Monday, June 30, 2008

Getting it right

When the New Zealand media recently reported (and repeated endlessly) that Max Gimblett would be the first New Zealander to show at the Guggenheim when his work features in the exhibition 'Contemplating the East: Asian Ideas and American Art' next year, I suggested (in quite a pedantic way, for which I apologise) that the first kiwi to show there was probably John Britten, designer of the Britten motorbike.

Turns out we were both wrong: artist, curator and blogger Andrew Clifford has pointed out that the first New Zealander to show at the Guggenheim was actually artist Billy Apple, back in 1977. And he should know: Andrew and Billy recently collaborated on a sound performance involving motorbikes at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Nice work. Thanks Andrew. Sorry Billy.

Perfectly Frances

Frances Hodgkins, Wings over water, 1930, oil on canvas, Collection of the Tate Gallery

Like policemen, our international art reps are definitely getting younger. At 31, Francis Upritchard will be the youngest New Zealand artist to exhibit at the Venice Biennale so far. By contrast the first New Zealand-born artist to be selected for Venice, the other Frances [with an 'e'], Hodgkins, was a venerable 70 when she represented her adopted home, Great Britain, in 1940.

Horses for courses of course: in 1940, participation as a national representative in the Venice Biennale was more likely to be a kind of valedictory prize for a senior artist. Back then, "excellence" was synonymous with experience. Now the keywords are "pushing the envelope", innovation, and "fresh perspectives". Ever since Jacqueline Fraser described the VB as the "Olympics of the artworld" in a Creative New Zealand press release back in 2001 -- a meme which has been picked up by dozens of writers since -- we've been sending our international art representatives away young(ish) and fit, with a strong track record, ready to take on the world, etc.

Frances Hodgkins was in her early 60s when she painted Wings over water, a study of the view from her Cornish studio window with her landlady's parrot in the foreground. (A sketch for the work is in Te Papa's collection.) A decade later she included the painting in the selection she made for Venice with her dealer, A. J. McNeill Reid.

Not lacking perhaps in confidence, Hodgkins wrote to a friend in 1940:

"He [McNeill Reid] is very fussed over the Venice affair & what best to do and how not to spend more than necessary on frames etc. He told me that your picture was being re-varnished wh [sic] will do it a lot of good – It is good of you to spare it for so long I think that it will be the peach of the Show & with out any doubt win the prize for foreigners of 2500 lire."
Disappointingly, the outbreak of World War II meant that Hodgkins's paintings -- and those of the other British artists selected -- never actually made it to Venice. The Biennale in 1940 was unsurprisingly a somewhat political affair, dominated by Germany, her allies and neutrals. Britain withdrew from planned participation at a late stage and exhibited the works to local acclaim at London's Hertford House instead.

You can read more about Britain's historic participation at the Venice Biennale (including a rather gratuitous picture of Hitler visiting the Biennale in 1934) at the British Council's excellent Venice Biennale microsite. And if you were so inclined, you could even read the minutes of the British Venice Biennale Committee's selection meeting which the British Council have kindly posted here.

For time-poor readers, however, here's how the Brits do it: first they convene a selection panel of experts for Venice. Each person is asked to bring along the names of six artists for discussion. The committee locks itself in a room, this year at the Trafalgar Hotel, and each artist is discussed, though the names of the artists, and the details of the discussions, are not minuted. This year after 3 1/2 hours deliberation, the committee came out with a unanimous decision to invite Steve McQueen to represent Britain in Venice in 2009.

(Not the Steve McQueen who's going to Venice.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Friday Flash: Who do you trust, artworld?

A couple of days ago, the results of yet another asinine survey were released, filling up that day's soft copy sinkhole in the newspapers. Taking time out for a moment from mailing me plastic keys and literature about "Prizes I may already have WON!!!", the Reader's Digest surveyed New Zealanders' opinions of the trustworthiness both of prominent individuals and professions.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in noticing that there was no one from the visual arts on the trustworthy list (although there were literary types like Margaret Mahy (#2) and -- pushing it a bit -- Nicky Hager (#61), as well as an opera singer or two). Nor did any job remotely connected to the visual arts feature in the top 40 most trusted professions.

Uncertain as to whether this might be due to the generally low public profile of the visual arts as a career choice, or a general perception of the artworld as a den of vice and inequity so far below that even of sex workers, psychics, telemarketers and politicians that it fell off the bottom of the list, I thought it might be instructive to run my own survey and see which art profession is New Zealand's most trusted.

Will auctioneers outbid gallerists? Are conceptual artists fundamentally more honest than painters? Do art curators speak truth to power, or are they making it all up? Make your point of view count.

A highly scientific analysis of results posted here in a week or so.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A piece of yourself

Tracey Emin's name today is synonymous with contemporary art's crossover into showbiz -- she's commonly photographed hanging out with Madonna, David Bowie, Ronnie Wood, air-kissing Elle MacPherson at parties, etc. -- but life wasn't always a lot of fun for the girl from Margate. Now famous for exposing the often traumatic events of her private life in her work, Emin describes in her memoir Strangeland the strategy she came up with to get back on her feet after her "return from failure".
"I knew I could be good at something, and to celebrate this, I sent out eighty letters: a subscription form, inviting people to invest ten pounds in my creative potential. For this, they would receive four letters: three official ones, and one marked personal. Within the first month, I received sixteen replies and soon I had forty subscribers."
One of Emin's subscribers was gallerist Jay Jopling: the rest is history.

