Friday, November 28, 2008


Richard Serra, The matter of time, an installation of 8 sculptures, completed 2005, weatherproof steel, at the Arcelor Gallery, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.

Think of steel as a medium for making art, and perhaps more than any other artist, sculptor Richard Serra immediately comes to mind: over the last three decades his work has explored the physical properties of the metal, in epic-scaled sculptures which dramatically alter your perceptions of the internal and external spaces they're installed in. (Serra had steel in the blood: his father worked in a shipyard, and the artist supported himself by working in a steel mill while he studied at Yale.) His massive sculptures seem both beautiful and physically intimidating, as if by comparison to the sheer heft and torque of the steel walls that soar above the spectator you're unavoidably confronted by your own relative puniness and fragility. (It's much like the experience, actually, of standing on a dock next to a gigantic ship.)

As New Zealand art historian Anthony Byrt writes in the latest ArtForum, reviewing a show of Serra's at Gagosian Gallery in New York City:
"The thrill induced by Richard Serra’s sculptures doesn’t come from the sense that they might crash down at any moment. As this exhibition proves, it occurs due to the delicate manner in which they stay up, and the subtle way Serra manages to bend our experience around them."
One of the best art films I've ever seen, Alberta Chu’s 2003 documentary Seeing the Landscape documents the five-year long installation process of Serra's monumental Te Tuhirangi Contour, commissioned for New Zealand businessman Alan Gibbs's farm out of Helensville, and one of Serra's largest works. There are many seemingly dangerous moments in the film, provided not only by the enormous sheets of steel used to make the work (875 feet by 20 feet of 650-ton steel) but by the evolving relationship between the equally strong-minded collector and artist.

In a recent interview with the Art Newspaper's Louisa Buck, Serra -- who expresses surprise that an audience has developed for his work -- discusses his feeling for his chosen medium in a statement which is bound to be much-quoted:

"When I first started working in New York I was working with molten lead and I was working with rubber and I didn’t want to go to steel, not because I didn’t know enough about it, but because it really had been the traditional material of the 20th century in terms of sculpture. But for the most part no-one was using steel in the way that I understood it. It had not been used for its weight, its counterbalance, not for its cantilever nor its stasis or gravitational load. It had not been used in the way that it had been used in the industrial revolution in terms of building processes and procedures.

"Instead what they had done was to cut and fold it and use it as kind of three dimensional surrogate for painting. It was hung out in space and painted to have a 3-D planar look so its basic fundamental balance was untrue. It was either bolted into the ground or welded up in the air, then held with a staff and painted green, blue, pink or purple or whatever, so that its inherent properties of gravity were being denied in favour of its visual image readout. But although that was very, very successful for years it was also a limitation and it always remained the handmaiden of painting. I think [Ad] Reinhardt said that sculpture was something that you bumped into when you were backing up from looking at a painting."

Not much chance of that with a work by Serra.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Drab but strangely cosmopolitan

George Kohlap, Harry Seresin's Coffee Gallery at Parsons Bookshop, Massey House, Lambton Quay, c. 1957, Alexander Turnbull Library

I came across this description of Wellington in the 1950s the other day, in poet Peter Bland's autobiography Sorry, I'm a Stranger Here Myself. The city changed a lot over the ten years we lived there, but when we arrived in the mid-1990s I fancy there was still the faintest smack of what Bland describes.

"I shared a flat on Mount Victoria with a bunch of English immigrants and a Polish painter who later turned out to have copied everything he did from the work of a minor German expressionist. Wellington in the '50s was a drab but strangely cosmopolitan town, full of post-war European exiles, escaped Nazis (minor Jew hunters and concentration camp officials -- the big boys went to Brazil) and a gaggle of budding poets who aped Dylan Thomas and drank huge flagons of sweet, cheap local sherry that rotted their brains while fuelling both a heady romantic rhetoric and a strange hatred for someone called Sidney Holland. Dark fugged-up coffee bars slowly appearing throughout the city were full of sexual, political and poetic liaisons... It was, I thought at the time, a fairly Bohemian existence but -- looking back -- it was probably closer to Gorky's Lower Depths than it was to the Parisian cafe society we admired from afar."

