Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Museum of Ancient Preserves

I don't know about you, but it seems that our family can never get to the bottom of a pot of jam. Somehow the preserves work their way inexorably to the back of the top shelf of the fridge, behind the jars containing a single pickled gherkin and the myriad half-used bottles of children's paracetamol; they wait there for a while, unregarded, sticky-sided, pushed ever further back by shiny new jars jostling for attention at the front of the shelf; and there they quietly expire, to be found six months later crystallising at the edges and growing little green mould islands.

Here's the current line-up of my museum of ancient preserves:

1. A half-eaten jar of Barkers Morello cherry jam, purchased by myself with visions of great juicy sophistication, but in the event sadly lacking in both cherries and flavour, and now pushed to the rear by a spanking new Anathoth 'Three Berries' chosen by the small guy;

2. A full jar of crabapple jelly in a divine shade of pink, made by my stepmother, which cheers me up everytime I look in the fridge and is just too beautiful to open (but I really should);

3. A partly-eaten jar of lemon curd made by myself in an uncharacteristic Martha Stewart-ish frame of mind one wet winter day, which tastes OK but which no one seems to fancy much;

4. An Anathoth blackcurrant jam pottle, which has been very nearly scraped clean but nonetheless returned to the fridge to harden at the back; and

5. A jar of crushed chillis, purchased from the supermarket as my enormous bag of dried ones from Moore Wilsons has now run out; the mould upon which would keep a field hospital in penicillin for a week.

As you will gather from all this, I am not the world's greatest housekeeper: a fact which was brought home to me with a vengeance some months ago, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a gigantic rat squatting at the back of the fridge. When I could bring myself to open the door again, I realised it was actually a large aubergine I had bought and forgotten some weeks earlier that had grown long grey fur in the interim.

This is by way of preamble to introducing the latest acquisition for the museum of ancient preserves; a gift from a friend who, in town recently for Scape, came to lunch and brought round a home-made confection she had bought earlier that day from an old lady at a market.

Everyone was a bit nonplussed.

"Oh dear, I hadn't noticed," said our friend. "But perhaps she meant to write 2007 on the label," she went on, hopefully.

"It might be OK. Probably quite nice. We could try it later," I said weakly, transfixed by the bubbles under the lid.

"It looks like something from the Otago Medical Museum," said someone else, a little unkindly.

We haven't tried them yet, and may well not, but equally I can't bring myself to simply throw them away. (Too much care and kindness in both the gift and its original, long-distant making.) Instead the jar of "fejoas" has sat on the kitchen windowsill for the past couple of weeks, turning itself slowly into an artwork (an enigmatic object of contemplation rather than of use). Its taxonomy is slightly different from my other fridge exhibits -- this jar didn't grow old on my watch -- but its provenance, 'Installed during Scape 2008', is decidedly more salubrious.

It's occurred to me that perhaps it's not the first time this particular jar has been sold and bought and given. Relational aesthetics? Something like that. The wandering lines described by an eleven-year-old pot of stewed feijoas on its travels across the city. If anyone can suggest where it should go next, I'd be pleased to hear from you.

Monday, September 29, 2008

For some players, luck itself is an art

I was in my late teens in 1986 when Martin Scorsese's The Colour of Money came out. It provoked an obsession with playing pool which lasted for nearly the next decade, though I was never any good at all. But then, compared to various friends, I was a very late starter: it's been my experience that people who are gun pool players have either had seriously mis-spent youths, spent a lot of time at Christian youth clubs, or in the third option, have worked at the Auckland Art Gallery, where for many years a pool table was an agreeable feature of the staff lunch room (wonder if it will be reinstalled in the new building?). I fell into none of these categories.

Tom Cruise was all very well (and famously played most of his own shots, which was a piece of method acting I could only admire), but it was obvious that the real hero of The Colour of Money was Fast Eddie Felsen, played by Paul Newman. I hadn't seen The Hustler, the movie he'd made in 1961 which became the prequel to The Colour of Money, but a few years later, when we finally got a video player, I rented it and was completely captivated by Newman's performance; the way, I think, that he made such an flawed character so utterly compelling.

I'd seen a lot of other movies Newman had made when they came on TV in the late 70s and early 80s. Hud, The Towering Inferno, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting: my father was an enormous fan and the movies came highly recommended (in fact were required viewing in our house). The very best Newman movie of all, though, was Cool Hand Luke, which came out in 1967 and which I would have first seen about a decade later: and like much of the culture consumed in my childhood, was no doubt most unsuitable for children. The sick-making hard-boiled egg eating scene; the cutting-the-heads-off-the parking meters scene; the sweatbox; the irrepressible smart mouth in the face of abusive authority; the crushing humiliation at the hands of the big boss; the tear-jerking death scene with its symbolic crucifixion. "What we got here is a failure to communicate..."

