. Groundworks runs till the 18th of May.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Seductive Massacre

AES + F, Panorama #4, 2006 from the Last Riot 2 series, 2005-07. © AES+F and courtesy Triumph Gallery, Moscow and Multimedia Art Center, Moscow

We currently experience the world via a veil of seductive imagery. For this we have advertising and digital technology to thank. Big multinational companies spend copious amounts of money on the research, design and production of advertising with the purpose of creating arresting images that convince us to purchase and consume their products. Advertisers don’t need to bother with inserting subliminal messages to coax us. Rather, they do it blatantly by using certain imagery to charm our emotions and desires. It is interesting that advertisers very rarely attempt to capture our objective thoughts but rather aim to appease our libidos and imagination. This comes at no surprise since the sensual desires of the libido and the spell of imagination are at the forefront of our existence. Objective thinking - despite being that which makes life practical and productive – is usually absent when one is enjoying an ice-cream or having a romantic evening. This is why in car commercials we are shown a vehicle racing across a beautiful landscape driven by attractive people and filmed as if it were a big budget Hollywood movie – rather than simply declaring the vehicle’s technical specifications. By doing so the advertisers are not only selling us a car. Closer to the truth is that they are convincing us that this car will satisfy our longing to attain freedom, social status, alluring sexuality and to have all that within a picture perfect world. Such is the power of these images that - no matter how aware and resistant we are – advertising will eventually seduce us. Seductive imagery is not only relegated to advertising it is also the language of films, TV programmes, computer games and most printed media. There is nothing inherently bad about creating such tempting imagery. However, what is concerning is that these images pervade almost every moment of our modern lives and more importantly can often promote skewed attitudes and understandings of life and our world.

Currently on exhibition at the City Gallery Wellington is an impressive video installation that explores the spectacle of such seductive imagery and its murky ethics. The work is entitled Last Riot: Massacre by the Innocents? by the Russian artist collective AES+F and consists of three very large wide screen projections that create an immersive panoramic scene. At first glance Last Riot could be mistaken for a Hollywood blockbuster due to its richly rendered images and theatrical soundtrack. However, it doesn’t take long for the work’s strangeness to become apparent. Last Riot depicts half naked camouflage-clad adolescents who are engaged in some type of pseudo-battle using an array of weapons from golf clubs to samurai swards. Their battle with each other – like the innocence of their youth - appears to be all play or acting since their strikes and blows do not connect or draw any blood. Due to the style of animation the battles are stilted and slowed down so that it appears as though their bodies morph and contort with each jab of their blade or swipe of a club. Their stilted movements also seem to ebb and pulse to the repetitive drumbeat of the soundtrack. As the battles take place the camera zooms in on the youths emphasising their blemish-free complexions and slim bodies. Indeed, the youths – who also represent a diversity of ethnicities - seem to be typecast for some fashion magazine or advertisement. Not unlike the advertisements for fashion labels United Colors of Benetton and Calvin Klein. In a finely written essay by Abby Cunnane in the gallery brochure we are informed that the bloodless battle scenes also resemble the computer game America’s Army - a war simulation game that was created by the US military to lure young recruits.

These alluring but very odd battle scenes are intermingled with short but equally weird interludes set to string orchestra music that you would expect to accompany a thriller. One such interlude includes an army jeep animated in the style of a modern computer game that despite having no apparent operator drives back and forwards whilst slowly sinking in quicksand. As this happens, a convenience light within the jeep flashes off and on intermittently as if possessed by a poltergeist. The landscape that all this is enacted upon is an immeasurable desert plane that at times is parched and dry only to be instantly snow-clad moments later. The background of the landscape is also home to strange collections of objects and events that give the land a surreal dreamscape appearance. This includes ornate merry-go rounds and ferris wheels, together with locomotives that career off impossibly grand bridges and passenger jets that fall in pieces from the sky.
Aside from the obvious references to contemporary culture Last Riot is also laden with numerous art historical references, in particular Neoclassical and Romantic painting of the 17th -19th centuries. Last Riot perplexes and enthrals as it both melds seductive imagery with suspect depiction of youth and war. The surrealism of the entire scene leads us to question the beguiling agendas underlying advertising and pop-culture imagery that we are bombarded with every day. Last Riot runs till the 15th of June.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Commune Creatures

