Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hammond Eggs

Andy Warhol had soup for lunch every day for 20 years. His favourite home-cooked dinner was turkey and potatoes, "because it looked so simple and clean". Picasso liked ancient eggs, stilton and preserved ginger. Edward Hopper was partial to "cans of the friendly bean". Jeff Koons served his favourite food, tuna burgers, at his 50th birthday party. And while Louise Bourgeois had a lifelong fondness for the humble oxtail, at one point in the 1990s Tracey Emin was on 70-100 oysters a week.

What these artists' snack preferences have in common (with the possible exception of Louise Bourgeois's, as oxtail takes a bit of stewing; but then again she was extremely well-organised) is a lack of fuss and no need for lengthy preparation. As Jo Hopper, Edward's wife, told the compiler of a Greenwich Village cookbook who'd approached them for a recipe: "We feel that where there's too much fussy cooking there isn't so much painting."

In a similar vein, here are two tasty no-fuss snacks enjoyed by Lyttelton's favourite son, the artist Bill Hammond, and Jane McBride. I do like to think of Buller's Table Cloth being painted with the help of a fortifying beetroot buttie.

From Harbour Kitchens: Celebrating Lyttelton, Its Food and Its People, Lyttelton Main and Lyttelton West Schools, 2009. Introduction by Roy Montgomery.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On the wires

A kereru, or New Zealand pigeon, photographed on the wires in Merivale this morning. With their short wingspan and plump square bodies, kereru are the Chinooks of the bird world. I've seen them a couple of times lately in the city, and heard the startlingly Deer Hunteresque whump!whump! of their wings overhead in the park.

Here's an image of kereru I came across a while ago, which might go towards explaining why we don't see them so often these days.

It was taken about 1900, and is a studio shot by Fairy and Plum of a group of hunters posing with their spoils: from the collection of Nelson Museum.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The G Word

I've been favourably considering the proposition that only people who haven't worked in an art gallery would find Gordon Ramsay particularly rude or stressful.

Likewise the Hotel Inspector. "Fuck the stupid bears! I don't give a shit about them." "It's just junk." "I loathe these burgundy napkins." Very mild indeed.

I'm currently a bit obsessed with Ruth Watson's latest televisual venture, Country House Rescue, in which she visits crumbling British estates of unbelievable loveliness, and spends a commercial hour bullying the stubborn, hopeless, be-corduroyed owners into adopting her unpalatable ideas to make the place pay. Each episode features some kind of event -- a wedding show, a country market, a cocktail party for tourism writers -- which looks in grave danger of falling flat on its behind, until a final bit of chivvying by Ruth gets it up and running. "Get those fucking posters away from the windows! For goodness sake!"

But again, there's nothing new here for art gallery alumni: the melee which ensues each week in Country House Rescue is not much different to the scene prior to the more stressful openings at public art galleries, an hour or so before the guests arrive. "Pick up those bloody sponges!" "Who's got the fucking labels?" "Look, just put all that shit in the cupboard: we'll sort it out later." "Oh, for Christ's sake, he wants what?"

I've been enjoying following, with half an eye, the live tweeting of Sarah Jessica Parker's new reality TV show, Work of Art, which launched a couple of weeks ago. The hapless contestants, fourteen would-be famous artists, compete for a solo show at a nationally-recognised museum (Brooklyn Museum, which has been in the news a bit itself lately) and $100 000 by making works from scratch in a range of mediums, a la Project Runway. The judges include the prominent and outspoken art critic Jerry Saltz, while a 'mentor to the artists' is Simon de Pury, art auctioneer.

Work of Art: The Next Great Artist sounds hilariously awful: the Twitter jury seems to be out so far about whether it's just complete horseshit or also vaguely worthy in that it brings contemporary art to primetime. I'm extremely keen to see it, but can't imagine in a million years that the New Zealand TV networks will pick it up, given their records of screening anything remotely smacking of art at deliberately inhospitable hours, relegated to the graveyard shift with religious programming and infomercials for vibrating exercise machines. Perhaps it could be franchised here, though? There'd be a few decent contenders for the various critic/judge/mentor parts, but the Saltz role would surely be a shoo-in.

I think what I'd really like to see most of all rather than artists duking it out is an Art Gallery Rescue, where an ailing institution calls in a tough-talking Mrs Fixit to increase its audience and critical credibility. Compelling viewing.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What we don't say

The other day I found myself in the difficult situation of needing to explain to the small guy the difference between swearing and other kinds of dubious language.

