Bruce E. Phillips – 11 July, 2017
There are many connections that are satisfying to piece together as one walks through the gallery. Yet amongst all of the rich aesthetic and sometimes humorous relations that can be made between the works I can't help but wonder: where is the anger and outrage against blatant injustice concerning the body, its control by institutions and social pressure that so fuelled the artists of Body's generation?
International group exhibition
Curated by Stephen Cleland
17 May -17 July 2017
What then are the stereotypical characteristics of that typical New Zealander? He belongs to a ‘passionless society’ where people are reticent, where sensuality is suspect, where men do not cry … Much of New Zealand music is characterised by an emotional restraint that borders on inhibition.
The Adam Art Gallery exhibition Acting Out is introduced by this quote from the influential New Zealand composer Jack Body (1944 - 2015). The conservative society that Body describes is a common caricature of New Zealand in the early 1970s. Despite this prudish kiwi identity, the 1970s were a radical time for art by being a period of experimentation, political expression, and antiestablishment thinking around gender and sexuality. Think of the wild, ephemeral, sexual or political performance works of Jim Allen and Andrew Drummond; the photography of Fiona Clark and John Miller; or the sculptural works of Maree Horner and Christine Hellyar. At least, as a gen-Xer, this is how it has been presented to my generation and I assume this might be the case for millennials as well.
But now, transposed into our current time, does Body’s assessment of New Zealand being a sexually repressed and taciturn populace still have relevance? And in 2017, where are we at with the discussion on sex and the representation of the body in New Zealand art?
Over the last decade there seems to have been significant setbacks in our nation’s political progress on issues concerning of sex and the body - ranging from the shocking exoneration of rape culture in the ‘Roast Busters’ scandal, to the debate around reviewing the abortion laws and the recent street harassment reported during the recent Lions rugby tour. And in terms of art, there have been a number of recent exhibitions foreground sex and body politics with varying degrees of awareness making including Body Laid Bare at the Auckland Art Gallery; Dark Objects at the Dowse; Making Space at CoCA; Coconuts that grew from concrete by Yuki Kihara at Artspace; Fāgogo by Pati Solomona Tyrell at ST PAUL St Gallery and Statuesque Anarchy by WITCH BITCH at Enjoy.
The prominence of the body as form and source for sexual politics in art this year may be a serendipitous correlation, but even so this frames Acting Out in a larger discussion across galleries which are all undeniably set within the broader sociological backdrop of issues of sexual violence, objectification, gender inequality, and awareness of queerness and gender fluidity.
What makes Acting Out unique within this mix is curator Stephen Cleland’s decision to use two of Body’s multi-art events Sexus (1972) and Dream Room (1974) as departure points to compellingly weave in a strong selection of artworks by nationally and internationally significant artists including Edward Bullmore, VALIE EXPORT, Sarah Lucas, Sarah Munro, Glen Otto, Pipilotti Rist, Signe Rose and Sorawit Songsataya. Cleland’s eye for selection and talent for spatial awareness in placement establishes rich conversations between the works by a somewhat diverse group of artists while keeping the reins tight enough so all threads lead back to the show’s genesis in Body’s practice. Concise and confident writing in the gallery guide is helpful here in tracing these multilayered and sophisticated connections.
Sexus was a multi-media performance work by Body in collaboration with the choreographer Jennifer Shennan. This is represented in Acting Out through the photography of John Miller, a digitised 16mm film that was used as a backdrop to the original live performance, and the full score by Body available on headphones. Described as an “erotic and gritty” performance the work, in its archival posthumous state, reads more to me like a sincere investigation into the cyclic nature of life rather than being explicitly sexual. An aborted lamb is cut out of its placenta, Magritte-esque masked figures awkwardly kiss, an elderly woman explores the curves of her body, free and limber hippie youths embrace in many configurations, fire breathers and other surreal imagery also appear in the film. Body’s audio is similarly surreal, ranging from opera singing manipulated by reverb and back masking to improvised vocals mimicking jungle or swamp soundscapes, as well as screams of grief morphed into pleasured moans that blur into birthing cries.
