‘Welcome In’, Emma Bugden
Lists A curious thing happened once I accepted the task of developing the next Prospect biennial. From the moment my feet touched the Wellington tarmac to begin working on the show, people all around me starting offering me lists—their personal selection of who they would like to see included in a New Zealand survey show. People I had barely met offered their particular take. I began to realise that inside everybody such a list is just waiting to emerge into the world: a Top Ten, a Wish List, a Who’s Who, a Top of the Pops.
This, then, is my list. Or one of them. Forty-three artists, spanning a fifty-year age gap between oldest and youngest, who work variously across painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, performance, video, film, and computer software.
Welcome The Prospect show as a model was designed by Lara Strongman, curator of Telecom Prospect 2001: New Art New Zealand, to be generous and flexible enough to be taken up each time by a different curator and given their individual slant. Strongman’s own Prospect was elegantly playful in its execution, laying the foundation for each successive exhibition to provide a subsequent snapshot of time, place, and personality in New Zealand contemporary art.
Telecom Prospect 2004: New Art New Zealand is an unruly beast, designed to sprawl across the city like an exuberant infection, across galleries, cinema, a hall, the local bus service, your cell phone, your home PC. It has a sociable bent. The exhibition has a celebratory quality, an inclusive nature, and would like to welcome you in. Without being driven by one over-arching theme, Prospect 2004 is a show located around a series of connections which weave through the artworks. This is a show located in something quite real: it’s a show about people, networks, relationships, and conversations.
Where We’re From The artists in Prospect 2004 live on Great Barrier Island, in Porirua, Te Aro, Havelock North, Hamilton, and Port Chalmers. They also live in London, Melbourne, Bangkok, and Auckland.
In 2004, most New Zealand artists are sophisticated gypsies, moving across cities and countries to make and show their work. The sense of geographic isolation and preoccupation with this island landscape which marked out New Zealand art so strongly in the 1980s and early 1990s (as illustrated in exhibitions such as Distance Looks Our Way, Headlands, and Putting the Land on the Map), no longer seems so dominant. An electronic squeezing of distance is leading, as promised, to that virtual global village. On one level, maybe it still hovers as a utopian dream before us; on another level, it is an increasing reality. One consequence of this shrinking sense of space has been increasing numbers of New Zealand artists exhibiting overseas, not just in large-scale institutionally supported touring shows of national art, but increasingly as individuals in commercial, public, and alternative spaces around the world.
We may still be uniquely adrift at the very bottom of the world, but we are no longer immune from the ravages of a wider world beyond. Yet, at the same time, we can still assert a desire for locality, a need for the regional and the personal. Not entirely rootless, we are still stuck firmly in our own patch of (shifting) dirt which brings its own conflict and joy. As arts commentator Mark Amery has said: ‘Our history young, our geographical position isolated, issues of distance and cultural identity continue to be keenly felt no matter how fast we can dial up our modems. They are issues that still have a strong impact on the kind of art we make.’1
Increasing numbers of New Zealand artists are basing themselves elsewhere, sometimes permanently. Therefore, in making shows which examine the stick-in-the-ground benchmark of national identity, as institutions and curators we need to think in the most fluid sense. Included in Telecom Prospect 2004 are many artists who live away from New Zealand, but still consider themselves New Zealanders, as well as those whose work maintains an active dialogue with this country. While London-based artist Francis Upritchard is established enough in the UK to be included as a finalist in the British contemporary art award The 2003 Becks Future, she also exhibits her work here, where it is read within particularly local modes of reference. Under the same rationale, I have also included several artists who are not of New Zealand citizenship, but who base themselves here for some or part of the time. Waroonwan Thongvanit, an artist based in both Bangkok and Christchurch, makes videos which chart the unease she often feels as an artist whose home stretches across two countries.
The younger artists in this exhibition were, like myself, raised in a particularly fervent time of New Zealand politics—just children at Springbok marches and CND rallies. Teenage years spent in the tight grip of new-right policies, deregulation de rigour, an artschool education notable both for its postmodern styles of teaching and its ability to generate us many thousands of dollars of debt before we left our early twenties. Like me, these artists are largely urban creatures, clustered around the locust heart of galleries, movie theatres, long blacks, and ready access to broadband. At the same time, they are probably equally as at home on marae as they are at a club and as likely to seek corporate sponsorship to enable them to execute their work as they are to apply for arts-council funding. In addition to being visual artists, they work variously as designers, stylists, writers, singers, performers, dancers, and educators.
As New Zealand continues the awkward process of becoming a truly multicultural nation, the changing nature of this wider community has begun to stamp its mark upon the art world. New voices have made their way into the mix; new ideas must be considered. This process of change and shift cannot help but produce a collusion of visual culture which is rich, complicated, and diverse. In addition, after six years of additional governmental investment into the arts, New Zealand artists are, if not lavishly flourishing, certainly operating in an increasingly professionalised environment. Deregulation of tertiary institutions has seen a major explosion of art schools, and, even more recently, a corresponding emergence of new commercial and community galleries. An artist graduating in 2004 from an art school has ‘Professional Practice’ classes under their belt; they are prepped and readied for the ‘market’, somewhat differently to an artist graduating in the 1980s.
After the passionate engagement of artists with political and environmental concerns in 1970s and early 1980s addressing the Springbok tour, the Aramoana smelter, Nuclear-Free New Zealand, the 1990s saw a shift to a far more insular approach to artmaking. Slowed perhaps by a less fervent political environment, a desire to make work that was commercially viable and a growing interest in the kinds of postmodern debate which favoured irony over earnestness, artists began to move away from direct political stances in their practice. Recent years, however, have seen a return to the active engagement of the 1970s and 1980s by some artists, albeit in more subtle and strategic forms. Artists working today are, by necessity, media savvy, operating in a post-Adbusters environment, able to insert themselves into a commercial environment where advertising executives regularly steal the very strategies of subversion and deconstruction deployed by artists.
The complexities and concerns reflected in Telecom Prospect 2004 mirror those of a wider New Zealand community. Threaded within Telecom Prospect 2004 are strands of discussion around the nature of social structures, ownership of the seabed and foreshore, the fragile state of our environment, racial tension, sexual and gender politics, the impact of new technologies, the increasing reliance on drugs in mental healthcare, and the growing commercialisation of both our film and television industries. This list could seem like a stern programme for social improvement, were it not for the warmth and lightness of presentation; a series of topical concerns presented in user-friendly packages that are as pleasurable as they are provocative. Telecom Prospect 2004 offers both personal and social realism with a sassy, sexy gloss. Russell Campbell, writing for the Telecom Prospect 2004 website about the burgeoning film industry in New Zealand, comments: ‘Our lives are worth digging into, documenting, telling tales about. That’s authenticity and a refusal of Hollywooden alienation.’2
As with the inaugural Prospect exhibition, the artists in Telecom Prospect 2004 are not placed in discrete generational groupings; rather, the senior artists of the show are shown in dialogue with younger artists with whom their work has strong links. Homage is, therefore, paid to the extensive career of Don Driver by placing his art alongside mid-career artists Et Al. and Ronnie van Hout and emerging artist Dan Arps. The mark of Driver’s eclecticism and love of the readymade registers across generations. In this way, individual practices are seen in light of a wider series of circular connections and relationships.
Softly Softly And let it also be noted that these are somewhat sweeping generalisations. This is certainly not a watertight manifesto. A template such as Prospect must be open enough to accept works which slip outside one’s tidy definitions. The temptation is to write about the show in a way which presents it as slightly too ordered, like a bundle tied up with string and labelled ‘contemporary’. The intention with Telecom Prospect 2004 is to respond to the works themselves by placing them in relevant groupings which acknowledge the relationships artists and their work engage in, whilst leaving enough room for each work to breathe, so that, as curator Francesco Bonami puts it, ‘different practices can share the same skin but not the same focus’.3
To Make a Show Lara Strongman described her exhibition Telecom Prospect 2001 as a ‘Babel tower of voices’.4 It’s a wonderfully apt description of the cacophony that fills a survey show. At times, the soundtrack involved in actually creating Telecom Prospect 2004 was as loud as the eventual show itself; an ongoing series of conversations between myself, City Gallery Wellington staff, a curatorial advisory panel, staff from partner venues the Adam Art Gallery and the New Zealand Film Archive, and, of course, the artists themselves. Telecom Prospect 2004 was designed to incorporate and feed off a range of voices. Different spaces accommodate different works, allowing for the presentation of a physically diverse range of practices, as well as bringing additional ideas, opinions, and experiences into the mix. The exhibition, as it sprawls across different venues, offers people the opportunity to experience what curator Hans Ulrich Obrist calls ‘unexpected encounters’ with artworks.5 Moving across the city, Telecom Prospect 2004 offers each section as a complete show in itself, yet, at the same time, each suite also functions as one sentence in a much larger conversation.
