Peter Dornauf – 29 August, 2012
So Parr and Blaine are, it would appear, simply talking to themselves or at best, the 'in' group, the little cabal of art aficionados, an audience of about 0.1 percent. One can easily see why the judge chose it. Ironically, the charge the postmodernists laid at the door of modernism was that it had alienated its audience. What has changed?
National Contemporary Art Award
Sponsored by Barry Hopkins
Curated by Caterina Riva
17 August -18 November 2012
I wish art award judges of contemporary art shows and museum directors and whoever else is out there and faced with a potentially sceptical, even hostile audience, would stop saying, as a sort of first defence or fall-back rationalization , “we welcome controversy as it gets people talking about art”. Please. No more. Desist now. This is not the purpose of art. Because the kind of “talking” you are going to get about a bus shelter winning $15,000 in prize money is the stuff encouraged by a newspaper headline (Waikato Times) that says, ‘National $15,000 Art Prize Goes To….. This?’ after which, at the bottom of the column, there’s a ‘Have Your Say’, with the newspaper’s email address.
Hi. My name’s Murray, first time caller. This piece of shite…’
Yes, it’s that time again folks, the National Contemporary Art Award, this year curated and judged by Caterina Riva, Director of Artspace. And yes, the ubiquitous controversial choice goes this time to a bus shelter, built by Michael Parr and Blaine Western and entitled Parallel of Life and Art, constructed in the style of the late 50’ and 60’s brutalist manner.
I suppose the first question that comes to mind is, when does a piece of architecture become art? The answer Messrs Parr and Blaine might give is, when it becomes a sculpture. And how does that happen? The answer to that thorny issue was of course addressed by George Dickie and his famous/infamous institutional theory of art whereby various members of the art establishment by virtue of their vested authority, give the Midas touch to any artefact, transforming it, ipso facto, into art.
Ignoring for the moment the circularity of such a construction, the joint artists, in their blurb, make it clear that they are interested in “design politics”. “We are interested in the relationship between the intent of design in objects and how they exist and operate currently.” A worthy enough cause. But one could see the newspaper journalist caught in a desperate attempt to load some other more graspable meaning onto the thing, some real human matter of gravity and substance, some even personal drama, by providing the bi-line, “Gimme Shelter”, and tried to supply a human interest angle by mentioning that the homeless of Hamilton were already using it, since it is parked outside the Museum building itself, on the grounds adjacent to the main street.
One can only have sympathy for the general public who are not really interested in the world of rarefied aesthetics as such; only the anal arty types are. Who gives a monkey’s about brutalism and its politics? Is there in fact any politics involved in such matters? I suppose there is if one wants to mention post-war modernism and warble on about Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, honesty, raw concrete etc.
The sad thing is, only architectural/design historians and sniffy art history types would know about this.
So Parr and Blaine are, it would appear, simply talking to themselves or at best, the ‘in’ group, the little cabal of art aficionados, an audience of about 0.1 percent. One can easily see why the judge chose it. Ironically, the charge the postmodernists laid at the door of modernism was that it had alienated its audience. What has changed?
A second question one might want to address to this bus shelter, is, where is the art? There certainly is craft in the construction. But what we have here is simply a replica. This is just a ‘photo copy’. The standard reply would be that the art is in the idea. It’s conceptual, stupid. And that would be correct. But this idea of replication is a very old one, as old as Duchamp, updated a little later by Warhol and his Brillo Boxes. The point is how many times can this trope be trotted out before we start to yawn? And is exact simulation, at this juncture, simply a question of imaginative sloth? Of course it may be only marginally related to any of this.
It’s been suggested that what it’s really about is “relational aesthetics“, the brainchild of French theorist, Nicolas Bourriaud. Artist as ringmaster: put something up, and ‘watch’ the people interact with it, generating a “social experience” which itself becomes the art. Artist becomes stage manager/designer, generating openended responses, democratic communal and collective ripostes, the art market crushed, art is free as a bird, hurrah!
