Thursday, February 26, 2009

Milestone, millstone

Maths has never been my strong point, but I think yesterday's entry about the vast gulf between the superior photographic image of public sculpture and its tawdry real life was my 150th post.* Which is time to take stock.

I've been blogging for just over eight months. I started in June last year at the behest of Best-of-3, who said come on, I think it would suit you, you should do it. I didn't do anything about it for a while. I'd read something somewhere (probably in a doctor's waiting room, which is where I read gossipy women's mags now I don't work in an art gallery, in whose tea rooms they are rife) about 99% of blogs being abandoned shortly after birth, and I didn't fancy adding another orphan to that statistic.

And at some point I'd looked at Paris Hilton's blog, or was it Ginger Spice's, with its wildly enthusiastic initial entries, then a few hasty posts followed by apologies for not writing and promises to be more regular in future, then radio silence; much like the scenario that always played out with magazine pen-pals in the 1970s. Having been through that experience I would hate to start something with a whizz-bang that I couldn't finish, and just dribble on for a bit until I ran out of puff. (Post-grad studies have honed this rather numbing sense of commitment all too keenly; one gigantic sword of Damocles hanging over my head at once is quite enough, thank you.)

Yet over these months, I've found that I quite like blogging: the inconsequentiality, the politics, the anecdotes, the humour, the virtual community, the online acquaintanceships; the chance to develop ideas into a little something that stops short of an essay but has more juice than than just a passing remark. Blogging four or five times a week feels less a millstone than a kind of mild and pleasant vice (now, if only I could advance to the same sort of state with my studies...). My sense of it is a rolling conversation with like-minded friends, albeit invisible ones. I've written various posts that I haven't published, largely because on reflection they were fundamentally ill-natured (albeit perhaps amusing); that's my personal line in the sand, in matters for public consumption at least. Likewise, I've appreciated advice from bloggers I admire: no matter what the temptation, don't blog when inebriated, don't bang on about the kids or post their art online. I've almost always followed these words of wisdom.

One of the things about blogging that I quite enjoy is having a look now and again at the site stats; being a complete ignoramus about technical stuff, I've just followed other bloggers' leads on this (particularly Best-of-3, who remains a daily inspiration) and gradually worked out over the time I've been on the air not only how to analyse who's been visiting Art, Life, TV, Etc. and where they've come from, but more to the point why they've come. When you write for print publication, there's a big gulf in time and emotional distance between what you put out there and its eventual reader. The immediacy of blogging's reader response -- seeing who's reading, and commenting, on what, almost as it happens -- is vastly appealing. It can also be quite astounding.

Over the short life of Art, Life, TV, Etc., I have been frequently taken aback at the bizarre nature of some of the Google keyword searches which send people to my blog. A while back I posted about the supposed censorship of a local artist's work at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, thus unwittingly sending dozens of nude dwarf fanciers from around the world to my site. (Vastly disappointing when they get here, no doubt. Off you go, please.)

There's a sense of community that arises from blogging, no matter how dubious or intangible its basis. Sometimes I wonder about the advisability of blogging about one's personal obsessions: a creeping horror that Pareidoliac's notion of blogging-as-therapy might be on the mark. (No! No! Please, no...) But overall, I'm glad to reveal that blogging has proved it's not just me: I must be quite normal as literally hundreds of people round the world (albeit mostly concentrated in the southern continental US and frequently logging in from military bases) are likewise obsessed with the painting of the two dogs in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. I repeat, it must be quite normal, and it's cheered me no end. I've had millions of hits on countless misremembered variations of 'One dog going this way and one going that way', 'One goes East and one goes West', etc etc. And then dozens more wondering who painted it? Where is it now? Which National Geographic photo inspired it? What does Joe Pesci say about it? And finally one asking where can I buy Tommy's mother's painting? (Rather hopeful, the latter, I would have thought. But you never know.)

Occasionally I feel a little guilty at the trusting nature of some of the queries which have come my way. People wanting extermination solutions for bathroom insects are bound to go away disappointed. Likewise the surprisingly large number of readers in the Indian subcontinent wanting access to the "thoughts of great men" have met only with unbridled smart-arsery of an art-historical nature. (Sorry about that.)