More People Please: City Gallery Wellington’s Gallery One Consider this as the portrait gallery of Telecom Prospect 2004. The works in this gallery span a broad range of ideas about the body, sexuality, and sensuality; beauty, fashion, and desire. There is a narcissistic flavour to some of these works, a focus on both notions of the self and the wider role of the artist, while other works refer back to historical modes of depicting the human body.
Ian Scott is positioned as the godfather of naughty-but-nice pop, his Playboy pin-ups posing provocatively next to famous modernist paintings, as though they were selling us cars in a showroom. A major figure in New Zealand painting since his early days as one of the few local pop artists in the 1960s, and, subsequently, with his interest in post-modernism and appropriation, his paintings are stamped with a celebration of the ordinary and the banal, as well as a wilful pleasure in the ridiculous. It’s the playfulness of the juxtapositions that Scott makes in his work and his often gleeful humour as he prods the boundaries of acceptable taste, which sees Scott taking centre stage in a lineup that is savvy, slick, and assured.
Like Scott, Liz Maw, and Scott Eady share an interest in the representation of the body. Drawing on themes from ancient mythology, Maw reworks these to create her own stories in paintings which exude a sleek sensuality. In Honeymoon on the Pigroot, Eady’s ongoing interest in masculinity and male stereotypes leads him to investigate Dunedin, a southern city caught between its rural heritage and its rising reputation as a fashion centre. Eady’s work moves between notions of High Country and High Fashion: his Southern Man wears a Drizabone, but it’s made by fashion designer Nicholas Blanchett and the horse he leads is an enormous My Little Pony toy.
Underlying the glossy fun in this gallery, there is a discernible sense of unease. We hear it in the shrillness of Jacqueline Fraser’s drawings, the high-pitched squeals of the society women whose lifestyles she depicts (‘Really, I was a teeny bit late because my make-up man was useless.’) and their inner emptiness implied by the backhanded jab of titling each of the works after anti-depressant drugs. Similarly, the cuteness of Peter Robinson’s googly-eyed creature is a bit like Disney-on-acid, a grotesquely funny reminder of what long-term cigarette use really does to your insides.
A Convulsive Beauty: City Gallery Wellington’s Gallery 2 In contrast, Gallery 2 offers a more contemplative realm. The works selected for this gallery demonstrate an interest in history, memory, and real and imagined places. This is a space intrigued with beauty, dreaming, and the surreal. It’s a space which asks you to take a breath and contemplate.
In stealing the title of this section from André Breton’s famous 1928 quote about surrealism (‘Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all.’), I am possibly doing the works a disservice as there is nothing convulsive in these slow-smooth-slippery surfaces. However, the Surrealist preoccupation with both the overcharged fetish and the sublime is relevant to the works in Gallery 2. Their aesthetic of convulsive beauty transgresses all boundaries of rationality or formal logic, bringing instead their own winding logic of myth and seduction.
Lonnie Hutchinson’s exquisitely crafted wall-mounted sculpture Sista7 plays off light and shadow in seven cones constructed from building paper cut into a series of unfurling koru patterns, referring back to the seven peaks of the Port Hills in Lyttelton, where the artist is based. Of these works Hutchinson has said she is ‘passionately fortunate that I make art in such an environment. For me this is a spiritual journey of returning to the landscape of my tipuna.’6
Peter Madden has also had the scissors out, building an entire miniature city from pictures carefully cut from the pages of National Geographic, creating a fantastical world which unfolds like a paper fan. Maryrose Crook’s paintings each present a mysterious world filled with personal iconography, rendered with the most intricate detail. Complexly layered, her symbols and imagery tease us with their implied codes and elusive beauty. Shigeyuki Kihara could also be seen as creating new worlds by inserting herself into Samoan history, reinterpreting myths with herself as the central character. The dreamy exteriors of her photographs belie their edgy nature, as Kihara, a fafafine (a Samoan term which translates most closely as transsexual), continues to explore issues of identity.
This room may offer time out for the viewer, but it’s not so much an escape from reality as a hopeful take on what the world could be. In her sculpture Welcome to Paradise, Bekah Carran provides a glimpse of nature in the midst of urban sprawl, drawing on time spent working on a community art project for psychiatric outpatients. In Carran’s own words, her art provides something ‘hopeful and gentle, tinged with idealism, sentimentality and sadness’.7 To assist the contemplative mood of the piece, she offers a park bench as an invitation to viewers to sit before the work and reflect.
On the Run: City Gallery Wellington’s Gallery 3 While Gallery 2 may offer utopia, Gallery 3 delves into more dystopian territory. If there is an idea that binds the chaotic hubbub of works in this gallery, it is that they grapple with reality. Located firmly in the everyday, the works included here take an interest in the wider world—the environment, social groupings and behaviours, science, architecture, medicine, and the interesting banalities of real life. Some of these works may seem confrontational, but they also display a sense of wilful humour in their dissection of our lives and environments.
Ronnie van Hout continues his interest in a multiplicity of identities in a major work which offers audiences the chance to assume the very identity of the artist himself, becoming one with the work via text messaging and email. A small shack sits in the gallery, simply built from raw plywood. The door is open. Once inside the shanty, it becomes obvious that we are in a prison cell, but the artist, or prisoner, has escaped his bounds, leaving only a dummy of himself behind to fool the guard. But the artist keeps mysteriously reappearing to taunt the guard, leaving a virtual trace of his whereabouts as he (and gallery visitors on his behalf) posts regular messages from exotic locales. ‘I was attracted to the idea’, says Van Hout, ‘that it would be possible for me to interact with the work when I was away from the gallery. This creates a further depth to the work, increasing the image of the escaped artist, somewhere in the world, on the run.’8
Grand and Mysterious: The Adam Art Gallery An architectural feat built to span the space of a stairwell between buildings, the Adam Art Gallery is not your average white cube but a series of unique and original rooms which flow into one another. Telecom Prospect 2004 at the Adam Art Gallery places an emphasis on the emotional and the experiential. Working with the architecture of the space, the works at the Adam Art Gallery play with scale, running the gamut from the large epic through to the intimate and personal.
The organic lyricism of Bill Culbert’s and Judy Darragh’s sprawling installations engage with the gallery space itself. Culbert’s Tupperware containers and fluorescent tubes spill over the floor and metal grating, while Darragh’s luridly coloured cobwebs wind their way over gallery windows and right through one of the walls out the other side. In contrast, Francis Upritchard brings the conversation down a notch, her simple display presenting museology the DIY way, with handmade paper maché preserved heads, complete with false teeth and real hair. Waroonwan Thongvanit’s DVD True Confessions is her ongoing video diary, infused with all the confessional ethos of reality TV—the work moves in the ambiguous space between truth and fabrication.
Click Click Beep Beep: The New Zealand Film Archive The New Zealand Film Archive turns the very notion of the biennial survey show on its head, offering, in lieu of the static three-month display, four solo-artist projects during this time frame. This altered structure, as well as the very nature of the venue—a moving-image institution with exhibition gallery, a cinema, screening rooms, and a twenty-four–hour public-access outdoor screen—means that the works at the Archive have been selected for their focus on the temporal, presenting moving-image pieces which are performative and subject to change.
