Thursday, July 31, 2008

Art + language

Robert The, The Art Crisis, 2003

"They seem to be locked into an over large, confusing, inward-looking organisation that thinks and speaks an entirely different language from artists."

-- Guardian art blogger Charlotte Higginson on the British Arts Council, following a damning report on the fallout from its "investment strategy".

Maybe they're using this site to write their copy? Looks like Elam School of Art at the University of Auckland could be, too.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Bedwyr Williams, Blaenau vista social club, 2003.

"Scary people with strange shoes and spectacles."

-- Artist Bedwyr Williams, who'll show soonish at Enjoy in Wellington as part of the 'One Day Sculpture' project, describing the art world.

Shouldn't think he'll encounter much in New Zealand to disprove that statement...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Viking hell

Jason Greig, Viking U-Boat, etching, 1993: the only New Zealand work of art on a Viking theme ever to be shown in a public art gallery.*

The main streets of provincial New Zealand are studded with good intentions. Some of them are forty foot high, made of concrete, and shaped like a carrot. It is no coincidence that as various governments of the day pulled the infrastructure out of the regions, shutting down Post Offices, hospitals, and schools, the citizens of small town New Zealand, concerned both to attract tourists to their locales and to persuade the remaining inhabitants that life was good, fund-raised to erect ridiculous attention-seeking monuments -- making an emphatic statement of the local among what architect Robert Venturi has termed the "persuasive heraldry" of the road side.

Now tempers are flaring over the design for the latest 'big icon', the Dannevirke Viking, set to join the Ohakune Carrot, the Paeroa L&P bottle, the Taihape Gumboot, the Tirau Sheepdog, the Rakaia Salmon, the Big Slice of Kiwifruit at Te Puke, etc. etc. in the pantheon of gigantic provincial New Zealand public sculptures. The resource consent has now come through for the 10-metre figure, but there has been a great deal of argument and some painful compromises along the way: the sword of the original design has now been swapped for a "less bloodthirsty" axe.

But the main problem for the good people of Dannevirke (a truckstop in the Manawatu settled by a handful of Danes and Norwegians in the 1870s) is the horns on the helmet: apparently serious Viking scholars have long since put to bed this tiresome myth, which interestingly, was first promulgated by a visual artist. Viking helmets were definitely worn sans horns, and it would be "painful" to see them pictured otherwise, said Norwegian immigrant Johan Bonnevie when interviewed by Mervyn Dykes of the Manawatu Standard.

At primary school in England during the mid-1970s, we "did" the Vikings. The mental picture I have carried with me is of snarling ginger-headed hordes roaring down the country from Scotland, swinging double-headed axes in pursuit of rape, pillage, and general menace of the poor old lily-livered Anglos, before they rowed off back to Scandinavia in their funny long boats, stolen gold coins spilling over the gunwales. And yes, they wore the double-horned helmet. I rather think it is this idea of the Vikings that the more sensitive elements among the citizenry of Dannevirke are keen to avoid.

Wellington-based sculptor Dennis Hall, who sounds rather grumpy at all the criticisms levelled at the sculpture, says that his gigantic Viking is not intended to be a historical study.

"Ask most people to draw a Viking and they will come up with someone in a horned helmet. What I am giving them is a movie version of a Viking."
Obviously not too precious about his work, which he's constructing in collaboration with Wellington's Weta Workshop, Hall says it's meant to be a "common stereotype", which he clarifies as "a cross between a piece of art and a piece of advertising". (He is also responsible for the much-photographed gargantuan Te Kuiti shearer.) The inside of the work will be left hollow, so that maintenance can be carried out from within. "It will last for thousands of years," threatens Hall.

I started writing this piece thinking that I might draw some kind of parallel between the Dannevirke Viking and the Tilted Arc controversy, but although it's possible, I actually don't think I can bring myself to. I think the art story is instead in the statement by the chairperson of the Dannevirke Promotion and Development Society Inc, Malcolm Peffers, that "the Viking Icon is NOT a statue; An icon is an image - a branding - a trademark - which is NOT necessarily historically correct."

Although, if I understand Peffers correctly, it's intended to be seen less as a work of art and more of an advertisement for the town, I'd suggest the reason that Dannevirke's Viking has caused so much local controversy is that it encroaches on the conceptual -- perhaps the emotional -- territory of public sculpture. Rather than advertising what the place is all about today -- Te Puke earning its revenue from offshore sales of kiwifruit, for example, or Ohakune growing whopper carrots or Tirau hawking sheepskin slippers -- the big cartoony Viking on the roundabout interprets Dannevirke's past, drawing on the cultural memory of the place rather than representing its current economic identity. As such, its inhabitants, including the descendants of the original Scandinavian settlers and local Maori, will necessarily have a point of view about the way their history is memorialized.

Peffer notes that still unbuilt, the Viking non-statue has already "given Dannevirke the best publicity that it has ever had". But the promotions group have agreed that the slogan which was originally to accompany the figure, "Take a liking to a Viking," must go.


*Go on, prove me wrong...

Sunday, July 27, 2008


One of these pictures shows an artwork by Christchurch artist Jacquelyn Greenbank. The other is an advertisement for an arthritis remedy.

How do those advertising creatives think up their ideas?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Should I stay or should I go

Tony de Lautour, Powder Land, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 800 x 1200mm

Prompted by various recent discussions about the cultural plight of the South Island, I've been recalling the time I ran into an acquaintance -- someone I've known in one way or another for twenty-five years -- who was briefly back from Europe, where she has pursued a successful career in contemporary dance for the past decade with one of the world's leading companies.