Ideologies create, distort and blind reality. We become aware of this the moment there is disagreement between people of different beliefs or backgrounds. Beyond any confusion or anger of such a clash the realisation dawns that there are many peculiar and beautiful ways of seeing the world, even though we might disagree. Being human we all have an innate desire to believe that there are laws or principles that explain our existence and purpose. Such is our yearning that these idealisations of the world or life actually influence what we understand to be real. The most successful ideologies are those that have small progressive rewards bound in reality whilst leading to something ultimately unattainable. This formula together with a sense of community is evident in any of the world’s most popular religions or philosophies. This is also the reason why so many paradigms and doctrines have survived despite having histories of leaders and followers that have fallen short of the beliefs. Throughout history artists have played their part in creating or promoting ideologies. From didactic midlevel altarpieces to the design of 20th century utopian modern architecture artists have had an integral role in translating the ideal into visual and physical form. However, within our post-modern age - where truth is perceived to be culturally relative – artists have sort out new roles and subject matter. One fashion, for instance, within contemporary art of recent years has been to parody or reveal the short comings of ideologies.

A new body of work by Taranaki born artist Francis Upritchard - currently on exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery – explores the quandaries of ideologies by romanticising the failure of hippie utopianism. The exhibition is entitled Rainwob I – perhaps a humorous coined term combining the word rainbow with mob to describe a cloister of hippies. Rainwob I consists of a collection of various clay figures, ceramic creations and a few found objects that are arranged upon a giant 10m x 3m plinth that also functions as a couch at one end. The result is an odd diorama that suggests both a surreal landscape and a nostalgic 60s or 70s domestic interior but is neither one nor the other. Encountering the work is like discovering a stark white ethereal world within which boldly rainbow rendered naked people exist. The figures are neither happy nor sad but possess some sort of odd Zen state of being. Their genteel presence is communicated via temperate gestures glazed over facial expressions - but also their ill proportioned and structurally impossible bodies. The fashioning of these figures is intriguing since at first glance they appear badly formed but on closer inspection you notice that the hands feet and faces of the figures have received a great amount of sculptural skill and attention. Being the most sensitive and expressive areas of the body this over emphasis suggests that these figures have a heightened sensual existence. As the viewer implicitly associates the hands, feet and face with touch, emotion and communication.

Their emancipated and oddly proportioned physicality combined with their placid bliss like stupor also brings to mind a commune of 1960s hippies – as depicted in Dennis Hopper’s film Easy Rider - where wildly passionate young white Americans took to the country to live off the land only to fall victim to the lack agricultural knowledge and skills or a relapse towards male centred gender roles and domineering mind games. It is as if Upritchard’s figures are entranced in a higher state of being that has blinded them of their physical plight.

Elsewhere, in the installation also draws on hippie idealism. Positioned at the far end of the plinth is a painted tree branch erected so that it resembles a tree. Painted in sequential radiantly coloured stripes, as in a rainbow, the tree has a sort of cosmic appearance perhaps holding some mystic powers like the fabled tree of life. Neighbouring the tree are two mushroom or clam shaped domed forms that have bubble skylights and cushioned fabric interiors that appear to be dwellings. They resemble the clay houses and geodesic domed structures favoured by alternative types of the 60s and 70s for their ecological and philosophical rational. Viewed from the front end of the plinth and in comparison to the scale of the figures in the foreground, the dwellings appear to be far in the distance like in a landscape painting. Placed near the tree also supports this illusion. Once you walk around the plinth however the forced perspective collapses creating odd and confusing scale relationships with the other objects on display. Adding further confusion is the couch and lamps at the front of the plinth. Mixing the domestic scale objects with the figures leads us to view the installation as a lounge setting rather than a visionary landscape. The conglomeration of these incongruous perspectives suggests how ideologies create a certain outlook on life that once viewed from a different angle are revealed as being illogical and befuddled.

