Sunday, May 24

get strang-ed along!

Be prepared, click heeere.


beijing musings

Colin rolled his shirt sleeve up to reveal a barb-wired swastika with “Sons of Badness” tattooed into his skin. He grinned as he studied his arm. He didn’t know what that tattoo’s World War Two implications were, but, for Colin, this swastika was an appropriated symbol from the West (despite its Eastern origins), so it had to be cool. As he began to show us his other tattoos, two toxic green cocktails were placed on the table in front of us. The waiter winked at us, then handed a beer to Colin. Colin fanned out a wad of 100 yuan notes on the table then handed one to the waiter. He lit another cigarette and continued to describe important lessons of love he had learned through How I Met Your Mother. 
Colin suddenly stopped talking and pulled out his cellphone to show us photos of his pet turtle at every angle (here’s one of its leg, here’s its mouth, here it is front on). The turtle’s eyes bulged, illuminated by the phone’s flash. We nodded along, half lost on his broken English. The only time he stopped talking was when he went to the toilet. My friend and I looked at each other, wondering why we were doing this again. We devised a plan to politely thank him for the drinks (untouched after an initial and reluctant sip) and leave. I never saw Colin again, but for months after he sent me messages on WeChat asking me what I was up to and whether I liked Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse”. I didn’t have the heart to either reply to him or delete him. 
Bizarre — the whole thing was. Every day in China’s capital, I experienced things that induced breathless, bewildered laughter in me, or deeply confused silence. My reactions or experiences weren’t particularly unique when compared to those of other foreigners living in Beijing (white-girl/boy-in-China blogs have become a cliché), but — as another exchange student observed over a goodbye meal — those who have lived in China become part of an unspoken cult. They are bonded by their experiences of the unexplained and the bizarre. Within this cult is a further divide: the people who become addicted to life in China and the people who never want to return.
The acceptance of contradictions in daily life by Beijingers is both admirable and nearly impossible to comprehend. But to have a life within this giant ball of tightly interwoven complications, it is inevitable that its people embrace or ignore these complications if they want to keep on surviving. China has achieved the world’s firsts over and over (the compass, paper, printing, gunpowder), sometimes hundreds of years before the Western world stumbled across these innovations. And yet fear of Beijing’s tumultuous, not-so-distant past (including the Great Chinese Famine from 1958 to 1961 as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1976 and so on) means open political debate or “alternative” opinions are still subject to censorship. Even while I was there, the 2014 protests in Hong Kong, often referred to as the Umbrella Revolution, meant Instagram was blocked in China with no warning. Beijing’s desire for progress also dramatically changes the cityscape every day. And, in all the spaces in between, there are people — everywhere, doing absolutely everything. This context, paired with exposure to a sprawling population, means there is a statistical certainty of encountering the weird...daily. 
While on exchange in China, I attended Tsinghua University. Along with Peking University, Tsinghua is the top university in China. Its international connections only strengthen its status — Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (strangely enough, considering Facebook is blocked throughout China) and former Wal-mart CEO, H. Lee Scott, are all on the advisory board of Tsinghua’s School of Economics and Management. In practically all respects (apart from the technicality of being a foreigner), I did not deserve to be there. Tsinghua and Peking together take approximately 84 students out of every 10,000 in Beijing who sit the gao kao (basically an incredibly stressful university entrance exam) each year. In places where there is a (controversially) smaller quota, only about three out of every 10,000 are accepted each year. Wrapping my head around these figures and the impossible study students had committed to their entire lives to attend Tsinghua lurched me into a pre-quarter-life existential crisis. Were all my achievements mere ploys? Had I ever tried hard at anything?