It was early morning; after a broken night's sleep, I'd been to the supermarket; the baby was howling; I was pushing the buggy up the hill, sweating, red in the face, with embarrassing groceries (toilet paper, cheap wine, chocolate biscuits) bulging from the basket underneath, when I saw my friend coming towards me, whippet thin, cheekbones like a razor, dressed in casually chic black rehearsal clothes. There was no escape. After the obligatory continental kiss on both cheeks, she said "And this is your ... [brief pause] ... baby? How ... er ... wonderful. Is it ... er ... [brief pause] ... a boy or a girl?"

And then she said, "And what do you do here?"

Like most people involved in the visual arts, I can't abide other highbrow artforms. Classical music leaves me cold; opera is obviously an unspeakable torment; to my shame (if I had any), visits to the theatre require the provision of free tickets; but the worst hell of all is reserved for dance. Ballet, contemporary dance, it doesn't matter which; it would take more than free tickets to get me along: I would need wages. So when I found myself promising to go to my friend's dance performance, I knew I was lying. So, I suspect, did she.

Call me over-sensitive, but I'm sure I'm not the first to detect the hint of a patronising tone among ex-pat New Zealanders on a visit home. "What wonderful coffee!" they say brightly. "Mmmm, smell that mountain air!" "Wow, you couldn't park outside the restaurant in Knightsbridge!" And with great enthusiasm: "The Phoenix Foundation sounds just like a Flying Nun band, doesn't it. I love how things in New Zealand just don't change."

At that sort of moment, chatting lightly with a stylish person with a Mittel-European accent who grew up down the road from oneself and is now an artistic success in a significant part of the world, while one is squinting into the sun, puffing like a grampus, carrying five extra kilos of baby weight and clutching dodgy groceries, it would be fair to say that one's personal decision to stay in New Zealand is put under the spotlight of harsh scrutiny. Even if you're leading a fairly cosmopolitan existence in Auckland or Wellington, it suddenly feels like you never left the milking shed or the Four Square store of Mosgiel or Hawera behind. The unspoken implication is: if you were any good at what you do, you wouldn't still be living in New Zealand. And I know, from conversations with many other stay-at-home friends, that this rampant insecurity is not peculiar to me.

Growing up in New Zealand, at some point you've got to make the decision about staying or going. When I was in my early twenties, the choice was between one or the other -- either you left, usually for Britain, where you spent a decade doing the kind of menial job for the upper classes that your great grandparents emigrated to escape from, before you finally came home with a much-embroidered CV and a chip on your shoulder -- or you stayed in New Zealand, got on with the job, and like me, spent the time since then justifying your decision not only to yourself but to the streams of New Zealanders living in the diaspora coming home for Christmas with family. There were some ex-pats, of course, like my friend the dancer, who got past the nannying/ temping/ furniture removals stage of OE subsistence and actually managed to score a good job or achieve professional success, but among my group of friends, these people tended to end up living in Sydney. Successes in Europe were few and far between.

Things have changed. These days it's entirely possible for a New Zealand artist to live and work in the States or Europe while also sustaining an exhibition practice back home. Recently we've seen visual artists running increasingly decent international careers from a New Zealand base. New Zealand writers are published internationally, get shortlisted for huge worldwide literary prizes, and sometimes manage to write about New Zealand (Christchurch even) in bestsellers published overseas, all the while continuing to live here. There are ongoing international residencies for New Zealand artists and writers; even art curators get sent away now and again to see how the rest of the world does it. And last month CNZ posted South Island art critic Andrew Paul Wood off to Germany to enlarge his horizons and presumably ours too: he's been filing dispatches for the readers back home about his encounters with bratwursts, monster German ants ("semicolons in 16 point on legs"), and villainous James Bond-esque art collectors, while noting historical German sculpture's propensity to depict "violent shagging", something my art history lecturers were remarkably tight-lipped about.

New Zealand is all very well, but you need to be able to get away every so often before the walls close in. Every time I've travelled, I've returned with a renewed sense of optimism about the quality of the art being produced here, as well as an enhanced sense of regret that we just don't get to see enough international contemporary art prctice in New Zealand.

If present circumstances didn't prevent me, I would be off like a rat up a drainpipe to see the Richard Prince survey exhibition currently on at the Serpentine. Because 'Continuation' is the sort of show that would never come to New Zealand, as the costs of shipping the enormous paintings and photographs would be prohibitive when set against the revenues you could possibly expect to make from a doorcharge. (This despite a possibly increased public recognition factor since Prince's recent foray into designing Louis Vuitton bags with Marc Jacobs... which surprised me a bit...)

Here's a guided tour of the Prince show by Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist. ("We're going to do this as a ping pong," explains a rather cross-looking Obrist helpfully at the start. Or maybe that's just his usual expression.)

[Note to NZ galleries: hire some lapel mikes if you're wanting to do this sort of business ...]

But I digress; back to life in New Zealand. I've written before about Christchurch Press journalist Philip Matthews's recent exposure of the anti-South bias in Creative New Zealand's provision of arts project funding and appointments to assessment panels. Interviewed by Matthews, Chris Finlayson, National's Arts spokeman and ex-Chair of CNZ, invoked the deterministic power of the market when he suggested gnomically that people choose where they want to live. In thinking that one through, it seemed that Finlayson was implying that more project funding went to Wellington and Auckland because that's where the decent New Zealand artists tend to want to live, wherever they come from initially. And as a very general rule of thumb, with several honourable exceptions, that's probably right.

In his follow-up Letter to the Editor in last weekend's Press, the CEO of CNZ, Stephen Wainwright, wisely steered well clear of that area, suggesting instead that South Islanders should nominate themselves to be on the artform assessment panels. (Perhaps because no one in the North Island knows who you are...?) But the whole slightly ridiculous issue seems like a microcosm of the wider New Zealand problem. If you're any good at what you do, at some point you have to wonder whether you wouldn't be better off doing it elsewhere. And if you do decide to stay, you'll quite probably find yourself like me defending your position not only to visiting ex-pats but to yourself.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Random play

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, curator of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, on art curatorship and feminism:

"The thing that I really find wrong as a curator is to frame and bracket communities, or groups. So as a feminist I've never done an exhibition of art by women, I think that's anti-feminist to do that."