Francis Upritchard’s Rainwob I is a quaint and fascinating work which has many more aspects to discover. In particular is the distinct personality of each figure and the interrelation between them. The installation’s couch – which you are allowed to sit on – also adds a welcoming and fun experience of the work. Exhibition closes 18th of May.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Blood, Grids and Taonga

Ann Shelton' s photograph : Arena, Te Ngutu O Te Manu/Beak of the Bird, South Taranaki, 2004 Diptych, C type prints1150 x 1450 mm each

Stories of peace and pain are etched into the land of Taranaki. Like the perilous volcanic forces that both toil silently beneath our feet and vocally loom in frightening geography everywhere we look – so to is the history of human habitation in Tarainaki. It is important that we are aware of this history – so that latent grievances can be addressed and elapsed moments of peace celebrated. Art can be a powerful tool to aid the telling of difficult histories. Being specialists of both technique and spirit, artists can use the various materials and media to reveal deep pious like revelations of the human condition. Artists can transform otherwise dry modes and methods of visual documentation. Painting and photography, for instance, can be used plainly as scientific documentation to visually record the facts. An artist, however, can creatively manipulate the possibilities of these mediums to communicate thought and emotion – and express what science cannot.

Puke Ariki’s new exhibition Taranaki Whenua: life-blood-legacy provides a great example of how the subjective possibilities of art can be used to add depth, insight and experience to a history fraught with conflict. The exhibition explores Taranaki’s geological and colonial history with particular emphasis on the conflicting philosophies and agendas of land ownership between Maori and Pakeha. The exhibition welcomes the viewer with large angled walls that jut out in different trajectories. This exhibition design transforms the usually cavernous low ceiling exhibition space into a dynamic warren that invites you to explore and contemplate. As you make your way through the exhibition text panels, data projectors, slick glowing plasma screens, historic artefacts and artworks narrate various stories or rouse thoughtful contemplation. Of the most emotional and thought provoking is the display of a plough used by the people of Parihaka in the late 19th century. The plough is mounted so that it appears to be slicing through a sloping white platform representing the land. The slice of the plough is emphasized by an incendiary ruby light – a bold display that both transforms a rural tool into a historically potent icon and reinforces the great sacrifice of the Parihaka passive resistance movement.

Elsewhere artwork provides similar enrichment. Such as Ann Shelton’s photographic dyptich entitled Arena, Te Ngutu o Te Manu/Beak of the Bird South Taranaki. The photographs depict Te Ngutu o Te Manu/Beak of the Bird - the location of a Maori village and site of the eminent victory of chief Titokowaru over the British army in 1868. The photographs focus on a monument commemorating those that were killed in that battle. The monument is also believed to mark the spot were the famous hired gun and Commander Major Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky was killed. Shelton has chosen to display an identical pair of the image hung in opposing orientation – like a water reflection. This hang references how the creation of history is much like the science of a photographic image. A photograph is first upside-down and back to front due to the laws of refraction – when a photograph is printed this process is reversed. This presents a philosophical quandary as to which is the correct orientation of reality. Therefore, Shelton’s dualistic presentation of a historical location guides one to contemplate the reliability of history. However, before one learns the history of the monument and land the dual imagery alone holds a lingering presence. The stark white cross monument is framed by a visually haunting milieu of a lush grass field and a foreboding parameter of naked winter trees. The freshly mown lines in the grass create a surreal forced perspective that both draws you in and forces you back at knife edge as the two images converge. This perturbed contention is also present in the trees. In the above image the skeleton branches appear to extend heavenward while in the inverted image they seem as roots attempting to grasp Hades. Arena, Te Ngutu o Te Manu/Beak of the Bird states no simplistic historical fable but rather visually leads viewer to dwell upon the lingering disturbance of war and the past bias of Taranaki’s colonial stories.

There are many other artworks that are used to both aid the narrative of the exhibition and to contribute additional insight and complexity to the topics. Those that perform this best are Fiona Clark’s aerial photographs of polluted waters between New Plymouth and Waitara caused by industrial waste and sewage – photographs that were later used to support Te Atiawa’s Waitangi Tribunal claim in the 80s. Others include ink and acrylic works by Bevan Ford, enigmatic black and white photography by Laurence Aberhart, and a very brusque banner work by Don Driver. The exhibition is also enhanced by a catalogue which is full of essays and images providing further insight and depth to some of the issues raised.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Woven Memories