Dispersed among Tsinghua’s students — who were already god-like in my eyes — were those that even the Chinese students deemed mythical. Hopelessly inadequate, I almost didn’t want to know. But conversations over hot-pot dinners with friends crammed into our dormitory floor’s kitchen often ventured into these topics. There were the sons and daughters of high-ranking government officials who kept their identities hidden and were evasive when it came to making friends. There were the known, frequently discussed gao fu shuai (tall, rich and handsome) boys and the bai fu mei (white, rich and beautiful) girls. And there were the celebrities, including the “Milk Tea Girl” — a girl who became famous in China for her “purity” and “sweetness” after a photo of her as a school girl drinking milk tea was put online. On a campus where most undergraduates and postgraduates lived, often in cramped living quarters by New Zealand standards, there was a sense of community and, along with that, a culture of constant story telling. 
But, despite Tsinghua’s prestige as an institution filled with impressive individuals, it was not without its oddities. Several nights when returning late to Tsinghua’s campus, I biked past an eclectic pack of stray or abandoned dogs roaming the street. They were determined and in pack formation, so they ignored me and continued on down the road. Another time, around midnight, I had forgotten where I had left my bike. I was briskly undertaking the thirty minute walk from the North East Gate to my dormitory. Again, campus was deserted, but as I turned a corner, out of nowhere, a group of students erratically skated by. They seemed to have been teaching themselves to rollerblade on a long, barely lit road that intersected several large lecture buildings. On a different day, I went to collect my bike and became distracted when a large nut hit me squarely on the head. I looked up. Perched high up in the trees that lined the bike stands were the tiny old ladies who cleaned our dormitory. The strange encounters on campus reached a sickly turn when one morning, as students from my building headed down the small driveway to the intersecting campus street, each swerved to avoid a large puddle of blood, yet to be cleaned up. I momentarily observed the sad, solitary tissue drowned in the middle. 
I knew there would be no explanation, no notice of what had happened, no email out to all the students. By then, China had started to affect the way I thought about and interacted with life. I was one in an expanding city of about 21.5 million people. Actually I wasn’t “one”; I was no one. Apart from being the subject of constant stares as a foreigner, I was still nobody among a huge, constantly moving crowd. Not only did that mean making fast decisions and constantly moving forward, it also meant that when I was out and about, I was out for myself. Fondling on the subway, or getting off the train at peak times, were the small, troubling interactions that I always worried about. Authority or even a kind stranger to help you were rarities, not givens. It was exhilarating. 
It is a mess of terror and thrill when you sit in the back of a taxi (seatbelts, of course, ripped out) racing and swerving through traffic, anticipating a night roaming from bar to music venue in the fast-disappearing hu tong (traditional, alleyway neighbourhoods) of Beijing. The taxi would pierce through the heavy veil of air pollution that, on several days while I lived there, was 25 times what the World Health Organisation gauges as an amount that compromises health. The taxi would sharply change lanes to avoid a bus, and the driver would laugh at our reactions and decide that was the time to strike up a conversation. The lights of the huge Bird’s Nest (built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008) would glow then disappear. These lights would soon be replaced by the illuminated swirl that tops the luxury Pangu Plaza hotel. Every space was filled with endless blocks of buildings adorned with red Chinese characters. 
One of my good friends in China was an Australian punk who became increasingly connected to the underground punk scene while we were there. This was partly because of his own relentless passion and partly because his Chinese girlfriend was an underground music veteran. His girlfriend, who had the chemical structure for acid tattooed into her arm and partied daily, insisted that we attend the Beijing Drunk Fest — an all-day punk festival in a tiny, DIY venue called DMC, four subway changes away from campus. After several hours inside DMC, drinking cheap Tsingtao beer and avoiding the flailing limbs of young moshers, I went outside to take a breather. Punk kids filled the seats around the table and my friends and I began to talk with them about their lives in Beijing. They were angry, they were talented and they fantasised about finding freedom outside China. The word “freedom” dripped from their lips; it sounded divine — I also wondered what it tasted like. For a few long minutes, we lingered in the fantasy of the worlds each other represented.
My article first appeared in Critic.