John Hurrell, sensitive art critic at large, comparing himself to one of the architects of the Third Reich while considering Michael Harrison's current exhibition at the Ivan Anthony Gallery:

"Like Reichsmarschall Gōring who once said "Whenever I hear the word ‘Culture’ I want to reach for my revolver,” one can sometimes bristle at too much sensitivity. It can be cloying, and make you long for something raucous and deliciously vulgar. A fistful of salt chucked into the bowl of sugar."

Jonathan Jones, chief art blogger at the Guardian suggesting that easy art is for weaklings and losers:

"If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool."

Jonathan Griffin, assistant editor of Frieze, on "plenty" of works he saw at this year's Manifesta:

"the aesthetic equivalent of eating ten cheese crackers with a dry mouth"

Monday, July 21, 2008

Go straight to art jail

Oh dear. Actor/clothes horse/entrepreneur Sarah Jessica Parker's idea for a Project Runway-type reality TV show set in the artworld has taken a step closer to being realised. Production company Bravo has optioned Parker's American Artist, in which contestants would compete against one another to produce the best painting, print, margarine sculpture etc. as judged by a panel of "experts" (Philippe de Montebello and Rudi Fuchs are said to be considering a deal). Amazingly, it's reported that the lucky winner will get "a gallery show, cash prize and sponsored national museum tour".

On a related matter, here for your viewing pleasure is "Rolf Harris" explaining contemporary art on the BBC's Dead Ringers.

Send them all straight to art jail.

"Hovering above the others"

Bill Hammond's Jingle Jangle Morning is officially the best-designed book in New Zealand over the past year, winning the 'Best Cover' and 'Best Illustrated' categories, and finally the prize for the Best Book at the book design awards in Wellington yesterday evening. In a fit of the poetics, the convenor of judges Guy Somerset commented that Aaron Beehre's design “hovered above the other books like one of Hammond’s birds”. (And shat all over them, presumably.)

Unlike Bookman Beattie who predicts otherwise, my money's still on Aberhart to take out the Illustrated category at the Montana Book Awards tonight...

Friday, July 18, 2008

A horse goes into a bar

I've had a complaint from a regular reader that for a blog called Art, Life, TV, Etc., although we've had a lot of art and some sneaky bits of life now and again, there's been precious little TV content thus far. That's very true. Regrettably there's none today either.

But here are five etceteras that have been on my mind this week.

1. Quite a lot of thinking about Richard Prince's paintings has reminded me of the only joke I've ever been told by an art dealer.

"A horse goes into a bar. The bartender says, 'Why the long face?'"

(The old ones are definitely the goodies.)

Richard Prince, Nuts, 2000, acrylic on canvas, 112 x 203.5 inches

2. Who would have thought the august British Museum was such a treasure-trove of tat? Following my recent post about Rita Angus's socks, a reader has pointed me to the cultural glories currently available in the British Museum's gift shop: Rosetta Stone tea towel anyone? Tutankhamen's Aroma of Intrigue perfume for men (more must than musk...)? Sacred Egyptian Book of the Dead coffee mug? Nice.

(Thanks B.)

3. A dream about a tidal wave sweeping down K Road. Odd. Art-related in some indefinable way.

4. As well as knock-knock jokes, whoopee cushions are big in our house this winter. Beware anyone who idly sits down on the couch without first checking: an enormous raspberry is likely to issue forth from under the cushions, followed by indignant accusations and hysterical giggling from the small person. Again, doesn't matter how often you hear 'em, the old ones are the good ones, etc., something which is reflected in the classic whoopee cushion's graphic design, which doesn't appear to have changed since it was invented in 1930. (Something for New Zealand's graphic design journal, The National Grid, to look into perhaps?)

When the whoopee cushion's inventor tried to sell his prototype to a practical joke firm, its owner, Soren Sorensen Adams, who had made his fortune in the Sneezing Powder craze which swept America in the first years of the last century, and was the marketer of such gems as the Exploding Cigarette Box, Itching Powder, the Stink Bomb, and the Bar Bug in Ice Cube, passed over the opportunity as he deemed it too vulgar to sell. The mail order company Johnson Smith picked it up instead, and successfully sold it along with their other novelties -- x-ray specs, joy buzzers, and fake vomit -- on the back covers of comics. Which explains why the style of the cartoon on the whoopee cushion (source material for Dick Frizzell if ever I saw it) reminds me so strongly of the adverts for sea monkeys I used to see in comics and lust after in vain as a child ...

5. Thinking about scale of sculptural works after this invitation from the Hamish McKay Gallery popped up in my in-box.
Wouldn't it be great if someone gave Tony de Lautour a whole heap of money to make a really massive version of this work ...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Fox in socks

Grant Wood's American Gothic necktie: a step too far.

Call me tasteless if you will -- I assure you that you wouldn't be the first -- but when I saw the Frida Kahlo socks posted by Best of 3 the other day, I immediately thought it might be fun to own a pair. (Why don't New Zealand's gallery shops bring this sort of thing in? Or get New Zealand versions made -- koru stripes or Grocer with Moko anyone? Asked and answered, perhaps.) As chance would have it, I happened at the time to be wearing my much-loved but now ageing Mona Lisa picture socks, likewise bought at the MoMA store, which some people might also think were in dubious taste.

Since I tend to wear boots in these chilly southern climes, until now my private predeliction for kitsch socks has gone largely unremarked and unchallenged. (Attendance at preschool gym or music classes, with the requirement to remove shoes, has presented some minor aesthetic difficulties, but quite frankly looking around the room at the other harrassed mothers one's lucky even to find another pair that matches -- and I doubt that anyone's consciously channelling Edmund Capon.)