Roimata Toroa 2007 (detail) by Ngahina Hohaia photo: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Stones cannot weep but yet they inspire many to do so. By this I am referring to memorials that, despite being solid and inert monuments, are emotive vehicles that enable remembrance, contemplation and celebration. The purpose of memorials is to help the understanding of trauma and aid the stages of remorse – so that some good might result. Many in New Zealand would associate the term memorial with the ubiquitous concrete or stone war monoliths erected on civic locations around the country. One of the most moving war memorials in my opinion is the Hall of Memories within the National War Memorial Carillon, Wellington. The design of the hall is such that immediately upon entering its vaulted white interior the visitor is bound in hushed reverence. It is through the careful choice of building materials, design of space and symbolic use of poetry and art that the Hall of Memories commands such a powerful response. Memorials, whether a simple gravestone or grand temple, help us enter in an in-between state of being where the flow of time appears to halt. Sometimes as in the case of a funeral or Anzac dawn ceremony ritual in addition to a memorial helps lead those involved into a contemplative state of being where they are unaware of conceivable time. This experience, which exists in all cultures, came to be termed liminality by the anthropologist Victor Turner. Liminality or the threshold in anthropological terms is the perceived in-between state of being that occurs in religious and cultural experience that results in a transition or transformation of some sort. Most art by its visual or sensory stimulation evokes liminality through which the artist provides the viewer with a meaningful experience. In art the transformation usually results in the greater understanding of a different perspective.

Aspects of the memorial and liminality are present in the work of Ngahina Hohaia entitled Roimata Toroa currently on exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Roimata Toroa which translates as “Tears of the Albatross” commemorates the Parihaka passive resistance movement of the late 19th century. However, unlike the authoritative architectonics of the memorial or the conceited anthropological study of liminality, the work of Hohaia elicits more complex poetic and sensual nuances.

Framed by two wide flanks of stairs the experience of Roimata Toroa is very much enhanced by the gallery’s architecture. The folding of distance and height as the viewer ascends the stairs instils anticipation and awe. Since each step that the viewer takes reveals glimpses of an impressive wall installation of 392 poi. The poi are made from second-hand woollen blankets most of which are creamy white with some of the cords plated with pink and sky blue wool. Reflecting the weave of the blankets the poi are hung in staggered zigzag formations. Each individual poi also bears one of 60 different machine embroidered insignia in mostly gold thread - with a portion in either black, pink and sky blue.

(installation view)

The work in full view is hard to fathom in its entirety and therefore it entices you to visit its detail – and it is upon inspection of the detail that we journey into the works many narratives. Browsing the array of symbols it becomes apparent that some have direct relevance to the history of Parihaka. For instance, the three white albatross feathers which is a prophetic religious symbol of the Parihaka leader Tohu Kakahi – the image of a plough symbolising how the people of Parihaka obstructed colonial forces from occupying their ancestral lands. Other symbols are related to the history of Parihaka but have more general significance. For example, the Christian crown of thorns, the shackled hands of slavery and the innocence of a girl skipping with a rope. Through to commonly identifiable colonial symbols of sailing ships, British solders, and cannons. Running across the middle row of poi are the fervent words of Tohu Kaakahi inspiring his people “to overcome evil with good”. Being dispersed over many poi leads you to read the speech in fragments making each word resonate in your mind.

The materiality of the poi holds further symbolism specific to Parihaka. As the wall label informs us the blanket was used as a metaphor by leaders Tohu Kaakahi and Te Whiti o Rongomai indicating their good will to share their ancestral land with Pakeha - a benevolent offer that was savagely violated by Pakeha. Therefore, the woollen blankets transformed into poi by Hohaia stand as a poignant memorial to the pacifist ideologies of the Parihaka movement. Also of significance is the static existence of the poi. Being frozen in sacred reverence on the gallery wall these poi will never be used in performance. Collectively the poi sit as an ethereal monument - a monument that despite its apparent material fragility communicates with heart seizing impact.