The goals are admirable of course: the end to the fetishization of the object, end of the passive consumer, become the collaborator, real democracy, community and collectivism. Wonderful. But here’s the rub. Will putting up a replica of a Brutalist style bus shelter promote, even communicate any of these ideals? Given the public reaction, the answer would seem, no. Instead of fostering egalitarianism, it has alienated and angered the very people its message is directed at. Is this simply the curse of the avant-garde? Whatever it is, Marx would not be pleased. At the moment the practice unfortunately smacks of elitism which is contrary to the theory. The “interaction”, given the context, was fairly predictable. General hair pulling and gnashing of teeth. And yet how avant-garde is all of this really? I vaguely remember something called “Happenings” back in the sixties, courtesy of Allen Kaprow in which the boundary between the art work and the viewer was to be eliminated.
Apparently the artists, in their best relational aesthetics mode, are not averse to having people graffiti the piece and already within a day, some individual has started the conversation by scrawling the word “Jerk” on the inside wall of the shelter. No mention of Brutalism yet. So far, so foreseeable.
There is in fact a good deal of ‘wankerism’ going on in the various artists’ statements in the exhibition itself, my favourite being a piece of verbosity by Maria Walls in reference to her photograph Cones/Fags - Ground Floor Gallery 111. The “un” tag gets a good workout; un/mastery, un/dignifies, while others chime in with un/monumentally, alongside every other piece of current art jargon - signs, signifiers, recontextualization and the rest. The Artspeak is an art form in itself. It would be wonderful to have a show devoted exclusively to Artists Statements, framed, curated and hung.
My prize for an actual art piece would go to Sam Thomas’s Pink Batts, mercifully without any artist statement. And the thing is, it didn’t need one; the art work spoke for itself and that’s how it should be, otherwise the object/artefact is not really the art, it’s just an excuse for a blurb. Not that explanation should be discounted. It’s useful, often even necessary for it to be there, but as aid, not as prime suspect. From a distance the draped palm leaves Thomas uses in his piece, looked like a Maori cloak but up close it took on the characteristics of a sort of raupo roof, while through the wall and on the other side, the underside of the palm leaves were spray-painted in pink. A very clever witty idea and perfectly executed.
Another contender was NGO, by Nicki Wynnychuk. He has a great idea to work with: Papua New Guinea and the modern equivalent of the Cargo Cult mentality, but whether a stained drop-sheet lying on the gallery floor sufficiently articulates the idea is another matter.
I do not wish, however, to see another collection of ‘my stuff inside my studio/room’ with scattered random or otherwise carefully placed items looking random across a gallery space, whether it’s recontextualized or not or whether it’s the latest trend or not. Artist’s studio’s are marginally interesting, the engine room as it were, but elevated to art status seems a step too far, close enough to fetishism or worse, narcissism. Roman Mitch’s Studio Shot, with a price tag of $42,000 seems to underline the point.
Of the few paintings in the show, two are rehashes of modernist abstraction. Adrian Jackman and Jessica Pearless both look as if they share the same studio so similar are the works. The link with Josef Albers is made explicit in the Pearless work: yet more variations on Homage to the Square. This plays off against a faux ceramic by Natalie Guy, called Meet Me Inside #2.
Two satirical pieces on suburbia are included: Day in and Out, a sculptural piece by Meiling Lee and Travelator by Ruth Cleland. It’s obvious the curator is interested in playing the thematic game here which sort of works against the nature of the beast. Is this an art competition or something else?
There were two hundred and thirty entries which Riva whittled down to nineteen. That’s a big cull on top of the fact that some of the works included are merely repetitions of each other.
With only eighteen works in the large top gallery at the Waikato Museum, it presented a little on the thin side, but it was at least good to see the space being used for what it was built for after a hiatus of ten years. Hopefully this is a sign of better things to come at the institution.
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