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Yaw at RM

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Luke Willis Thompson, Yaw (detail) at RM. Photo by Alex North. Luke Willis Thompson, Yaw (detail) at RM. Photo by Alex North. Luke Willis Thompson, Yaw (detail) at RM. Photo by Alex North. Luke Willis Thompson, Yaw  at RM. Photo by Alex North. Luke Willis Thompson, Yaw  at RM. Photo by Alex North.

Copied in France from a US sculpture, the figure arrived to an Auckland antique dealer in the early 1970s, entering New Zealand at the same time as a large number of Pacific migrants recruited for economic purposes. On arrival, the figure was placed outside the store to hustle for business on a street corner near the young artist's then home. After suffering increasing physical abuse on the street, the figure came come to be kept indoors, now on display behind a caged front window.




Luke Willis Thompson


14 July - 30 July 2011

In his essay ‘On Collecting Art and Culture’ James Clifford explains how the classification of objects by collectors is doomed to be a temporary exercise, as objects do not remain in the value regimes of either artistic masterpiece or cultural artefact, but shift between them over time and space. For Foucault, the emergence and decline of stable discourses about objects is precisely the source of their aesthetic power: in the modern paradigm the most powerful artistic experience involves something we thought we knew slipping from our grasp, or something felt which is about to become knowable. Meanwhile, objects themselves hover ambivalently, resisting our attempts to put them in their place.

Luke Willis Thompson’s Yaw presents us with a remarkable, disturbing figure in such a transition. As we enter the gallery a life-sized sculpture of a hunched figure faces away, revealing himself to be a black man in an ill-fitting suit and hat, dressed in the tradition of blackface minstrelsy. He is truly yawing, a ship who has strayed far off course here in Auckland/Tamaki Makaurau, where men of black African descent do not figure in a national story. Wherever this man is supposed to be headed, it is not this city. On closer inspection, his bent posture could be the sculpture frozen in the moment of an entertaining dance, but this possibility is suppressed by Thompson’s precarious balancing of an empty shallow bowl in the open hand. Not only is he a long way from home, but he is skint. He invites the usual distancing comment directed to beggars: “That poor bastard.”

Alone in the gallery with nothing else to look at, our distance cannot be maintained, so he has our attention and his story unfolds. Copied in France from a US sculpture, the figure arrived to an Auckland antique dealer in the early 1970s, entering New Zealand at the same time as a large number of Pacific migrants recruited for economic purposes. On arrival, the figure was placed outside the store to hustle for business on a street corner near the young artist’s then home. After suffering increasing physical abuse on the street, the figure came come to be kept indoors, now on display behind a caged front window. Yet even though he was now inside the store, he was not for sale, continuing to perform his role as the iconic identifying chattel of the antique dealer, a differentiating function for which no money can substitute. He is truly performing the labour of identity, indentured with a debt that cannot be repaid or bought out. The artist’s gesture begins with a three week rented holiday for the figure in RM gallery, where perhaps a certain amount of aesthetic care can be offered as respite from his usual labour. This additional displacement by the artist recalls the efforts among communities and museum workers for the repatriation of cultural artefacts and human remains: this body does not belong here, it should be sent home. But as a copy of a generic stereotype itself many centuries downstream of the founding of the European slave trade, and now on the other side of the world, the figure has no clear “home” to go to.

After a while, the man begins to reveal suffering from not only living rough on the streets, but in the brutality of his creation. In keeping with the tradition of blackface, everything about this man has been designed to caricature, subdue and dissipate the power of the black body in the guilty aftermath of slavery. The nameless, presumably white, sculptor haunts the work with unimaginable cruelty: bowing the black man down before the viewer; slowly kneading the man’s lips into an exaggerated pout; moulding his pants into a decrepit sag; and most disturbingly, leaving sunken hollows in the eyes where the irises should be. A sad political figure in his native habitat of the store, the white cube directs attention to the human singularity of his making and being: he becomes less a political symbol of racism and more a monstrous example of the impossibilities the history of racialisation leaves for an ideal interpersonal community we seek in the art world. There is simply no easy way to be with this man. The artist’s installation strategy engages political and social issues through the modality of the personal and ethical: the plate being offered by our figure bears a Nazi-era stamp on its base identifying it as being from porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal, whose Jewish founder was forced to leave the business and became exiled while the company was “Aryanised” (though retaining its Jewish name) in the 1930s. There is no interpretive text to help the viewer to “get” the connection, but gallery staff have been instructed by the artist to share with interested visitors a moving story about the artist’s father that shows this juxtaposition of figure and object in a new and painful light.

