Sunday, May 24
Wednesday, May 20
In symbolic flashes of red, white and blue, Private Utopia spreads across the first floor of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, providing an extensive, in parts overwhelming, display of British contemporary art. Given its scale and diversity of subjects and form, wandering through the show involves encounters with conflicting themes — sometimes so contrasting that certain works seem to be linked only by their presence in the British Council Collection.
As accompanying text explains, five threads run through the displayed artists’ practices: “storytelling and narrative, humour and the uncanny in the everyday, real and imagined landscapes, identity and society, and the appropriation of styles, subjects and ready-made materials”. These threads tie together to create a “highly anticipated 20-year snapshot of contemporary British art”. The Dunedin Public Art Gallery is the only Australasian institution to exhibit Private Utopia, which makes the show that much more significant. While it is a lot to take in, by taking small steps and focusing on segments of the show (as the wall texts suggest you do), the experience becomes far more engaging.
Among the 80-plus artworks by 28 British artists is an enticing slither of works titled Myself/Yourself. The works in this segment of the show are by Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume (shown in another part of the gallery) and Haroon Mirza. Linked by questions of identity, these works explore the artists’ interpretation of the self. The qualities that make up identity are sometimes exaggerated or deliberately simplified (particularly in Hume’s works) and do not necessarily reflect the artists’ true selves but rather ideas of who and what they represent.
Hume’s works feature simplified forms, predominantly human figures, sometimes constructed with just two or three colours. Mirza’s combined sculptural, sound and video work features a string of red lights overfilling an open box, a figurine swirling on a turntable and a television depicting a man expertly and musically using his knives at a street-food stand. But it is the works of Lucas and Emin that, for me, are particularly striking by themselves and in their interaction with each other.
Sarah Lucas was born in London in 1962, and Tracy Emin was born one year later, also in London. The artists are connected not only by location but also by their friendship and explorations of the body as a central subject in much of their art. In 1993 they even made and sold work from a shop on Bethnal Green Road in East London together. Their connectedness and the power of their works when displayed together remind me too of the Hocken’s current show featuring works by Cilla McQueen and Joanna Margaret Paul.
Lucas’ work in this exhibition includes a selection of photos of her, often confrontational and twistedly humorous in her posing (facing the camera directly, legs spread, fried eggs covering her breasts) and a stuffed, sculpted nylon stocking, which is part of a larger collection of works called NUDS. Mere steps away from these works is a wonderful blanket work by Emin with bold, black stitching that resembles a sketch of the artist’s naked body. Her legs are splayed and a pile of coins pools between her legs. Neighbouring this work is a book made by Emin depicting images from the first thirteen years of her life. From the confrontational nature of splayed legs to the traces of the autobiographical or personal, Emin’s and Lucas’ work is evocative and relevant.
Tuesday, May 12
Sunday, May 10
Tuesday, May 5
Although it didn’t begin with a neigh, a horse certainly drew a global audience’s attention to the use of the internet as a medium for art. The Twitter account, @Horse_ebooks, which published seemingly automatic, computer-generated anecdotes like “Everything happens so much” and “Is the dance floor calling? No” attracted nearly 200,000 followers, who were charmed by the odd, nonsensical Tweets. Dedicated fans, however, were devastated when they found out that what they thought was a hilarious and silly bot Twitter account was actually run by a Buzzfeed employee, Jacob Bakkila, and his friend, Thomas Bender. But, as several commentaries on the *scandal* testify, the artistic endeavour of the humans behind @Horse_ebooks shows the wonder and obsession that perceived machine-related randomness can generate in humans throughout the world.
Linked to projects like @Horse_ebooks in their use of the internet to display and facilitate artistic endeavours, online exhibition spaces are becoming more prevalent. One such online gallery, @rt b@by (www.artbabygallery.com), was listed in the Dunedin Art Society newsletter as something to check out. Managed by Grace Miceli, @rt b@by “aims to be an inclusive site that celebrates multimedia artists in the beginning of their career[s.]” The site is particularly interested in artists (also known as Young Internet-Based Artists) who consider digitality to be central to their practices.