While a significant portion of Roimata Toroa’s meaning is steeped in cultural tradition and historic intensity it also lends itself to other interpretations. This is due to the works diverse grouping of experiential, symbolic and aesthetic components that encourage individual contemplation rather than making a didactic statement.
Roimata Toroa ends 2 March 2008.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Cryptic Abstractions

Ambiguity is a powerful artistic strategy. When artists choose to conceal certain meanings of their work the more intriguing it becomes. However, ambiguity can also spark disregard - due to confusion, anxiety or condescension. These two different reactions of the unknown also typifies the intercultural dynamics of our post-colonial and global age. Cultures collide when there is fear or intolerance of what people do not understand. On the other hand great innovation and insight can come from the intrigue and fusion between cultures. In both instances of art and intercultural encounters the response either reveals peoples negative insecurities or positive openness to the unknown.

The exhibition Paintings from Remote Communities: Indigenous Australian art from the Laverty collection, Sydney – currently on show at the Govett-Brewster art gallery – gives New Zealanders a long overdue view into some of the most innovative contemporary art to come out of Australia. In doing so the exhibition also highlights the use of ambiguity as an innovative artistic strategy and the positive outcomes of cultural fusion.

Aboriginal artists living in isolated areas of Australia were originally given acrylic paints and stretched canvases in the 1970s so that they could participate within the European art market which favours transportable paintings. Therefore, Aboriginal artists of the 70s transferred sophisticated cultural traditions some that date back 40,000 years into the European tradition of easel painting. Organic patterns that once responded to the surface of the land, body or bark now tested the parameters of the rectangle. In shifting form a temporal site-responsive art-form to an autonomous and marketable art-form – at a time when European artists are doing the exact opposite - these artists interrogated the history of painting and contributed great innovations to contemporary art. However, the subsequent anthropological style representation of their work in exhibitions ended up exposing sacred knowledge that would normally be kept secret. Some designs that traditionally only existed ephemerally as sand drawings or body paintings – normally being erased during a ritual – was now recorded in acrylic paint that would be visible for at least a hundred years. This cultural misunderstanding has lead Aboriginal artists over the last few decades to strategically develop new idiosyncratic visual languages that encrypt ancient knowledge. Will Owen explains in the accompanying exhibition essay that this strategy termed ‘buwayak’ or ‘invisibility’ developed from the artists of the Yolngu people of Anhem Land, Northern Territory. The results are wild alluring compositions that both defy European painting conventions and retain sacred meanings. Such covert strategies also instil great wonder and invite the viewers - outside the artists’ culture - the chance to actively contribute their own interpretation of the imagery.

The curation of Paintings from Remote Communities respects the artistic strategy of buwayak through limited use of didactic information about specific paintings - letting the artworks speak for themselves. There is even no thematic narratives ensued via the exhibition layout rather curator and gallery director Rhana Devenport has chosen to represent the thirty-four artists in regional groupings. While each artist’s work is distinctly individualistic in style many share similarities with cartographic and microbiological imagery. Of the most striking is Helicopter Joey Tjungarrayi’s work entitled Tjuwiligarra 2002. Viewed best from a distance this intense painting evokes both fear and beauty. Intrepid blood red and russet lines seem to navigate the perimeters of the canvas and reverberate around a black void. The void has a frighteningly pupil-like appearance from which things are observed or consumed like a vortex. More importantly however this painting also resembles typographical maps, electromagnetic fields or microscopic life. Visual imagery that keeps reoccurring in modern science that has also been embedded in the art of ancient cultures around the world – significant perhaps of innate instinctual knowledge of the world and our place within it.

Another significant artistic development featured in the exhibition is the integration of textiles and painting. Emerging out of the traditions of weaving artists such as Regina Wilson applied their knowledge of making mats, bags and fish nets to painting. Wilson’s work Syaw (fish net) 2005 depicts intricate grids of threadlike lines - painted in irregular shaped clusters of different weaves and interlaced at the fringes much like a patchwork quilt. The result is a mesmerising matrix of tort and tatted line upon which one could consider the metaphors of intertwined diversity within communities or the patchwork adaptation of multicultural fusion. Wilson’s paintings also critique the support and surface of easel painting. The odd threadlike painted lines applied upon the carefully stretched and primed canvas surface both reveals and undermines the material preciousness implicit within the European convention of painting.