Paul Newman, who died on Saturday, was a member of the same generation as Colin McCahon, Charles Bukowski, Federico Fellini and Richard Hamilton: in their various different ways, all anti-heroes of the counter culture, debunkers of complacent authority, born in the years immediately following the First World War. Thinking about him over the weekend, I've realised just how surprisingly many images and moments in the wild soup of culture I carry round with me feature Paul Newman.

Here he is singing Plastic Jesus in Cool Hand Luke.

Friday, September 26, 2008

"Something rather low and anthropomorphising"

A new series of articles on museums has been commissioned by the excellent Intelligent Life magazine. First up is novelist Julian Barnes, on the Museo Mandralisca in Cefalu, Sicily, whose collections were put together by Enrico Piraino, Baron of Mandralisca (1809-64).

The Museum, says Barnes, is rather run-down, has a fierce guard, and is a bit boring:

"There is a line-up of those earthenware oil lamps, so necessary in the Ancient World, whose subtle differences are nowadays lost on amateur observers. There are 19th-century Cefalu cabinets with naively naughty painted glass panels of loafing, half-clad gods and goddesses. There are a number of rather ordinary pictures. And there is a whole roomful of stuffed animals and birds, many of them long hunted to death on this island. At least, you occasionally find yourself reflecting, the baron didn't collect stone arrowheads."

While his primary interest is the two surprising masterpieces owned by the Museum (a fourth-century Greek crater vase painted with a scene at a fishmonger's, and Antonello da Messina's smug-looking Portrait of an Unknown Man, found by the Baron mounted on a pharmacist's cupboard in Lipari), there are oddments among the "omnivorous" collections which, for Barnes (and by the sound of it for me too), rise above the ordinary:
"You might think, for instance, that the stuffed-animal room, in which dozens of less than sprightly looking specimens are displayed against fading painted backdrops, might be a bit of a downer. It is, until you spot three animals which for some reason are not confined behind glass, but casually placed on top of the cabinets: a hedgehog and a pair of porcupines (pictured). The latter are lined up nose to nose, as if in friendship or confrontation (who can tell with a porcupine, especially when stuffed?).

"Their natural sleekness is enhanced by a doubtless inauthentic glaze which has been applied to their prickliness, and there is something about them--no doubt something rather low and anthropomorphising--which inevitably puts a goofy smile on your face. In the same way, the monotony of massed seashells on display will be suddenly broken by examples of such an eerie elegance that they seem the result of modern high-tech design."
I love that Julian Barnes would write in praise of two badly-stuffed 19th century porcupines. Such encounters with strange and ambiguous objects that spark the imagination and curiosity are exactly what the best museums are all about.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

An infinity of things

The surrealists saw strange shapes in clouds: they lay on their backs and stared up at the sky and called it research. Hamlet saw a cloud shaped like a camel, and thought it worth remarking upon; in his treatise on painting, Leonardo da Vinci suggested that artists should study not only clouds but stained walls, mud, and ashes from the fire, where they would find visual analogies for "landscapes with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and hills of all kinds. You will also see battles and figures with animated gestures and strange faces and costumes and an infinity of things."

The dinner plate also holds a hidden world of visual possibilities. Above is a photograph I took last night of a corn fritter, in which Beethoven's head can clearly be discerned. Or possibly it's Johnny Cash. I was in two minds about whether or not to eat it, but in the end, I did.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?

The day before Britain declared war on Germany, the last shipment of treasures from the National Gallery left London secretly for Wales. More than 1800 paintings were evacuated in just 11 days: the image above shows the enormous Equestrian Portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck being manoeuvred under a low railway bridge. (In the final instance the truck's tyres were deflated to let it through.)

Initially the paintings were placed in stately homes which had been quietly scoped out by the Gallery's Assistant Keeper during the Munich Crisis of September 1938. He made extensive notes on his findings: "The owner is nice, ruled by his wife, a tartar, anxious to have NG pictures instead of refugees or worse," and, "Owner not inspected but seems obliging in a haughty way."

Conditions in the paintings' temporary accommodations were not always ideal: Susanne Bosman, whose book about how the British National Gallery weathered World War II has just been published, notes:
At Crosswood, where 70 paintings were stored, the hot-water pipes of the antiquated heating system ran under the floor of the library, where the pictures were kept, seriously lowering the relative humidity, with potentially disastrous consequences for paintings on panel and canvas. As the heating could not be turned off without affecting the rest of the house, blankets and felt had to be soaked in a nearby stream and hung in the library until the humidity reached acceptable levels.

By May 1940, as hostilities escalated, a plan was devised to send the works to Canada for safe-keeping. Winston Churchill refused, however, to let them leave the country: National Gallery Director Kenneth Clark wrote that the PM's actual words had been "Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island." The collection was instead transferred to Manod Quarry, a slate mine in the Welsh mountains, beneath 200 feet of solid rock. Free-standing brick buildings were constructed in the massive chambers of the mine to protect the paintings from slate dust, and a narrow gauge railway was laid to transport them between buildings.