During the course of his exhibition, VJ Rex will perform a public gig in the cinema with his collaborators, devising new sound and visuals that will form the content for the rest of the exhibition. Much of the footage has been culled from western and sci-fi movies—both preoccupied with the exploration and occupation of so-called uncharted territories, these two strands of popular culture form an ongoing fascination for the artist. The sound and visuals generated at these events then forms the content for his ongoing exhibition. Collaborating with other artists complicates the notion of exclusivity implied by a survey exhibition. By drawing in other artists to work with him on this project, VJ Rex, in effect, bends the rules and opens the doors to allow more artists into the inner sanctum. As he has said, ‘making work collaboratively on one level is a political act and on other levels it operates to open up the possibilities of what I can achieve—and most importantly it’s fun to work with other people’.9
Hye Rim Lee’s cyborg entity Toki is technology at its most seductive, a feminine creature who flirts with us within the boundaries of her electronic construction. In contrast to this whimsy, Douglas Bagnall’s robot has evolved to such a useful extent that it can actually work as a filmmaker; as Bagnall says ‘it makes sense to make a robot that performs the role of the artist, freeing the artist to dwell on something else’.10
Glide Time: Massey University’s Great Hall The day after being offered the chance to curate Telecom Prospect 2004, I was on a plane headed for San Francisco for two-months work. During my time away, I received an enthusiastic email about a new work by Maddie Leach. An actual working Ice Rink, read the email, eighteen-metres long and able to be skated on … Far away from the ice chill of a New Zealand winter, without seeing a photograph, without knowing more, I immediately began to locate this work as a centrepiece for Telecom Prospect 2004. A major piece in physical scale and conceptual scope, The Ice Rink functions both as an aesthetically beautiful artwork, and, at the same time, as a community project—in a sense a gift from artist to gallery visitors.
Activated when audience members don skating boots and glide (or more often stumble) up and down the ice, the gallery is transformed into an inclusive zone for recreation. Placed in Massey University’s Great Hall, a vast space loaded with the memory of its former existence as the central core of the original Museum of New Zealand, the grandiosity of the building is softened by playful occupation. Bringing into the art gallery the rules and procedures for an entirely different realm of social interaction, Leach’s project, in the words of arts writer Tina Barton, ‘explores the nature of contemporary experience as it is played out in the arenas of public life’.11
Welcome In This brings me back to the phrase ‘Welcome In’, with all its implications of invitation and participation. This is the crux of the Prospect series, its very impetus: to open up a discussion around contemporary art to wider audiences. Over time, the ongoing Prospect series will become a kind of barometer—of taste, ideas, perspectives—what people were doing and thinking and wondering. Quirky, eclectic and opinionated, Telecom Prospect 2004 provides a platform for a generous range of voices to be heard, celebrating the sometimes messy hybridity of these times.
1. Mark Amery, ‘Tauiwi ’, Techno Maori: Maori Art in the Digital Age, (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington and Pataka Porirua Museum of Arts and Cultures, 2001), 3.
2. Russell Campbell, ‘Viewpoints’, Telecom Prospect 2004: New Art New Zealand website, www.telecomprospect2004.org.nz/cgi-bin/viewpoint.pl
3. Francesco Bonami, cited in ‘Global Tendencies: Globalism and the Large-Scale Exhibition’, Artforum, November 2003: 157.
4. Lara Strongman, ‘Curatorial Statement’, Telecom Prospect 2001: New Art New Zealand website, www.prospect2001.org.nz/cgi-bin/index.pl
5. Hans Ulrich Obrist, cited in Tony Bond, ‘Biennales Strategies: The Theme or the Curatorial Strategy?’, http://home.iprimus.com.au/painless/street/tony.htm
6. Quoted in Felicity Milburn, ‘Lonnie Hutchinson’, Te Puāwai o Ngāi Tahu (Christchurch: Christchurch Art Gallery, 2003), 56.
7. Bekah Carran, personal communication to the author, 2004.
8. Ronnie van Hout, personal communication to the author, 2003.
9. Emma Bugden and Eugene Hansen, Port Replicator, 2003, www.city-gallery.org.nz/mainsite/InterviewwithEugeneHansen.html
10. Douglas Bagnall, personal communication to the author, 2003.
11. Christina Barton, ‘Out of the Deep’, Gallery Six: The Ice Rink and The Lilac Ship (Hamilton: Waikato Museum of Art and History, 2003).
Gwynneth Porter, ‘This Biennale Has Been Curated by an Artist’
Let us remember once again one of Marx’s caveats: we cannot tell from the mere taste of wheat who grew it; the product gives no hint as to the systems or relations of production. The product seems to be all the more specific and readily describable, the more closely the theoretician relates it to ideal forms of causation, comprehension, or expression, rather than to the real process of production on which it depends. (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus)
1. Art in a Social Context When I was commissioned to write this essay, I was asked to write about art in a social context (being an artist, being a curator, the art community, the institution, etc). This might appear unremarkable at first, but in my mind it is anything but. It is, in my experience, terribly rare and terribly refreshing for a municipal gallery in New Zealand to actually want to consider their curatorial projects socially.
Looking at how it is for artists, for example, is a very timely thing for a public art gallery to be doing. In 2004, artists are finding it harder and harder to make work—resources are tighter than ever and the global political climate is increasingly right wing and intolerant of creativity and freedom generally. It is beginning to look like a miracle that art is even made at all; each work starts to look like a small victory over the society of the spectacle.
Rare, too, is that City Gallery Wellington has asked an artist to curate Telecom Prospect 2004: New Art New Zealand. And rarer still, that this performance artist is a young woman who has a solid background in the artist-run and project-space scene. Emma Bugden is, in my opinion, to be applauded for the even-handed respectful and inclusive way she has assembled this large exhibition of contemporary art—a kind of approach that is allowed to happen much less than it should.
2. Curating and Taxidermy I was unsure whether to use the quote I have selected as an epigraph. It is from a beautiful, but complex book: it has taken me months to read even its initial sections. I don’t know if I support the way in which one seems to need to be an intellectual of an extreme order to navigate the themes of a lot of big international biennales and I wasn’t sure if bringing this sort of material in helps. But I decided that it does, as this passage and the following section contains such important ideas in relation to contemporary curating—it is much easier to look at art isolated from its social context, but, ultimately, to do so is to trade in life-draining simplifications.
I am definitely not a supporter of the over-intellectualisation of art, yet I am absolutely no supporter of the way museums often dumb things down. Attempting to reduce meaning to specific, imposed, taxidermied, reductive, narrowing, factually-stated interpretations and stunting key themes helps no one—not artists and not audiences. There is, however, an important middle ground where art can remain alive and functioning in group shows.
Theme shows can be great, but their titles and premises need to proceed from things actually happening in the art they draw together. It is important to leave behind the idea that an artwork has a specific list of contents like a jar of pickles or something; and that it is the curator’s or viewer’s job to diagnose, or psychoanalyse, the work being exhibited. Furthermore, biennales are too often add-to-cart theme shows that treat artworks like ‘raw materials’ (as artist John Baldessari put it) in the illustration of the curator’s interests. The resulting ‘recipe’ group shows have very little to do with why the work was made. By snipping artwork from its original context for inclusion in a group show curators tend to ignore the fact that that artworks are ‘complex entities with their own structure and histories, blind spots and illuminations, relevance and detours’, as arts writer John Welchman said of American artist Mike Kelley’s work.
3. Trusting the Artist The opening quote was drawn from a book that is subtitled ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ and which looks critically at ‘the institution’. In this passage Deleuze and Guattari discuss the study of schizophrenia within the psychiatric institution, but it is useful to apply what they wrote to the study of the visual arts, given the longstanding perception of the artist as someone ‘touched’, a bit mental; interesting, fascinating even, but basically incoherent and, ultimately, not to be trusted.
The authors suggest that it is not useful to look at the patient (read artist) in isolation, as doing so halts the desiring/creative process. But, as they write, ‘the moment one describes, on the contrary, the material process of production, the specificity of the product tends to evaporate, while at the same time the possibility of another outcome, another end result of the process appears’. This idea suggests that a new sort of group show is entirely possible: one that allows art the space to keep working and for new (i.e. not predetermined) outcomes to take place.
Janet Frame’s passing this year has given me a great deal to think about in terms of the way our culture deals with creativity and how it is considered pathological, aberrant in some measure. Frame’s entire oeuvre could be seen as being about an insistence on personal freedom, of the value of fantasy, art, in the face of a conservative provincial society that labelled her crazy and tried to make her sane and to get her ‘under control’. She apparently only narrowly escaped a lobotomy because a doctor read in a newspaper she had won a literary prize.
In Frame’s 1961 book The Edge of the Alphabet there is a character who reviles artists. He can’t bear the way they destabilise things and thinks that all they need is to be made to work on buses. Institutions have tended to behave like this in a way by casting artists as creators in need of being curated—organised, articulated, decoded. The artist is left without a voice or agency and is often not remunerated adequately, if at all.