"What about 'you dick'?" said the small guy. "Is that swearing?"
"Um, no, not really."
"Fool? Cretin? Idiot?"
"No. They're not very nice, but not swearing."
"Yes, that's a swear word."
"Really? I saw it written on the back of a jeep."
"Well," [mentally cursing Saatchi & Saatchi Wellington], "maybe people used to think it was a swear word more than they do now. But anyway, you can't say it."
"What about buttocks? That's a rude word."
"No, buttocks is OK. It's medical."
"How about bloody hell? Ron Weasley says it in Harry Potter. Bloody hell, Harry. Bloody hell. Bloody he-e-e-e-ll."
"What? I'm just saying what Ron Weasley says."

This is the sort of conversation that you can never in a million years imagine yourself having, before you have children. Then you have this sort of conversation every single day.

In the end we settled on a satisfactory three-part classification of language into 1. swearing; 2. normal; and 3. NSFS, or Not Safe For School, which includes what used to be known as vulgar language, or language not used in polite company, both of which definitions were useless when I tried them on the small guy. "What's polite company?" he asked, as well he might. Finally, Words We Don't Use At School hit the spot. "Oh yes, I know: once J called D & I 'dickies' and Mrs F said 'That's not school language.'"

The British media regulator Ofcom recently published some quite hilarious research concerning the TV viewing public's increasing tolerance of bad language: apparently "loony", "nutter", "poof", "lezza" [?!], and "Jesus Christ" are unexceptionable and socially acceptable at any time of day, while Anglo-Saxon epithets of all perusasions are fine after the watershed. I found it all a bit sad, really: what's the point of swearing if it's socially acceptable, I ask myself? It's almost enough to make you knock it off.

Clearly we are all going to hell in a handbasket, when you compare Ofcom's list of currently acceptable foul language on TV with this list reproduced by Gordon Mirams in Speaking Candidly, his social history of the movies in New Zealand, published in 1945.

The following collection of unacceptable words was known as the 'Hollywood List'.


Alley cat (applied to a woman)
Broad (applied to a woman)
God, Lord, Jesus, Christ (unless used reverently)
Fairy (in a vulgar sense)
'Fire' - cries of
Goose (in a vulgar sense)
Hot (applied to a woman)
'In your hat'
Nuts (except when meaning 'crazy')
Razzberry (the sound)
Tomcat (applied to a man)
Buzzard (too similar in sound to bastard)


Bum (England)
Punk (England)
Stick 'em up (US and Canada)
Shag (British Empire)

Of these, I think 'in your hat' could definitely make a comeback. Might even be safe for school.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cultural Fogeyism

Frances Hodgkins, Pleasure Garden, 1932, watercolour, Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

The Pleasure Garden Incident -- as it's known to history, like the title of a novel Robert Ludlum deemed too fruity for publication -- tore a mighty rift through Christchurch's art world of the late 1940s.

Following Frances Hodgkins's death in 1947, the British Council sent six of her late works to the Canterbury Society of Arts for exhibition and potential purchase. Nearly three years of ridiculous argy-bargy ensued, as a battle was fought over the purchase of a single work, the Pleasure Garden. The progressive and conservative camps of the local art scene squared off against one another in public meetings and the correspondence pages of the newspaper, while the general public looked on with indignation and incredulity. The Garden City continues to use this method to conduct its cultural affairs: the Arts Centre's Heritage Carpark, anyone?

On the one side of the Pleasure Garden stoush were the go-ahead artists like Doris Lusk, Theo Schoon, Olivia Spencer Bower, Colin McCahon, and William Sutton, who wished the city to have the work. On the other were the keepers of what McCahon described in a vituperative letter to the paper as the 'three dead tombs of art' (the university's art school, the city's public art gallery, and the local art society); whose spokesperson, painting lecturer Cecil Kelly, suggested of Hodgkins's work that "The tone is not good. The colour is not good. And the composition is all over the place. A child could do it."

(Mind you, the progressive types were just as incendiary: one described the city's Robert McDougall Art Gallery as "a badly arranged museum of Victorian art ... that had died when photography came in", while another apostrophised Christchurch itself as a "curious and amusing backwater in the world of art".)

In yesterday's Press, Michael Vance looked at the incident in his 'The Way We Were' column, concluding that the row was not over one painting, but represented something much larger.

"It was the moment when cultural fogeyism, which had dominated Christchurch art since the colony's foundation, was first defeated, and, despite occasional stirrings, it has remained defeated."

