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Byrt’s Backyard

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What it isn't, is a book about the artists per se, or their art. The market is glutted with those. Byrt describes his intention is to show “readers what it's like to spend your life chasing contemporary art and the people who make it”, and “show readers why they should care about art: why they should be interested in the way artists test the boundaries of where our bodies hit the world”. Do not expect scholarly judgements, this is a book about relationships and personal responses - things that are an anathema to academic art history.

Auckland University Press

Anthony Byrt

This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art
Colour illustrations
252 pp, paperback

Out on 19th September 2016

One of the really great challenges for art writers who have forgone the academic route to work in mainstream media - aside from the opprobrium from academics - is trying to make an increasingly self-referential and rarefied art world (C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” in reverse) relevant and alive to Joe and Joan Bloggs. As art writers, not only do we spend a lot of time thinking about art and how art works within that strange realm Arthur Danto termed the “art world”, but we also spend a lot of time thinking about how to write about it, because that’s what writers do.

There are various tricks and feints to doing that, often drawing inspiration from the old New Journalism, as did Wystan Curnow, or the earnestness of the informed amateur (thinking here of James K. Baxter’s student criticisms of a young Colin McCahon). The good critic adopts an intercessory role as stand in for the reader, explaining without condescending. Sometimes we are poets called upon to do journalistic things, and sometimes we act the clown to put the reader at their ease. The best of us, eventually, as we mature, learn the importance of aroha and te awhi (we don’t always realise how our words can affect people), though occasionally something is just so bad or pompous it deserves the misericorde.

Anthony Byrt is one of our best, not just an art writer, but a proper critic in the rich, rounded sense of the word before it came to be considered something offensive. I have, of course, not without a certain amount of green eye, observed his trajectory in Frieze and Artforum International, and perhaps more humbly, Metro.

As to what sort of book This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art is, well it’s a bit complicated. The PR sheet really wants me to compare it to Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World which was quite the in thing in 2008 - and yes, there are elements of that. There is also a certain amount of the psychogeographical dérive, and in the book Byrt hat-tips Martin Edmond’s Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (2011). I would also chuck in Robert Hughes 2006 memoir Things I Didn’t Know.

Structurally it’s a collection of essays about big names and emerging figures in New Zealand’s rather too cosy art world, narrated in the first person. The selection appears relatively arbitrary - there isn’t an overarching logic or theme to Byrt’s choices beyond his own small ‘c’ catholic tastes. Often the stream of Byrt’s consciousness leads us into Foucauldian genealogy territory, which is an excellent fit with artists like Shane Cotton, Peter Robinson, and Simon Denny because their art is similarly eclectic.

A bit like that door in Being John Malkovich (1999) that lets one see through the eponymous actor’s eyes, we follow Byrt from Berlin, where he was building a reputation as a critic, the birth of his son, complications, and a return home with his wife - a little nuclear unit - back to New Zealand. There is Brisbane, there is Detroit, there is Venice. There is even Palmerston North, a lot of Auckland, but (if I might be allowed a small moue of annoyance) precious all south of the Cook Strait bar a brief visit to a Steve Carr work at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Fair enough, we tend to do our best work where we are most comfortable.

What it isn’t, is a book about the artists per se, or their art. The market is glutted with those. Byrt describes his intention is to show “readers what it’s like to spend your life chasing contemporary art and the people who make it,” and “show readers why they should care about art: why they should be interested in the way artists test the boundaries of where our bodies hit the world”. Do not expect scholarly judgements, this is a book about relationships and personal responses - things that are an anathema to academic art history.

Sometimes the initiating point is a vignette-like recollection of a meeting with an artist. This works exceptionally well in the case of Yvonne Todd whom Byrt is obviously mates with. This friendship allows him to tease out more of the artist, as does his honesty about not initially understanding how clever and playful Todd’s engagement with the tropes of studio photography really is.

Nothing to be ashamed of there; I still encounter people who should know better who can’t move beyond the idea of photography having a contract with reality and therefore fail to understand the authenticity of kitschy sentiment and nostalgia, the Warholian-Zen beauty of banality and boredom, the ironic distance of playacting at being bad. Spinning off from Ben Lerner’s book The Hatred of Poetry, art that isn’t flawed isn’t saying anything and you need a certain amount of contempt for the form in order to see the gap between art and life, to know what’s good and work against what’s bad. Todd’s practice is just feeling out the parameters of that space where art latches on to reality and does its thing.

Todd comes across as wonderfully real and natural, which is something you don’t get in more journalistic writing. On the other hand the meeting as motif doesn’t quite work as engagingly on a visit to Shane Cotton’s studio. It’s still revealing and interesting, but comes off more as an informed, formal profile for a glossy with someone relatively guarded. Description takes up the slack, and Byrt has no qualms about calling Cotton out when he feels the artist has failed, when Byrt says of one work, “too much of Cotton’s inner biker emerges.” Ouch.