3(b). The Implicit Value of Art While I was writing this essay, I received an email from Daniel Malone, one of the artists featured in Telecom Prospect 2004, who made some valid points about how artists feel about having their work curated:
‘The fact is the galleries themselves are staking out territory for themselves with some implicit value in the artwork/artists they are dealing with. If this is what they are brand(ish)ing as a context that gives them a value, then they have to extend that in real terms to the art/artists, not just play lip-service to it.
‘I guess put simply I’m just saying it’s not an argument that should be mis-read as ‘the world owes us a living …’ Also, just a thought re my own situation and general bolshy revolutionary tendencies: is it worth mentioning that it’s a mistake to see that the artist is actually absolutely powerless in this situation, almost like a warning. My theory is there are ways and means by which artists (et al.) still get to do what they always intended.
‘This is one of the inherent advantages in the nature of artistic practice that I think more and more people are beginning to realise/explore: contingency, agency and, at the most pragmatic level, simply, that artistic practice continues. The artist continues making work; it’s the institutions that risk sitting still …
‘The two-headed monster is very simple to draw in silhouette (diagrammatic outline): these institutions need art/ists to exist—art/ists don’t need these institutions to exist. It’s the colouring in that usually messes things up rather than simply making things more, well? Colourful! Two-headed because on the one hand you’re the value/commodity on the other you’re endlessly replaceable.’
4. Outside the Institution In the face of this taxidermy of their work, artists have found artist-run activities to be hugely empowering and liberating. Indeed, New Zealand and Australia have a fine and interesting history of artist-run initiatives—it could even be said that ‘out t/here in the community’ is where the bulk of art here actually happens. Siegfried Kracauer, in his 1927 essay ‘The Mass Ornament’, characterised cultural productions that arise out the community (the people/volk) as having ‘a sense of organic life, and magic force’. This is the reason that curators are wise to come to the artist-run scene for their raw materials; but they must be very careful how they host the work or else it can just end up as ornament and not in a good way—taxidermied specimens at worst, happy guests at best.
Artist-run spaces are often tree hut organisations of the most excellent sort. They support discourse and, in doing so, feed the development of radical subjectivities together. Indeed, it has even been suggested that, in this day and age, self-organising is the new natural selection.
As with radical feminism, separatist activities are very important for art to change, but what next? Institutional reform is what. Artists often feel, in relation to large-scale institutional projects that they are being used. There is a fashion in curating internationally that casts the curator as auteur, the über-artist who jangles the keys and acts as the gatekeeper. Artists, however, want more agency, to be paid and to have the opportunity to articulate their work in space, for its internal/relational logic to operate.
5. The Biennale Problem As a solution to this situation, many call for the binary relationship between artist and curator to be abandoned in favour of more of an organic mixture of artist/writer/curator. There is also encouragement for institutions to become conversant with many of the issues artists have worked through in the postmodern era—the expanded field, the found object, installation practice, performativity, the post-media condition, relational aesthetics …
Something that is great about Telecom Prospect 2004 is that it is a Whitney-style biennale that samples a country’s contemporary practice. Most other biennales (the events are now legion) are international thematically-driven events. The 2004 Whitney Biennale (on show as I write this) may have themes, but they are not usually that loudly stated and tend to proceed from currents read into the work. It doesn’t bear an unwieldy theme that crushes the work—curators must tread very carefully when constructing umbrella concepts. They can end up being more like falling concrete blocks.
Telecom Prospect 2004 doesn’t really have a thematic structure, instead it has more of a brief; but even calling it Prospect is a sort of a meta-theme in itself. The word ‘prospect’ conjures up images of gold-miners and gang initiations which, I guess, is not far off what any curatorial project is ultimately about.
The basic problem is that most curators proceed from concepts, but not all artists do. Artists may be thinking about shapes, materials, combinations, aesthetics, images, interplay and not necessarily about meaning. This sort of modus operandi raises the question: is contemporary curating a post-conceptual practice harking back to the days when artists joked about just needing a typewriter? (It is no coincidence, I think, that the first curator-as-auteur, Harold Szeemann, was up to his ears in the Fluxus movement.) Not all art is that classical, or cerebral.
So, as a basic principle, curator-auteurs have to be very, very, very, good and know a lot about art. They must be conversant with a range of work that has a range of operating systems. What sort of individual can actually achieve this?
6. The Artist as Curator? Such issues have been recently examined by the e-flux project ‘The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist’ (see www.e-flux.com/projects). In this online project, a variety of artists were asked to respond to the proposition ‘The next documenta should be curated by an artist’. The resulting pieces of writing have been posted on the website and these and the resulting online discussion that followed have recently been published as a book. There were some very apposite points made and I think that an executive summary could prove useful:
Ken Lum: ‘My view is that the idea of art is always larger than any art system. It is the reason why it is often so painful to be an artist, just trying to negotiate the passage of art into the art system …’
Ricardo Basbaum: ‘When artists curate, they cannot avoid mixing their artistic investigations with the proposed curatorial project: for me this is the strength and singularity they bring to curating.’
Julia Scher: ‘The ideal artist-as-curator is an artist who has deeply mined a certain vein of artistic practice … [and] appreciates the complementary nature of the three increasingly merging aspects of today’s art world: artist, critic, and curator.’
John Baldessari: ‘Curators wanting to be artists. Architects wanting to be artists. I don’t know if this is an unhealthy trend or not. What disturbs me is a growing tendency for artists to be used as raw materials, like paint, canvas, etc. I am uneasy about being used as an ingredient for an exhibition recipe, i.e. to illustrate a curator’s thesis.’
Joseph Grigley: ‘That is the point of such an exhibition: to reveal the complexity of the ways art comes into being.’
Frederico Herrero: ‘There is not really a distinction between an artist and a curator.’
Tim Lee: ‘My prospectus for a documenta would include humor as the primary agent for social commentary.’
John Miller: ‘The artist presents him- or herself as homo ludens, the one who plays. Art-as-play symbolises utopian freedom as an alternative to capitalism’s cyclical crises, the worst of which erupted in fascism.’
Martha Rosler: ‘Documenta is a diagnosis and an ethical compass rather than a poetically inspired walk through a garden of aesthetic delights.’
Marina Abramovic: ‘When things work: When artists choose to work together at the same time and in the same space, this type of group show has a certain chemistry in its togetherness.’
Dara Birnbaum: ‘Should we instead establish a kind of “World Wildlife Fund” for artists, where funds would be evenly distributed to artist in order to prevent the endangerment of their species?’
Daniel Buren: ‘At the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, no exhibition organiser would have dared to claim out loud that they were the authors of whatever exhibition they were in charge of, and they would be even less inclined to claim that they were artists!’
Laura Belém: ‘By extending the artistic practice to include curating, writing, and other forms of exchange and collaboration, we subvert relations of power and move toward a more truly democratic, pluralistic art sphere.’
7. Relational Curating Emma Bugden’s artist-run project background, her interest in performance art and in social exchange, make her a natural to curate a big group show in 2004—a tricky thing to do and at an interesting time. Group shows have been criticised in the past for forcing the work of artists together into the same space and, in so doing, compromising their spatial integrity. To ‘fix’ this, works were hung further and further apart as though they were fragile and neurotic.
However, in the 1990s, a different discourse developed that signalled a desire to go beyond thinking about individual artists and individual works and beyond the idea of art as being about discrete objects, or spaces to walk through. The new interest is in art as a relational phenomenon—that is looking at art as a social entity seeking better ways of living. In presenting something of a forced encounter, art could be even seen to be a microcosm of the city.
This is not to say that art has not been always relational to some extent, but in the 1990s many artists became interested in establishing situations that involved exchange between people, rather than merely putting something on display. This way of working has developed, as French writer Nicolas Bourriaud laid out in his excellent book Relational Aesthetics (1998), out of a desire to make actual social contact in a society in which this is becoming more and more rare and awkward.
The creative scenario whereby artists are seeking to activate ‘the spaces between’ introduces the potential for a social imperative to curating. (Perhaps one which harks back to the original source of the word curator, curatus, meaning a stand-in priest—‘one who has the cure of souls’—as artist Joseph Grigely pointed out). For without social contact, something in people shrivels and the mechanism whereby subjectivity develops stalls. The sense of self is thought to develop not in isolation, but via a process of mirroring only possible in relation to others; in other words, as a community exercise.