When the art historical brain catches up to this racialised figure in the gallery, one is immediately put in mind of Michael Parekowhai’s works Poorman, Beggarman, Thief (1996) (more easily remembered as the Māori figures wearing the badge “Hi, My name is Hori”); and the 2003 Kapa Haka series of Māori security guards, recently given a reworking in the 2011 Venice Biennale. Those works cunningly (and rightfully) asserted the presence of Māori in the public-commercial sphere through the Warholian strategy of the multiple, while retaining the European individualist authorial signature of the “hand-crafted.” This mark of authorship, further enhanced by the artist’s use of his immediate family as models, turns out to be essential for maintenance of the significant exchange value Parekowhai’s works carry today. The aesthetic complications of this strategy are perhaps most palpable looking back to Parekowhai’s 1994 work Mimi, a series of carved replicas of Duchamp’s Fountain. At the time, the work seemed like an assertion of Māori (and thus New Zealand) relevance in the Euro-American history of contemporary art; while also a statement in favour of “crafted” sculpture that would “keep it real” in the no-bullshit Kiwi manner. From today’s vantage point, one can see how the art market has enthusiastically consumed Parekowhai’s interplay of cultural difference (differentiation) and individual authorship (property), with the finish and craftsmanship of the works securing the viewer in their position of financial and aesthetic appreciation.

In Yaw, Thompson seems to take the opposite strategy, restoring the power of Duchamp’s ready-made gesture. Thompson has not even been able to buy the figure at the centre of the exhibition for himself, let alone circulate it for financial gain - the trajectory of the figure is away from the market, and hopefully away from comfortable display. We are increasingly used to stories of such limits on circulation taking place in the world of indigenous cultural materials, among communities stereotyped in the West as non-cosmopolitan, pre-modern, and resistant to capital accumulation. This is why Parekowhai’s infiltration of a race- and class-bound artworld’s mode of circulation creates such useful openings. Thompson’s gesture, however, is much more radical, both in aesthetic and cultural terms. Thompson finds in this generic object of blackface minstrelsy an absolute singularity, one that potentially speaks to every instance of the commodification of race. Refusing the shelter a ‘cultural identity’ might provide in the Parekowhai/90s-Peter-Robinson fashion, or any explanatory narratives that justify the work, Thompson’s courageously bare presentation of this object leaves us decomposed by undigestibility of the figure for either cultural edification or capitalist consumption. We are ourselves “thrown off course”, yawing against the bitter squalls of power that punctuate the winds of the global multicultural economy.

Danny Butt

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This Discussion has 5 comments.


Andrew Paul Wood, 5:24 p.m. 21 July, 2011

I'm not sure that over-analysing the kitsch of previous eras (stating the blindingly obvious), or sticking it in an art gallery for that matter, actually makes it art. Lazy conceptualism methinks. I mean, really Danny, are you saying this grotesque 'thing' is the product of a racist milieu? Quelle horreur! I would not have guessed. Does the artist actually have an intent, or does he just like to browse antique shops?

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Roger Boyce, 11:29 p.m. 21 July, 2011

The idea that "- the trajectory of the figure is away from the market -" is, to my mind, wishful thinking. Wishful, in regard to the Capital A ART market.

Demotic objects - such as the Stepin Fetchit figure employed by Luke Willis Thomson to (putatively) raise the value of his art market brand - are traded hourly, for fabulous prices, by supply chain networks of dealers who specialize in such volk-materiel (oy, a newly invented mouthful of Franco/German gibberish).

The unattainability of this racialist trophy only raises the level of its desirability and thus its book-value.

The hiding-in-plain-sight thing about Luke Willis Thomson's strategy - to mount an exhibition with a single (exclusive) object that is not (or cannot be) for sale - is the inconvenient fact that that particular marketing meme is most common at the highest-altitude, nose-bleed-level of the art market itself - for example the showrooms of (say) Michael Werner or Gagosian/Pincus-Witten.

In fact here's a Gagosian quote to fortify my assertion - "-we've done some of the toughest shows, where nothing's for sale -"

'Tough' - a male-gendered adjective if ever there was one - is the art-world's perennial praise-word. FYI, Pretty/decorative - female gendered adjectives - lie at petticoat-ghetto end of the art-speak spectrum.

To mount a single object exhibition wherein that single object is unattainable (for either love or money) is about as tough as one can get in 'this man's' artworld Lol.

To accrue toughness is to accrue praise is to accrue value in the artworld. Established value is in and of itself the ur-establishment of market...whether one calls in the chits, or not.

Note to self:
My parenthetical interjection of the word love (in the first of the two previous paragraphs) is to fold the act of criticism into the recipe.

There's nothing a critic loves more that a dumb (as in deaf and dumb) thing that's incapable of working its own mouth-lever allowing the art-writer (like some cult-temple ventriloquist-priest) to throw his/her own voice where none was, is, or ever will be.

Positive & negative Criticism (excepting, of course, faint praise) is at its very core rhapsodic speech.....and rhapsodic speech... the language of love.