Of course, I have some standards -- controversial SMH art critic and erstwhile National Gallery of Australia curator John McDonald's range of art ties was a very, very long step too far -- but now and again, I'm partial to a bit of art merch. The odd Mondrian tea towel, say. A Louise Bourgeois T shirt, or perhaps one featuring a work by Ronnie van Hout. A Rokeby Venus washbag (actually probably not). A Tony de Lautour mousepad. There's an interesting taste hierarchy of this stuff -- Pierre Bourdieu would have a field day -- whereby T shirts by contemporary artists are highly desirable, and tea towels or tote bags emblazoned with historical or contemporary works might be amusingly kitsch, but silk scarves, umbrellas, earrings and placemats are completely beyond the pale.

Still on the subject of gallery gift-shops, a prominent sidebar under the masthead of yesterday's Press directs readers to "Rita Angus: Salute from Te Papa", a lengthy article in a later section. But when you get there, what's delivered is more in the line of a Bronx cheer.

In a peevish review, Warren Feeney (director of COCA -- the Centre for Contemporary Art, the old CSA -- in Christchurch) was particularly off-put by the Rita-related merch available for purchase from Te Papa's shop, on the occasion of its current "Rita Angus: Life and Vision" exhibition. Feeney wrote:
"In addition to her paintings, the accompanying merchandise also introduces her as a maker of images that have helped create and define our national identity. Visitors can buy art cards, postcards, bookmarks, T-shirts, badges, posters, a DVD, a biography and prints of selected works. Curated on the premise that her paintings were a breakthrough in their depiction of New Zealand's landscape [Feeney argues the opposite: the Lovell-Smiths did it first, he says], the commercial packaging perfectly complements the veneration accorded to her in the exhibition catalogue."
How dreadful, etc. Shocking, and what not. Bookmarks? It's an outrage.

Back in the day, whatever carping or criticisms went on behind the scenes there was an unspoken agreement that people from one art institution didn't publicly review exhibitions put together by people in another. This was variously known as professional courtesy, or otherwise collegiality. The idea was that you were all in it together. Hah! Tell that to the Marines.

Getting all hot under the collar about Angus's illustrations for the Press Junior not being included in the show (the reality was Angus herself hated them and wrote to friends that she was compelled to produce commercial art to support herself after her marriage broke up), and endlessly critiquing the marketing of the exhibition as a landmark event featuring new insights into Angus's practice, Feeney (rhymes with "meanie") has missed the real point: this is the kind of useful show which Te Papa should be pumping out every year, and touring round the provinces. "Rita Angus: Life and Vision" shouldn't be in any way remarkable: rather than a tenth birthday present to the nation it should be business as usual, Te Papa's bread and butter, something which to his great credit Director of Art at Te Papa Jonathan Mane-Wheoki stated firmly at the opening function. Let's have more like this, please.

Rita Angus, A Goddess of Mercy, 1946-7, Collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery

But meanwhile, what about a nice pair of Goddess of Mercy socks...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Spoils to the victors

Richard Prince, Untitled (cowboy), 1989, Ektacolor photograph

Described in a recent interview by British novelist and frequent visitor to New Zealand Hari Kunzru as one of the "victors of the art boom" (a phrase I'm still mulling over), American artist Richard Prince has been spending up large recently. His works have been fetching big prices: a couple of years ago, a cowboy image by Prince became the first art photo to sell for over a million dollars US, a figure quickly surpassed by another of his iconic re-photographed Marlboro Men images, which sold for US$3.4m in January this year.

No stranger to the big bucks himself, Kunzru, who secured an advance of 1.25 million pounds for his first novel, The Impressionist, comments that Prince now has the financial muscle to compete with libraries and institutions to fuel the acquisition of another of his passions -- rare 20th century books. Prince's book collection, which now fills a two-storey building he owns in upstate New York, begins in 1949, the year of his birth, and ends with books published no later than 1984.

"Here are some cool things Richard Prince owns," writes Kunzru:

"Nabokov's desk copy of the Olympia Press first edition of Lolita, heavily corrected and annotated; a letter written by Sylvia Plath the day before she killed herself; the only known copy of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key to retain its original dust cover ($175,000 to you, sir); Jimi Hendrix's letters to his dad; Neal Cassady's copy of On the Road; Kerouac's previously unknown original scroll manuscript of Big Sur (twice as long as the published book); the manuscript of The Godfather as well as the letter in which the editor suggested changing the title from The Mafia to The Godfather; and letters by Thomas Pynchon written in the late sixties, while he was at work on Gravity's Rainbow."
Most artists I know -- the ones dealing with images anyway, the abstract ones tend to be a bit more Zen and minimal in their personal habits -- are, like Richard Prince, voracious collectors. They collect old New Zealand books, kitsch examples of Maoriana, taxidermied animals, images clipped from newspapers and magazines, and other artists' works. In one sense, their collections provide source material for the artist's own works: in another, both the works and the collections speak to our society's compulsion to accumulate objects and images as part of the construction of our personal identities. Or something like that.

In other recent news about art collectors, it seems there's been a run on the Sunco brand inflatable lobsters which Jeff Koons has used as an inspiration for monumental sculptures. Works like Koons's Bike Rack (2004) have created a "halo effect", vastly increasing the value of the original swimming pool inflatable, which until recently has retailed for a mere US$14.99. The five-foot-high toy lobsters have sold out in the stores, bought up by canny speculators including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; one sold recently on eBay for US$736.58.

Lobster Rider, from Athlete Director Dave's Blog

"It's like one of Koons's sculptures, but you don't have to pay $5 million for it," said the happy seller, clutching his copy of The Complete Works of Walter Benjamin.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Southern sting

Doris Lusk, Canterbury Plains From Cashmere Hills, 1952, oil on board, collection of Christchurch Art Gallery.

On the 'map of New Zealand' board game from the 1960s, if you're unlucky enough to land on the 'Christchurch' square, you've got to go back six spaces. I've always thought this was rather apt.