Hit several times by bombs during the Blitz, the Gallery itself remained open throughout the War in order to keep up the morale of Londoners. In 1941 the sculptor Charles Wheeler wrote to the Times, expressing a wish to see Rembrandt's Portrait of Margaretha de Geer which had just been acquired by the National Gallery. Kenneth Clark immediately brought it back from the quarry in Wales and put it on display, instigating the "Picture of the Month" scheme, in which a single painting was removed from Manod and exhibited to the general public in the National Gallery each month.

We don't have a history written of New Zealand's galleries and museums during war-time: we should.

A view of the lily pond and Peacock Fountain with the McDougall Art Gallery in the background, Botanic Gardens, Christchurch, 1935. From the Christchurch City Libraries website.

Friday, September 19, 2008


There's a stream at the end of our garden. The city is scored with them, built over water like an Antipodean New Orleans. Water rises from the underground aquifers, drips from the copper downpipes of the wealthy nor-west suburbs, leaks from the dusty goodsyards of the industrial south-east, picking up rubbish and effluent and diesel slicks on its way to the sea. After the big rains a few weeks ago, signs appeared in the park, nailed to the ancient oak trees: "Danger! Polluted water. Do not fish." Two days ago a man out for an early morning run discovered a body floating in the river in the heart of the tourist area of the central city, where the old willows the settlers planted are slowly being replaced with native trees.

The raupo swamps were drained generations ago, while the last surviving area has recently been made into a museum of itself. When I was growing up, the bus to New Brighton took you through a scrubby waterlogged wasteland known as the Travis swamp. Now it's an eco-system called the Travis Wetlands: prisoners on day release have built boardwalks and bird hides for families pushing baby strollers on a Sunday outing. Across the road is a massive wall which encloses a new cookie-cutter subdivision.

When it rains, our stream rises quickly. It is a tributary of the Wairarapa Stream, which in turn feeds the Avon: the stormwater drains of our neighbourhood empty into it. You can go out for half an hour in heavy rain and when you come home, the water might be several feet up the lawn. When it recedes, it leaves behind a wild tangle of sticks and leaves and plastic rubbish which collects in great drifts around tree trunks. The sticks are left all pointing in the same direction, marooned by the current. I read recently that if the Waimakariri River were to breach its banks in a catastrophic storm, the resulting flood would reach the Cathedral.

I've been most struck this week not by art images, but by reportage of the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in the US. This image of a house in Texas's Crystal Beach reminds me of the kind of uneasy scale that often exists in Peter Peryer's photographs, where you're not sure whether you're looking at a full-scale object or a miniature version. The photograph shows debris from storm surges, which look like a giant version of what collects on our lawn. If you look closely, you can see kitchen cupboards and entire decks among the debris.

This is a photo of the foreshore in Gilchrist, Texas, where only one house was left standing after three-metre-high floodwaters receded. (More images of the aftermath of Hurricane Ike are at thebigpicture)

There were many casualties of the storm. Among them was Mies van der Rohe's famous glass Farnsworth House on the Fox River in Illinois, which, though standing 14 feet above the river on 5 foot poles, was flooded to the depth of more than a foot.

When it was built, the architect researched the Fox's history of flooding, and raised the house to a height sufficient to withstand a one-in-one-hundred year flood: subsequent development, though, has decreased the stormwater capacity of the surrounding area and made it increasngly vulnerable to rising waters. Its original owner, neurologist Edith Farnsworth, with whom Mies van der Rohe was romantically linked, sued him after it was built, claiming that the house was completely "unliveable".

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Shooting Fishers in a barrel

Yes, but is it relevant?

"John Badcocks' art empowers people. He is the quintessential painter in a modern day world. Recognised for his contribution to portrait and landscape painting he also has a darker side. Tackling pressing issues relevant in today's society be it a showdown of western and eastern values and conflict, our own seabed and foreshore debate or more recently the severity of climate change, Badcocks' work at times is obscene, haunting and confronting but it's completely relevant."
From press release for John Badcock's forthcoming exhibition at Fisher Galleries, Christchurch, entitled 'A Lot of Art is Boring'. The show includes a "selection of works with a range of sizes".

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Beautiful inside my wallet forever

So the Damien Hirst auction at Sotheby's is over, and the artist -- already Britain's wealthiest, apparently -- has walked away squillions of dollars richer: although we don't know how much richer exactly, as the terms of Hirst's financial arrangements with Sotheby's are a closely-guarded secret. The media coverage has been intensive, and Hirst has been skilled at whipping up a feeding frenzy of publicity around the sale, tossing out throwaway one-liners like chum in the water.

Thus we know that last week, for example, Hirst had a bad dream that everything turned to crap and no one bid: "I imagine it going: 'Lot 9 — no bids. Lot 10 — still no bids?'" he said. "But, whether it works or not cash-wise, the door will stay open."

In the event, Damien Hirst's fear of failure proved unfounded -- or perhaps simply another shrewd piece of positioning. Some commentators have suggested that the risk of a huge public flop was minimal, if any, given the heavyweight calibre of the players.