Occasional queries are quite specific. Someone in Campbell, California, wanted to know artist Coosje van Bruggen's maiden name. (Couldn't help.) Someone in Wellington wanted to know how old the new director of Auckland Museum, Vanda Vitali, is. (Sorry, don't know. Can't imagine why you'd want to.) Someone in China is very interested in artist Marie Shannon. Someone in Kuala Lumpur wants to know more about writer Edward Hanfling.

Then there are the school (or perhaps undergraduate) projects; diverse, yet overall art-historically comprehensive. "Where are sculptures with Viking helmets that are currently in a museum?" "Pine martens fur were used in art for what?" "Why is Pak 'n' Save's logo yellow and black?" "How to enter a paranoiac-critical state?" "Is there a press release for artist Doris Lusk?"

The long and the short of it is that after 150 posts I haven't run out of puff yet: there are more personal obsessions, art historical anecdotes of dubious scholarly merit, and tangential art-world digressions still to work through. Thanks for your company so far. See you next week.

*D'oh! I just looked again and it's actually 160. Told you maths wasn't a strength. Oh well.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rough stuff

A few years ago, I went to a talk given by architect Ian Athfield. At the behest of the excellent Wellington Sculpture Trust, he was invited to speak about public art in Wellington. The talk was divided into two halves with, I think, a break for refreshments in between. Initially Athfield showed some dramatic images of the public sculptures which the Trust had commissioned for the city -- Phil Price's Zephyrometer fingering the wind on the way in from the airport, Ralph Hotere and Mary McFarlane's Ruaumoko (the Maori god of earthquakes) with its cascading letters and toppling columns outside Te Puni Kokiri House on Lambton Quay -- and so on. He didn't say a whole lot in the first half of his talk, just identified the works and let the images speak for themselves.

This was the kind of image Ath projected on the screen.

Here Hotere and McFarlane's work is shown to best advantage against a summer sky and the backdrop of the wonderful Edwardian Baroque facade of the Old Public Trust building (which houses Creative New Zealand) opposite.

For the second half of his talk, Ath showed another series of slides of the same works. As I remember it, while the first set of images were publicity shots of Wellington's public art taken by the Trust or the Council or Tourism Wellington not long after their installation, for the second part of his talk he had got someone in his office to photograph the public sculptures as they really looked.

Image from TypeSHED

This is a very mild version of the kind of photograph he showed, which revealed the same works doing daily battle with street furniture, public and commercial signage, vehicles, grafitti and rubbish. While the initial images showed the works as resplendent and magisterial, dominating their surroundings, the second set showed them as subordinate to the vapid ugliness of daily life. As ever, Ath's ultimate purpose remained slightly enigmatic; he is not someone who labours an argument; I wasn't certain if he intended to chastise the Trust or the city planners or the artists themselves (though I doubt the latter). But the contrast between the published image and the real experience of public art was a good point well made, and one I've not forgotten.

Here's a similar contrast between real life in all its foulness and the art world's image of itself, posted this morning by one of my favourite local blogs -- the indefatigable Canterbury Heritage. Looks like Regan Gentry's work has to stand up to some pretty rough stuff, come the small hours.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fertile ground for conceptual art

Bounded ring formation at Morgans Hill, Wiltshire, May 2008. From

Crop circles -- the large scale geometric designs which appear overnight in cereal fields in Britain -- are a phenomenon like alien abductions, the Apollo moon landing and the government suppression of free energy technologies, representing one of those absolute dividing lines between those who believe and those who do not.

On the one side, the crop-circle researchers fervently believe the designs have a non-human origin, and cite as their 'proof' anomalies in the electromagnetic frequency of the site; cereal stalks which are 'bent but not broken', or appear to have been subjected to a sudden great pulse of energy; as well as the relative complexity of the fractal geometries involved. Pitted against the 'Cerealogists' are the circle-makers themselves, who work in the dead of night armed only with balls of string (for marking out the elements of the design) and short planks (for flattening the crop).

Yet the two sides need each other, suggests John Lundberg, a graduate of the Slade School of Art and perhaps the pre-eminent British crop-circler. (Also implicated in the production of the notorious Roswell alien autopsy video, he's now an award-winning documentary maker who occasionally makes crop circle PR stunts for big companies and media outlets, including Shredded Wheat, The Sun, and Hello Kitty.) The crop circles are essentially authorless art works, he suggests, while the crop-circle followers act as agents for the work, propagating images of them across the globe and disseminating a mythology and folklore around them.