Reading this reminded me of Dean Martin's similar (but far less competent) early tactics for raising money. Sick of being called the "schnozzola Sinatra" by the newspapers, aged 27 Dean Martin booked in for rhinoplasty to "undo what the lord of snouts had done", according to his best biographer, Nick Tosches. Already in huge debt and having sold 95% of his future earnings to his record company and various managers and impresarios in exchange for cash advances (which meant that he only received $50 out of every $1000 he earned), he was lent the money for his nose-job by a friend, who, aware of Dino's hopelessness with money, insisted on paying the doctor directly.

Immediately afterwards, Dean Martin's radio show -- fifteen minutes of live songs each weeknight -- premiered. He needed a musical arranger, and hired band leader Jerry Sears, promising him a further 10% of his income. As Nick Tosches has it: "He had now done the impossible. He had sold more of himself than there was."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Bad smell rising

International arts bureaucrats racing to secure the top venues in advance of the 2009 Venice Biennale.

On boarding the vaporetto, it was the smell that first struck me. I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised -- the canals are effectively the city's roadways, sewers, stormwater drains -- but like many New Zealanders before me, confronted with the strangely familiar amalgam of wet dog fur and sulphur, I thought crikey! Venice smells just like Rotorua.

Rumour-mongering about New Zealand's representation at the Venice Biennale is of course a national sport played at an elite level, rivalled only by grumbling about Creative New Zealand. Whiffs of various things to do with this year's selection process have been floating for a while now through the New Zealand diaspora (as Max Gimblett recently termed the nearly 1 million of us abroad at any time, though I wouldn't imagine everyone's interested in contemporary art). Picking up strength back home in the anaspora, the rumours of who's been selected and rejected to represent New Zealand at the 2009 Venice Biennale went viral sometime last week. This morning, finally, we could read the country's worst kept art secret in the newspapers, and as of 9am, on the Creative New Zealand website. Was there anyone left who didn't know?

You might suggest that it doesn't really matter. The important thing is surely that we're going again, thanks to the Government seeing fit to (partially) fund continued New Zealand representation at Venice, even though it wasn't quite what they expected in 2005.
And despite slight personal misgivings about a proposal competition in regards to the selection of artists for Venice, one would no doubt agree that the artists who have been confirmed for 2009 -- Francis Upritchard and Judy Millar -- are an excellent choice. Hope we see their work back home in New Zealand as soon as possible afterwards; who cares how, or when, we found out about it. (Although if you were one of the artists whose work wasn't selected, and you found that out on the internet, you might understandably feel a bit grumpy. I understand that the All Blacks used to have a similar problem under John Hart, until they sorted out their communications processes.)

All the same ... you might possibly have wondered, like me, whether Hans Haacke had to submit a detailed proposal, with accompanying budget and agreement to speak nicely to the media, before he made his iconic Germania installation at the Venice Biennale in 1993, or whether the Americans insisted Louise Bourgeois ("I want to bother people, I want to worry them") explain in writing beforehand how a show of her work would be relevant to the context of the event. (Although presumably that's what the curators are for.) Though equally one might prefer to stop carping, take the anti-Kantian view, and just say, good result.

But overall you might be left wondering why such a stink always seems to ensue when Venice looms on New Zealand's cultural horizon. Are the various controversies and opinions which surround it simply a measure of the cultural importance of the event? Or perhaps it's the sheer scale and cost of the business -- piddling though it is in anything except arts terms -- which means that almost everyone, variously elite or grassroots, supporter or hater of the arts, mainstream media outlet or blog, has both an interest and frequently a point of view about New Zealand's participation at the Venice Biennale?

Bestof3 has pointed out that press coverage of this morning's announcement focuses not on the art, but on the dollar values involved. Art for its own sake of course is never news: it's the money! the sex! made of poo! painted by a chimp! factor which gets art into the first section of the paper. While et al's participation was extremely well-received by the international art audience, last time we had endless nonsense spouted in the popular New Zealand media about braying donkeys, toilet art, and artistic anonymity, as well as heated debates about how New Zealand identity should be represented internationally (something we've been worrying about, one way or another, since the 1930s). The review commissioned by Creative New Zealand into our participation at the Venice Biennale (read the whole 145 pages here... gulp) commented that:

"The main failing in the 2005 effort was anticipating and managing the negative reaction that the choice of artist received in some domestic media – particularly in Wellington. The associated controversy found its way into the political realm. It should be noted that CNZ and the creative team had an explicit domestic communications strategy in place, but the media persisted with negative coverage. Continual improvement is required."
Naughty old media. I wonder how it's going to play back home this time.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Critical care

Tracey Moffat, Fourth #1, 2001, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. A truly fantastic work, and not the subject of a stiff review on eyeCONTACT.

Over at eyeCONTACT, New Zealand's hardest-working art reviewer John Hurrell's been writing up a storm lately. He's been calling it how he sees it; "The venue is not the sort of venue I take seriously. Too small, usually too much work closely hung, often part of a framing business and a lot of undersized and mediocre work. The type of gallery commonly found in Parnell." Take that! And elsewhere: "despite all that work... the results invariably look gross. Clunky, mixed with a dreary civic narrative." Ouch, etc. But as John says in his site introduction, eyeCONTACT is "about direct talk, perhaps two people speaking face to face, one of them asserting an unpopular position and staring down the opposition."

I would imagine he's going to need to do a fair bit of staring down after those recent reviews.

Something I've particularly enjoyed are John's musings on how an artist might have made his work more "intriguing". "If C---’s paintings were a lot bigger, maybe vertically bifurcated with conventional paint used in one of the halves ... Perhaps they need extension of surface and complexity of composition?" But then, perhaps wisely, John veers away from finishing the work for the artist: "I’m thinking out loud here (and starting to burble). He’d have to test the options."