No one knows for sure how it all stacked up, though the tactics speculated about variously include minimum price guarantees from the auction house, buy-ins by his dealers, and possible incentives paid to dealers by the auction house. Hirst disclosed to Bloomberg's Scott Reyburn that he wouldn't be paying a seller's commission on the auction. (Reyburn suggests that on the hammer total of 95.7 million pounds, Hirst is set to pocket about 50 million pounds, after deducting his manager Frank Dunphy's commission and his own production costs.)

The day before the sale, the Financial Times suggested it didn't really matter which works sold: that the auction, Beautiful inside my head forever, was a cultural extravaganza that in the final count wasn't so much about the art as about the art market, an event which represented "the apogee of [contemporary] art's collusion with greed and bling".
"With Mr Hirst's open-mouthed shark and glittery-banal skull and bull its emblems, art history of the past 20 years is distinguished not by a dominant movement or style - that is impossible with the new global pluralism - but by the unprecedented, unstoppable, absurd, obscene rise of the art market itself. "
Not for the first time, I wish for a little more collusion with greed and bling by contemporary New Zealand art's promoters.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

But is it better-looking than nothing at all?

(Via C-Monster)

Andy Rooney shares his thoughts on art in public places.

"Is it really better-looking than nothing would be?"

Not a bad question to think about when planning public art, actually.

I was with Andy on the decorated cows and the dog in a gilded cage. He lost me, though, at the Tilted Arc business. There's a world of difference between enormous urban knick-knacks and difficult public art.

In New Zealand I think we tend to go for a mid-ground in our public art commissions: works by competent artists which aren't too intellectually or physically challenging. At the moment, we seem particularly keen on public works that evoke the history of place. Might be time for some tougher stuff. Some art which makes a public place its own.

We do do a nice line in urban knick-knacks, though.

Photo of The Pig in Wellington's Civic Square. The smoking cigarette someone had tastefully added in magic marker seems to have been removed since I last saw it.

Photo of the appalling Christchurch Corgis by Michelle from christchurchdailyphoto.com . The rear dog is sniffing a half-melted bronze ice-cream cone. Ankle-tapping death-traps at night-time...

And Auckland's goat stack.

A theme is developing ...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Nothing special

Gee, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing. The image above is from the Archives Study Center at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It shows just a fraction of the 610 cardboard file boxes which Andy Warhol filled each day with the detritus of his life: beginning in 1974, he started chucking it all into a box under his desk, sealing each one up with packing tape when it was full.

Along with lumps of mouldy pizza and a pair of Clark Gable's shoes, Warhol's file boxes -- which he ironically termed "Time Capsules" -- included photographs, newspapers and magazines, fan letters, business and personal correspondence, art work, source images for art-work, books, exhibition catalogues, and telephone messages.

"What you should do," he said, "Is get a box for a month, and drop everything in it and at the end of the month lock it up. Then date it and send it over to Jersey." And he did. The Warhol Museum have painstaking been cataloguing the contents of the boxes, in both words and pictures: you can see some of the surprisingly beautiful results here.

I'm always interested in artists' source material: every time I'm in someone's studio I can't help myself checking out what they're reading, what they're looking at, what they're listening to. But it's rare that this kind of material gets back into the public domain, which is a great pity: you find out a lot more not only about the artist's work, but about the transformative quality they bring to bear on the world, from looking at the source material the artist's used.

When the City Gallery in Wellington showed the big Keith Haring retrospective exhibition from the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1999, for instance, a case of ephemera was exhibited with the early work, full of doodles, clippings, photocopies and photos: it grounded the finished work you saw in a practice, which saw the world in a particular way and transformed it into a particular kind of image and idea. It made me like his work a whole lot more.

The enormous quantity of file boxes Warhol left behind should be -- like the Haring archive -- a biographer's dream, but somehow it's not: there's just so much stuff, filed without hierarchy -- taxi receipts dumped on top of sketches, polaroids on top of fan letters -- that instead it becomes a serial work rather than an informational archive, all about surface and excess and the sheer incommensurability of modern life. Which in a way, is exactly as it should be.

I'm looking at the surface of my own desk tonight, strewn with correspondence and bills and receipts and articles and books I should read but haven't yet and probably won't ever get round to; and I'm wondering if I shouldn't invest in a filing box or two and some packing tape myself; while at the same time I'm reminded of the advice an art museum director of my acquaintance gave me some years ago. He was talking about the great difficulty of simultaneously keeping up with both the movements of the art world and with the sheer volume of correspondence and reports required of him as a public servant.

"My technique," he said, "Is to put everything in a pile. Then I leave it for a month. If it's important, the person will ring me to see why I haven't answered their letter. If it's not important, then I can throw it away after a month and feel good that I haven't wasted my time answering it."

(Mind you, this was a world before email. But I think the principle may translate.)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Liberté! Fraternité! (But hold the egalité...)

Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986, currently being exhibited in the Salon de l’Abondance at Versailles. Image from ArtDaily.com.

I've been thinking about the sheer perplexing magnificence of this photograph all morning. Don't know what to say about it really. An outrage? An important intellectual enquiry? An upholder of tradition, a usurper, or a circuit breaker? Probably all of the above, all at once.

More photos here.

Here's what Koons has to say about his show in the Sun King's palace at Versailles, his first exhibition in a French museum.

"Contemporary art is so imprisoned in the present that juxtaposing new works with old ones allows you to rediscover a connection between history and the history of art."

"The baroque is the ideal context for me to highlight the philosophical nature of my work."

In other Marie Antoinette moments this week, the Guardian's Ian Jack suggests sending snobby gallerinas to the tumbrels (and then letting Damien Hirst break out the formaldehyde). Democracy, Jack suggests, is everywhere in the artworld's rarified air right now, though looking at the prices works are commanding it's not to be confused with equality. Nonetheless, it's time for a revolutionary shake-up of the old hierarchies. All comers are welcome to Hirst's auction of his art at Sotheby's later this month: any old spare parts baron or dodgy oligarch from what is euphemistically termed the artworld's "emerging markets" can wave a saleroom paddle without the ignominy of being vetted first by gallerists. The only qualification is deep pockets.

If popular revolution is the artworld's new black, New Zealand's most successful fashionista Karen Walker is all ready to share a little cake with the peasants, having just brought out a new diffusion line sold through Myers in Australia with a price point of under $150, coming soon to this country. The world of international fashion isn't for the faint-hearted, though: when quizzed recently by a Press journo [not yet online] about whether it wasn't a bit tiring flying round the world all the time to launch new ranges, Walker quipped, "If you don't want jet lag, get a job at Pak 'n Save."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The end of the world as we know it

All the fuss and bother over what might potentially happen when they turn the key in the ignition of the Large Hadron Collider this evening (sucked into a black hole! time flowing backwards! a jolly loud bang!) has reminded me of the classic techno-panic children's TV series of the mid-1970s, The Changes.

It ran for 10 very scarey episodes: the basic premise was that electric pylons throughout the country suddenly started emitting a high-pitched noise which drove people to destroy all technology and riot in the streets. Fridges, cars, toasters, alarm clocks, and perhaps most oddly -- soda streams -- all took a serious beating in the first episode. (The Hillman Imp in the image above is in the thick of it.)

After witnessing her father smash up the family's TV set in a mad frenzy, the heroine (12 years old in the show; a diminutive 18 in reality) became separated from her parents and had to travel through an unrecognisably feral England complete with menacing pitchforks and bad dentistry to get to France (where the pylons were probably still OK) to be reunited with them. Along the way she encountered a gang of robbers stealing children from the newly medievalised villages, and in a hideously frightening episode was tried as a witch. The only help she received along the way was from friendly Sikhs who appeared to be unaffected by the awful noise. (Unclear why this should be.)

The Changes has become somewhat confused in my memory with another equally terrifying programme that screened at around the same time -- a multi-part documentary in which a group of British people, including children, lived under Iron Age conditions for a year. (No underpants! No toilet paper! No sticker books!) It was probably the first reality show ever, but instead of the relative luxury of the Big Brother house, the poor "contestants" on Living with the Past (though their only prize was the blinking show finishing) were forced to live in a dreary encampment of freezing thatched roundhouses and to trudge through thick clayey mud to the primitive long drop dunnies (placed 500 yards or so away for fear of typhoid). My parents were alarmingly keen on self-sufficiency in the 70s, as well as camping, but I was extremely grateful they didn't volunteer our family for this TV horror.

The Changes ended with the heroine's discovery of an ancient lodestone that had been placed in a cavern by Merlin and which had somehow been activated and was calling the country back to a simpler time. Can't remember how, but she got it to stop; and a battalion of cars, which had stalled in a massive traffic jam, started again in an extraordinarily memorable -- if somewhat improbable -- shot as Britain returned to normal.

The Changes managed to cover several hitherto unrelated tropes of the 70s in Britain at once; civil disobedience, fear of technology, an interest in Arthurian legends, going back-to-nature, and smashing up TV sets (the latter popularised by prog rock bands in hotel rooms). As with a lot of TV I watched in the 70s, it was probably vastly unsuitable for the children for whom it was intended, and has produced a lifelong thoughtfulness around electric pylons.

I can't imagine that the world's going to end at 7pm tonight NZ time when they start up the Large Hadron Collider, but there's a slight air of risk contingent upon the whole venture which is both appealing and slightly alarming. (I suppose if they knew exactly what would happen then it wouldn't be an experiment. Would it.) Each generation, it seems, has its own Armageddon myths: so far in my lifetime we've encountered potential obliteration of our way of life by technological meltdown (the 70s), nuclear war (the 80s), and Y2K (2000). (Can't remember what it was in the 90s -- an asteroid crashing into the Earth? An enormous tidal wave sweeping the globe? Bruce Willis is bound to have made a movie about it, whatever it was. Or Michael Stevenson some art.) More recently our doomsday events have included Peak Oil, international terrorism, the possibility of a global pandemic like bird flu, and now it's a black hole sucking civilisation in after it. Probably.