8. Scary Times It is for such community reasons that institutions can learn much from the artist-run scene. If the development of (radical) subjectivity is necessarily relational, the artist-run scene traditions of open camaraderie, discourse, hospitality, participation, creative freedom and koha are indeed valuable. Such an approach could even be seen to relate to an extension of the concept of tino rangitiritanga, or the right to self-determination.
But all this implies a lot of work for people, doesn’t it? In the same way that not all artists want to be curators, not all audiences want to be producers of meaning. Many museum-goers seem nostalgic for the days when ‘it was all there in the art’ and they didn’t have to create meaning themselves by way of exchange between the viewer and the work. However, I would say that now is not the time to desire this sort of passivity. These are indeed scary when self-hood seems to be, to many, more about property and a veneer of success than anything else.
In conclusion, some critics are rather jaded about biennales, but I would hesitate to throw the baby out with the bath water. Large shows, thematic or otherwise, can be amazing experiences. Fundamentally, the quality of such extravaganzas seems to depend on the curators really knowing something about contemporary art practice; if a theme is to be introduced it should have something to do with things actually happening in art, those forced encounters at the edge of the alphabet.
Bibliography Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du Reel, 1998). Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983). Janet Frame, The Edge of the Alphabet (Christchurch: Pegasus Press, 1962). Jens Hoffmann, ‘The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist’, e-flux, www.e-flux.com/projects/next_doc/. Sigfried Kracauer, ‘The Mass Ornament’ (1927) in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995). John Welchman (ed.), Mike Kelley: Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003).
Ian Wedde, ‘Prospect: No Worries’
Prospect: a tactical withdrawal from or advance beyond its near eponym, ‘perspecta’, and the Latinate markers of the modernist academy implicit in ‘Documenta’. ‘Prospect’ is a good word and a good title for the times: its optimism packs in the idea of a fresh, encompassing view, something to look forward to, some fun, and a quest for the real oil (or gold). It has a sense of elevation, as well as of common usage. As it’s surely intended to, it offers a brand capable of repetition, but not neutral. It implies a renegotiation of the terms of reference for the biennial- or triennial-type exhibition. Its official predecessor in 20011 assembled an eclectic, curator-driven sampling of current art practice, and made a virtue of its lack of 1990s-style anxiety over contemporariness by incorporating the recent work of senior artists such as Milan Mrkusich, as much to demonstrate that they, too, remain fresh, as to provide a sense of historicity. It also avoided thematic dogmatism (national identity, cultural theory, narrative), and managed to reconcile top-down academy-style selection with official culture (the canonical presence of work by iconic artists). Lara Strongman’s curatorial note to the exhibition used the ‘great white swan hunt’ for a whimsical work by Gavin Chilcott to deflate Melvillesque portentousness; the swan ‘occupied a place in the real world as well as in the academy’, and it exhibited ‘good humoured resistance to dominant contemporary paradigms’.2 Some critics found the exhibition miscellaneous. Maybe art is. Its tone was pleasurable rather than pedagogic, another aspect of the Prospect brand that bears thinking about. So let’s think about it.
It may be that Allan Smith began the thinking in 1995 when he curated what was a kind of ur-Prospect for City Gallery, A Very Peculiar Practice: Aspects of Recent New Zealand Painting.3 The title of this exhibition already suggested an intentional split—the interesting, gently punning hook, followed by a familiarly pedagogic, Gordon Brown-esque tag-line: we will intrigue you and then inform you. This was a crucial instruction on how to read the discourse model of the exhibition. Concentrating specifically on painting as a complex, historical practice, Smith was careful early on to establish what the exhibition was not interested in doing. A key epigraph to his catalogue essay quoted Dietmar Kamper (‘art ceases to be a question of current fashionability’4); Smith went on to assert that ‘The significance of painting … depends on more than the changing fortunes of art world bids for eminence and hegemony.’5 Other language in this essay revealed Smith’s intention to position the exhibition as a critique of the cultural polity; to investigate the leverage of such terms as ‘the history of painting’, ‘a dominant cultural institution’, ‘shared public realm’, ‘legacy’, and ‘social landscape’. These are all terms that thrust or veer past the taxonomies of art history or the reductive categories of a national canon. They reveal a desire to look at painting—the most familiar ‘fine art’ practice—within an extended social and cultural field. If this discourse now has any obvious coloration, it is the anxiety of the late 1990s: a combined worry about the final unreadability of the late postmodern’s ‘empire of signs’, relevance, contemporaneity, and an expanding visual-culture field. Even then, such anxiety had given way in many quarters to blithe, collaborative, cross-disciplinary behaviour by younger artists: in 1995 it was Ronnie van Hout who was the stand-out peculiar, mocking his own ‘anxiety’ (I’m with Stupid, Stupid’s with Me 1993); in 2004 it is hard to imagine Sriwhana Spong (and the ex-Pussies), or Hannah and Aaron Beehre (and Pine)—who were present in Prospect 2001 —or Daniel Malone, being co-opted to such concerns. Prospect can continue to investigate a wide cultural polity as well as diverse practice; but it needn’t worry about it, and has said it doesn’t intend to.
Today (as I begin to write) is the 22nd of March, 2004. On the 22nd of March 1824 the British Parliament voted to purchase thirty-eight paintings to establish a National Art Gallery. The idea of civic or official culture wasn’t new: the revolutionary transformation of the Louvre, until 1682 a residence of the kings of France, into the Museum of the Republic in 1793 was a political act that anticipated the reverse redistribution of art treasures to the provinces by Jacques Lang, the former leftist French Minister of Culture, two hundred years later. But the idea of a national collection directly, rather than rhetorically, sponsored by an elected national (or local) body was a new idea. It linked with a Victorian ethos, at once paternalistic and an effect of nineteenth-century capitalism, which believed that the masses should be educated and that educated masses would contribute to economic productivity (an idea that has familiar echoes in the current, etiolated jargon of ‘knowledge society’ and ‘creative city’).
At this time, ordinary literacy was the preserve of the middle and upper classes, as out of reach for most citizens as were the art collections of the aristocracy or the activities of the Royal Academy, or university-administered collections such as Oxford’s Ashmolean. Somewhat more within reach were the collections (and exhibitions) that shared a border with popular entertainment, such as the botanical curiosities of Kew Gardens and the animals (and humans) paraded as zoological or ethnological exotica—still, in themselves, the byproducts of scholarly investigations. And even though the ‘elected’ representatives of the people in Britain in 1824 were effectively elected by class-, property-, and gender-exclusive voters, the idea that official culture might be made available to all through the economic agency of government was still a new one.
The great Crystal Palace exposition of 1851 was the nineteenth century’s most spectacular display of the confluence of imperial capital, Victorian paternalism, public entertainment, and scholarly collecting. It revealed flows as well as tensions between entertainment, learning, institutional collecting, and sensation, which have persisted in many subsequent exhibitions, not least Brilliant!: New Art from London at the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, in 1996, and its British Council sponsored successor Pictura Britannica: Art from Britain in 1998. The controversy that erupted when the latter was staged at Te Papa was richly symptomatic of the tensions as well as the flows. However, the controversy obscured the complexity of exchanges by reducing them to a trite stand-off between ‘artistic freedom’ (the academy), and ‘public understanding’ (the non-art audience), with the museum (official culture) stuck in the middle as an advocate for both. This over-simplification continues to haunt much official cultural policy. It has also spooked many large, anthologizing, explanatory exhibitions, some of which have become catastrophically trapped in it, for example the gargantuan 1989 Bilderstreit: Widerspruch, Einheit, und Fragment in der Kunst seit 19606 and, its antipodean near-relative, The Readymade Boomerang: Certain Relations in Twentieth Century Art.7
Even newer than the idea of official culture opening the academy to public access would have been the idea that government (including local government) should support culture as (s)elected by voters. This idea would have to wait—indeed it’s still waiting, except where the complex and often conflicted exigencies of commercial drivers, cost of supply, programme or territory competition, and Reithian public-service ethics8 produce partial and inconsistent acceptances of consumer-driven public culture. Examples of this may be found in New Zealand On Air-supported television or in the exhibition schedules of Te Papa. In these zones of cultural programming (as, often, within the expositional, carnivalesque zone of the contemporary biennial-type exhibition), the tensions and exchanges between the academy, official, public, and popular culture are rich, complex, and potentially dynamic, if not rendered inert by risk aversion or undemocratic by political or class interference.