Poor old Christchurch, poor old South Island; forever Tasmania to the North Island's Great Southern Land. Although it's New Zealand's second-largest city, Christchurch has long been the red-headed step-child of New Zealand's metropolitan centres, its residents periodically crying 'Unfair!' in response to "national" committees dominated by people from Auckland and Wellington and to "national" prizes juried by North Islanders which go to Aucklanders.

Although Christchurch is a city you're happier to come from rather than to go to, with a decent public art gallery, one of the country's two top art schools, and two artist-run spaces, if you're interested in contemporary art it's not nearly as bad a place to live as most other New Zealand cities. And at least it's not risible: people just look a bit sympathetic and understanding if you say that you come from Christchurch, but don't start up with the duelling banjos music as they do if you admit, say, that you come from Oamaru or Te Awamutu or Inglewood.

But now it's official; you're more likely to pick up Creative New Zealand funding if you live in the North Island. It seems the grumblings which periodically issue from the South Island have a basis in fact. Press journalist Philip Matthews has done the sums, and using CNZ's own figures, in an article in the weekend paper [not yet online] he calculates that the project funding given to the mainland's artists is almost exactly the same as that doled out to New Zealand artists living and working overseas, thus neatly confirming the suspicion that the South Island is indeed regarded as another country by the North's arts bureaucrats. And on a population basis, Christchurch's funding for arts projects is substantially lower than that given to Auckland or Wellington.

"People make choices about where they live," comments National's arts spokesman Chris Finlayson in Matthews's article, thus hinting at a truth universally known but not often acknowledged. In actual fact, by my calculations the South Island is disproportionately represented among the rollcall of artists who've received the cream of New Zealand's arts prizes in the past few years. Of a total of 16 finalists for the Walters Prize and 6 winners of the Venice Biennale nod, 10 artists grew up and were educated in the South Island, compared to 12 from the North Island. They just choose not to live there any more.

It's difficult to know what needs to be done about all this, if anything. Creative New Zealand CEO Stephen Wainwright expresses himself as "unalarmed" by Matthews's conclusions that the South Island misses out a bit, so presumably CNZ won't be doing much. It would seem politic to ensure that there are more Southerners represented on CNZ's peer artform assessment panels in future; yet I recall a friend who had reason to know saying some years ago that it could be quite difficult to recruit South Islanders to the panels who weren't either barkingly mad, a wee bit naive, or who didn't arrive in Wellington with a very strange axe to grind, but such an assessment may well no longer be accurate. (It may also involve something of an exaggeration in the first place.)

Still, it's the kind of pugnacious chip-on-the-shoulder, I'll-show-those-big-city-bastards attitude formed by the other island's disdain and hogging of resources that has helped to ensure that the South Island, always the underdog, has continually punched above its weight in the supply of artists to represent the nation. From Colin McCahon to Ronnie van Hout, Frances Hodgkins to Francis Upritchard, Len Lye to Peter Robinson, they breed 'em tough down there, etc. etc. It's just a pity they can't hang on to 'em.

Friday, July 11, 2008


Courtesy of the fabulous Edward Winkleman, I came across this site today. How's my dealing? is a blog which encourages artists to comment -- anonymously if they want to, and unsurprisingly mainly they do -- on their experiences with critics, curators, and galleries. Some are glowing, even effusive; others are not. It's a great idea, and makes entertaining reading.
"He's predatory and he's known for that among young male artists. I'm a woman and he's been polite to me when I'm with male artists he knows. I went in once to ask a question about a show and he was so viciously rude to me his assistant was embarrassed. He has a problem with women. It's not something he's working on like some other places. It's his personality. It's not an accident and he deserves his reputation."

"Question, what does she stand up for other than the latest trend?"

"once gave me a really really bad review, it was even vindictive in a very non professional way, a bad "collage" artist too, only seems to like work that is like his. very conservative, should not be writing because he cant separate his own work and career from his criticism if you want to call it that."

"This guy is Slick! He's making his way up the ladder pretty fast, and I guess having Saltz on his side doesn't hurt either. He owns 2 bars which are nice for after parties, and he seems to be quite the ladies man, what else could you want from a dealer. My only critique is that he's got a long way to go when it comes to understanding contemporary art, but he seems to have enough money to pay Bard kids to make those decisions for him."

"looks straight through you like you're transparent if you're a woman"

Hmm, know a few people who'd fit the latter description.

Someone should start a New Zealand version of this blog. Maybe. Trouble is, the scene's so small really that being anonymous would offer no guarantee of anonymity.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Supply and demand

Charles Giuliano, Maverick Arts blogger, isn't impressed with the way the art world has burgeoned in recent years beyond all comprehension. It seems that any parvenu can now be a player:

"A decade or more ago when it came to art the super rich had no taste. But now their kids have gone to art school or earned degrees in arts administration. In the past bored socialites became interior decorators but now they are private dealers or art consultants."
Giuliano reminisces about a simpler (yet somehow more glamorous) time when the weekly list of dealer gallery openings in New York City was brief enough to be published in the Sunday paper. Back in the day, the New York art scene was a community:

"On any given evening you could see most of the "serious" New York artists at Max's Kansas City. During Happy Hour Mickey Ruskin would put out the free chicken wings. That, and a seventy five cent glass of wine, made an evening meal. If you hung around long enough you got to enjoy the midnight parade of Andy's factory gang into the back room under Dan Flavin's light sculpture."
Giuliano suggests that there may be up to 100,000 artists resident in the NY area today, although only a fraction of them can now afford to live in Manhattan. He blames the rampant growth of the artworld on two main factors: firstly "the unquenchable hunger [of] the rich to fill their luxury condos, villas, and warehouses with art"; and secondly the "cranking out" of studio degrees by colleges and universities. "Bottom line, there are just too many artists".