Wednesday, May 20

private utopia at the dunedin public art gallery

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

fragments of film

Half the roll failed and a quarter was filled with light bleed. I was left with just a handful of photos. Oh, the mystery of film.


Sunday, May 10

picture / poem

Joanna Margaret Paul, Untitled [self-portrait], ink drawing, 299 x 229mm, acc.: L278. Image from here.
Cilla McQueen, Self Portrait, 1991, ink drawing, acc 92/1462, pen & ink on paper, 298 x 210mm. Image from here.
Picture/Poem: The Imagery of Joanna Margaret Paul & Cilla McQueenHocken Library | 18 April – 25 July
Picture/Poem: The Imagery of Joanna Margaret Paul & Cilla McQueen is an exhibition centred on friendship. In its intimacy, its cleverness, and its written and visual imagery of Dunedin, the experience of the show is moving.
Although both artists traverse disciplines — the exhibition undoubtedly emphasises this — Cilla McQueen is known for her poetry and the late Joanna Margaret Paul for her painting (and photography).
With ink self-portraits, bits and pieces of written and art works about Dunedin and details of their lives inside their homes and studios, walking through the exhibition is almost like scrolling through a shared blog made by two friends who have an inexplicable creative connection. It’s an invitation into their shared world.
At one end of the gallery is a set of music stands with printed words flowing and echoing across the pages of the books that rest open on them. McQueen’s voice reading her poetry rides along an eclectic mesh of music and sounds. On the opposite side of the gallery is a series of Paul’s watercolours, which feature jars, flowers in vases, and table tops, lines of poetry written onto their surfaces. In the middle of the space, the two personalities seamlessly interweave.
Examining their works — the imagery, their love for words, the spaces in between — and their backgrounds, it’s difficult not to imagine the two being part of an understated-cool scene when they met in Dunedin in the 1970s. The two had their regular jaunts: the Globe Theatre, Dawsons Gallery (run by Maureen Hitchings who married Hocken Librarian Michael Hitchings — a painting of the couple is in the show) — and Red Metro. They both had artist husbands: Paul was married to Jeffrey Harris and McQueen to Ralph Hotere. In New Zealand’s cultural history, here had been a small community of great artists.
While Hotere and Harris may be more recognisable names, neither McQueen nor Paul was subservient or naive to male privilege or the firm establishment of the patriarchy within art institutions and communities. By consciously making work that reflected their personal experiences, the two were part of the prevailing feminist movement.
In the paintings and poetry of Dunedin’s locations, like Carey’s Bay, Port Chalmers and Aramoana, the show also generates either a nostalgia or fondness for Dunedin — for sun-glossed winter days spent walking the hills that enclose the harbour, for looking out across the water on a warm evening, or even for encounters with the handful of quirky, sometimes dark, creative communities nestled throughout the city that seem somehow different to creative communities elsewhere. “I like the darkness / inside our Dunedin houses / even in summer, the doors / that open into the hall, the / front door that opens into the sun”, McQueen writes in a poem titled “Joanna”, evoking the charming side of some of those old, damp homes we have all flatted in at some point.
Picture/Poem is an insight into a wonderfully articulated conversation between two artists. Although it contains works by two distinct personalities, the way the exhibition flows together shows how the two friends undoubtedly influenced and supported one another. Not often can an exhibition transform into an experience that is at the same time clever, engaging and filled with a sense of love and care.

Tuesday, May 5

it started with a neigh

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 (, 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

laurence aberhart at brett mcdowell 2015

Aberhart photo from Brett McDowell's website
For those familiar with Laurence Aberhart’s work, the current show on at Brett McDowell on Dowling Street doesn’t feel “new” — in multiple senses of the word. And it’s not just because Aberhart refuses the digital through his use of a large-format camera. Planted among some familiar works of Aberhart’s from the 1980s are more recent works of his from 2013. Like the dates of the works, the intersection and collision of themes, especially between the new and old works, at first feels mismatched. However, after taking time to consider each photo and then the exhibition together, an emotional connection to some sort of national identity and collective memory begins to gradually fill the viewer in the quiet space of the gallery. It takes time to grasp the passing of time.

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.