I was reminded of this yesterday when filling out the Massey Arts Journalism survey at the behest of Bestof3. (Only a few little tweaks to the truth to make myself sound more impressive -- blogging does count as arts journalism, doesn't it?) One of the questions was whether you believed it was ever acceptable for a critic to advise an artist on how to make their work. Well, it depends on who the critic is -- and the artist -- but there wasn't a box to tick for that. Another one was whether you think it's acceptable for a critic to exhibit their own work. I ticked yes, thinking of Rita Angus's point of view (discussed recently by Artandmylife) that only practitioners are qualified to criticise another artist's work (no box for that, either). Actually I don't think it matters what a critic's day job is, as long as they can write well and have something to say. John Hurrell's eyeCONTACT scores on both counts.

I have been on the receiving end of some stiff reviews myself over the years (luckily none of them from Mr. Hurrell). Some of them would strip paint. Of course, at those moments I have done what everyone does when confronted by negative criticism: 1. Laughed and said it didn't worry me; 2. Made offensive and filthy remarks about the reviewer's intellect, personal appearance, and dress sense. And felt a bit better. I understand Colin McCahon had a list -- an actual, handwritten, itemised list of critics and other people who'd done him bad turns -- headed 'Hate List'. He kept it for decades.

At a book launch, I once met a critic who'd given me a shite review about 15 years previously. Pretending to be mature and nonchalant, and like it had just popped into my mind, I laughingly quoted the particularly choice line which was still burned into my memory like a plasma screen left on pause too long. He looked a bit shifty. "Did I really write that?" he said. Chuckled, and changed the subject, and disappeared off to the drinks table, and that was it. I felt vaguely disappointed, but I'm not entirely sure why. Well, clearly it was more important to me than to him: maybe that was the problem. Perhaps we want our critics to care...

Most artists I know pretend not to read their reviews. There's nothing worse than being asked by someone else what you think of a terrible review of your own work. Best to pretend that it didn't even enter your radar. (And then add the reviewer's name to your own handwritten list...)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Nation building

As the good people at Overthenet mentioned last week, it would seem that a large proportion of the cost of funding New Zealand's presence at the Venice Biennale lies not in the art, nor the artist, but in the venue -- finding it, securing it, preparing it to take an art exhibition, and renting it for the five month or so duration of the actual exhibition.

Unlike Australia, the United Kingdom and 32 other countries, New Zealand does not exhibit in a 'national pavilion' -- the permanent national exhibition spaces in the Giardini near the Arsenale, the heart of the Biennale. (Creative New Zealand notes that "the assignment of the permanent pavilions in the Giardini was largely dictated by the international politics of the 1930s and the Cold War." We weren't a big player then, as now.) Instead New Zealand has to find its own accommodations, and has accordingly exhibited in a different venue on each of the three 'official' occasions we've been to Venice thus far. So far our 'national pavilions' have included a disused church and a derelict orphanage.

I'm not sure where we'll be in 2009, or even if the venue has been secured yet. If it's been announced, I've missed it. I am sure, though, that competing against 40 or so other similarly homeless (but in many cases richer, and more wily) nations to secure a suitable and affordable space for New Zealand art anywhere north of Rome at Biennale time must be a nightmare. (It's no wonder that -- in the massive report commissioned by Creative New Zealand on whether it was worth participating or not -- some bright spark suggested mooring a boat near the Giardini and exhibiting on it. Not as stupid as it sounds. Maybe. Well, if it worked for Radio Hauraki in the 70s...)

Interesting, then, to read what the curator of the 2007 Venice Biennale, Robert Storr, had to say about the accommodation problem recently.

"Paying through the nose for a palazzo on the far side of town is not the answer for artists who are under-known nor is it the way for their countries to become visible participants in world culture. Even well-known artists suffer. The Argentine Pavilion was forced to leave its palazzo before the jury met last October, so that even an artist as prominent as Guillermo Kuitca missed a shot at a Golden Lion—and Argentina had been petitioning for a pavilion for years."
Instead Storr advocated a dramatic expansion in the number of national pavilions provided by the Biennale authorities in the Arsenale, "in order that as many countries as possible can take their place in a truly integrated international community of national pavilions."

Sounds great, but it's unlikely to happen in the short or even medium term, I suspect; nothing to do with Venice ever moves quickly (unless it's another country trampling over New Zealand for the good venues). The 2005 venue was better in style and location than the previous two, but it's anyone's guess where we'll call home in 2009.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Five on Friday: Whiskers on kittens

A quick (late: apologies; it's been a big day) Friday Five this week: five favourite things of the past seven days.

5. The ridiculously profound pleasure of a brand new pair of socks.

4. Thursday: a typical encounter with new technologies in our house:

Him: Crikey, the baby's just ... Sorry, no, as you were: it was just my Blackberry going off.

3. Seeing this new photo posted yesterday by Peter Peryer, which he says reminds him of photographs he's taken of flowers:

2. The description of lo-fi merchant Sean Kerr in the Physics Room's enterprising press release for his current exhibition 'klunk, clomp, aaugh!' as "New Zealand’s own troublemaking new media pundit". And then citing Martin Kippenberger. In a press release. More like this, please.

1. Watching the first season of Deadwood (yet again). Best show on TV -- ever.

Sample dialogue:
[Jack has just been found not guilty of killing Wild Bill Hickock]
Al Swearengen: "What's your name, it's Jack, ain't it?
Jack McCall: Yes, sir! You buy me a drink, I'll make my mark.
Al Swearengen: Stick around camp, Jack -- I'll make mine for you. Jack McCall: What in the hell is that supposed to mean?
Al Swearengen: Means there's a horse waiting for you outside you'll want to get on before somebody murders you who gives a fuck about right and wrong -- or I do. [Jack stares, dumbfounded]
Al Swearengen: It's the paint, Jack. Right outside my joint. [whispering]
Al Swearengen: Run for your fucking life."