Although our domestic art market could probably do with an injection of super-rich (though tasteless) collectors, there's a similar issue of artist oversupply in New Zealand. I feel for all those public gallery curators and art dealers confronted by yet another hopeful just out of art school popping their head round the door and sheepishly clutching a CD of their work, desperately angling for a studio visit. (Of course I also feel deeply sorry for all the hopeful, but ultimately sadly disillusioned, fledgling artists.)

Amazingly, there are now a whopping 22 New Zealand tertiary organisations accredited to dispense fine arts qualifications, many of them at a degree level. There must be literally hundreds of artists graduating every year from organisations as diverse as the University of Auckland and the Hungry Creek School of Art and Craft, not insignificant in a country of New Zealand's puny size. The percentage of graduates who actually pick up a good dealer, or ever show in a public gallery, or an artists' run space, or for that matter manage to even sell their work in a cafe, must be absolutely miniscule.

And most of the graduates will carry significant debt as a result of their studies, but will be unable to use their "qualification" to make any money to repay their student loan. The irony in all this is that's still the fine arts graduates of the "proper" universities (Auckland, Canterbury, at a squeak Massey) who are most likely to be able make a viable career as artists, although universities are traditionally places to learn rather than to train. On the other hand, fine arts graduates of what used to be the polytechnics (which once ran entirely industry-orientated vocational courses) are much less likely to show in the big public galleries or with the major dealers, and hence to come to the attention of the big collectors. (The only real exception to this extremely snobbish -- but pretty accurate -- rule of academic thumb is AUT, which is producing some significant players in the New Zealand art scene, largely due to its faculty of practising artists of the calibre of Stella Brennan, Liyen Chong, Paul Cullen, Saskia Leek, Fiona Amundsen etc.)

The relatively recent expansion of the NZ art world is a great thing for its most prominent artists (the ones Hamish Keith reckons will benefit almost solely from the Labour Government's resale royalties programme), as it has increased demand for their works to a point where you no longer need to be dead to make a decent living. But for every market success story, there must be 50 would-be artists pumping coffee or waiting tables -- and at the rate our tertiary institutions are churning them out, that number's only going to increase.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

"He doesn't always talk a lot"

Laurence Aberhart, Vicksburg, Mississippi 1988, collection of Auckland Art Gallery

As he doesn't always talk a lot, in public anyway, don't miss this opportunity to hear New Zealand photographer Laurence Aberhart speaking about his work. Catch Kathryn Ryan's interview with Aberhart, which includes his thoughts on taking pictures of Maori meeting houses, the problem of disappearing photographic paper, and the parallel histories of photography and New Zealand, here for a limited time.

And although I'm not really much of a gambler (wonder when the NZ TAB will start offering odds on the Montanas like the British bookmaker William Hill does on the Man Booker?), I'll plonk my money down on Victoria University Press's Aberhart to take out the Illustrative category of this year's Montana Book Awards. The content's just too good.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Pre-game ritual

I would probably describe myself as a delicate shade of pistachio rather than the full green, but after seeing a press photo of the local man who kept his junk mail for a year (the pile was taller than he was), some time ago we slapped a peremptory "NO JUNK MAIL" sign on the letterbox to do our bit for global warming. Or something. (Actually, given the temperature here today, I think "Global warming?" -- bring it on. At minus 2 degrees, sacrificing Niue to the rising oceans looks like quite a viable option.)

It's interesting, actually, what still gets posted in our box: it seems that real estate agents and political candidates of all persuasions consider their ridiculous literature to be exempt from "junk" status, as do school fundraisers, semi-literate peddlers of "herbal diet systems", and the occasional religious whack-job. (I tend to slip pamphlets from the latter into the big guy's jacket pocket to give him at least one inspirational moment during the day at work.) But I digress.

To combat the negative reception at the mail-box, corporate marketers have taken to slipping their filth into the newspaper. And it seems we are powerless to resist. Still half asleep at the breakfast table, I commonly find myself reaching for the Briscoe's semi-annual sale mailer in preference to the "World" section of the paper. Rather than initiating intelligent peppery discussions about the precarious state of democracy in Zimbabwe, I hear myself idly wondering aloud if a certain kind of wine-glass ("stemware" in the foul language of variety stores) is cheaper at Moore Wilsons. But that's the global capitalist system for you in a microcosm ...

Anyway, I was interested to come across a mailer from Rebel Sport in which New Zealand art played an unexpected role. The theme of the mailer was "It's a Ritual", which they helpfully defined for their readers: "A detailed action followed faithfully in order to bring luck". There were shots of various pre-game rituals among rugby's Super 14 stars: All Black Daniel Carter gazing philosophically at his "magic boots"; Rodney So'oialo tuning out with his headphones on; Sitiveni Sivivatu's "power breakfast" (a handle of beer; bet they wouldn't use that shot again in a hurry after the recent drunken shenanigans). But the one which particularly caught my eye was All Black hard man and philosopher Anton Oliver's pre-game ritual -- "a good book".

It's a bit hard to see in the image above due to my dodgy scanning capabilities, but if you look carefully you'll see that the book Anton is clutching is titled New Zealand Art. (He is renowned for visiting art galleries on tour with the All Blacks, and even studying art history briefly at Otago.) The book cover has clearly been knocked up by the ad agency's art department to get the humorous point of Oliver's obsession across to Rebel Sport's customers, but the greyed-out image is another matter. I'm thinking possibly one of Peter Robinson's percentage paintings from the mid 1990s. But it could be anything really.