And there we have it. Christchurch, New Zealand: free of cultural fogeyism since 1951.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Rules of Sculpture; or, Dancing on the Table

In New York in 1991 -- which is quite a long time ago now I think about it -- I visited the Sonnabend Gallery in SoHo. I had no idea what was on. When we got there, the walls were covered in a series of very large, slightly expressionist pencil drawings on paper. The paper was rippled, in places, and a bit crinkly, like a newspaper that's been left in a potting shed for a year or two. The drawings looked familar, but I couldn't immediately place them. We shuffled from foot to foot, and looked around, but there were no clues. An extremely personable gallerist came out and put us out of our misery: "Gilbert and George," he said. "The same exhibition that they showed here in 1971. Singing Sculpture. They remade it for us. They were here last week. Look, here's the table they stood on," and he gestured towards it.

We turned as one and gazed at an empty wooden office table.

We'd missed Gilbert & George by a week, but it might have well have been twenty years. We imagined them standing there on the table, dressed in their suits, their faces painted bronze, twirling their canes and slapping their gloves, miming to 'Underneath the Arches' played over and over and over again.

When they performed the Singing Sculpture in 1970, they 'sang' for up to eight hours a day, standing side by side on the table, keeping going no matter whether anyone was in the gallery or not.* 'Underneath the a-a-a-a-arches', over and over again, accompanied by classic vaudevillian gestures, like the mindless repetition of the work on an assembly line in a factory. (My grandmother, who grew up in the East End, had a similar propensity to break into 'Underneath the Arches', an old music-hall standard by Flanagan and Allen, at the drop of a hat. I think once or twice through was the most she'd do in one go, though.) Written in 1932, the theme of the song is poverty and homelessness, as voiced by two tramps:

Pavement is our pillow
No matter where we stray
Underneath the arches
We dream our dreams away

John Cake and Darren Neave, aka The Little Artists: Gilbert and George's Singing Sculpture, 2005, Lego and plastic display cube.

George commented later:

"In our little studio in Wilkes Street in Spitalfields, we played that old record 'Underneath the Arches'. We did some moving to it, and we thought it would be a very good sculpture to present. That, in a way, was the first real G&G piece. Because it wasn't a collaboration. We were on the table as a sculpture, a two-man sculpture."

Gilbert and George were in Sydney earlier in the year to celebrate 40 Years of Kaldor Art Projects at the Art Gallery of New South Wales: John Kaldor had originally brought them out to Australia in 1973 to perform the Singing Sculpture. Although the odd work has occasionally been shown in New Zealand as part of a touring international collection, I don't think that Gilbert and George have ever exhibited a body of work in this country, something I wish a public gallery would rectify quickly. (What I'd really like, of course, is to see them dancing on the table in their suits.) The place has been on their minds, though, albeit as a metaphor for the furthest reaches of civilisation: “We think that we should be able to make a sculpture that can address every man, woman or child, whether in Africa, New Zealand or anywhere,” they said in the late 1990s.

There's a lot to like about Gilbert & George: having worked hard since the debut of the Singing Sculpture to close the gap between art and their own lives, they are eminently, hilariously quotable, living works of art in dapper suits whose last names (Proesch and Passmore) have almost been lost to art history. They've lived in Spitalfields since 1968, documenting what they see on the streets while taking their thrice-daily walks to their nearby studio. Racism, sexuality, class consciousness, bodily fluids, booze, squalor, dumb jokes: "There's nothing that happens in the world," they've said, "that doesn't happen in the East End," which is pretty much what I understand from my own family's long history there. Amazingly, a series of images inspired by the graffiti they saw each day in 1974 was deemed too objectionable to be shown until 2002.

"We look at the raw material of life," said George. "We prefer to come out of the front door, it's been raining, there's a puddle there, there's a bit of vomit from a Chinese takeaway, there's a pigeon eating it, there's a cigarette end, and that's all there is. And then you know what it is."

Of their various manifestos and maxims for life, perhaps my most favourite is Gilbert and George's 'Laws of Sculptors', which should be standard operating procedure in every art school. (And may well have further useful application beyond the visual art world.)

1. Always be smartly dressed, well groomed relaxed friendly polite and in complete control.

2. Make the world to believe in you and to pay heavily for this privilege.

3. Never worry assess discuss or criticise but remain quiet respectful and calm.

4. The lord chisels still, so don't leave your bench for long.

Good advice, that. Better get back and do some chiselling of my own.

* Because I am a suspicious type, I've wondered how anyone can really be certain that G&G really kept on performing when the gallery was empty, but then I suppose there was someone else there, an anonymous assistant dropping the needle on the record over and over again; a Herculean labour almost commensurate with the performance itself, except the person could probably sit down most of the time, and pop out now and again for a cup of tea.