Mark Harvey – 9 December, 2012
Te Ao's painted face mimeticlly references the minstrel, an icon of white racism of yesteryear - a clear comment on the trauma caused by colonization in Aotearoa. But situated in this gallery it is as though his presence mines through the colonizing nature of the white modernist cube. The cultural stereotypes he evokes disrupt the normativity of the dominant western gallery culture, a place where things so often get ‘whited out' with so-called 'palatable.'
Karin Hofko, Lance Pearce, Ella Sutherland, Shannon Te Ao and Ian Frengley
The New Artists Show Part 1
Curated by Caterina Riva
18 October 2012 - 17 November 2012
Alex Davidson and Caterina Riva picked five artists for the first part of this yearly event in Artspace’s calender, their videos, sculpture, performance and installation all being of interest in very particular ways, each playing with those dominant conventions that define the artist as a professional, a maker of work that is materially ‘refined’ and palatable in our more mainstream contemporary and commercial art context.
A good example was Lance Pearce’s white Mitre 10 / Mega chain store shelves in Strung like lights that vanish over the horizon, placed a few feet or so off the ground and jutting out at right-angles to the wall so that the backs were exposed. While his work brought about a sense of spatial transformation it also paid homage in a cheeky way to the minimalist ‘cabinetry’ and symmetrical installations of Donald Judd, playing with his abhorrence of such low-cost veneer finishes.
Take Ella Sutherland’s Popular Brands to Steal car sticker wall and Free Cars to Steal catalogue. Sutherland situated her graphic sensibility within the realm of social interaction, humorously working with notions of consumer liabilities while inviting punters to take her designs away - thus becoming aware of which stolen cars were the most popular.
I was worried our own car was on her hit list and I so made sure I took one of her ‘Toyotas’ away with me. It was refreshing to see visitors sticking Sutherland’s stickers anywhere, both in and outside the gallery. In doing so, she opened her work to a sense of shared authorship with her anonymous audience, who become reminiscent of car thieves themselves. This was not a work I’d expect to see in Michael Lett or Starkwhite because of its testing of authorship and material generosity.
Of course there was nothing new about transgressing art standards and codes. What was refreshing is to see works given space to converse with these discourses in careful and subtle ways.
For Claire Bishop, in her new book Artificial Hells (2012), the solo performance artist functions to uphold capitalist dynamics so she or he easily can be transformed into a commodifiable art object, essentially like other art. Perhaps then the profit-making machine of Marina Abramovic is a case in point. But is it as simple as Bishop suggests? Karen Hofko’s A Performance however questioned such a position in a humorous way, while Te Ao and Frengleys’ Untitled (Anderson’s Bay Study) used metaphors to do with colonization in Aotearoa.
At the opening we saw that Hofko had set up a microphone, projector, starlight curtain and an assortment of other objects laid ready for the evening, so we waited expectantly. A middle-aged woman called Rosalie stepped up to the podium with a pop-star microphone attached to her cheek. “Ah, I’ve forgotten my glasses” she announced and walked away with a giggle to get them. Our expectation for a slick non-stick surface professional performance was disarmed by her sense of person. She returned later to read out a speech, introducing herself as Karin Hofko.
It was interesting that Hofko chose to swap around personas. While it was a humorous ploy to make her work accessible, it was also a strategy that played on the modernist celebrityhood and object art-centred politics that often dominate contemporary art. Many of us only go and see things if we know they are by particular artists, due to their street ‘cred’ and what’s in fashion. But Hofko was not on stage, she was in the audience to one side hiding - but we could see her.
Her tactics were reminiscent of the French choreographer Jerome Bel’s The Last Performance. Hofko like Bel undermined our desire to be entertained by the artist-as-star persona. Like Bel she did it by inviting us to focus on the strategies of affecting to be a performance Deva, via ruffling up the conventions of public speaking, but she moved beyond Bel by feigning a sense of failure and using low-fi, comically clumsy strategies. Besides forgetting her glasses, she also left a ladder clumsily in the frame of view, relied on an improvised curtain, projected an apparently random set of digital images, threw some photocopied portraits of herself across the floor, and so on.
Amongst her activities, Hofko’s Rosalie interviewed a ladder in its preparatory role in Artspace. Naturally the ladder refused to speak. This tugged at the power that institutions like Artspace have over artists, how and why they select them, in addition to what is visible and what is attempted to be concealed. Hofko’s actions did this subtly, while calling us to consider the role of the art institution in her work. And we were left with a residue of this performance, it appearing to be the leftovers after some kind of self-love icon party that the staff forgot to clean up.
Te Ao and Frengleys’ video Untitled (Anderson’s Bay Study) was a development from their previous interesting collaborations, one that engagingly tested out the role of the solo performer. You walked into a very dark space and saw what seemed to be Te Ao moving around (with black paint on his face) and eating a potato in a tunnel.
Was he a coal miner on the West Coast? The background here is that Te Ao and Frengley were responding to the forced land clearances, imprisonment and forced labour of Parihaka by the crown in the 1880’s and that many of these victims were forced to live in this particular cavelike tunnel.
His sense of solipsism in this form turns the object nature of this artwork upside down. Te Ao’s painted face mimetically references the minstrel, an icon of white racism of yesteryear - a clear comment on the trauma caused by colonization in Aotearoa. But situated in this gallery it is as though his presence mines through the colonizing nature of the white modernist ‘cube’. The cultural stereotypes he evokes disrupt the normativity of the dominant materialist western contemporary gallery culture, a place where things so often get ‘whited out’ with the spectacular and so-called ‘palatable.’
This is catalysed by how it seems like he doesn’t do anything of ‘importance’ in his isolated meandering within each video frame. Te Ao’s persona becomes a play on the stereotypical ‘lazy’ conceptual artist who is ‘unprofessional’ and the ‘lazy Maori’ (so typical of much beneficiary bashing). Yet his image is safely sited within the gallery space, in an isolating, safe and so called neutral zone - foregrounding the sense of restriction a white cube colonizing gallery often inflicts on art, performance, discourse and discovery.
This is not unlike how Pakeha dominated society continues to bracket out discourse to do with its colonization and cultural hegemony.
So what of the stock standard Artspace title of this annual Show? The notion of ‘newness’ here sets itself up to encourage one to expect the artist will be new, fresh in the cannon, at the conceptual vanguard of contemporary art. Fair enough I suppose. However, never has there been a New Artists show in Auckland that has fulfilled this, except new to some locals perhaps. Many of the artists in these shows over the years are not new artists at all.
What Artspace does by using this title is signify itself as the art gatekeeper, as an institutional agent of normativity that attempts to call the shots on which artists are in and which are not. It is even more problematic when one considers the emphasis on young artists in this title, how Artspace’s programme over the years has generally emphasized younger conceptual artists over older ones, and how this reinforces the dominant Western value of youth above experience and expertise.
While I realize I am not the first to make such comments, and it is an issue that is common in international contemporary art circles, it is time for Artspace to move beyond this. It simply is no longer relevant or productive to position itself as the one quintessential contemporary art institution in Auckland and Aotearoa able to call the shots. It is only one of a significant handful of current contemporary galleries, reflective to me of a healthy art community.
If Artspace wants to continue to contribute deeply to the conceptual vanguard of visual art it needs to move beyond trying to situate itself as above the rest and exalting youth above all else. Instead it should be reinvigorating its attempts to reach out to local artists, including those starting out and those who have practiced for years, within their more conceptual, relational and site specific shows. My beef is not with the actual curation by Davidson and Riva but with Artspace’s notion of this yearly event and its political implications.