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Pondering The Walters Prize 2014

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Is quality of work synonymous with ‘toughness' - the attribute conspicuously showcased in the exhibition's public promotion? If so, what would be that notion's context now? Might it be synonymous with some sort of agreed upon ‘progressive' community ethic connected to making the world a fairer place? Perhaps instead it is preoccupied with questions about developments in technology and their global consequences? Or is quality to do with the belief that art is more about thinking as a display of cogitational dexterity that organises a narrative?

Auckland

 

Simon Denny, Maddie Leach, Luke Willis Thompson, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila
The Walters Prize

 

12 July - 12 October 2014

In this unusually challenging 2014 line up of Walters Prize finalists, where only one of the four is initially obviously apparent in the gallery via an onsite exhibition, gallery visitors are bombarded with all sorts of questions (more complicated than usual) - the same that will also beset Charles Esche, the judge invited to determine which work of the four has more ‘quality’ than the others.

For instance, is quality of work synonymous with ‘toughness’ - the attribute conspicuously showcased in the exhibition’s public promotion? If so, what would be that notion’s context now in 2014? Might it be synonymous with some sort of agreed upon ‘progressive’ community ethic connected to making the world a fairer and better place? Perhaps instead it is preoccupied with questions focussing on developments in technology and their global consequences - and the creation of forums to examine them? Or is quality to do with the belief that art is a form of thinking more than a display of manual dexterity, and that dexterous cogitation - made apparent via a gradually constructed narrative inserted into social spaces where it is detected and added to - is a sign of superiority?

Of the four works, one pair is much more palpable than the other in terms of visual accessibility. All You Need is Data - The DLD 2012 Conference REDUX, 2013, Simon Denny’s Digital Life Design conference project is quite physically immersive, with its airport queue railing and dense sculptural array of rectangles presenting provocative samples from the speeches of 89 technologically innovative business leaders. Luke Willis Thompson’s work, inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam, 2012, with its physical conveyancing of his audience via taxi from a pristine gallery departure point along a carefully planned route to a suburban location (and then back again via a different course) also has a sense - like Denny’s ‘queue’ - of the corporeal, its manipulation and managing.

The other two can be described as encounter-free, ‘dematerialised’ artworks. Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s contribution (Mo’ui tukuhausia, 2012) as a ‘homeless’ person requires a certain amount of visitor luck to be seen directly, but can be thought about as a ‘mental’ project that points to broader socio/economic ramifications. His method of survival while ‘sleeping rough’ takes on a symbolic role where his apparently bodily (and psychologically) risky action stimulates public discussion, and maybe fear and overt hostility. It is unusual in its ramifications, for while the artist’s body is being maintained by the vagaries of public generosity it is also during the exhibition an art object to be (in a delayed fashion) protected and monitored by the institution - something not available to the genuinely homeless.

Maddie Leach’s If you find the good oil let us know, 2012-14, on the other hand, references New Zealand’s nautical past while locked into the present. In this gradually unravelling, almost shaggy dog story (the art being its research, organisation and social dispersion), 70 litres of mineral oil (initially mistaken for whale oil, and gifted to the artist) is transmuted (not literally, but burnt in a cement producing kiln to create an equivalence) into a 2.4 tonne block of concrete which is then dropped into the Tasman Sea off the coast of New Plymouth. The work is experienced via chat, a few photographs of the transient oil/concrete, and a cluster of carefully constructed (or provoked) texts, where Leech has mainly approached various writer friends to tentatively explore narrative possibilities - elucidated through a website (and a small red book) and a photographic spread inserted into a newspaper.

To my way of thinking, even though this year’s assortment of finalists is indisputably exciting in its complex synthesis and challenging nature, I don’t think the line up is evenly matched. In the end the ‘Uhila work lacks the complex multiple resonances of its competitors (not advancing beyond simple moral indignation), the Thompson is too nebulous in its aspired use of Duchamp’s readymade methodology to present an effectively coherent statement, and the Leach collection of texts remains waffly, lacking a demonstration of consistent writing skills that sufficiently engross. On the other hand the Denny work is so rich in ideas (from a variety of political positions), humour and pleasurable physical stimulation that it summons repeated attention in a way the others don’t. My view is that it is clearly better than the rest - due to this wider ranging scope and layering. I’m looking forward to September 27 enormously to hear what Esche decides, how he justifies his decision and - remote perhaps though it may be - whether he attracts any consensus for his choice.

John Hurrell

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This Discussion has 2 comments.

Comment

Emil Dryburgh, 11:53 a.m. 31 July, 2014

Hey John,

Very happy to see that the Walters Prize ‘pondering’ has begun. Thought I would chip in a few cents worth.

While your certainly right that the works are ‘complicated’ - and perhaps even ‘tough’ as the Auckland Art Gallery claims – prospective visitors shouldn’t be scared of this year's Walters Prize. The works of Thompson and 'Uhila – which as you mention exist in the realm of ‘dematerialized artworks’ - have clear and emotive hooks, simple anecdotes that make these works accessible to any audience carrying empathy and imagination into the space. And while Leach’s largely text-based work may have the trickiest point of access, her work is full of poetic rewards if given the necessary time. Admittedly, Denny's installation is a monolith in comparison, but somehow the density and enormity of his contribution makes the others feel all the more agile.

With regards to your claim that these artists are not evenly matched – it is a competition after all – I think you are wrong! The scenario we have is far more interesting than simply awaiting Simon Denny’s art-world coronation. Finally we have a Walters Prize where all the participants have brought equally provocative works to the table. Speaking from my own experience of the Prize's history (which admittedly is not that lengthy), this is the first year where I simply don’t care who wins. I am not attempting to shy away from the competitive nature of the Prize, but earnestly admire all the artists’ contributions.

As to your closing ponderings about ‘consensus’, I am personally hoping for a Walter’s Prize distinguished by its lack of consensus.

Respectfully signing off,

Emil

 In reply

John Hurrell, 6:31 p.m. 31 July, 2014

The more chipping in the better, Emil. I think I see 'Uhila and Leach's works as more 'dematerialised' - both being unencounterable or more 'post-object' - than the works of Denny and Thompson which are physically immersive and bodily controlling.

Whether plenty of consensus occurs or none at all, I'm actually happy either way, especially if people speak their minds. There is a question though about whether 'toughness' or provocation are qualities that - being so avant-garde - merit attention from a judge looking for distinction. I guess we'll find out.

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