Hotel proprietor E.B. Farnum: "Hickok's half-woman friend's off somewheres on a tear. The orphan square head's in the widow's care. The widow feels put upon. She's asked me to find her some help. I suggested the gimp."

Al Swearengen: "In life you have to do a lot of things you don't fucking want to do. Many times, that's what the fuck life is... one vile fucking task after another."

E.B. Farnum: "Be brief.
Calamity Jane: Be fucked!"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Artist slash model

Sometimes I feel as though I've been down a well for the past couple of years. I'm astounded that I've missed this; artist Dick Frizzell's appearance in a Barker's advertising campaign last year. He designed some boxer shorts (sporting a nifty prizefighter design) for the clothing company's prostate cancer campaign, and newsreader/TV personality/and by the looks of it good sport Alison Mau got her kit off to model them. I realise that I may well be the last person in New Zealand to be aware of this shopportunity -- you probably already have a pair or two of Dick's undies duking it out in your drawer -- but what I find remarkable and worthy of note here is the inclusion of an artist with other New Zealand 'celebs', including current All Black prop Neemia Tialata, league star Reuben Wiki, New Zealand's favourite jackass Marc Ellis, etc.

Dick Frizzell, of course, who once remarked that when visiting a supermarket, he felt like Van Gogh walking through a wheatfield, is hardly the kind of artist to recoil in horror from the world of commerce. He was an ad-man himself for a decade, during which time he created the iconic Eta peanut butter man and the gum-booted, black singletted Ches 'n' Dale cheese characters. His paintings and prints have been concerned with popular culture and the commercialisation of the image for many years. So it's tempting to see his recent involvement with the Barkers boxer shorts ads as another aspect of his constantly evolving (Pop) art practice.

It's a bit of a mistake (although quite fun) to read too much sociology into advertising campaigns (or what would the ubiquitous and sadly award-winning Novus windscreens "show us your crack!" radio jingle say about our society?) Ads are the product of the imagination of industry creatives, rather than official cultural policy. (The truth about our society probably lies somewhere between the two.) But equally, there's something interesting going on when an ad agency working for a major retail chain feels that there's commercial legs in a 'proper' New Zealand artist fronting a campaign. I would hate to say that it represents some sort of cultural coming of age, but actually, it probably does.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Colonic irritation

I don't know about you, but I am sick of the colon. Not in everyday writing you understand: five minutes' perusal of my blog will have revealed that clearly I am a habitual user; a persistent offender; and a pedant of the first order. No, specifically I refer to the habit -- some might say the dreary convention -- of art historians to craft double-barrelled essay titles, requiring a colon to separate the fancy bit of the title from the meat-and-potatoes of what the article's really about. You know the sort of thing I mean: 'One off the Wrist: A History of Expressionism in New Zealand Art'; or 'Hee haw, Hee haw!: Creative New Zealand Goes to Venice'.

While the only use anyone under 25 has for the colon is to make emoticons :), the contents pages of the artworld are in thrall to it :(. Just take a look at the last few issues of Art New Zealand if you don't believe me. Or the Auckland Art Gallery's otherwise excellent journal, Reading Room.

Studying the contents page of the last-but-one issue of Art New Zealand, one might wonder if there was an editorial policy requiring the double-barrel. Or if William Dart has a jumbo pack of letraset dots with a use-by date sitting on his desk.

Here's the line-up:

William Dart Building on a Tradition: Auckland's Holloway Press
Ngahiraka Mason Reflection & Reconciliation: Pakeha Now! at Nelson
John Hurrell Tumbling Whorls of Hazy Chroma: The Recent Neon Reliefs of Paul Hartigan
Alan Wright Plane issues: Geoff Thornley's Constructions 1978-82
Richard Wolfe At the Altar of History: William Dunning's Visions of Colonial New Zealand
Gail Ross Art & Industry: Frederick Halford Coventry (1905-1997)
Damian Skinner Edgar Mansfield: New Zealand's Extraordinary Artist-Craftsman
Peter Ireland Shaking to Pieces: The Photographs of Richard Barraud

In the issue before that, Edward Hanfling amazingly managed to get TWO colons into eight words with his article 'Salon of 2007: Turbulence: The Third Auckland Triennial'. Not his fault, you might argue, as he was only quoting the already conjoined exhibition title: but it's the kind of snafu that likewise occurs when two people with double-barrelled names have children. What if someone quotes Hanfling's essay title in the title of their own article? Where does it all stop, etc.?

So, full marks to Ron Brownson, writing in the latest issue of Reading Room. After 'Archives Become Him: The Giovanni Intra Archive' by Robert Leonard, and Lars Bang Larsen's 'The Surface No Longer Holds: Affect, Powerlessness and Obscene Fluctuations of Meaning in New Occult Art', there was Ron's sturdily no-nonsense no-punctuation title -- 'Graphic Works by Edward Ruscha at Auckland City Art Gallery'. Let's have some more like this, please: thank you very much. ;)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

When Malevich came to Wellington

In the mid-1990s, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam had two problems common to many venerable cultural institutions: a leaky roof, and no money to fix it. But they had one great asset; a collection which included some of the world's great 20th century works of art. A world tour for some of the highlights of the collection was duly arranged, and the fees paid for the Stedelijk show went into bricks and mortar back home. The grouping of works, which included paintings by Cezanne, Chagall, Braque, Max Beckmann, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Brice Marden and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as sculptures by Donald Judd and Jeff Koons, was on the road for a couple of years, and at the end of the Asian leg of the tour, came to Wellington where it was shown at the City Gallery. (Ironically, the City Gallery had to get its own leaky roof fixed prior to the arrival of the show. Not a good look to drip on a Mondrian.)

