Monday, August 25, 2014
  Walters Prize contenders: Living rough and a taxi to nowhere

 Published NZ Herald July 19, 2014

There's no cover charge for the Walters Prize this year. It would be hard to charge for a show that has so little to see, apart from Simon Denny's reportage of a conference that happened in another country at another time.
The panel that chose the finalists has instead come up with projects that lean heavily on process and performance.
Like much of what has been served up at past Walters, the preference is for work that needs to have words wrapped around it, like a rough nest of twigs or shredded plastic, as if the viewer's eyes are irrelevant -- art for the blind.
That doesn't mean it's bad. It's work made by people who take themselves very seriously. It just may take some effort to unpack, as you try to grasp the notion of what is contemporary art.
The Walters Prize is the way Auckland City Gallery Toi o Tamaki deals with contemporary art. It outsources the selection of the finalists to four people from elsewhere in the New Zealand art world who come together for a day to choose what are supposedly the best shows of the previous two years.
The gallery's curators then work with the artists to recreate those exhibitions or something similar, and two months into the show a foreign judge will parachute in and select a winner.
The winner gets $50,000, a residency in New York or similar, and the kudos of what the gallery is dubbing "New Zealand's toughest art prize".
This time, the panel has rewarded the gallery by asserting that the best current New Zealand art is not something that can be exhibited in an institution like Toi o Tamaki.
For an award named after a painter -- Gordon Walters -- who started to regularly exhibit only in his 40s, the Walters selections so far have shown a bias against older artists and object makers.
The making of aesthetic choices, which was a major part of Walters' practice, is also old hat to award nominees, who prefer to describe a process and let it run.
As to the question of what contemporary art is, the answer seems to be, "It's what contemporary artists do."
There seems to be an assumption in some quarters that Simon Denny is being set up to win, as his work All You Need is Data is the only one that can be seen in the gallery, and he's the one with the high international profile.
Since the judge, Charles Esche, will make his selection without discussing the works with the curators or the panel, it's not a valid assumption.
Denny, who is based in Germany, approached the organisers of the 2012 Digital Life Design conference for permission to use the presentations to create an artwork. DLD is a sort of European Nethui that looks at advances in technology, and it attracts many of the heavy hitters in the field.
From the evidence Denny presented on 90 stretched inkjet canvases, which are hung in chronological order on steel pipes snaking through the gallery, it's yet more buzzword-laden blather about the internet.
Denny is being called a "post-internet" artist, which kind of begs the question of what he was pre.
What's missing is the giveaways that are a feature of such talkfests. Maybe the gallery could make up for the loss of its entrance fee by renting tables to vendors who could give away pens and stress balls and the chance to win an iPad in exchange for a business card.
Maddie Leach's starting point for If You Find the Good Oil Let Us Know was 70 litres of what she was told was whale oil from a quenching tank at the engineering school at Massey University in Wellington.
Her research showed it to be mere mineral oil, which she decided was best used by swapping it with Holcim in Westport for the equivalent of the amount of cement that could be produced with that much fuel.
The cement was then cast into the sea offshore from Taranaki, where Leach had a residency.
Nothing about the work produced an exhibition. There were letters to the editor of the Taranaki Daily News by Leach and her guest contributors, which generated responses from the public. These were collected in a book published by the Govett Brewster Gallery, along with correspondence about her research.
For the Walters Prize reworking, a photo of the sea closing over the lump of concrete was run in the Daily News as a paid double-page ad. Some of the material is also available on a project website, so those who are interested have potentially a fair amount to mull over.
For his work Mo'ui tukuhausia, Tongan-born artist Kalisolaite 'Uhila is also choosing to sit outside the gallery, in his case literally. For the three months the exhibition is on he is joining the growing number of rough sleepers living around Albert Park and the central city. 'Uhila first did the work at Te Tuhi in Pakuranga. That was for two weeks.
New York-based Tehching Hsieh did a similar work in 1981, living outside for a year. Unlike Hsieh, 'Uhila won't self-document his performance, but his association with a public institution means a level of attention other rough sleepers are denied, including monitoring by the gallery's security guards and direct involvement with the Auckland City Mission and police.
Worth noting is that the Walters Prize was opened by Mayor Len Brown, whose council passed a bylaw that includes a ban on "nuisance" begging. 'Uhila would have breached the bylaw when he pitched a tent alongside the gallery to shelter from the winter chill.
Luke Willis Thompson's piece inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam takes gallery visitors by taxi to a suburban house which purportedly is the artist's home.
I say purportedly because the work begs a lot of questions, or even whether we are allowed to ask such questions.
It's a very authoritarian work. Those fortunate enough to be in the gallery when the one taxi is available are taken on a prescribed route, let in by a gallery assistant who is instructed not to answer questions, left to wander through those rooms that are left open, and taken back to the gallery.
It's a villa that shows the marks of long occupation and little maintenance. It doesn't look as if it has been altered for the show, apart from bedroom doors being closed.
If this is biography, and I assume it is, given the envelope from IRD addressed to the artist sitting on a dresser in the hall, it begs some questions about the artist. The walls are bare apart from family photos, a crucifix, a print of an angel and a couple of landscapes that look like they have been there since someone's grandmother was in residence.
The bookcases contain nothing unusual. The only thing that hints at any aesthetic choice is the arrangement of magnetic words on the fridge door.
If that is where the artist grew up or still lives, that shaped his identity, as Esche suggests art does in his catalogue essay, what is here that made Thompson want to be an artist, or better yet, what is it about contemporary art in the early 21st century that makes him think this is what he wants to spend his life doing?
Good luck, Charles Esche, in making your selection.
An online possie for Adam Gifford, a New Zealand journalist specialising in information technology, Maori news and the arts.

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