Oliver's high-brow extra-curricular interests were in the news a couple of years ago when he posed nude for a painting by Dunedin artist Simon Richardson, at which time he was described somewhat forensically as being "well-known for his fondness of art". An enterprising reporter from the Sunday News rang rugby legend Colin Meads for a comment after the news about the painting reached the media.
"We're meant to be salt of the earth, down to earth, grassroots, bloody good guys. You don't pose bloody nude, or get a painting of yourself in the nude. Hell's teeth, he must think he's pretty good. He must be well-proportioned. Is he? I'd be bloody nervous it would shrivel away."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Legal tender

Liyen Chong, Hero, 2008, embroidered hair on cotton, 65 x 140mm, 64zero3

Lately we've seen the rise of New Zealand auctioneers acting increasingly like art dealers, working directly with artists as the first point of sale. Whereas once an auctioneer needed to wait until the collector decided to part with the work, now they're plucking the works directly from studio walls. It's something that's always happened, of course; and it works particularly well for artists with an established reputation but without a dealer, as it provides them with high profile marketing of their works, reproductions in a catalogue, access to a pool of collectors, and sometimes a short essay commissioned from a decent art writer. And they don't have to chip in for invitations, advertising, or drinks at the opening.

Recently the practice has become more obvious, due perhaps in part to the increased competition for sales among Auckland's auction houses; it seems the art auction game's working increasingly like real estate, with the ability to secure listings being just as important as the ability to close a big sale.

Adopting another strategy from real estate, now the tables are being turned -- sort of -- on the auctioneers with Christchurch art dealer 64zero3 offering a work for sale by closed tender. Liyen Chong's Hero, pictured above, is one of her characteristic intricate works made with her own hair. Her works look like very precise line drawings until you view them in extreme close-up, when you realise they're actually embroidered. They take more than a week each to make, and collectors quite understandably line up for them.

This tender is being offered in a good cause -- the proceeds from the sale of the work will be donated by the artist and her dealer to Edmund Hillary's Himalayan Trust -- so it's a one-off. But I wonder if there's legs in the idea for future sales? Perhaps, like real estate, there are some popular properties it would work well for, while others would need to wait for the next speculation boom.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Trust the brush

Last week, Art, Life, TV, Etc. ran a survey into which visual art professions are the most trusted. The results are in, and readers, there's some shocks in store.

Firstly, some longstanding prejudices were once again confirmed. The closer to the money, the deeper the snouts in the trough: nobody has much time at all for auctioneers, who came a resounding first in the dodgy stakes. Art dealers and critics, you felt, were much of a muchness; both predictably, but not spectacularly, dishonest. (Interestingly, someone identifying their own profession as art dealer rated 'critic' as the most dishonest of the art jobs; but they rated 'dealer' as the second most dishonest. And I guess they should know.)

Art curators probably received the greatest spread of responses, spanning the gamut of dirty to clean, which fits entirely with my own experience of them. Curators are tough on themselves, though; they were more likely to rate their own kind as dodgy than any other profession. By contrast, painters were more likely than any other profession to rate themselves as the most honest. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, but am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi's useful exhortation to never trust anyone who first advises you to trust them.

The chief surprises came in your ranking of artists. From my own experience, I would rate sculptors as the most fundamentally honest of artists -- something to do with truth to materials, in a Bauhaus sort of way. Sculptors know how physical things work, and how much you can fake it before the whole edifice falls over. (They are also very good at putting up shelves, emergency plumbing, and home renovations; if you're thinking of marrying an artist, a sculptor beats every other category hands-down. Stay well clear of painters. You will save thousands on tradesmen's bills.) But that's not how you saw it, at all.

Sculptors reached a miserable third in the survey, more honest in your opinion than collectors and conceptual artists, but not by much. Far more honest than sculptors, in your opinion, were art installers (really? have you ever met any?). Painters topped the list as New Zealand's most honest art profession (but as I say, I am rather suspicious of the rampant self-interest displayed in the voting).

The real surprise came in your ranking of new media artists as the most clearly dodgy practitioners of any art medium, by a very, very long chalk. Why? Was it the awful sight of Sean "Jackass" Kerr lighting his own farts at the Physics Room recently? (Actually, I'm not entirely sure if it was the artist's own bottom being filmed, but on balance of evidence I suspect it was. Happy to be corrected on this, as ever.) I am completely at a loss to explain this result...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Vote early, vote often

One last quickie today: if you haven't already taken last Friday's survey into which are the most trustworthy artworld professions (and a surprisingly large number of you already have -- really!), you can click the link below.
Results posted here tomorrow.

It's not actually coming out as I expected...

Click Here to take survey

Hard core

Mike Parr, Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi, 2003, Anna Schwartz Gallery

In the last couple of days, I've been thinking about Mike Parr's work for the current Sydney Biennale, MIRROR/ARSE, a dramatic presentation of the video documentation of his gruesome bodily performances, staged in a decrepit abandoned building on Cockatoo Island in rooms that stank of piss and worse . Here's how the Biennale website describes the context for viewing the work:
"Just as the viewer’s encounter with the architecture of the space is traumatic, so do Parr’s works explore trauma and subjectivity. Parr, in the great Expressionist tradition, denounces and is outraged by the brutality of the world we live in. He is revolted by it, and creates poignant artworks where the viewer is confronted with revolting situations, hopefully achieving turns that form consciousness."
Interesting, then, to have popping up in my feedreader on the same day, journalist Christopher Hitchens's account of subjecting himself to a waterboarding session at the hands of hooded ex-Special Forces personnel, in order to better understand the "human cost of America’s use of harsh tactics at Guantánamo and elsewhere". If you're so inclined -- and be warned, you'll need a stomach just as strong as the one Mike Parr's audience required out on Cockatoo Island -- you can watch what Hitchens put himself through here, and read what he made of it all here.

Not my kind of thing at all, but I was interested particularly in the collision here between popular culture, in the shape of Hitchens's column in Vanity Fair, and high art, in the body of Parr's work. Not much difference between them, sometimes. Similar tactics, similar results. And both play their part in forming consciousness.