The connections and misconnections between pedagogy, class, taste, literacy, capital, cultural production, official culture, public culture, and popular culture, have been much discussed in relation to what John Miller has called ‘The Show You Love to Hate’.9 The conceptual and professional trajectories of celebrity ‘mega-exhibition’ curators such as Harald Szeemann, Rudi Fuchs, and Rene Block have also been much discussed, in relation both to their late-modernist practice through the heyday of the Documenta-type exhibition in the 1970s and early 1980s, and also in relation to their subsequent retrenchments around materiality, history, and the museum collection (in part an academic reaction against the relativism of postmodernity). What’s less often discussed is the rift between the idea of the conversationalist academy of the eighteenth century (and its institutions such as the Ashmolean) and the idea of pedagogic public-good collections of the nineteenth, and the ways in which this rupture resembles the one that took place between the late-modernist-academy style but collection-free ‘mega-exhibitions’ of the 1970s and early 1980s (including on-the-cusp meditations such as Jean-François Lyotard’s Les Immateriaux in 1985, the filmic materiality of Peter Greenaway, or the somewhat earlier activism of Judy Chicago) and later radical reinvestigations of the collection as a place of public meaning, learning, and resistance by artist-curators including Clementine Deliss, Ivan Karp, and, most famously, Fred Wilson. Also relevant to the current status of ‘mega-exhibitions’ are the cautious extensions of a modified modernist academy found in the museological approaches of Lars Nittve at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, or at the Tate Modern, and the sympathetic ‘relevance’ criteria of Peter Jenkinson and Elizabeth Ann MacGregor in the north of England, notably at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, where contemporary art was seen as the most critical, imaginative, and successful way of engaging with the community. The entertaining but pathological extreme of this ‘relevance’ approach may have been reached in Christoph Grunenberg’s and Max Hollein’s mammoth Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture in 2002.10
What’s also seldom been discussed in relation to the, let’s call it ‘electivity’ of public culture, is the way in which works of art join the company of the elect—works of art whose canonical quality is the exclusive product of neither academy-style nor of public-good- or public-service-style visibility, access, and citation, but of other forces. Both academy and public-service decision making in respect of what will be shown to the public, where and when it will be shown, and how the cited iterations of quality benchmarks will be managed, tend to leave out or skirt forces more often associated with the consumerism disliked by Lord Reith. These other forces include nationalist marketing and reification, narrativisation, and populist metonymy: semiotic agents usually associated with grandiose, mainstream and popular national cultures such as the Hollywood/Bollywood movie, or the ‘dominions of signs’ (to borrow from Nick Perry) which are assembled within mainstream media, especially commercial television and especially television advertising.11 It’s here that popular icons such as New Zealand television’s current advertising craze, the semi-rural Kiwi bloke, are fabricated, often providing artists with satirical or homage roughage. The fact that the semi-rural bloke’s representativeness is in inverse proportion to the majority urbanised population is, of course, symptomatic of the mythologising forces that generate public culture, epitomised in Saatchi’s immortal ‘Bugger’ ads for Toyota.
An engagingly peculiar example of this—a different kind of semi-rural bloke and sheila—is Thomas Gainsborough’s famous painting Mr. and Mrs. Andrews of 1750. Having spent its life out of the public gaze, the painting entered an official culture domain in the Gainsborough bicentenary exhibition at Ipswich Museum in 1927, but became ‘elect’ within public culture as one of the images reproduced to brighten up British Home Guard canteens on the home front during the Second World War. Its emotional use as a highly recognisable nationalist rallying image was endorsed when it was exhibited at the Festival of Britain in 1951, a brilliantly positioned and crafted ‘mega-exhibition’ event that fused history, patriotism, and modernist progressivism and that also managed to fuse official, public, and academy culture, largely through the agency of works of art such as Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. It was inevitable that the painting should officially enter the public domain, and it did when the National Gallery purchased it in 1960. It’s now one of the best-known, most-recognised, and most-reproduced icons of the English painting canon.
What is the process of legitimation through which such a transformation of cultural ownership and value takes place? The question is relevant to a discussion of the current status and value of biennial-type exhibitions, poised as such exhibitions are between selective and elective agendas—or, as I suggested earlier, sometimes trapped in a stupid stand-off between ‘artistic freedom’ and ‘public understanding’. I suspect the questions continue to haunt the curators of post-heyday Biennales, including their major successors, the Asian behemoths—and that, as a brand, Prospect is an anxiety-diffusing strategy.
What are the terms whose anxiety-inducing properties need to be diffused? Since, in 1995, Allan Smith opened up a discussion of the cultural polity, we might begin by charting this polity’s structure. The terms ‘academy’, ‘official culture’, and ‘public culture’ are useful without being reliable—their borders are vague, and the tensions between them are creative rather than exclusive, just as it’s the tension between artistic freedom and public understanding that makes encounters with contemporary art interesting. I’m with Nick Perry again when he writes of the need, in New Zealand, to think with non-oppositional, and non-binary ‘third terms’: ‘[The third term is] a term that refuses the opposition between state monopoly and market uniformity, between political direction and commercial manipulation, between high culture and mass culture, between global and local, in favour of acknowledging the diversity of civil society, the facilitation of plurality, the complexity of the popular, and the cosmopolitanism of the local.’12
What the ‘third term(s)’ might be, or might become, is an interesting question to ask in the context of Prospect since, like New Zealand television, it’s the product of combined academy, public-good, government (in this case local authority), and market forces (including sponsorship). In order to explore what benefit these stakeholders derive from Prospect’s ability to generate a ‘third term’, we need to define the ‘third term’ generating forces.
The specialist culture of the academy as an exclusive domain of peer discourse produces lateral selection—peers choosing each other. The brand values of the academy affirm and protect the complicit class distinction of both producers and consumers. The artist’s signature adds value to their class; they add value to the signature’s exclusivity, its quality-control value. The academy game-makers in modern-day New Zealand may be found within a small, wealthy, highly influential lobby of private collectors and benefactors. While their relationship with key opinion-leading dealers, ‘collectable’ artists, and intellectuals may appear symbiotic, in fact it’s frequently they who run the shop in an economy the size of New Zealand’s, where the most interesting new art is often, however, found in the dry above major capital flows.
Reithian public-service or public-good official culture generates pedagogic, top-down selection. Official-culture brand values affirm the improving, paternalistic, public-good role of academy culture as the arbiter of official taste. The artist’s signature becomes the property of the State, signifying civic virtue. The official-culture game makers in modern-day New Zealand are state agencies, including the Ministry of Culture and Creative New Zealand. There would appear to be ‘no surprises’ clauses embedded in the contracting of many official culture initiatives. The Minister of Culture’s recent characterisation of global research into hip-hop as ‘silliness’ is possibly symptomatic of ignorance; it is certainly symptomatic of paternalistic quality-control and the politicising of cultural selection—election as determined by popular consumption and global cultural economies doesn’t get a look-in. Art that deliberately or involuntarily defies definition within official culture (‘outsider art’, the art of cultural or social minorities, ephemeral and time-based art, taxonomically unruly or cross-disciplinary art, provocative political art, etc) is seldom given official accreditation, except through the processes of ‘kitsch’, ‘naïve’, ‘folk’, or ‘avant-garde’ reprogramming; exoticising shifts which position their advocates as discriminating rather than the art itself as inherently interesting or valuable.
Public culture combines market forces and populist metonymy to produce nationalist, recognition-value-rich, bottom-up election—usually, however, influenced initially by agencies of official culture. The brand values of public culture affirm the broad, metonymic relevance of national cultural icons. The artist’s signature becomes national-identity property, signifying collective national distinction.
Public-culture game makers in modern-day New Zealand will tend to be aligned with investment and entrepreneur economies, rather than with the economies of entitlement usually associated with subsidized ‘culture’. They will be found among the ‘creative industries’ of tourism, advertising, independent film, television, and design production, and national niche-marketing. A significant ‘third term’ paradox of public culture is its unconcern with local-global slippage: a Toyota Hi-Lux may be the chariot of choice for semi-rural Kiwi blokes, Adidas the brand of choice for national sporting heroes, and an unsullied, sublime, primeval, depopulated, Burkean mountainscape the backdrop of choice for a Prime Minister leading the Pacific’s largest, mostly urban, multicultural, hip-hoppy, and increasingly Asianised, island society. Sharing the public-culture game maker limelight with creative entrepreneurs will be national and regional agencies that want creative capital to endorse their brands: ‘the government’, city councils, local-product (or content) promoters, and identity impresarios. There will always, however, be art whose identity within public culture is opaque, which doesn’t add recognition value to a national brand, and which doesn’t necessarily have an attitude to such potential co-option—art that may often best be described as ‘casual’: unconcerned about ‘production values’, often collaborative, quirky, conceptual.
