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
The panel that chose the finalists has instead come up with projects that lean heavily on process and performance.
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.
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
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.
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".
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.
the judge, Charles Esche, will make his selection without discussing
the works with the curators or the panel, it's not a valid assumption.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
bookcases contain nothing unusual. The only thing that hints at any
aesthetic choice is the arrangement of magnetic words on the fridge
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.