Monday, June 22, 2009

Comedy teeth

In search of some dried green peas for dhal and Tibetan Pea Cakes over the weekend, we drove to Bin Inn (where I was struck, not for the first time, between the strange new synchronicity between (a) poverty and (b) the greenie leftie middle-class taste for sustainability involving slow cookers and ethnic cuisine. In a Venn diagram, the intersection between the two is undoubtedly Bin Inn). Perhaps unwisely, I said that the small guy could choose what he liked from the lolly bins.

This, of course, is what he chose.

As a consequence there has been much menacing of other family members by means of the comedy teeth. Which instantly took me back to my English childhood, and my grandad's tricks with his false teeth; performed, to the occasional and great delight of my brother and I, out of sight of my mother and grandmother, who had banned that particular school holiday comedy turn, along with the singing of dubious songs from World War II: 'Himmler ... was very similar' etc. Of course, the disapproval only intensified the enjoyment. Later, orange peel teeth, chip fangs, and Austin Powers-esque veneers made from masticated Minties entered the forbidden repertoire of childhood tooth modification. I think it's probably genetic and innate: there is a certain kind of person who views the world and its objects as raw material happily placed before them for their own amusement, and another kind who does not. (The former type often, in my experience, becomes an artist.)

We were driving past the Christchurch Art Gallery the other day when the small guy caught sight of the advertising for the forthcoming Ronnie van Hout show, which features his Failed Robot (2007) [pictured above]. Like his parents, the small guy is a massive fan of Ronnie van Hout's work. We took him to see a show at Hamish McKay's when he was two: the look of amazed delight on his face when he saw Ronnie's giant wonky fibreglass Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse figures was something I'll always remember, probably because it entirely matched my own feeling. Encountering Ersatz (Sick Child) at the Christchurch Art Gallery, his reaction was similar. As we drove past the big back-lit image of Failed Robot, I watched the small guy's face in the rear vision mirror: his immediate and total capture of attention by the image, the amazement spreading across his face, the slow smile of recognition becoming an exultant laugh ('Ha!'), then an urgent query:

'Mum, is there really an actual person inside that robot?'

'I'm not sure,' I said. 'Do you think there might be?' (It's hard to turn off the art educator thing, even when one has been decommissioned.)

'Yes,' he said. 'It's definitely a real person's teeth.'

Friday, June 19, 2009

Talking about art in a hotel lavatory

Peter McIntyre, Study of a Dancer, undated, oil on canvas, collection of Auckland Art Gallery, purchased 1950.

"The New Zealander suspects anyone who is sure with words, he thinks it is either glibness or showing off. (Could we take kindly to a Christopher Fry?) Once in a hotel lavatory an art student and I were talking of Peter McIntyre's drawings when a little man piped up that he was a returned man from the first war and he knew that we knew what we were talking about but there was no need to let the whole lavatory know it. We explained that the place had been empty when we entered, we hadn't seen him come in, as we left with his blessing. I can't speak for others: I know I hate talking anything but gossip in a bus or train or in the pictures: otherwise you sense the rest of the bus listening united in one unspoken sneer at half-cock. The New Zealander fears ideas that don't result in increased crop-yield or money or home comforts. The wise man never mentions his learning, after the same pattern as the popular ideal of the returned soldier who never mentions his battles."

Bill Pearson, from Fretful Sleepers, 1954

I am pretty sure that all this is still true. Quite astute, Bill Pearson.

Being serious for a moment

Bertrand Russell, a well-known serious person.

Erwin Panofsky: more the earnest type.

"All serious people seem to have a good sense of nonsense, as opposed to earnest people, who don't know what to make of nonsense. Today, there are too many earnest people in the arts and not enough serious people."

--George Rose, via 98Bowery

Very rarely have I read anything that I agree with more. In fact, having taken a few moments to review my acquaintance of the New Zealand visual artworld, I can confidently state that there is no one who does not fall neatly into one or other of these categories. (I'm wondering if I should run a little 'match up' poll, but then again it might be considered bad form. By the earnest people, at least.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Funnies peculiar and ha ha

A baby. Not related to me.

One of the things I miss about being in the workplace – possibly the only thing I really miss – is the laughs. I used to spend a lot of time at work laughing. (If you didn’t, you’d dissolve into tears. Or go batshit postal. Over the years I have experienced both entirely understandable reactions among the ranks of my colleagues. The euphemism I used to use is that public art galleries present an unusually robust work environment, quite to the surprise of most people who think it's all posh girls with expensive clothes wafting about admiring pictures and pretending to be intellectual. Chance would be a fine thing, I used to think, as I'd roll up my sleeves, spit on my knuckles and venture into the fray, swinging wildly.)

