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.

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