Of all the works included in the exhibition, Pipilotti Rist’s Pickleporno (1992) has the most direct correlation to Sexus. Intended by Rist to be a “mock-porn film”, the work shares in the surrealism of Sexus but is heavily infused with the grunge-tripper aesthetic of the heady 1990s rather than the psychedelic and free love of the 1970s. Other interesting relationships to Sexus include VALIE EXPORT’s influential work Touch Cinema (1968) a street performance in which she invited people to touch her breasts through a box strapped to her chest. From an equally famed series of works, NUD CYCLADIC 1 (2009) by Sara Lucus has a direct formal similarity to the dancers’ tangled bodies in Sexus. As does Otto’s ambitious Matisse-esque curvilinear wall and floor paintings suggestive of fragmented bodily details. More lateral associations could be made to the likes of Songsataya’s coy genderless cartoon-like figures that court each other not unlike the embracing dancers.
In 1974, Body invited the painter Edward Bullmore (1933-78) to exhibit his Astroform paintings as part of Dream Room, a sound installation including compositions by Annea Lockwood and John Cousins. Bullmore’s works are reunited (sans soundtrack) for Acting Out and are a highlight of the show. Bullmore was a master at boldly celebrating the organic through elaborately created Rorschach-like forms that are suggestive of genitalia, ribcages, flowers or sea creatures. There are intriguing formalist comparisons to draw between Bullmore’s visionary work and Lucas’s pantyhose sculptures, Rose’s suspended leather womb works and Munro’s striking fiberglass forms.
These and many other connections are satisfying to piece together as one walks through the gallery. Yet amongst all of the rich aesthetic and sometimes humorous relations that can be made between the works I can’t help but wonder: where is the anger and outrage against blatant injustice concerning the body, its control by institutions and social pressure that so fuelled the artists of Body’s generation? Sure, VALIE EXPORT and Lucas have their political edge but it seems overall that the exhibition is missing a local contemporary voice that might make some noise relevant to the current situation in New Zealand concerning sexuality and the body.
There is also a confusing association made of Bullmore’s works with Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange. The connection here is that one of Bullmore’s Astroform works appears in one of the film sets and to emphasise this the film was screened as part of the Adam’s public programme. Bullmore’s painting is described in the gallery guide as one of the many “hyper designed and curvaceous furnishings … that Kubrick deployed to communicate the charged and visceral sexuality of his protagonists.” Fair point, Bullmore’s work fits well into Kubrick’s aestheticized dystopian world, but what makes the relation problematic is that Bullmore’s work features as the backdrop to a brutal house invasion and rape scene at the hand of the protagonist Alex and his ultra-violent drug addled teenage droogs.
What are we to make of this association? That Bullmore is validated by Kubrick as an important artist? That Bullmore’s work represents the primal uncontrollable male libido? Or are we to consider Bullmore’s work in relation to the film’s plot as a fable about trying to solve society’s ills through social engineering rather than attempting to change the toxic cultures of violence and chauvinism?
The Bullmore Kubrick connection is made even more complicated given the exposure of the victim’s breasts in this scene and its similarity to Lucas’ work Prière de toucher (2000) an image that features nipples protruding through a t-shirt. Lucus’ photograph is a response to Marcel Duchamp’s 1947 work of the same name which features a rubber breast mounted to the cover of the first post-war surrealist exhibition catalogue - inviting the reader to touch just as VALIE EXPORT invited the public to touch her while she eyeballed them.
While a contentious string of relations, the correlation linking Bullmore, Kubrick, Lucas, Duchamp and VALIE EXPORT adds to the rich discussion to be found throughout the exhibition making Acting Out a compelling and complex exhibition.
Bruce E. Phillips
Love to hear orchestral classical music live?
CLICK HERE to follow this orchestra’s adventurous performing programme
Comprehensive online access to contemporary art & leading galleries around the world
To read a transcript of the panel discussion “Whose Oceania?” held recently in London, and more on NZ arts abroad, CLICK HERE