Paintings from Remote Communities is a visually stunning and dynamically conceptual experience that will either intrigue, confuse or elate. This exhibition also proves that not only is cultural diversity a precursor to innovation it is also that which keeps us healthy as communities and individuals.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Digital Poetics

A still from Qubo Gas' website Watercouleur Park ( Image courtesy of the Artists)

Art will always be dull in comparison to life. By this I mean that the beauty of life is a complicated thing that no artist can fully fathom or replicate. Art however, is not about mimicking life but is rather about the artist’s ability to grasp hold of its confusing fragments and lead us to new understandings. To do this however artists cannot stay frozen in traditional forms of communication. As new developments in culture occur the artist must adapt and respond. One of the most interesting developments in contemporary art in recent decades is the emergence of internet art or net art. Artists can now create artworks that do not depend on being accepted by museums or galleries and can reach a significantly broader and global audience than any institution can. Since the viewer can experience net art at any time of the day and in any location. One significant advantage of the internet for artists is the freedom to be subversive. Some artists such as Andy Deck or Shilpa Gupta have created websites that actively disrupt or undermine political or commercial powers. Other advantages include the ability to publish alternative information. Artists such as New Plymouth’s David Clegg have utilised the internet's capabilities of amassing vast archives of information that would otherwise be omitted, lost or not collected at all. The other side of net art is its interactive and playful potential. Such net art that appears merely playful could initially seem frivolous in comparison to using the technology for more noble and serious causes. However, it is precisely the ability to have fun that unlocks great meaning and insight into the human spirit.

The net artwork entitled Watercouleur Park recently commissioned by the Tate Modern museum in London is a prime example of such playfulness. Watercouleur Park is created by the French collective Qubo Gas and is an interactive website that randomly configures floating images to create dreamlike landscapes through which you journey through and visit (also see Qubo Gas' other website Smaticolor Editions). The images are naive marker drawings and watercolour paintings that resemble flowers, clouds, fungi, mountains, waves, foliage and many unusual and ambiguous shapes. The images appear to be cut out as one would to create a collage. As you enter the website a strange ochre shape accompanies your curser arrow on an odd journey into different landscapes from which confusingly cute music emerges. Starting off as merely the sound of wind the audio develops into raucously inane but innocent compositions - music that you would expect an electronic orchestra of smurfs would create. You quickly realise that this is no computer game since the website controls what level of interaction you have - mischievously allowing you to manipulate the sound and images but sometimes ignoring your participation altogether. The odd ochre shape that accompanies you also has a impish streak as it sometimes abandons your curser to go about its own meandering. Watercouleur Park is a dream that at first pretends to include you but ends up dragging you on a bizarre journey into an ether of vivid blooms and insubordinate tunes.

Just as playful but slightly more bound in reality is the Cloud Shape Classifier by Wellington artist Douglas Bagnall. To provide a type of release to our increasingly hectic daily working lives Bagnall has designed a website that allows people to enjoy the simple but luxurious pleasure of watching the clouds when they get home in the evenings. The Cloud Shape Clasifyer is linked to a camera that snaps photographs of the sky during the day. After uploading them the Cloud Shape Classifier then translates each photograph into 57 numbers that reflect the images visual appearance. When you enter the website you are given the option of training the Cloud Shape Classifier to identify your personal taste in clouds. Like the primal law of natural selection the more you train the Cloud Shape Clasifyer to choose some clouds over others the more refined and successful your collection will become. neural network The process is very strange at first and until you learn the nack of refining your selections it can be a bit frustrating. It is amazing however how the simple act of gazing at clouds on a luminescent computer screen makes you appreciate the real sensation of them.

Helping us to become cloud aficionados is not unlike the aim of the website Sound Transit by Netherland based artists Derek Holzer, Sara Kolster and Marc Boon. Cloning the appearance of an airline website Sound Transit allows you to schedule a virtual flight across the world. However, the locations on the journey are actually recorded ambient sounds that can be donated by anyone in the world and uploaded onto the website. In choosing your departure and destination locations you are also given a certain number of optional stopovers allowing you to make illogical flight patterns that zigzag across the world defying a realistic journey. One journey that I embarked upon departed from New Plymouth to Chapada Diamantina National Park, Bahia, Brazil via Helsinki, Linkoping and Kyoto. The flight took me from serene Tui bird calls juxtaposed with a busker in an underground tube station, to the croak and squawk of a rivers ecosystem morphing into the cacophony of automated Japanese voices of a train station - finally resting to the sound of rainwater in a Brazilian forest.