Circle-making was enormously attractive to Lundberg and his other artist friends: "We weren’t pushing paint around on a canvas that sat in a sterile gallery environment; we were quite literally forming and shaping the culture that surrounded us. The circles we created could be seen as virulent mind viruses or memes that traveled right around the world permeating both underground and popular culture."

I think this insertion of art into the common culture is what interests me most about the crop circle phenomena: it seems more of an effective political statement (about the nature of manufactured belief in the contemporary world, about the way in which big media need a constant supply of news odd-spots, about the way hoaxes and conspiracies form a critical tool) than much more overtly political art.

Interviewed by Henry Hemming in In Search of the English Eccentric, 2008*, John Lundberg commented:

"When I first became aware of crop circles, which was probably during the mid- to late 80s, I was willing to believe that there was something very odd going on, you know, something alien. This was when I was at art school. You see, I'd been interested in the paranormal from a very young age, but I'd never been able to combine my interest in the paranormal with my art."

"Then I had what you could call an epiphany. Suddenly I realised that making crop-circles presented unbelievably fertile ground in which to be making art. So I went out and made a crop-circle. I just wanted to see what would happen, and over the last ten years I've really begun to understand the effect of what I'm doing, and it's incredible. I mean it. I really think it beats the hell out of Richard Long or any other land artists... Because of the conceptual side of what we're doing. We're manipulating belief. They're just making sculptures."

*Best book I've read for ages. I've been wondering about an Antipodean version ... no shortage of material...

Monday, February 23, 2009

The perils of collecting

Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper 1971

"I don't spend a lot. Most of my art collection I got by trading it or through knowing the artist. I got Andy Warhol's first soup can painting for $75. I lost it to my first wife."
The five-times married third-generation abstract expressionist, photographer, actor and art collector Dennis Hopper, interviewed recently by Rosanna Greenstreet. Hopper also lost Roy Lichtenstein's Sinking Sun, which he'd bought for $1100, in a divorce. (A year and a half ago it sold for $17,870,000.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

What's Left Behind III

Routemaster buses, c.1963. From Park Royal Vehicles.

When my family arrived in New Zealand in the late 1970s, we'd been told by many people to expect that it would be just like Britain, but warmer and less snobbish: the move halfway across the world would just be like moving to another British city, albeit somewhere a bit out of the way like Wales or the Channel Islands. On arrival, it took perhaps ten minutes for my child-self to realise that I had been seriously misled. It took another six months or so to feel relaxed enough with the culture (the differences in language; in humour; in the ways that people relate to one another) to be able to participate with any kind of spontaneity.

After a while, though, Britain receded in my mind to a point where seeing images of the Tower of London or Big Ben or the Changing of the Guard in a travel brochure looked as colourful and foreign as pictures of Prague or Istanbul. My memories of my English childhood grew no less vivid but receded into an odd disconnected state, like a series of surreal vignettes from a TV show involving double-decker buses and bomb scares and Fry's Chocolate Cream and the ministry of silly walks from Monty Python: some sort of mad mash-up of The Liver Birds, Dr Who, and Dad's Army, voiced over in the received British pronounciation of my preteen self.

We've been here thirty years now, and so whatever I am, it's more of a New Zealander than an English person. But there is still the odd moment when I catch sight of something and am transported back.

This morning it was the news that architect Norman Foster -- his firm, at least -- has won the competition to redesign the new London bus in time for the Olympics. Foster has gone into partnership with Aston Martin to come up with the proposal, which, with its bulbous curves and cheerful front end, looks like a chirpy new friend for Thomas the Tank Engine on the Fat Controller's railway. I also like the fact that Quantum of Solace is advertised on its side panel -- the Aston Martin DB5 was quite clearly the best Bond car ever. (My brother's Matchbox version featured an ejector seat to shoot the baddie up into the air ... on many family holidays under driving rain in the Cotswolds I wished our car were fitted with one ...)

Apparently Foster has gone for a wooden floor downstairs with a "salon" kind of feel: upstairs there's a glazed roof and solar panels to power heating. No mention, though, of the periscope so significant in my childhood, from which front seat passengers upstairs could spy on and make faces at the long-suffering bus driver down below, despite strict written instructions on a notice forbidding you to do so. (It was one of those 1970s things, like not looking directly at the sun or pointing a spud gun at anyone, that no one could help themselves doing. The more you were told not to the less you could help yourself.) Foster's obviously fond of tall pointy boy's-own kind of things: I imagine the periscope's a must-have.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Got Talent

"It's strange how when people tell you that you have talent, what they're really saying is that you have no real achievement to match it."