Cabinet of curiosities

Diorama, Canterbury Museum

I've always liked the term "cultural institutions" as a collective name for public museums and art galleries. It's got just a smack of the mad-house about it, as if museums and galleries might be sites for the public display of eccentricity, engagingly obsessive behaviours, and the exercise of immoderate personalities ... behind the scenes, as well as front-of-house.

We don't hear the term so often these days (now it's usually the bland "organisations" or the more militaristic "cultural sector"). And neither do we see much engaging eccentricity left in the game. It's all got pretty earnest and bland over the past decade or so. I'm thinking of, for example, of the years when the then director of the Rotorua Museum of Art and History (then much more appealingly known as The Bathhouse) would handwrite crazy labels and pop them in the cases as surprises for his audience. Or the time the next Bathhouse director, the wonderful John Perry, appeared at an art opening in Wellington dressed as a geisha with a chinese "coolie" style hat worn low on his head. Not to mention the common sporting of cravats, bow-ties and Van Dyke beards by art gallery directors. You get the idea.

Of course there are pockets of rampant eccentricity still around if you know where to look. The "vegetable sheep" at Canterbury Museum is always worth a visit, as is the husky dog in the Antarctic section which the taxidermist has mounted on its hind legs, oddly licking the explorer mannekin somewhere around the left nipple. There's the bird with the spoon in its beak in the bird halls at Te Papa, the last visible vestige of the brilliant Victorian natural history case which used to be on display at Buckle Street, where the taxidermist had positioned the birds as if in conversation with one another.

The excellent Tawhiti Museum in South Taranaki is a complete riot, stuffed full of strange historic artefacts and worthy of a lengthy post in its own right; suffice it to say that the owner, Nigel Ogle, spends his time making large-scale dioramas and small-scale models of early life in Taranaki, with the very expressive figurines cast from his family, friends, and local people. Every display case is somehow a paean to Ronnie van Hout ... with a bit of Jake and Dinos Chapman thrown in. Possibly.

Displays at Tawhiti Museum

Also in Taranaki (something in the mountain water perhaps?) is the extraordinary Elvis Presley Memorial Record Room, a shrine to the King erected by Hawera painter and decorator K.D. Wasley, which is open to the public by appointment, attracts musicians from all over the world, and is one of the best museum experiences I've ever had -- anywhere. The collection, and its "more is more" display aesthetic, is the unadulterated product of one person's single-minded vision. In addition to more than 5000 picture sleeve LPs and singles displayed on the walls of his converted garage, Kevin's website lists some of the memorabilia he holds:
"an Elvis guitar badge previously owned by Elvis's Uncle Vester Presley, a personally signed copy of Harold Lloyd's (Elvis's 1st cousin) The Graceland Gates, and a scarf from a 1974 performance in Memphis."

K.D. Wasley in his museum

I could go on ... but I probably shouldn't.

You get the point: without arguing it at length, a major casualty of the professionalisation of the museum sector in the 1990s has been the unique quirk factor of museums, now largely retired in favour of a slickish "visitor experience" conceived by educators and fabricated out of MDF and vinyl cut lettering. Museums used to provide you with special, strange, sometimes baffling, intensely personal encounters with the past's material evidence, experiences you simply couldn't get anywhere else; now the museum's mission is more about social engineering, in the form of promoting multi-culturalism, environmental awareness, national identity, etc. Nothing wrong with that, I guess; except that along the way, the personality's largely been sucked out of New Zealand's museums.

Exceptions are privately-run collections or those few public museums like Canterbury which have preserved remnants of their own history, from a time when directors and curators were assumed -- if not actively required -- to have large, exuberant, occasionally eccentric personalities, and to apply these to their work. The same is true for art galleries, though due to different conventions of display their personalities have been largely reflected in their collections; viz the amazing collection of American photography which Luit Bieringa assembled during his tenure at the National Art Gallery, or the outsider art which John Perry collected for Rotorua.

I've been prompted to think about this in part by Overthenet's recent post about deaccessioning. It seems that due to recent high sale prices, Te Papa's Goncharova paintings are now worth enormous amounts of money; Overthenet poses the entirely legit question that given the works hardly ever come out of storage, should they be sold and the money used to buy something else? For many reasons, both logistical and philosophical, I'd answer a resounding no! they should jolly well show the works more often instead. But as Overthenet comment, it's good to have the debate.

Sure, such pricey international works are an anomaly in the national collection; but it's quirks and anomalies that give both individuals and institutions their personalities, that stop the creeping tide of homogeneity that's all but engulfed our provincial museums to the point where Te Papa might as well sell franchises. If it were up to me, I'd argue for more risk-taking and individual authorship, in the forming of collections and the politics of programming, curatorship and display; the museum (or gallery) positioned less as an agent of social consensus and more a place for individual enquiry into something extraordinary -- the vision of others. A cabinet for, of, and by, the curious.

As art historian Donald Preziosi wrote recently: "Isn't the ideological project, which naturalises the idea that the museum is the 'practice' of a certain theory or philosophy, the problem in the first place?"

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The glory that was Rome

Image via Destination 360 Rome Travel Itineraries
"We will, by 2012, if all goes according to plan, have built, or undertaken major refurbishments of, around 50 new museum and gallery facilities in 14 years, at a cost roughly equivalent to that of Te Papa a decade ago. This represents a total, including Te Papa, of about a billion dollars in 20 years. Eighty percent of this money will have been spent in the four main centres and just under half the projects will have accounted for 94% of it."

John Coster, "Since Te Papa – museum developments in New Zealand 1998-2012". Download the rest of John's paper here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Thoughts of the great men

When Lithuanian-American artist Ben Shahn visited Paris as a young man on a European art pilgrimage, to his great excitement he spied Picasso and Andre Derain sitting together at the Dome. He sneaked up behind them in order to eavesdrop.

This is what he heard:

"Say, have you eaten?"
"No, I haven't eaten. Where is there to eat near here?"
"I don't know."
I've always rather liked this story.