Working in public art galleries, you come into contact with a wide range of eccentric personalities with inordinately large and combative egos – many of them working inside the institution; the artists by comparison are easy to deal with – which creates surreal situations of unparalleled absurdity. On a daily basis, there seemed to be a lot to laugh at. Where I last worked, as a rookie you’d start with open-mouthed incredulity at the sheer ridiculousness you’d encounter; you’d work your way up to unstoppable guffaws out in the gallery where you’d have to escape to, by way of quiet collegial sniggers in the tearoom; until finally, as a dear friend of mine once did in the face of unspeakable provocation, you might laugh so hard in a meeting that you’d go scarlet in the face and choke, tears shooting out of your eyes as you’d race out of the door. (The 'coughing fit' that you’d afterwards apologise for fooled no one, of course.) I can remember coming home at the end of the day feeling like I’d done 500 sit ups, my stomach muscles would be so sore from holding the mirth in. My poker face was a source of considerable personal pride.

(Can't say what it was all about of course. I'm sworn to secrecy. You sign something or other to that effect when you start.)

At home with a baby, things aren’t so funny. Occasionally amusing things might happen, but there’s no one to share them with. Hearing yourself laugh out loud when (effectively) alone feels like the thin end of the wedge, too: next you’ll be keeping 56 feral cats and creating a fire hazard in the hall with old newspapers. Saving up the funnies till the end of the day when the significant other returns to the nest usually falls a bit flat. 'You had to be there,' I'd find myself saying weakly, when attempting to recount some amusing moment with an exploding nappy or somesuch.

The same is true of swearing. For at-home mothers, the opportunities for swearing are severely curtailed, which again is something the baby books and antenatal classes never think to mention. And if I say so myself, I am a champion swearer. I'm proud of it: I come from countless generations of champion swearers. In my book, swearing is both funny and clever. It represents not only an opportunity to let off necessary steam -- to avoid the emotional problems that Freud suggested would inevitably be caused by repression of the traumatic, cough cough -- but provides a significant opportunity to express one's creative inner self. Working in public galleries afforded a vehicle for my talent for the construction of creative volleys of foul language to be exercised on an almost daily basis. And yes, I do miss it. Who wouldn't?

Again, I expect this would surprise many people who might assume that public art galleries are polite and refined places. I have been in many different workplace environments over the years, but I suspect the only industry to rival public art galleries for use of various descriptive Anglo Saxon phrases would be the night shift at the printers. Foul language is not, as you might think, part of the gallery technicians' job descriptions: the art gallery director and management team are frequently the worst offenders. A new marketing manager at a gallery where I once worked gradually grew more and more tight-lipped over the course of his first week. Finally he could bear it no more. 'I'm not a prude!' he hissed, 'But Cheryl, I think it sets a very bad example for senior managers to swear in front of the junior staff.' I will admit that for a hopeful minute I thought he was exerting quite a sophisticated and entirely appropriate poker-faced public-gallery leg pull. I was disappointed.

The small guy, however, has recently turned five, and with the rush of testosterone that is meant to accompany the school birthday, has developed a sense of humour so entirely puerile, scatological and wildly inventive that I am -- although also his doting mother -- in complete awe at its daily magnificence. Home life has become like living in the prequel to Wayne's World.

For example, he had a little friend round for a playdate (as they're now called) the other day. After running round and round the dining table yelling for what seemed like half an hour, they sat down to watch Sponge Bob, each wearing a pirate eyepatch and poking each other in a friendly way from time to time with toy swords. Sample dialogue:

'Who farted?'
'Wasn't me.'
'Must have been.'
'Wasn't. It was you.'
'Wasn't. It was you.'
Ha ha.
'Who farted?' etc.

On and on and blinking on.

Despite his parents' best attempt to turn him away from the arts into a satisfying suit-wearing career involving numbers and large sums of money, the small guy has taken to writing stories at a furious rate lately: I've blogged previously about his excellent self-help book for dealing with unwanted attentions from yucky girls. (Hilariously, How to Get Away From Girls by Sam has gone minor-ly viral: I've had copious hits on it from all over the show, the page favourited via the Facebook pages of countless people I don't know. I'm just glad it's been useful.)

For your reading pleasure, here's the text of his latest, entitled The Adventures of Rabbit, Hamster and Guinea Pig: The Flying Underpants.