By either inviting our imagination on confusing journeys or making us aware of the complexity and beauty of everyday life - these perceivably “frivolous” websites enable us to grasp some poetic sensibility of our being.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Down the rabbit hole

Andalucía (detail) 2007 by Maddie Leach (Images courtesy of the artist )

We currently live in a digital wonderland. By this I mean that for many people reality is mediated via audio and visual representations of the world through TV, internet or computer enhanced imagery. The internet is the most prevalent simulated reality of our age. Perhaps the most extreme example is Second Life. Second Life is a completely virtual world where people can live out alternate lives. It even has its own currency called the Linden dollar allowing users to buy and sell virtual goods such as cars with real money.

In the 1980s the philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007) coined the term simulacra to describe this from of hyper-reality. He argued that humans create meaning based upon the perceived relationship of valuing one thing above another or distinguishing one thing apart from another. Thereby simplifying the world so that we can find meaning in life. In the process, according to Baudrillard, we manufacture a reality that is in fact a type of delusion. This is what Baudrillard calls the simulacra were the simulated becomes perceived as being more real than the reality. Baudrillard’s philosophy influenced the popular science fiction film the Matrix which depicts an idyllic but virtual 1990s American urban society created by a super computer to enslave humans. In fact, the climax of the film illustrates Baudrillard’s point that such simulated realities that are far too cohesive and simplistic inevitably become week and dysfunctional - resulting in the delusion to dissolve.

On show at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts is a multimedia installation Entitled Andalucia by artist Maddie Leach that toys with the escapism of simulacra. Te Tuhi is located in Manukau City in Auckland and has a dual role being both a community art educational centre and a contemporary art gallery regularly exhibiting temporary shows and installations. Leach’s installation is comprised of two works based in and adjacent to Te Tuhi’s sculpture court. Te Tuhi’s sculpture courtyard is a very modest patio area paved with grey concrete bricks – which bears more similarity to a recreational area in a prison than a venue for art.

Andalucía (detail) 2007 by Maddie Leach

The main component to Andalucia could be easily overlooked which is surprising because it consumes a large area of the courtyard. Not so surprising is that the artwork is actually a hole in the ground. After simple observation we become aware that this is actually a rather particular hole. Approximately 1m in diameter and 2m deep the cylindrical hole appears to be excavated with surgeon-like precision. The concrete bricks have been carefully removed in a hexagonal shape exposing an undisturbed grid pattern etched into the underlying sand. Sectioning off the exposed area and hole is a hexagonal fence of fluorescent orange plastic fencing mesh staked with unblemished black painted steel warratahs. Nearby is a tarpaulin containing a mound of dirt from the hole. There is also carefully spray painted purple lines on the surrounding pavement indicating buried pipes or power cables. It is obvious based upon the pedantic cleanliness that this excavation is no standard operation – indeed such a result would not be expected of even the most proficient tradesmen. The hole therefore could be considered an idealised hyperrealist hole in which the actual creation is more fantastic than a “real” hole would be.

The hole we learn after consulting the wall label is actually the meager beginnings of a grand tunnel to an olive grove in Cortijo del Granadal, east of Olvera, Andalucia – the sculpture courtyard’s exact antipodal point. To ascertain this Leach used the website Dig Holes which utilises Google Earth technology allowing the user to select any point on the globe from which to tunnel through the core of the earth and pop out the opposite point – virtually speaking of course. Therefore, not only are we presented with an idealised hole but also a symbolic and virtual hole that triggers our imagination -proposing an escape from the present reality of a drab patio. This internet induced escapism is as Baudrillard would claim a delusion - that simplifies the more complex reality that it is impossible to dig right through the earth.

Andalucía (detail) 2007 by Maddie Leach

(Images courtesy of the artist)

Equally idealised and delusional is the second component to the installation. Located on the inside glass door entrance to the courtyard is a video work presented on a wall mounted plasma screen. The video is of a golden setting sun sailing across a serene amber sky. The overt candidness of the video is of no surprise when we read that it is actually stock footage purchased via the internet. However, despite the cliché romanticism and clipart unoriginality - the suggestion of a Spanish setting sun nevertheless seduces us.