By the way - I hope to never again hear or read the superannuated term "commodification" (spell-check won't stand for it either) in this life. Passing through a cultural space-time continuum to a place where one still occasionally hears that 80's -NYC-Theory-Gulag euphemism has been one of the hardest accommodations I've had to make. Hell, the south quakes are more to my liking........"good night Irene" - Yours, Leadbelly.

 In reply

Ralph Paine, 4:18 p.m. 2 August, 2011

Yes, from a certain point of view one would have to agree: there is no trajectory away from the market(s) here; and this despite the fact that the objects composing the exhibited ‘thing’ or ‘matter of concern’ (Latour) are not for sale. As you point out, the objects, the artist, and the space/organisation—not to mention the reviewer/academic/consultant and the EyeContact site itself—are accruing further and potential cultural capital/exchange value; all are fully enmeshed within the contemporary mode of art production as subsumed by capitalist markets. But this is hardly news in itself, so it seems a mistake to leave things there.

Perhaps then it would be more accurate to say that the exhibited thing attempts to resist the markets, and that it carries out this attempted resistance via the by now familiar strategies of institutional/system critique and consciousness-raising: the juxtaposition in an art gallery of a plate manufactured in Nazi Germany and an item of racist Americana—both highly collectable and extremely valuable ready-mades—forces an on the spot awareness of a very precise set of associations, as per Danny’s review... A review which to my mind is not therefore a piece of ventriloquism: the exhibited thing speaks all by itself; of slavery, work camps, and genocide; of the hidden side of commodity production; etc... And of its very own resistance (“I would prefer not to”, it seems to say).

So why shun the word ‘commodification’? Actually, you fudge things here a little: the Microsoft Word spell checker gives ‘commoditisation’ or ‘commoditization’, whereas the Shorter Oxford—among many—has an entry for ‘commodification’, all variations of a word well suited to any analysis of what’s going on in the contemporary artistic/cultural spheres. In fact, given the emerging absolute ‘toughness’ of which you speak perhaps the word ‘hypercommodification’ would be even more useful.

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Roger Boyce, 8:20 p.m. 2 August, 2011

Well argued Mr. Paine...........excepting -

"-the exhibited thing speaks all by itself; of slavery, work camps, and genocide -"

I would submit (as an admitted master-of-the-obvious) that meaning is extrinsic as opposed to intrinsic to objects of all kinds - including objects d'art. And the flavor of your quoted claim seems, to me, to support my contention.

Like the reviewer of YAW you bring your own (ventriloquist's) voice to what is essentially a voiceless piece. Your voice happens to articulate your particular ideological position - a position that has become somewhat familiar (and dear) to me via our former exchanges.

If what I claim in the above paragraph holds water then YAW functions as an object - in your regard - that serves to varnishes a viewer's private sense of virtue, through the subjective (and public) experience of sympathetic outrage. In much the same way that Barbabra Kruger's Madison Avenue co-opted texts function as a sort of highfalutin' sympathetic/hermetic magic (i.e. like cures or causes like).

If, however, in a highly unlikely scenario, an unreconstructed subscriber to racialist dogma were to inadvertently stumble into an art temple (sacrosanct precincts that usually only host 'the converted') and have an encounter with YAW's figure, he'd likely respond to it the way many an antipodean still responds to a Golliwog doll or a dusky a refreshing Un-PC visual-moment - a public cultural moment confirming a private set of ethnic stereotypes quite at odds with yours - or for that matter, mine.

Art works and objects can and do litigate for particular meaning, but its public suit can only be settled by a quantity and/or the quality of public meaning brought to the dispute.

A good part of that meaning is - like it or not - is almost always generated by amoral (as opposed to immoral) market forces.

 In reply

Ralph Paine, 12:23 p.m. 4 August, 2011

Ok then, so quoting Madonna it’s as if the exhibited thing here is saying/singing, “I’m not your b_tch don’t hang your sh_t on me.” Which is a possibility, I guess, and one explored, tested, and asserted not too infrequently by artists everywhere.

But am I really doing this? Am I really projecting ideological notions onto the thing? I don’t think so, because in order to do this the two juxtaposed objects would have to have arrived in the space shorn of their respective and rather disturbing histories; arrived all neutral-like, ready and waiting. But this is not the case, and how could it be? Or are we going to have to test yet again the if-an-alien-arrived-from-space scenario?

What seems the more important/interesting task is to ask after the artist’s choices here, and how these choices might relate to the history of the ready-made, and to the history of institutional/system critique and consciousness-raising. To begin this, we might ask why it was that Duchamp chose a urinal; or why Broodthaers chose eagles... And so on and so forth.

But as to how affective/effective the exhibited thing here is, or will be, or can be, is not really for me to say. You advise that it’s the market which tends to make the final call, whereas I’d prefer not to.

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