'Look!' said Rabbit. 'Some flying underpants up in the sky!'
'Oh!' said Hamster. 'Is it a joke?'
'No,' said Rabbit. 'It is not a joke. They are mean.'
'That is not true.'
'Yes it is.'
'No. No! NO!'
'It is true you poo,' said Rabbit.
'I hate you Rabbit,' said Hamster.
'Shut up,' said Rabbit. 'I hate you too. Me and Guinea Pig.'
'No,' said Hamster. 'Me and him.'
'Let's be friends,' said Guinea Pig.
'Yes,' said Hamster. 'Let's all fight bad rats.'
'OK. But be friends.'
Bam bam bam.
'This is fun,' said Rabbit.
The End.

(I increasingly think the home life may have humorous possibilities I never imagined.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Rising from the ashes

A small spate of arsons in Christchurch schools over the weekend was reported in this morning's Press. A photograph [see left] showed the principal of Manning Intermediate, the most badly damaged school, squatting awkwardly in front of a sculptural relief which had been severely charred. For once, the artist of the background artwork was identified in the caption: the work was by Ria Bancroft.

I met Ria Bancroft in the early 1990s, a year or so before her death, when I went to interview her at her home in New Brighton. She was born in the same year as Rita Angus, and had moved to New Zealand in the early 1960s. She was a slight, demure, softly-spoken elderly lady with a British accent; she wore a small crucifix and plain, neat clothes; she was a little like a very kindly nun. I didn't know a great deal about her, and was astounded by both the scale and the ambition of some of her sculptural work. Over a cup of tea she showed me a scrapbook, as I remember, with small pictures of some of her earlier works sellotaped in. She spoke about the difference between modelling and carving, and some of the problems of working in metal. I went away feeling that I should have known her: that the identity of the person, as well as her work, should be better known in the cultural life of the city.

A few days after meeting Ria, I went to the Catholic Basilica near the end of Barbadoes Street and looked at her designs for the Tabernacle Doors: vaguely Symbolist, slightly Rodin-esque, with a kind of swirling Art Nouveau energy translated into a no-nonsense modernist idiom. They were quiet, and small, and modest, and had a grace to them which seemed entirely appropriate for the subject and the setting. I liked them a lot.

I was familar with Ria Bancroft's abstract sculptural relief, Energetic Forms (1965-6), from the concourse outside the Science lecture theatres at the University of Canterbury. It's one of those works that you always notice (it's enormous, about 6 or 7 metres long), wonder briefly who made it, and walk past. You do the same thing next time you see it, and the next, until it becomes part of the scenery, but somehow I never stopped noticing it. I didn't realise it was by Ria Bancroft, until she told me. It had been commissioned by the Ministry of Works for the building, and was, I think, the largest work she made.

Ria Bancroft, with Pat Mulcahy, Energetic Forms, 1965-6, Carved wood, plastic resin and applied colour, University of Canterbury

In the mid-1980s, when I was first at varsity, Energetic Forms looked incredibly old-fashioned: dated modernist wall jewellery for the equally dated concrete neo-brutalist building it adorned. I saw it again recently, and realise that twenty or so years later I have achieved a newfound respect for both aesthetics. It involves admiration, perhaps, for their mutual conviction that a humanist ideology might be effectively communicated through stripped-back form. (As a student of the ironic-critical-relativist late 80s I can't really bring myself to believe in this kind of modernist essentialism, but I do respect the sensibility.)

Seeing Ria's work -- albeit damaged -- in the newspaper this morning has brought a few things to mind. Firstly, I hope the school seeks professional conservation advice about restoring the work: the public art gallery would be a good place to start. And should it be possible to restore, I trust that some appropriate public fund be made available for the restoration: it's not something that should come out of the school's own coffers.

It also struck me that it would be useful -- for purposes of both scholarship and preservation -- if the newly-updated public art register were expanded to include works such as these scattered across the whole city which are effectively in public ownership, but which aren't owned or administered by the City Council. Putting all these works on the public record is an important way to make them accessible as well as to keep them in mind: the public sculptures currently being taken out of Aotea Square and quietly put away shows how quickly works no longer in fashion can be lost from public view.

And finally, the photograph has reminded me again that Ria Bancroft's work deserves to be better known. Sure, the art gallery put together an exhibition of her work [PDF] in the late 1990s [interesting fact from the catalogue: as a child, Bancroft was friendly with the inventor of plasticine, William Harbutt, who encouraged her to model animals which he displayed in his shop], and her daughter the writer Peb Simmons produced a biography of her mother, but I wish, somehow, that a sense of Bancroft's graceful modernist aesthetic, as well as knowledge of her work and life, were broader. At the very least, as a public sculptor working in the 1960s and 1970s, Ria Bancroft should hold the equivalent art-historical position in the formation of Christchurch's visual identity as Guy Ngan does in Wellington. Not sure how I can help make that happen, except by continuing to talk about her.