See you tomorrow. I hope.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Gangers test

The other day, back in what I now rather fondly think of as the Phoney Spring, I was riding my bike along the track by the railway line when my attention was caught by a small yellow sign on the other side of the hurricane fencing.

I have a great liking for the old-fashioned hand-painted signwriting that is fast disappearing from the urban landscape, something I share with Jonty Valentine from The National Grid (his "Possibles and Probables" article on the score cards at Carlaw Park is the best design thing I've read for ages). It's the battle between the camera and the brush all over again, although this time the machines are winning: the original hand-done commercial artwork is disappearing under a slew of photographic reproductive processes. Each time I see a faded advertising sign painted directly on to the side of a building (there is a great one advertising "Leed" in Christchurch's Woolston which must have been there 40 years) I expect it to be the very last one.

Again I say it: New Zealand needs a design museum. Soon. Before all this stuff completely vanishes.

The sign I'm talking about is nothing too fancy. It's centred on a yellow drop box nailed to the side of the cabinet which controls the barrier arm at the railway crossing. It's a yellow board, about 20 centimetres square, with black lettering: it looks like something that might appear in the corner of a cut-up work by Rosalie Gascoigne. It's painted by hand, but in a machine-age style. I can't identify the font; it's all caps, sans serif, the ubiquitous plain, no-nonsense, get-the-message-across typeface used by the railway workshops for decades. Or at least it used to be: I wouldn't imagine that NZ Rail's current incarnation still includes painters' workshops in-house. The lettering reads simply GANGERS TEST. No apostrophe necessary.

What I find interesting about the sign is that it's clearly informational -- its yellow and black livery announces that it has something useful to say about this place -- but that its message is completely baffling. It looks like public information, but actually, it isn't: it's written in a private language presumably known only to railway workers. The yellow drop box obviously has a quite specific and useful function, and the sign indicates to whoever needs to know that here is the place where the Gangers Test happens. Whatever that is.

I'd quite like to know what it means, and so I idly toyed for a while with ringing up OnTrack and pretending to be a proper journalist writing a story about the state of the tracks or something, and slipping in a surreptitious question about the purpose of the Gangers Test Box. But on reflection that seemed like quite an effort to go to, with a lot of lies to tell in order to get to the truth, and perhaps these things are better left as everyday mysteries anyway.

A bit further along the track are two rather more informal pieces of amateur graphic design: two large autographs by "Callum" and "Mark" written in bubblegum. These hand-done signs each measure just under a metre wide. They've been there for some years, permanent roadway signatures unmoved by bike tyres or passing feet, though someone recently has run a swathe of white paint through Mark's name. I particularly like the swirling flamboyance of "Callum", rendered in an upright cursive script like an elderly lady's shopping list.

I've never made lettering like this myself, but I would imagine it would take both an enormous amount of bubblegum and a concerted effort to chew one's way through enough product to make signs as big as these. Callum, it seems, had plenty to spare, finishing Mark's off as well as his own with a jaunty underline.

Monday, September 8, 2008

First move: get the rubbish bin

What was it about the teaching style of the Ilam art school faculty in the 60s and 70s? Something transmitted by osmosis from the neo-brutalist architecture of the new university campus, perhaps? They certainly believed in breeding 'em tough back then: if you were a painting student, you had lecturer Rudi Gopas famously advising you to make your works smaller (so they would fit in the bin) or to add more turps (so they would burn better). If you were doing sculpture, you developed a second sense for ducking the large lumps of clay thrown by lecturer Tom Taylor which came cannoning across the studios towards you.

Now it seems the photography students weren't exempt from the school-of-hard knocks style of art education, either: in an outstanding biographical essay included in his new monograph, Peter Peryer recounts his experience with Larence Shustak, a New Yorker who'd worked for Time and Life magazines, whom Peryer encountered as a lecturer on a summer workshop:
"After glancing at [my prints] briefly his first move was to walk over to the other side of the room and pick up a rubbish bin.

Methodically, he examined each photo in turn. 'This is boring, let's get rid of it,' he would say as he tore a print in half and placed it in the bin. Or, 'this has been done before', as he gave it the same treatment. In the end there were just a couple of prints left, still there because in each one he had pointed out small portions in which he thought something interesting was happening. 'Go back and have another look, but this time move in closer,' he instructed.

It was teaching of the highest order and exactly what I needed, although not of a style that would be permitted today."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

What's left behind II

The back of Monroe’s favorite photograph of herself, which shows her standing in a jeep, taken by a soldier in Korea during her U.S.O. trip there. Photograph by Mark Anderson.