Three major paintings by the Russian suprematist Kazimir Malevich were included, and along with the Koons and the Beckmann, were probably the works which made the strongest impact on me when I saw them in Wellington in 1998. Interesting, then to note that the dispute in which the Stedelijk and Malevich's heirs have been involved for the past 15 or so years has recently been settled with the transfer of five works by Malevich to the Estate, including the wonderful Mystic Suprematism (black cross on red oval), (1920-22), pictured above, which was shown in Wellington.

Malevich left several works behind in Berlin with friends when he returned to the Soviet Union in 1927. The Stedelijk Museum has always contended that it acquired the works legimately from their owners. Years after Malevich's death, they were lent by private individuals to the Stedelijk for a show in 1956, and were acquired by the Museum for its collection a couple of years later. When the works were lent by the Stedelijk for an exhibition in America several decades later, 35 of Malevich's heirs attempted to sue the City of Amsterdam for their recovery. As usual with international disputes involving the ownership of cultural property, the issues are labyrinthine. You can read a short article about some of the legal aspects here, and what the Stedelijk had to say about the settlement here.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Free wheeling

In the country recently for an exhibition, the presentation of a substantial gift of his work to the Auckland Art Gallery, and a visiting professorship at Elam Art School, NY-based expatriate artist Max Gimblett's been all over the New Zealand media recently. Foremost among the stories was his radio interview with Kim Hill (available here for a limited time), in which some of the truly great NZ art quotes of all time were uttered: "Yes, I take a photograph of [an object] with my third eye, and I hear it speak." "I get occupied by a whole series of commands, and I execute them." "Caffeine makes me cry."

Extraordinarily generous with his personal information, occasionally hilarious with his asides, disarmingly good-natured, full of Jungian rhubarb and self-deprecating anecdotes, this was the most compelling radio I've heard in ages, and has prompted me to look at Gimblett's work in a new light. Here's his A Love Like Fire, from 2005.

In her review of his show at the Page-Blackie Gallery (previously the Tinakori Gallery) in Wellington, Abby Cunnane repeats what's been a fairly constant refrain in the media around Gimblett's visit:

"Next year, he will be the first New Zealander to show at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, in a group exhibition, American Art and the East, alongside giants such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg."

Kim Hill noted, however, that Gimblett wasn't actually prepared to commit himself on this one; and he was probably right not to do so. Great achievement though Gimblett's is to be the first New Zealand-born painter to be hung on Frank Lloyd Wright's ramps, I think the first New Zealander to show at the Guggenheim was in fact Christchurch designer John Britten, whose innovative carbon-fibre motorbike, the Britten V-1000, was one of the stars of Thomas Krens's much-vilified (and vastly popular) 'The Art of the Motorcycle' exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1998. The artworld hated the show: the punters flocked in droves. Here's a picture of Te Papa's Britten, which you might be familar with from a visit to their upstairs coffee-shop.

In all this thinking today about New Zealanders and the Guggenheim, apart from my own alarming pedantry what I'm most surprised about is that Gimblett's friend and mentor Len Lye, himself an expat-New Zealander resident for many years in New York, doesn't appear to have ever shown there.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Smoke on the water

Quentin Metsys, Elizabeth I: The Sieve Portrait, c.1583

A bit of a teaser from Bestof3 late last week: the indication that announcement of the artist/s being sent to the 2009 Venice Biennale as New Zealand's official representative is imminent. Nothing's been officially released yet: but you can bet the farm that half the New Zealand artworld already knows who's going, given the relatively large number of people involved in the process, and the relatively few degrees of separation between all the players. (And of course the fact that the artworld is the leakiest sieve in the kitchen cupboard.)

Waiting for the announcement, though, has made me think again about the process. I don't know why I haven't realised before that New Zealand's selection process for Venice is essentially a competition. Artists and curators submit their ideas for a project to a panel, who weigh the relative merits of the proposals, and of the individuals being proposed, against one other. At the end of the discussions, there is a winner, and this year, approximately fifteen losers. The prize is the government's commission to make a substantial artwork to represent New Zealand in Venice, in front of an international art audience. Winners, losers, a prize: it's a competition.

Back home, I have been really pleased to see that slowly but surely commissioners of public art in New Zealand are beginning to move away from the competition model towards a direct commissioning process, or to a general call for expressions of interest from which an artist may be commissioned to make a work. Rather than sift the merits of proposals made for unrealised ideas, the commissioners assess artists' recent back catalogues (in the manner of the Walters Prize) and canvas the likelihood that they might come up with something particularly special for a given site or opportunity. And then they talk directly with the artists. I suspect that you get better public works of art -- and happier artists, as well as audiences for art -- as a result. Increasingly many artists, both established and emerging, simply will not enter competitions on principle. There are lots of valid reasons for this, which I'll explore in another post.

Mark Rothko once found that a work of his was put into a competition at the Guggenheim. He returned the $1000 cheque which the gallery had posted to him, indicating that his work was not available for either the exhibition or "the contest".

"I am writing this in privacy," he said. "I have no desire to embarrass anyone should you wish to substitute anyone else's painting. I am very sorry to take this step and do so only after searching thought. I look forward to the time when honours can be bestowed simply for the meaning of a man's work -- without enticing paintings into the competitive arena."

They gave the prize to someone else.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Five on Friday: On the road again

Cheryl Bernstein's top five road trips made for the sake of New Zealand art.

5. Nicholas Chevalier, The Otira Gorge, c.1866, watercolour, collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery.

Painted just after the road was put through.

4. Colin McCahon, Hotel Meals, 1972, water-based crayon and wash, private collection.

Driving through Kurow on the way to the high country.

3. Dick Frizzell, Milled Hill Gorse & Bracken, Tokoroa, 1987, oil on board, collection of Christchurch Art Gallery.

That strange bit of forest between Taupo and Hamilton where you put your foot down.