The "unusually delicious" menu for the French Maid Coffee House, 1940s, where Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters and other progressive New Zealand artists exhibited, and Wellington's artists and writers gathered. Image from the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Gallery evicts nude dwarfs"

Not that I think for a minute that this piece of breathless reportage was really how the story went down (I say curator, you say censor... let's call the whole thing off), but I do take my hat off to the writer of that headline in the ODT. Good work, though they might also have considered some tasteful variation on "dwarf tossing". Nice opening sentence too: "A Dunedin artist is grumpy because she says her nude dwarfs have been banned from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery."

The Herald, on the other hand, has a pretty dopey account of the deep South's art-dwarf controversy with the artist suggesting that it's all down to self-censorship on the Dunedin Public Art Gallery's part because -- ahem -- they're "afraid" of Te Papa, whose touring Rita Angus survey show has just opened there.
"They told me the Rita Angus curator didn't like the dwarfs ... He thought too many little old ladies going to the Rita Angus exhibition would be offended."
All news to Te Papa, of course, and wearily denied by the DPAG who decided to "celebrate the strongest aspects" of the artist's work by leaving the dwarfs out. TVNZ has vision here, if you're up for it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Exile on mainstream

"In New Zealand, especially, contemporary art and those dedicated to creating it, discussing it, writing about it and supporting it are tellingly absent from mainstream media sources. The ‘art star’ phenomenon is a completely alien notion. While a local artist may garner media attention once they have been recognized abroad, it is rarely the reverse."

During a recent interview with The Listener, NZ artist Mladen Bizumic, currently based in Berlin, "suggested that whilst ‘Aotearoa is producing an incredible number of good artists [...] we need to advance [...] a critical discussion around art.’ This comment is not about creating more funding opportunities - New Zealand already has many (the former Prime Minister Helen Clark personally oversaw the arts portfolio). Rather it is a backhand aimed at local print editors, many of whom seem addicted to the Associated Press wire and are largely indifferent towards content focused on contemporary art and culture."

Nicola Harvey, 'Auckland', Frieze, 17 November 2008

"A visit to one of the great museums of modern and contemporary art that exist in every important city might easily convince the observer that art is just plain culture, not a subculture -- that is, something central and dominant in society. After all, so much money and civic pride have been invested in it. But the people who make up the art world often wonder if their culture is really central at all. Undoubtedly they believe that it ought to be, but they are deeply aware that there is something eccentric about their relation to the culture at large, something fragile. ... The publisher of Artforum reluctantly admits that his magazine "is establishment in a funny sense"; likewise, contemporary art is a culture but in a funny sense. The art world doesn't know whether it is a subculture pretending to be a culture or a culture pretending to be a subculture."

Barry Schwabsky, 'Agony and Ecstasy: The Art World Explained', review of Sarah Thornton's new book Seven Days in the Art World, in The Nation, 13 November 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Second-hand culture

Furniture designed by Ernst Plischke, 1933, from Kaiserliches Hofmobiliendepot

When the uncompromising expatriate Austrian architect Ernst Plischke arrived in New Zealand in 1939, he refused to sit the Royal Institute of British Architects examinations which were necessary in order to be registered as an architect in this country. (He got round this by working in partnership with other registered architects, producing some of New Zealand's finest modernist buildings, including the extraordinary Sutch House in Wellington and the glass-curtained Massey House on Lambton Quay, Wellington's first modern skyscraper.)

In his The Nationbuilders, an account of the individuals who shaped the New Zealand nation in the middle years of the last century, Brian Easton recounts a story told by Plischke's stepson, Henry Lang, economist and first chair of the Wellington Sculpture Trust.

Plischke, who had originally worked in his family's joinery business, went to a company of New Zealand furniture makers and offered to design them some modern furniture. The proprietors of the company explained that they had no need of his assistance, showing him the pictures in a European design magazine from which they had taken their ideas. They were Plischke's own design.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ugly buildings

A while ago, an unholy fracas ensued in the letters to the editor page of the Press -- a regular occurrence in the great Southern city, which has a larger volume of correspondence than any other major daily newspaper I've ever read, although not a better-informed one. Only last week the paper decided to stop printing a weekly roundup of the names of those correspondents whose letters weren't deemed fit for publication during the previous seven days, something I must say I always looked forward to with a slightly mean-spirited enjoyment. The number of unsuccessful submissions would appear in brackets after the person's name; notorious letter-writers might have (3) or (4) or even more after their all-too-familiar handles. Apparently, they had bombarded the editor with still more communications requesting that if their letters were not to be published, the correspondents be written to privately, in person, to tell them so, rather than being outed publicly in the paper as they had been for decades. Boo. It's letting them off much too lightly.