We haven’t talked about popular culture, whose makers and consumers don’t think hip-hop is silly and whose audiences may be stubborn when it comes to consuming Reithian public-service television. Popular culture isn’t interested in the weird transgenic identity forged by public (and official) culture in rebranding New Zealand as an economic miracle Middle-Earth repositioned as a primeval landscape with hidden geniuses; it just enjoys the movie and thinks Peter Jackson is cool. Public culture seeks popular culture’s audience loyalty and disposable income, and knows that the audience’s willingness to spend its wages on entertainment is the only way out of the ‘culture of entitlement’.
How can Prospect substitute enjoyment for the anxiety that builds up around these positions; what are the third terms that will engage with complexity rather than establish dumb binary stand-offs; and where are the artists (unmentioned as yet) in all this?
Another case study. It was a gallery director’s vision (Doug Hall’s) that fused the apparently serendipitous combination of wealthy cultural philanthropist (the Myer Family), Commonwealth Government economic agendas for cultural diplomacy in Asia, Queensland Government agendas for regional brand development, and the international rise of art from Asia into the sequence of events that came to be known as the APT; the Asia-Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane. The key stakeholders here are as above: an academy linking collector wealth (Myer) and professional selection (curators and dealers); official culture interested in rebranding Australia as part of a new, Asia-Pacific region and keen to encourage public acceptance of and knowledge about the region (what might be called the ‘art with dipping sauce’ strategy); and public-culture interests vested in the Government of Queensland and, eventually, the City of Brisbane. Prominent among the sponsors and supporters have been Australia’s major cultural agencies, the cultural foundations and agencies of contributing countries, and major tourism, education, and broadcasting interests. In 1993, when I attended the first APT, the audience was small, specialised, and skeptical. In particular, they were skeptical of the official and public-culture motives of the project, especially its apparent economic drivers, and the sense of Australian hegemonic interests in this rather suddenly embraced geo-cultural proposition. The exhibition experience was really a suite of privileged encounters between the specialist audience and the artists. The citizens of Brisbane were largely absent and the only on-floor interpretive context provided was a reductive regional map in which contributors were defined by nation, ethnicity, state religion, etc—an imperial taxonomy which many of the artists found offensive.
The fourth APT in 2002 represented the probable culmination of a twelve-year arc.13 While much reduced in scope from its three predecessors, it was notable for several things. First, it had by now won the pride of a large citizen audience—the town came en masse to the two huge, generous bashes with which the exhibition opened. Like the art, don’t like the art, who cares?—this is happening in our town, it’s weird and interesting, and you get to see it every three years. Second, there was a sense of ease in the audience’s acceptance of the project’s major premise—that a relationship with Asian cultures is both interesting and appropriate—remarkable given Queensland’s well-known propensity for One-Australia racism. Third, the project had immensely assisted public culture’s investment in a Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, including the Australian Centre for Asia-Pacific Art, scheduled to open in 2005, with a collection substantially built through the APT process. Fourth, the initiative had almost certainly been the key driver of cultural urban renewal initiatives by the City of Brisbane. And fifth, there was a clear sense of loyalty, pleasure, and appreciation among the artists.
There was an overall sense that by sustaining and linking the interests of its key stakeholders, remaining relaxed about their different agendas—playing to rather than stressing out over tensions between them—being hospitable to audiences and artists, and keeping its nerve and patience with respect to long-term objectives, the APT had nurtured a set of third terms. These were mostly to do with pleasure and the public domain of museum scholarship. The APT respected the expertise of its curators, and audiences came to enjoy the sense of discovery and encounter the event provided, rather than feel excluded. It made the pedagogic goals of official culture pleasurable and inclusive—interpretation and education facilities around the fourth APT were exceptional, and widely used by families with kids. It encouraged the public culture stakeholders to open the event up to a wide audience, and supported this with loud, carnivalesque parties, at which art performances were presented as entertainment, and regional cuisines served free and in bulk. It included artists in hospitality and free public programmes wherever possible. The third terms were the products of processes, and often were processes in themselves—not states or positions. They were cumulative and mutual, and resulted more from mistakes and patience than from instant solutions. There was a sense, at the fourth APT, that the project’s long-term objectives had always been relatively clear, had remained consistent, and were finite.
What might Prospect do to establish long-term objectives, find the patience to sustain a consistent vision, and open itself up without anxiety to ‘third terms’? If its emerging mission is to regularly dip-stick new art in New Zealand, it (and its audiences) might continue on tracks opened in 1995 and 2001 by asking the following questions: What is the art produced and advocated for within the capital flows of the academy? What are its alternatives? How do they differ from and relate to each other? What are the key markers of official culture today? What alternatives to official culture are apparent at present? What processes are under way to co-opt them officially? What are the refusals? What art has public culture visibility and acceptance? What is the art that won’t be nationalised, whose identity within public culture is opaque, which doesn’t add recognition value to a national brand—which is ‘casual’? And finally, what are popular culture audiences looking at? How does this relate to the other cultural spheres? How does it continue to inflect the other spheres’ priorities?
1. Telecom Prospect 2001: New Art New Zealand, curator Lara Strongman, City Gallery Wellington, 11 April–1 July 2001.
2. Lara Strongman, curatorial statement for Prospect 2001, www.city-gallery.org.nz/mainsite/Prospect2001.htm
3. A Very Peculiar Practice: Aspects of Recent New Zealand Painting, curator Allan Smith, City Gallery Wellington, 10 June–3 September, 1995.
4. ‘Art ceases to be a question of current fashionability and presents itself as grappling with the dread that we could forfeit all connection with other human beings, as a result of a lack of shared perceptions.’ Dietmar Kamper, ‘At the End of an Age of Mirrors’, Flash Art, no. 157, March–April 1991: 85–7.
5. Allan Smith, ‘A Very Peculiar Practice: A User’s Guide’, A Very Peculiar Practice: Aspects of Recent New Zealand Painting (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 1995), 6.
6. Translates as Picture-Argument: Opposition, Unity, and Fragment in Art since 1960. Curated by Carmen Gimenez (Kultusministerium Madrid), Knud W. Jensen (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek), and Nicholas Serota (Tate Gallery, London). Staged under the auspices of the Ludwig Museums, Cologne, at the Kolner Messe, 8 April–28 June 1989.
7. The Readymade Boomerang: Certain Relations in Twentieth-Century Art (Art Is Easy). Curated by Rene Block as The Eighth Biennale of Sydney. Staged under the auspices of the Biennale of Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Bond Stores, 11 April–3 June 1990.
8. Lord Reith was the first Director General of the BBC. He is credited with the concept of Public Service Broadcasting, whose remits have been rather vaguely defined as to ‘inform, educate, and entertain’. Reith saw entertainment as a minor goal, but (paternalistically) the education of viewers and listeners in matters of taste in entertainment as a major one. Reith viewed the advent of commercial television in Britain in 1956 with alarm, and Reithian doctrine has continued to advocate for a public-service definition of audiences as citizens not consumers.
9. John Miller, ‘The Show You Love to Hate: A Psychology of the Mega-Exhibition’, in Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne (eds.), Thinking About Exhibitions (London: Routledge, 1996), 269–75.
10. Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture. Curatorium directed by Christoph Grunenberg (Tate Liverpool) and Max Hollein (Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt). Staged at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 28 September–1 December 2002, and Tate Liverpool 20 December 2002–23 March 2003.
11. Nick Perry, The Dominion of Signs: Television, Advertising and Other New Zealand Fictions (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1994).
12. Nick Perry, ‘“Getting the Picture”: State Regulation, Market Making, and Cultural Change in the New Zealand Television System’, in Roger Horrocks and Nick Perry (eds.) Television in New Zealand: Programming the Nation (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2004), 74–90.