2. Rosalie Gascoigne, Big Yellow, 1988, reflective road signs, Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery.

Cheating a bit ... but she was born in Auckland.

1. Colin McCahon, Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury, 1950, oil on canvas, Collection of the Auckland Art Gallery.

An epic journey by bike...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Memories of weather

Over the past few days, prompted I think by memories of similar weather, I've been thinking about a time when we were students, vegetarians, bus riders: the long cold afternoons on the dusty carpet in front of the Conray heater, smoking cigarettes and making compilation tapes. Or evenings in the public bar of the Gladstone under the sardonic eye of the fat barman Lou and the regulars, talking nonsense about German cinema and making a jug of beer last until closing. It was on one of those sort of occasions that I remember a meandering conversation where we listed all the children's TV programmes we'd watched in the late 60s and early 70s. It's the sort of thing you wouldn't have time to do today (or maybe you'd blog it instead). I was a bit younger than everyone else, so there were programmes I'd never heard of; but having grown up in England, there were strange programmes I'd seen that no one else had, such as Mary, Mungo and Midge:

And the very peculiar Crystal Tipps and Alistair, which until I found it again recently on YouTube, I half-suspected that I had invented:

It's odd, though, as I distinctly remember Crystal Tipps being a riot of bright, swirling, psychedelic acid colours, a visually overwhelming experience like a sort of happy Clairmont painting for kids, and it's clearly not like that at all: the animation looks like it was done with felt-tip pens on a typing pad. Somehow my memory of the programme has synchronised and updated itself, quite erroneously, in keeping with the aesthetics of the new screen technologies that have developed since then. But equally, maybe that brightness and intensity is common to all childhood memories.

I hadn't recalled that Mary, Mungo and Midge sounds like it was narrated by Winston Churchill, either: another example of the organic fabrications of memory, dispelled by YouTube. It's strange to think that 1970 was closer in time to the Second World War than it is to the present day. In my early childhood, the War (as it was known then, as in "Don't mention the") seemed like something that had happened in another world, in another lifetime. But Mary, Mungo and Midge now reveals the same sense of cultural distance from the present as footage of the bombing of Dresden or the liberation of Berlin. It's an odd feeling when the popular culture of one's own time starts to look like a historical artefact.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

And meanwhile, in the fictional world...

... a stoush is brewing. The fiction list for this year's Montana Book Awards surprisingly numbers four, rather than the usual five novels. The judges have said that although the quality of the 35 shortlisted novels was good, no other book was comparable to the chosen top four, and they did not want to "dilute" the value of the "finalist" sticker. (Thus rendering it even worse than usual to be a writer who has not made the final cut; it looks like the judges thought your book was so bad it would make the better ones seem crap, too.)

This reminds me of a comment a friend, who is an artist and art installer, once made about hanging exhibitions. The show, he said, is only as strong as the weakest work. You'd think that the presence of the better works should pull up the effect of the weaker one, but in fact the opposite is true. While I think he's right that this principle holds good for art shows, and though I vaguely admire the Montana judges for having the courage of their convictions on this issue if that's what they genuinely felt, I would have thought there were several very strong candidates on the fiction list.

The literary world is unsurprisingly up in arms at the decision, as well as at the judges' further decision not to award a best first book prize -- apparently they didn't feel there were enough decent ones for a shortlist. (Which again, is hard cheese if you published your first book in the past year.) There has also been some puzzlement at various of the categories into which the finalists have been shoe-horned.

I find the very public nature of literary controversies interesting, in comparison to art scraps, which are equally vicious, but usually fought behind closed doors (although someone's always listening next door with a glass held to the wall). It makes sense, I guess, given the nature of the medium; but I suspect it may also have something to do with the stronger sense of community which the literary world enjoys. I can't imagine the art world making as much collective noise had a finalist berth been shaved from their category

In all the smoke blowing through the blogosphere currently in regards to the 2008 awards, I haven't so far seen any commentary on the high preponderance of New Zealand art (with both a big and a small A) publications that are finalists this year. It's a great thing not only that the judges have selected so many art books, but that the quality of what's being published is so high. Beyond the 'proper' art category (the horribly-named 'Illustrative') discussed yesterday, this year the 'Lifestyle and Contemporary Culture' category is entirely captured by visual culture, with books on local graffiti art, Mau Moko/ Māori tattoo, and New Zealand cinematography. Then in the 'Reference and Anthology' category are Gregory O’Brien's Nest of Singing Birds: 100 years of the New Zealand School Journal, which has a huge amount of art in it; and Sally Blundell's Look This Way: New Zealand Writers on New Zealand Artists.

Whatever happens with this year's awards, it looks like art's going to be the winner on the day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The big three

The nominees for the Montana Book Awards 2008 have been announced, and unusually this year's finalists in the Illustrative category are all art monographs. (About blokes, unsurprisingly, but they're good ones.) There's the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Victoria University Press's Aberhart, by Justin Paton and Greg O'Brien; the Christchurch Art Gallery's Bill Hammond Jingle Jangle Morning, by Jennifer Hay, with additional texts by Ron Brownson, Chris Knox and Laurence Aberhart; and Umbrella Design's Comma dot dogma with essays by Deborah Cain, Wystan Curnow, John Hurrell and Aaron Kreisler.

With the inclusion of Comma dot dogma, this is a solid, but interesting line-up. A couple of goodlooking heavyweights (the books aren't bad either), Aberhart and Hammond were always shoo-ins for this year's Illustrative shortlist, but the third slot was open to various plucky underdogs. I'm glad this independently-produced book, focussing on Tom Kreisler, an artist whose practice we haven't previously been able to access a great deal of information about, will be there at the big table.