A large cache of personal effects belonging to Marilyn Monroe has been unearthed, and photographed by Mark Anderson in a project which took almost two years to complete. The contents of two filing cabinets, stuffed with receipts, letters, telegrams, fan mail and personal effects have been archived and documented by Anderson: 586 items are available to view here.

Receipt for The Works of Sigmund Freud, Photograph by Mark Anderson.

Frank Sinatra had originally suggested that Monroe keep her life in order by organising her papers and personal effects in two filing cabinets: one of these was sold at auction after her death, while the contents of both have in recent years been the matter of a legal dispute between the Monroe Estate and a relative of her former business manager.

Receipt for Van Gogh book recommended to Marilyn Monroe by Lee Strasberg, Photograph by Mark Anderson.

Through Anderson's viewfinder, photographs of receipts for groceries and medical procedures and gifts take on a quality somewhere between holy relics and crime scene documents. While the contents of the cabinets are clearly a biographer's treasure trove, what is most striking about the project is its almost Warholian sense of accumulated banality. There are hundreds of images of nothing very much at all: coat check tickets and cash register receipts and packing lists. The best of the photos are those which document a single item.

I'm struck, as ever, by the pathos of the found note; the impossibility of piecing together a life from scraps of paper left behind, like an archeologist trying to describe a vanished civilisation from a few broken pot shards. Accumulations of objects, lists of services paid for, correspondence entered into: the story is in the details, but the life is somewhere else entirely. Anderson's project is, in the final instance, more existential than revelatory.

"Kiss me!" "Can't here..."

A little piece of Youtube greatness: 41 immortal seconds from the screen test for East of Eden, where James Dean and Paul Newman tested together. The object Dean is flipping up and down is a switchblade, which featured in his next film, Rebel without a Cause. Dean of course beat Newman for the part in East of Eden (the only one of his big three films to be released before his premature death in his Porsche 550 Spyder), and on being introduced to him on the set, author John Steinbeck exclaimed, "Jesus Christ, he IS Cal!"

The East of Eden screentest is one of the Guardian's top 50 Youtube art videos: Via super art blogger Regina Hackett from Seattle.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sticky fingers

News that the Victoria and Albert Museum has just purchased the original artwork for the Rolling Stones' famous "tongue and lips" logo at auction for US$92, 500 (where it will join other items of design ephemera including Eduardo Paolozzi's extensive Krazy Kat archive) has prompted me to think about the history of New Zealand's popular culture, particularly our popular music and entertainment culture. Who's collecting it?

Te Papa undoubtedly leads the way on this one, with their collection of popular New Zealand cultural ephemera such as Split Enz's stage costumes, Fred Dagg's gumboots (which he gifted to them in 2002), and their selection of LPs and EPs by NZ bands from the 1980s and 1990s. They've also got a handful of original band posters from the era. Not that I've seen any of the latter exhibited (I may have missed it?); but it's very good that they're actively seeking to collect this material, which all-too-often falls through the cracks of New Zealand's cultural collecting institutions.

However, absent Te Papa it's New Zealand libraries, rather than our museums, that predominantly collect popular ephemera, as part of their research collections. The National Library has a great collection of posters, underground comics and ephemera from public protests, searchable online. They define ephemera in an interesting way, too, stating that items are typically:

  • too insubstantial to be included in the Library’s book collections
  • anonymously produced
  • of commercial content
  • related to popular culture and everyday life
  • of interesting graphic design.
I presume that libraries have historically collected this material because they view it as being part of New Zealand's print culture, and thus related to their collections of books and manuscripts. But you could equally argue that it is an important component of both social and design history. New Zealand's major metropolitan museums have been comparatively sluggish in acquiring items of popular culture from the recent past. Which seems crazy to me; leave it too long, until it becomes "history", and the items become scattered and detatched from their provenance, as well as downright expensive.

Robin Neate, poster design (undated, c.1982?)

Suprisingly, to me at least, it's Christchurch Library rather than Canterbury Museum, for example, which holds an archive of posters produced for the Flying Nun bands that played at the Gladstone and the Star and Garter in the early 80s. This was a hugely important time in New Zealand's cultural history which has all but disappeared from view; it's great to see the library having taken the lead on collecting and caring for this material. They've put a small selection online. Like the original record sleeves, many of these posters were silk-screened and over-painted by hand; some were designed by notable artists including Lesley Maclean, Chris Knox, Ronnie van Hout, and Robin Neate.

Ronnie van Hout, poster design, 1981

Not for the first time, I've wondered which national cultural organisation might take it upon itself to collect items from New Zealand's graphic design history as significant items of design rather than of social history: it's my understanding that currently no institution does, which is a woeful state of affairs. More bricks and mortar I know ... but I really think New Zealand needs a national design museum.

Back to the Victoria and Albert's most recent acquisition: the designer of the Rolling Stones logo, John Pasche, was a student at the Royal College of Art when he was approached by Mick Jagger to work with the band in 1970. The brief was to design an identity for the Rolling Stones' new record label: Jagger showed him an image of the Hindu goddess Kali as a starting point.