Since reading this terrifying insight in British writer Alan Wall's short story 'The Painter' some years ago, I always watch out for the use of the word "talent" in book or art reviews. I have a horrible suspicion Wall is completely on the money.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mr Clean's bazooka

Paul Swedlow's collection of vintage carpet cleaning equipment, Aronson’s Floor Covering, NYC. photo Ruby Washington/The New York Times.

If I had to name my single favourite thing about my contemporary digital life -- as opposed to the analogue history of the early 1990s I described yesterday -- it would be the ability to read the New York Times online. It's one of the first things I do in the morning, after I have spooned apricot porridge into the baby's mouth and slapped out rounds of vegemite-and-chippie sandwiches for school lunches.* What I read there sets me up for the whole day.

I bought a Sunday edition in Manhattan once. It was the size of a paving slab and had the heft of a brick. Too thick to fold, too slippery to clamp safely under my arm, it made my arm ache carrying it home. You could lounge around reading it in bed all day and still not get to the end. It felt like an artefact. I wanted to bring it home with me but it would have half-filled my suitcase. Proper newspapers like that -- with long investigative articles, international correspondents, fat arts sections crammed with incisive criticism, intelligent letters to the editor, and book reviews by notable authors and world-famous academics -- are to my mind one of the hallmarks of civilisation. The Press and the Herald look like the North West Suburbs Bugle and Shoppers Guide by comparison.

This morning I came across one of the nicest (most interesting, most endearing, most immediately making me wish I was there to see for myself) articles I've ever read in the NY Times. It describes the collection of vintage cleaning equipment amassed over 40 years by a neighbourhood businessman called Paul Swedlow, who until recently owned a carpet shop on West 17th Street. He's trawled flea markets and thrift shops to pick up dozens of rug-beaters, wooden carpet sweepers and old metal suckers which he displays in the shop, yet considers his collection unfinished as he still does not have the original Hoover, the Model O with cloth bag, patented in 1908, which he terms 'the missing link' of vacuum evolution. (The reporter notes that Mr Swedlow doesn't use the internet to look for his collection items; you get the impression that to a man like this, that would be cheating.) The picture above shows a primitive metal vacuum cleaner given to him by an arms dealer who mistook it for a bazooka. Or that's how he tells the story, anyway.

I think you have to have confidence in both your craft as a journalist and in the sophistication of your readership to run a story like this without trivialising the subject or patronising the interviewee. Most papers wouldn't go near it. It's neither news nor fodder for the gracious living pages. It's just a little local, human-interest, 'odd spot' kind of story, yet they run it perfectly straight and send a photographer to produce a portfolio of beautiful shots. A picture of one man's gentle lifelong obsession emerges, as well as his own take on an idiosyncratic taxonomy of display which is enormously appealing. And above all, Mr Swedlow's belief -- spoken and acted upon -- that these outmoded objects from earlier technological worlds are worthy of preservation, is something that's worth reading, and thinking about.

*Just a quick aside here. The big guy assures me that it's normal -- in fact obligatory -- to butter bread before you spread vegemite or peanut butter or whatever in sandwiches. I argue that that's two spreads, one on top of the other, fat on fat, and as such is manifestly unnecessary, wasteful, and in fact wrong; you only use butter or marge in sandwiches in order to prevent the ham or other solid filling from falling out. This has been a point of contention between us for more than a decade now. Your thoughts gratefully received.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Send in a stenographer, stat

When I started working in my first professional position in an art gallery early in 1990, there were no computers in my workplace. It was like the office in Mad Men, but without either the public drinking in the afternoon or the shorthand dictation taken by glamorous young women. If you wanted to send a letter you had to write it out in longhand and put it in the head secretary's pigeonhole. She would prioritise typing jobs by the relative seniority of the staff. While the director's typing, which the head secretary did personally on her IBM Golfball, superceded all others, I suspect mine came last; it usually took two or three days to be returned to my pigeonhole in the staffroom, and was always done by the part-time typist. If there was an error in the typing, and there frequently was, you corrected it by hand and put the letter and the carbon filing copy back in the head secretary's pigeonhole, and the whole thing began again. It could take a week just to get a letter out.