It's a hard one to call, as I think Aberhart's slightly got the edge in terms of its essays; the Hammond publication is particularly well-designed and sumptuously produced (but then so's Aberhart); and it would be kind of nice to see the Kreisler book sprinting in from outside the stadium and breasting the tape. These things are so subjective, though, and often come down to beauty contests. Aberhart, Hammond, or Kreisler? I don't envy the judges in deciding which of the three makes a greater contribution to the life of the culture.

Monday, June 9, 2008

White world

I fell asleep for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon. When I woke up at dusk, a fall of snow had transformed the garden into a wonderland. Snow is a rare event here, and so we took some photographs; but as ever, none of the magic of that moment (the silence, the stillness, the strange feeling of connection to history through the natural world) was conveyed in the images.

Why is it that photographs of weather are always either banal or cheesy, yet the experience of snow, or a sunset, or storm clouds approaching, can be so intensely felt? It's not solely due to technical ineptitude on the part of the photographer: in fact, the more professionally produced a cheesy weather image is, the greater the cliche. I think the problem is something akin to hearing descriptions of other people's dreams, or their drug-induced visions, always recounted with a kind of starry-eyed, far away intensity. ("... and then the Beatles danced right off the page, and Paul caught my hand, and we all ran laughing into the ocean...") The sense of the radical transformation of the everyday world peculiar to dreams, or visions, or to extreme weather, is lost in translation. It is essentially uninteresting, unless you were there.

So it is an extraordinarily clever artist who makes something interesting out of atmospheric conditions as a subject. Among New Zealand artists, Bill Culbert's photographs of the view at sunset from his house in the South of France spring to mind. They reveal the world in a process of daily transformation.

This is Dawn at Bill's house.

New Zealand artists have been going to Antarctica to look at the snow for a decade or so now, and when I hear there's someone else ready to board the Hercules, palette knife or Leica in hand, my heart sinks. I have to confess to being inherently disinterested in the Antarctic. (I wavered a little when I watched Marcus Lush's terrific Ice TV show, but that was probably more due to his gratuitous horseplay with the terrible static electricity that builds up on the nylon carpets at Scott Base.) Likewise I find it hard to care about under-the-sea volcanoes, Mt. Everest, or outer space, and if I heard that an artist was ready to set off to one of these places, I wouldn't be anticipating the result with much excitement.

Yet there has been some interesting work made in response to the ice, and every time I've seen it, I've been pleasantly surprised. There's Anne Noble's seminal Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica (2005), which reveals the icy landscape as a photographic opportunity in the making.

And Stella Brennan's extraordinarily moving White Wall/ Black Hole, which uses footage from the 1979 Erebus disaster.

One of my favourite Antarctic images was made in Sydney. This is Gavin Hipkins's The Homely: Sydney (Hood) (2001). It speaks of the mystery and menace and blankness of the Antarctic, as well as the talismanic nature of objects which have returned from the ice.

Ronnie van Hout's one of the 2007-8 Arts Fellows in Antarctica. And actually, I can't wait to see what he'll make of the experience. Maybe, as with all good art, what it really comes down to is the calibre of the artist rather than the specific nature of the environment they're in. There's no such thing as a good or a bad subject...

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Lost and found

Another found object today. This is a copy of a photograph I found in the street outside my house in England, in about 1976. I would say it dates from considerably earlier, perhaps the 50s. It's tiny: I'd imagine it was taken by a box brownie camera. I have always found it vaguely disturbing.

Friday, June 6, 2008


Prompted by Jenny Bornholdt's poem about the adventures of a rabbit below, a reader has drawn to my attention the fabulously sad series of Lost Pet paintings by Australian artist (and frequent visitor to New Zealand), Noel McKenna. Here is his Lost, Heathcliff (2001), from the Peter Fay Collection.

I hope poor Heathcliff managed to get home safely to his family.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

P.S. I Play Lead Guitar if Required

Thinking again about Stephen Shore's project of collecting and documenting ephemera from his road trip reminded me of the slightly more downmarket Found project. When an angry (but nonetheless hopeful) note meant for someone called Mario was left on his windscreen in Ann Arbor, Davy Rothbart (and his collaborator Jason Bitner) thought that other people might be interested to see it. On showing it to friends, they found that almost everyone had picked up a similar scrap from someone else's life at one time or another, and shared a similarly nosy fascination for found notes. So they started an annual magazine dedicated to the subject, and encouraged people to post their finds in, which they now do from all over the world: poetry on napkins, lost polaroids, bizarre shopping lists, diary entries, love notes written on homework paper.

There are a few New Zealand artists who've been interested in using this kind of material. In the early 1990s, Ronnie van Hout made embroideries on canvas, using handwritten texts taken from student noticeboards. This is his Untitled (Male Rock/Pop Singer) (1993) from the Chartwell Collection.

In 2005, Marie Shannon collected and photographed notes written by members of her family to one another. The prints are beautiful and reveal all the tiny crumples and creases of the notepaper. This is Sorry for being grumpy.

I have made a few bizarre street-level finds over the years. I found this note -- which is xeroxed, suggesting it must have been required on more than one occasion -- blowing down a residential street in central Wellington.

These vaguely threatening musings on the end of a relationship were tucked into a guest compendium of an Auckland hotel I stayed in a few years ago.