The format becomes even more inward-looking and stream of consciousness when responding to a work rather than an artist. Fiona Pardington’s work is mainly discussed in relation to Byrt’s responses to a single work, Pardington’s Moonlight de Sade (2010), a photograph of a phrenological cast of the eponymous marquis’ skull, acting as kind of a proxy cameo for the artist. This is one of the slighter essays, which is a shame.

Despite all of Byrt’s charm and blind enthusiasm, he fails to win me around to the cult of Billy Apple. Here, perhaps, that balance and objectivity fail him. That’s fine. Art is a house of many mansions. I was also anticipating something special with Judy Millar - Byrt and Millar are friends and his family lived at her house at Anawhata Beach, west of Auckland, when they arrived back in New Zealand. I was not disappointed - it’s one of my favourite parts of the book. Byrt’s book is also a wonderful introduction to emerging artists just now making a splash on the scene whom you might have heard of, but don’t necessarily know much about: Luke Willis Thompson, Shannon Te Ao, and Ruth Buchanan. That’s not to say Byrt is loading canons, though inevitably someone will probably accuse him of that.

Byrt’s final chapter deals with Secret Power, Simon Denny’s installation for the 2015 Venice Biennale, inspired by Nicky Hager’s book of the same name about New Zealand’s role in the US-led “Five Eyes” global surveillance network, drawing on Edward Snowden’s infamous leak: “Denny’s proposal had all the swagger, confidence and smarts that have made him one of contemporary art’s rising stars. … Denny has always struck me as an artist analogous to a ‘cool-hunter’: freelance culture scouts who make their living by staying ahead of the trend curve…”

Despite the CNZ PR, Secret Power is actually a collaboration with typographer/writer David Bennewith, and David Darchicourt. Now a freelance designer, Darchicourt was a graphic designer for the NSA from 1996-2001 and its creative director of defence intelligence from 2001-12. Basically he designed their slideshows - the cartoons, logos, and graphics - leaked by Snowden, many of which are reproduced in the exhibition.

To be quite honest I don’t quite get the whole Denny phenomenon - in all its manifestations to me it basically seems to be just variations on the same thing, literally going through other people’s trash and putting it on display, regardless of how “zeitgeisty” (Byrt’s word - I suspect “opportunistic” would do just as well) it is in any particular iteration.

I am reminded of Denny’s 2013 installation, The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom in which he recreated the police inventory of items confiscated during the dramatic/melodramatic raid on Dotcom’s mansion the previous year. Unfortunately for Denny, Dotcom emerged into the limelight as a real human being with his own agenda (the flatfooted and anticlimactic “Moment of Truth”), setting Denny’s carefully constructed, slightly superficial contextual mechanism all out of kilter. I have to disagree with Byrt that the virtual presence of Snowden at the “Moment of Truth” set the scene for Secret Power, more that Secret Power was able to rise above it.

It is reassuring that Byrt doesn’t take Denny at face value either: “…I have never been able to entirely figure out whether he is a critic of the corporate neoliberalism that provides him with so much of his subject matter, or an artist deeply embedded within, and beholden to, that system.” In other words, is he, as James Joyce said of artists, “like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

What Byrt does, however, is to set Secret Power in its full context of Venice, Biennale politics, as well as the politics of global espionage, which enables me to appreciate it all so much more, seeing it as a genuine success beyond the hype, even if I still regard the artist as a bit of a wide boy.

It’s a great book, readable and approachable, and remarkably free of the shibboleths of jargon and po-facedness that an even younger generation seem to have internalised as gospel. Byrt has, on the whole, achieved an enviable balance between respect and enthusiasm for, even friendship with, his subjects, and the spine and objectivity to call out the sacred cows as needed - something pretty rare in our tiny little sandpit. My main cavil, as it often is with New Zealand art books, is that the South Island might as well, for the most part, not exist. It’s understandable, I suppose, given Byrt’s bailiwick is primarily Auckland, but it does highlight a broader problem in any discourse of contemporary New Zealand art, with a modest cough, the loudest voices with the broadest reach rarely leave Auckland or Wellington.

A minor cavil though. While one gets used to having the text justified flush left with a ragged right, rather than flush both sides, the alternating bold and plain lines in the table of contents give a weird, presumably unintended impression that some essays or artists are more important than others. I must be getting old because I prefer typography to be easy on the eye rather than hip graphic design.

It’s a good, useful read. Fill your boots.

Andrew Paul Wood

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