This Dickensian communications system, which had clearly been operating for many decades, necessarily slowed the pace of business to a glacial crawl, which at the time was enormously frustrating but in retrospect was quite pleasant. You had a bit of time up your sleeve to think about things; it was physically impossible to act in haste. Sure, you could call your correspondent instead, but toll calls likewise had to be placed for you by the secretary, and were considered a bit of a luxury, especially for the junior staff. "Are you sure this is work-related?" "You've been making quite a few calls, lately, haven't you. I hope you're noting them properly so we can code them to your budget." The pressure was on to speak quickly. Ringing internationally was almost unheard of.

It's a way of working which the western world has long since left behind, with instant real-time communications and cheaper phone calling. It was ridiculously cumbersome, of course, but the pre-digital workplace had some advantages. You could concentrate on what you were doing; without email and txts and mobile phones you didn't get interrupted much, and could knock off all your correspondence before morning tea, leaving the rest of the day free to work on projects. I guess you could still act like that if you wanted, but it would take a lot of fortitude and discipline and would be a bit surprising for -- not to say profoundly irritating to -- your colleagues.

But no doubt I have been training the rose-tinted retro-spectacles on the past. In reality the analogue workplace probably involved just as much frustration, panic over deadlines and sheer grunt work as the contemporary wired office does. In my memory, the relative freedom of being digitally unconnected has loomed larger than the sheer teeth-grinding foot-stamping frustration of the golfball jamming at 4.55pm with a letter still to get into the 5 o'clock post.

This morning I came across this description of New Zealand's National Art Gallery from 1961, in a book surveying the state of the arts in New Zealand.

"The National Gallery is staffed by two men and four women. The men are a Director and a general handyman carpenter, the women, an education officer, a secretary, and two clerks. There is no stenographer, and a large part of the time of all the staff, with the exception of the Director, is taken up with work for the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. In short, the Gallery is understaffed, with the result that last year the Director suffered from a serious breakdown and two of the women were absent suffering from the consequences of overwork."*

Foyer, National Art Gallery, c. 1937. I'd imagine it looked much the same in 1961. Image from the NZ Electronic Text Centre.

Next time I'm moaning about the lack of ability to go and see contemporary international art in public galleries in New Zealand, I'll remember that quote, I think. At a time when, say, MoMA was putting on exhibitions like 'Homage to New York: A self-constructing and self-destroying work of art conceived and built by Jean Tinguely' or 'Tangible Motion Sculpture by Len Lye', New Zealand's National Art Gallery couldn't get a shorthand typist while its staff of six had to run the local art society's programmes as well as their own exhibitions, travelling exhibitions, loans and education programmes. While New Zealand's public galleries still have a way to go in terms of being significant contemporary international players as exhibition generators, their position out of the starting grid is clearly a long way to the rear of the field.

As for me? Back to work in the home office. Lots on today. Now, if only I could get the big guy to take a letter...

*E.C. Simpson, A Survey of the Arts in New Zealand, Wellington Chamber Music Society, 1961, pp.40-41

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Social sculpture

When advertising pressgangs art into its demonic service, it's usually under the assumption that art provides an elitist, blue-chip association for the product. The presence of art in an advert tends to mean that whatever's being peddled is more expensive than competing products. (These real estate ads I photographed last year are classic examples of the blue-chip effect.) Occasionally, however, when advertising cites art it's as a cheesy shorthand for the highest craftsmanship, an unparalleled service carried out by a master practitioner.

This morning's Press ran an advert for liposuction which seems to hit both marks. "It's 90% sculpture, 10% suction -- pure art!"

Maybe Joseph Beuys could do something with the leftovers.

Joseph Beuys, Fat Chair 1964. Wooden chair with fat. 36 3/8 x 11 3/4 x 11 3/4 in. Stroher Collection, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

Monday, February 2, 2009

Note to self: Poo, poo

Regular readers of Art, Life, TV, Etc will know of my interest in the narrative and pictorial possibilities of found notes. It seems it may well be genetic: the small guy has developed a fondness for making drawings and notes -- dozens of them -- on what he calls "little paper", or memo-cube squares from my desk, which he leaves on chair seats and under cushions for people to discover. Here's a recent selection, which he piled carefully into a lunchbox the other day and snapped the lid, saying with a tone of great weariness, "Well, that's the paperwork done."