There's something about found texts that's so sad and futile and evocative, but like the note to 'Mario' above, hopeful somehow. New Zealand poet Jenny Bornholdt uses them from time to time. One of my favourites is this poem from her 2000 collection, These Days:

(Notice in our letterbox)

Have you lost a rabbit?
I have found a rabbit.
I found it on Waipapa Road.
I found it late on Monday night.
It was running all over the road.
It is white with brown spots.
Is it yours?
Phone Erik on 386 3641

Road trip

In my in-box this morning was a cheery (and rather optimistic) invitation from Phaidon Press to purchase an extremely expensive limited edition facsimile of the journal that photographer Stephen Shore kept of his road trip of the States in 1972-3. Shore meticulously -- some would say obsessively -- documented the trivia of the road, including "where he stayed, what he ate, what he watched on TV, alongside pasted-in ephemera such as receipts, postcards and parking tickets." As a teenager, Shore used to hang out at Andy Warhol's factory, and the work's got that same kind of cumulative banality that I always find so compelling.

Here's a statement Stephen Shore made in 1982 about his process of taking photographs:

The trout streams where I flyfish are cold and clear and rich in the minerals that promote the growth of stream life. As I wade a stream I think wordlessly of where to cast the fly. Sometimes a difference of inches is the difference between catching a fish and not. When the fly I've cast is on the water my attention is riveted to it. I've found through experience that whenever -- or so it seems -- my attention wanders or I look away then surely a fish will rise to the fly and I will be too late setting the hook. I watch the fly calmly and attentively so that when the fish strikes -- I strike. Then the line tightens, the playing of the fish begins, and time stands still. Fishing, like photography, is an art that calls forth intelligence, concentration, and delicacy.
That statement immediately made me think of this image, by Peter Peryer, a New Zealand photographer likewise of great intelligence and concentration (not sure if he is also a fly fisherman):

Shore's book has also prompted me to think about interesting on-the-road images in New Zealand photography. There's Laurence Aberhart's Seedless Heads Blow Me Away, from 1981, or -- possibly my favourite photograph ever -- Dimboola, Victoria, 13 August 1997 (in fact just about Aberhart's whole oeuvre involves a road trip); there's Peryer's wonderfully blank and blocky Barn from 2004, and much of Robin Morrison's work; there's Peter Black's Moving Pictures and Streetworks series. Black shot his Moving Pictures images through the car window, while passing through various nondescript locales.

I presume Peter was driving at the time -- I haven't ever asked him -- but it was interesting to note that Stephen Shore couldn't drive, and experienced his on-the-road epiphanies through the passenger's window. I'm uncertain as to how that might change your perspective. Maybe it's why Shore concentrated on things he could photograph in his hotel room.

Travelling in the States and Europe in the early 90s, I had the idea of photographing the chairs in each of the low-budget hotel rooms I stayed in, and the carpet in each airport. (I took this trip before I learned to drive.) I thought the pictures might be interesting to look back on. But I think I only documented two or three examples before it all became too much of an effort. It takes a great degree of self-discipline to be obsessive, or indeed even to be meticulous. Let alone to be an artist.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Prime cuts

Recently the Sue Crockford Gallery sent me an invitation to the launch of a new book about John Reynolds's work. I was interested to read that at some point during the evening there will be a draw for a meatpack.

I'm not sure why I find this so remarkable.

Grow, Grow, The Lightnin' Tree

To the general disquiet of friends and family, I often start singing, quite unconsciously although with alarming volume, when I'm doing something dull like cutting sandwiches or putting the washing on. It's a nervous tic akin to that extremely annoying character in a Jacques Tati film (is it Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot?) who continually hums brass band music under his breath, imitating the sounds of the instruments. "Tumtitumtitum, breet! breet!" This morning I was running through a brief but compelling medley of 70s TV themes (Warship, Black Beauty, Hawai'i Five-0) when I got stuck, as usual, on the lyrics to Follyfoot.

"Down in the meadow/ where the wind blows best/ the lightning tree/ stood up to the test./ Its heart went crack/ when it heard the clap/ the terrible crash/ of the thunderclap," I warbled. Not for the first time, I felt that this may not be the correct version, though I have been delivering it with gusto for several decades now. Struck with inspiration, I looked it up on YouTube.

Hmmm. Unsurprisingly, I found that I appear to have misremembered the words. (Though "the lightning rent from the firmament" would be a bit much for any 5 year old.) While it was a great pleasure to see the lovely Steve and Dora again, and also to clock that bit of by-play with the cap between Slugger and Ron ("Look over there!" "Where?" "Gotcha!"), it was oddly disappointing to watch.

It's not the thing itself. The characters are still strong: Dora leading the poor broken-down old horse and looking soulful under her early 70s Quattro helmet hair, a distant ancestor of the mullet; Steve tough yet approachable in his high-waisted jeans and leather jacket; the Colonel twinkly-eyed and puff-puffing in an avuncular fashion on his pipe. The concept has remained fine, its execution still a puzzle to young minds: are they all hiding behind the lightning tree in a line, waiting to pop out one by one, or is it a neat bit of stop-framery? (Dora appearing by magic in the shot might provide a clue.)

No, the source of my disappointment is, I think, the sheer availability of the clip; the way in which my memories of watching it as a small child have now been irrevocably altered by access to the original. It's not so much that I got the lyrics wrong -- a run-of-the-mill pop culture mondegreen which
I probably won't bother to correct; like Elvis, I do like the idea of a cracked heart -- but that my memory has now been overtaken by the new experience of watching it again.
Storytelling is all about the memory of a memory; it relies on distance from the source. It's as much about forgetting as remembering. Stories, like misremembered song lyrics, grow and change organically over the years until there's a point at which the original has almost entirely receded, and what you're drawing upon is the memory of having told, or sung, the story before. That's when it becomes personal -- your story, your song. So although YouTube is a vast collection of cultural memories, it equally promotes the death of personal memory through its perpetual preservation of the source. (Though I must admit it was good to see this again.)

Having access to the archives inevitably changes our view of history. In our increasingly digitalised world, I wonder if knowing in advance that something's going to be archived will change the kind of memories we'll seek to lay down.