Tobias Berger, ‘Quantifiably Quirky’
My brief for this essay was—in my niche role as a European curator currently based in New Zealand—to hold an international lens up to the New Zealand art world. I was encouraged to think about things like the impact of globalisation on countries like New Zealand, which are physically so far away from the traditional artworld centres. How New Zealand presents itself to the world (and how the world receives New Zealand). And that perennial favourite—what constitutes a New Zealand artist in this day and age?
I grew up in post-postwar, pre-unification West Germany. This has left me with the sense that it is very difficult to write about art as defined by a territory or state. What is German art, New Zealand art, or Asian art, other than a strange construct defined by more (in Germany) or less (in New Zealand) artificial borders? Look at the history of a state like Germany, where ideologies, borders, alliances, and size have changed with almost every generation. The Germany my parents grew up in was very different to the Germany I grew up in, and nowadays it looks much different again. New Zealand seems much simpler in this regard. It has always been, by and large, the two main islands (bearing in mind the various forays into the Pacific in the twentieth century). While New Zealand’s territory is pretty much concrete, the idea of who is a New Zealander seems to be the much more interesting and complex issue.
I was very happy when I learned that for the national Census everybody in New Zealand is free to define which ethnic group they belong to—very much in contrast to the more genealogical definitions that other countries employ. Ethnicity in New Zealand, the Census tells us, can be entirely defined by yourself and by your personal feelings (although things become more complicated if you want to take part in the claims certain groups have against the Crown): ‘Ethnicity is the ethnic group or groups that people identify with or feel they belong to. Thus, ethnicity is self-perceived and people can belong to more than one ethnic group. Ethnicity is a measure of cultural affiliation, as opposed to race, ancestry, nationality, or citizenship.’
I think that every artist who feels close to New Zealand should have the right to call themselves a New Zealand artist. There are a number of artists who have lived overseas for decades who still consider themselves New Zealand artists, as do many newly-arrived immigrants. Young Asian students who arrive here to study are sometimes more connected to New Zealand art and its history than to their own identity. The treatment of ethnicity within the Census is an interesting benchmark for both New Zealand and international artists who are considering their ethnicity. Theoretically, there are no restrictions on what people wish to define as New Zealand art (although, again, this becomes more complicated when you start to think about where you sit in relation to Creative New Zealand’s funding criteria). Every country has its own definitions; in some it depends on citizenship, in others on a certain period of residence—in New Zealand it depends on how you perceive yourself.
It’s impossible to define New Zealand art with one word, one sentence, or even one article. A year ago, fresh off the boat, only slightly aware of the New Zealand art scene, ‘quirky’ would have been my best stab at a definition. I associated quirky with strange, naïve, and a bit odd, words that for me imply not insult, but interest. Having just finished a year in Lithuania, I was eager to engage with the language and the culture of my new home.
Sometimes a nice place to start is with the thesaurus game. Insert a word, find its synonyms and go from there. For ‘quirky’ it goes like this: ‘Quirky peculiar odd, strange, weird, unusual, irregular, abnormal, atypical, eccentric, uncharacteristic odd strange, abnormal, unusual, out of the normal, peculiar, anomalous, weird, funny idiosyncratic personal, individual, distinctive, all your own, eccentric, peculiar, particular unique sole, only one of a kind, single, exclusive, exceptional, inimitable, distinctive, matchless, irreplaceable, rare individual, for one person, particularised, personal, special, exclusive, particular, private strange odd, bizarre, outlandish, eccentric, weird, weird and wonderful, extraordinary, out of the ordinary, peculiar unusual strange, odd, curious, extraordinary, abnormal, remarkable, bizarre, atypical eccentric odd, unconventional, unusual, peculiar, strange, weird unpredictable random, erratic, changeable, impulsive, volatile, fickle, irregular, capricious, variable, arbitrary’.
The nice thing about the outcome of this game is that—other then the results for ‘unpredictable’—all the synonyms are a real compliment for an artwork and/or artist. Who doesn’t want to be unusual, peculiar and weird, to name just the most commonly generated terms? So, maybe it’s not so bad to be quirky, live on an island, and do your own work without being directed by the rest of the world. It is possibly this very scenario which makes New Zealand art so interesting: it has its own style, without being detached from the world. I am constantly amazed by the knowledge of the international art scene shown by some curators and artists, considering that New Zealand dealer galleries (with some exceptions) and public institutions don’t really show international art (other than some Australian work). There are ways to get around this: residency programmes, curatorial visitors’ programmes, the odd international exhibition. But New Zealanders, it seems to me, get most of their information secondhand, through international art magazines like Artforum and Frieze, and the books, stories, and impressions that those people who do make it overseas bring back and pass around.
The best and most effective way to get connected, to present your work and get a feel for what is going on in art, is not different to most other businesses. You have to be present at the big trade fairs, conferences, and festivals. If you want to sell cars, you show at the Detroit Motor show; if you want to sell books, you have a booth at the Frankfurt book fair; and, if you are anything in computer games, then Las Vegas is the place to be. For contemporary art nothing beats the Venice Biennale, where every two years the art world congregates, not only to see work from up to fifty countries, but also to discuss new trends, finalise co-productions and meet new people. For a country like New Zealand, a small presence in Venice is more valuable than any other venture into the international scene.
One of the most fundamental questions that every institution faces when considering showing international artists is how to decide who to invite and who not to invite. How many international artists should we invite and where should they come from? How do we justify the huge airfares for these artists? These questions are particularly crucial when it come to biennales and other large-scale group exhibitions. The idea of curating in concentric circles offers a solution. I developed this idea for the Baltic Triennial in Vilnius in 2002. The basic concept is quite simple and more or less common practice: the further an artist has to be brought, the more important they must be to your exhibition. This places a stronger emphasis on the local artists without losing the international context, and it makes you look harder at the home front, as you put local artists into the context of international art practice.
As a curator, it’s your job not just to provide the local artists with good exhibitions, but also to give them opportunities to exhibit with international artists. Curating in concentric circles is a guideline for putting together exhibitions that allow this. It also seems to be a quite logical approach in today’s global art world, where the Western world no longer rules the contemporary-art scene, and where you find contemporary art spaces in almost every country. The time seems to be over when artists were included in exhibitions just because they were from an exotic place or part of an exotic minority. This is a world where we find artists who spend more time travelling between their different exhibitions than in their studio, which is reduced to a shiny laptop.
The concept of curating in concentric circles also justifies the existence of a governmental institution that helps finance the arts. New Zealand, so far away from other centres, needs to bridge the distance, otherwise the exchange between the local and the international scenes threatens to disappear. Funding should be a two-way street. Not only should governmental bodies think about exporting their own culture, they also need to recognise the importance of bringing artists, curators, and writers, and all their new ideas, into the country. At the moment the emphasis is, by necessity, on inviting artists who themselves come from places with strong governmental funding. As a result, the majority of artists brought out to New Zealand are German, English, and Dutch, and it is surprisingly seldom that you meet an American, Russian, or Chinese artist in person. We need to invite a wider spectrum of artists to New Zealand, but with the subsidies the governmental institutions are offering, and the small budgets the galleries are working with, it is sometimes very difficult to present an accurate picture of today’s art world, which is more complex, more interesting and more connected than ever before.
Globalisation did not come as a huge surprise to the art world. With not one but a number of dominant centres—Paris, London, New York—it has always been a fairly global network. At the moment, this is changing. The new centres exist only temporarily. They are called biennales now, and for one weekend Venice, Sao Paulo, Istanbul, Vilnius, or Sydney becomes the art centre of the world. This has had huge consequences for the way art is produced, exhibited, and marketed. We see the initial consequences in the rising interest in artists such as Francis Alys, Santiago Sierra, or Olafur Eliasson—artists who work in installation and performance, media that are preferred in biennale contexts, but less favoured in galleries and museum exhibitions; work that is difficult to sell, transport, and store but wonderful to see, reflect upon, and remember.
Returning to New Zealand. For me, this country feels like a small laboratory: big enough to reflect reality, but small enough to watch. A place where you can comprehend the game and understand how things are played. It is connected to international discourse, but maintains enough distance to do its own thing. It is blessed with a diversity of cultures that do not compete for dominance but learn, respect, and profit from each other. To top it all off, New Zealand even has its own Über-artist in Colin McCahon, a local Picasso who has given artists both self-belief and a style to work on, against, or with. Maybe New Zealand is a bit like how the perfect art world should be. Quirky or what?