When I recently viewed the website, which displays artists’ work on a monthly cycle, it was showing a smart and relatable collection of work by a young New York artist called Jordan Barse. On @rt b@by’s main page, the viewer can examine Barse’s works simply by scrolling left. The first image on the page is of a mural or achievements board at school featuring photos of boys, parties and surveys. The following image is a portrait of an adolescent (or just past it) boy with ruffled hair and half-lidded eyes, perhaps the partner to a drunken hookup with the artist.
After these first two images are two close-up images of the single-page surveys depicted in a much smaller format in the first image. The surveys are headlined *PLEASE BE AS HONEST AND SERIOUS AS YOU CAN POSSIBLY BE* and contain cringe-worthy questions about the time the artist and the survey-filler hooked up, who came on to whom and their current relationship status. On Barse’s own website, which documents a collection of her art projects (and from which a range of pieces has been pulled for @rt b@by), she describes this part of the show as selections from a three-year “ethnographic exploration of a college experience” shaped by Barse’s direct participation in its notorious “hookup culture”.
Viewing art in this way is unsettling at first. It is hard not to treat it like scrolling through an infinite series of unconnected images on a Tumblr dashboard or Instagram feed. The 24/7 access to the show (so long as you have a computer and an internet connection) seems to detract from its significance. The work is removed from the potential social and contextual space of a physical gallery and shifted into the restricted rectangular space of your computer screen. Competing with the infinity of the internet, which is available all at once to the casual browser, means that the artist must push themselves to make work interesting in this flat, 2D medium. And anything “published” or “displayed” online in one setting runs every risk of being taken, altered and distributed everywhere and scrapped of any link to its original artist or purpose.
But, viewed in a different light, these qualities can make the medium exciting and fantastically relevant to our times. While challenging as a practice, the reframing and relevance of art online expands the possibilities for art. Click a link and learn to rethink.
My article was first published in Critic here.
Monday, April 27
|Aberhart photo from Brett McDowell's website|
Initially drawn to the exhibition because of the constant reminders around town of another ANZAC Day approaching (now passed), and with Aberhart’s photos of war memorials throughout New Zealand in mind, I sought out the exhibition for how it might remind me of war. However, only a few photos out of the ten on display directly feature memorials. One photo that did so was of a gravestone in a cemetery that depicted an angel looking at the ground, with one hand against her face and the other holding a wreath by her side. She leans, or gently braces herself, against a gravestone that reads: “In loving memory of William, beloved son of Hugh Mackenzie, of Walter Peak Station, who lost his life in a snow slip in sight of his home … 1906, aged 21 years and 3 months.” Below this message is another, which dedicates the memorial to Lieutenant Walter Mackenzie who was killed in action on Gallipoli, 9 August 1915.
Here stands evidence of two members of one family gone in just nine years of each other; deaths that precede the following three years of mass loss for New Zealand, during which over 18,000 men were killed in Gallipoli — a staggering number that meant almost every New Zealander had someone close to them killed or wounded.
The loss captured in Aberhart’s photos of memorials is echoed in a more general sense throughout the varied subjects depicted in the show. There are no people in these photos, only the objects, houses, moments they have left behind, however recently. One photo depicts a hedge with “I love Lois” sculpted onto its surface in the small Otago settlement called Warrington. Another, now famous, photo captures the solitary remaining standing part of an old bridge surrounded by water — the solid grey of cement — in Alexandra. A particularly ominous photo portrays a rock face with the words “after death” and “judgment” painted onto its surface; in the background from one edge of the photo to the other looms a snow-topped mountain range.
Aberhart has been taking photos for over forty years, with a body of work that contributes to how we view ourselves and our country; in this sense, his photos have a timeless value. While Aberhart’s images collect parts of New Zealand’s past, they also resound with different types of grief, including the grief that occurs through the act of remembering and then acknowledging how all things, including you yourself, disappear.
Aberhart describes himself as an “eclectic collector of cultural debris, as it washes up, and before it disappears.” In these photos, that often spoken call to remembrance, “lest we forget”, suddenly feels true of not just a war but of even small parts of our collective past: lest we forget love once felt, lest we forget the bones of a structure that once carried us across the river.
My article first appeared here.