The ridiculousness of the hole to Andalucia leads us to a humorous understanding of how digital media has greatly influenced our perception of reality. The work could also be seen as a comment to the insecurity many New Zealanders feel of being stuck on an island at the bottom of the world. An anxiety which inspires Kiwis to escape to more exotic or exciting foreign lands. Andalucia could similarly be a political art statement about the great ambition but limited opportunities of New Zealand artists in this country.

Exhibition closes 28th February
Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts
13 Reeves Road, Pakuranga,
Manukau City

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Entertaining Ghosts

image courtesy of the Govett-Brewster

History is a type of fiction. This is because creating history requires deliberately filtering or omitting some facts, people or information in order to benefit the coherency of one point of view or story. This is a problem since there is always multiple people involved in any situation. So there is always multiple perspectives from which history could be written and understood. The accuracy of history is always contestable and fraught with issues. Alternative histories therefore are important as they are records of what escapes the cannon of history - the bits that slip through which give us a greater, broader and healthier understanding of what history might be.

The Sacred Hart a solo show by artist Terry Urbahn, currently exhibiting at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, offers a gesture towards such an alternative history of New Plymouth. Located on the Govett-Brewster’s second floor you enter the exhibition through a narrow light lock passage which is lined with ruff fragments of beer stained and graffitied particle board. After passing through the light lock you emerge in to a vast darkened space. On the rear wall is a massive video projection.

The video depicts an opulent banquet set in the bar of the now derelict White Hart Hotel on the corner of Devon and Queen Street. Originally a classy “silver service” establishment back in the early 1900s it later in the 70s became a lurid den for punk bands and the common haunt for the Magog motorcycle gang. These days the Hotel is in great disrepair and home to a vast population of pigeons - the only functioning part of the building being the public bar on Devon Street. However, rather than reawakening the glamour of the Hotel’s original life as one might expect - Urbahn chooses to emphasise the more grimy punk and gang scene of the 70s.

Reflecting this history the guests in Urbahn’s banquet are a cross section of those that were part of that wild period. Ranging from business men to regular working class types, Magog gang members and your run of the mill bogans. The seating arrangement is composed like Leonardo da Vinci’s socially stilted Last Supper with all the guests sitting on one side of a long rectangular table. The video starts with local artist Don Driver lighting the candelabras on the table. With age and health limiting efficient movement Driver has to hobble from one candelabra to another taking as much time as required to light the wicks. As if setting the scene of some dark gothic tale his handheld gas lighter is enhanced so that it sounds like a WWII flame thrower. The video has been edited in a time lapse manner so that the guests enter in a spectre-like fashion with some figures fading from the screen as one frame fades into another. Throughout the entire video the camera is continuously but ever so slowly panning from one side of the table to the other. Relatively un-phased but not unaware of the camera which invades their socialising – the guests lively consume a decadent five coarse meal – some perfectly at home licking their fingers and stuffing their mouths. The most intriguing aspect of the footage is the in-depth dinner table conversations. The voices undulate in and out of audibility sometimes merging into a babble of conversation. Every now and then however a particular statement escapes and is broadcast with crystal clarity. The conversations range from drunken tales, debate of local politics, nostalgic reminiscing and updates on past friends.

The film is an exhaustive duration of about 2 hours screened on an endless loop but the imagery and content is very mesmerising and a pleasure to watch. It has the production values of a big budget film making it easily palatable and seductive. However, it is defiantly not a movie to be watched from beginning to end rather you can enter and leave the video at any stage.

Accompanying the video is the actual stag from the top of the White Hart Hotel which is displayed on a rotating plinth. The white stag covered in moss and lichen seems to hover eerily within the all black room as if some animated pagan idol.

Urban presents us not with a historical document but rather the reflection of past spirits that are now vanishing with the decay of the hotel building. A history which would usually not be recorded or included as a significant contribution to New Plymouth’s cultural legacy. Urbahn also deals with obvious art historical references which conversely both parodies the seriousness of artistic conventions but also layers on complex associations - which allows us to journey down many interesting avenues of meaning. Through this type of artistic framing of appropriating art history - Urbahn has also created a type of neo-bogan renaissance aesthetic wherein remnants of this particular Pakeha culture are celebrated and remembered – rather than despised or forgotten.
Exhibition ends 2nd March