Pasche's logo was first used on the cover and inner sleeve of the Sticky Fingers album pictured above, and has subsequently become a worldwide brand. He was paid 50 pounds for the job, followed by another 200 pounds a few years later by the band in recognition of the great success of the design.

The photographic cover itself was Andy Warhol's concept, although the 'popness' of the lips logo has caused a common misapprehension that Warhol designed it; the model in the tight trousers was Factory regular Joe Dallesandro, the star of Warhol's Flesh (1970), of whom NY Times movie critic Vincent Canby wrote: "His physique is so magnificently shaped that men as well as women become disconnected at the sight of him."

Well yes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Stilled life

When the world's greatest taxidermy establishment, Deyrolle's of Paris, went up in flames earlier in the year, first on the scene after the fire brigade had left were the artists.

"The animals had undergone a second death, in a sense, and the visitors were both captivated and deeply touched," wrote Olga of Greece, entomologist, in her account of the conflagration. (The first three images are from Deyrolle's website, taken before the fire.)

"First to arrive was the artist Anselm Kiefer, newly resident in Paris, followed by photographer Nan Goldin, a longtime Parisian. Goldin arrived in a pair of tight jeans and very high heels, which she was politely asked to change; Françoise was afraid that she would sink into the mud and ash. Goldin came back better equipped, to take photographs. Sophie Calle also came to photograph the burned interior. The Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping arrived and proposed taking all the damaged animals for an installation. There were others: the painter Miguel Barcelo, photographers Karen Knorr and Jean Baptiste Huynh, and the artist Marina Karella."

Somewhat oddly for a vegetarian, perhaps, I have a distinct weakness for taxidermy myself; my small collection includes various sets of bull's horns, a dried sea horse, antlers, and a pair of matching pine martens with bared teeth mounted on branches, which my brother-in-law purchased for me at the Hawera auction rooms in Taranaki. He recently rang up about a stuffed snake he'd seen coming up for sale; we were keen, but in the event it went for hundreds of dollars. However, the big guy has officially banned any further additions to the home menagerie. (We'll see...)

Many artists of my acquaintance are also interested in taxidermy, though not many use it directly in their works. I think their interest has something to do with the imaginary worlds immediately conjured up by stuffed animals. However, there have been a few notable New Zealand artworks employing taxidermy: you might well count Bill Hammond's images of Buller's birds, especially Buller's Table Cloth, in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery, pictured below; there's Peter Robinson's legendary possum log, from the early 1990s, made of skins he'd cured himself (I think); the myriad sparrows and rabbits of Michael Parekowhai's Beverley Hills Gun Club series, and his Driving Mr. Albert, from 2005; and perhaps most notoriously, Francis Upritchard's family cat.

Here's what Upritchard had to say about another taxidermied work she made for a show in 2003:
"There's a snake, Ourobouros, eating its own tail. A white albino python, which I taxidermied, so it's a real python. I've got a friend who is a taxidermist who got me the body, so I did it in his workshop. I filled it with foam filler. The snake itself is a bit confused. I've done a lot of drawings of snakes in the past, but I've never seen a snake. In New Zealand you have no snakes. So I've drawn the eye down where a whale's eye is, down the side, where the mouth is. And then when I got the snake it was like 'Oh God, its eye is at the top', so it doesn't look like my snake drawings. So I sewed up the eyehole and made a new one. It's very over-stuffed and bulky, it looks like a funny old turnip, you don't look at it and think 'Hey, what a sexy snake'. It's like a stupid lumpy old thing."

Bill Hammond, Buller's Table Cloth, 1994, acrylic on canvas, Collection of Auckland Art Gallery

The purpose of taxidermy is, of course, to make a dead thing look as life-like as possible. (Upritchard, however, has something else in mind: "Look, I'm making these to look as bad as possible, as badly made as possible - I'm not glamorising them... I'm interested in a critique of taxidermy, making things look as dead and pathetic as possible.") Beyond all the slightly alarming techniques of the profession, taxidermists have traditionally achieved life-likeness in one of two ways; either by arranging the animal to look as if it is still alive in its natural habitat -- as if a bird has momentarily alighted on a branch, perhaps -- or by creating an anthropomorphic tableau in which the animal plays out a second life -- a rabbit displayed in a hunting jacket with a miniature rifle tucked under its arm, for instance.

Anthropomorphic taxidermy reached the height of its popularity in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras; among its foremost practitioners was the extraordinary Walter Potter, of Bramber in Sussex, who specialised in large scale, complex human dramas "acted out" by vast numbers of small dead animals. His sentimental Kitten Wedding featured twenty farm kittens, while 34 guinea pigs were stuffed for his Guinea Pigs Cricket Match. His most famous work, The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin, is pictured below. (The picture is borrowed from A Case of Curiosities, an excellent fine art taxidermy site.)

I could go on about this stuff all day. But I probably shouldn't. Can't wait to see what Nan Goldin and Sophie Calle will do with their shots of Deyrolle's, though.