The particular literary venting of spleen I'm concerned with involved the building of yet another big box retail warehouse, out at the end of the estuary as you approach the Ferrymead bridge on your way to Sumner. Seemingly overnight, Mitre 10 banged up one of their concrete-sided Mega boxes, as they were entitled to do under a City Plan which allows a mixture of industrial and retail development to burgeon freely amid the habitats of native estuarine birdlife.

And adding insult to injury, they painted the gigantic concrete bunker luminous orange; up until this point, there had been nothing in the council's building regulations to stop them. Needless to say, the community swiftly became apoplectic with rage; the hundred-metre long "orange smear" under the hills that appear in various paintings by Doris Lusk loomed large in the letters to the editor page for some weeks alongside fighting talk of consumer boycotts, until the company finally backed down and toned down the corporate livery. (Proving, perhaps, that newspapers still have their uses as an effective means to concentrate community pressure.)

While the orange Ferrymead Mega-lith didn't appear on the list of "The World's Top 10 Ugliest Buildings and Monuments" reported by Reuters on Friday (I guess they were looking for really distinctive ugliness, such as Liverpool's Metropolitan Cathedral pictured below), I was interested to read of the Washington Post's project to reimagine the big box. Assembling a team of artists, architects, engineers and developers to "think creatively about what to do with spaces once occupied by big box stores -- our most common, underrated and increasingly available major buildings", the ideas included vineyards grown inside under solar voltaics or actually planted on the roof, a hydroponic drive-thru truck farm market, and an artists' colony with flexible studio, living and performance spaces defined by shipping containers. With a bit of imagination, it was suggested, with its massive footprint, vast roof span and ceiling height, the failed retail big box might even become the cathedral or museum of the future.

Or maybe you could just knock them down and start again.

West elevation of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, designed by Giles Frederick Gibberd. Photograph by Andrew Dunn. One of the world's ugliest buildings...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Well done

"Anything done well is art."

Damien Hirst, from an interview about his new clothing range. Via Art News Blog.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Paranoiac-critical method

Pareidolia is the tendency to interpret a coincidental visual stimulus as something already known to the viewer, and is related to the "paranoiac-critical method" beloved by Salvador Dali, in which the identities of objects are unstable and mutable, and an image of one object gives an affordance of another.

The word comes from "para", or "wrong", and "eidolon" or "ghostly vision". Many examples of pareidolia involve images of powerful entities popping up where one least expects to see them: there's the man coming out from behind a cliff on Mars, seemingly unconcerned that the Hubble telescope has snapped his picture; Darth Vader appearing bold as brass in a nebula photograph taken by NASA; Mother Theresa as a cinnamon bun and the face of the Virgin Mary in a miraculously mould-free cheese sandwich; not forgetting of course my own recent encounter with a world-famous musician.

What is it about corn fritters and their mystical powers? Here's a test-piece of fritter the big guy made the other night which formed itself into a distinct yin yang symbol. Our household has been in a state of perfect equilibrium ever since.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Christmas list

Yes please.

Richard Prince, Nurse Hat Chair , limited edition

No thank you.

Damien Hirst, X Levi’s X Warhol Factory Collection, a series of limited edition jeans, t-shirts and denim jackets.

Both via Art Observed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I spent most summer holidays as a child at my grandparents' house near the Essex seaside. Although it had passed out of their possession by then, my grandmother's family had once owned the lease of one of the beach huts that flank the east coast of England, coming down from London on the train to spend their holidays sitting out the front of a tiny, uninsulated shed, smoking and knitting and gossiping and watching the grey breakers roll in to the beach front below. You can't sleep in the huts; they don't have toilets or electricity or running water; they're places for boiling up cups of tea and storing buckets and spades and sheltering during the day from the ravages of the British summer. Or at least, the British summer as it used to be; during my childhood I vividly remember one sweltering day when the temperature climbed doggedly to 25 degrees, but when the big guy was in London a couple of years ago it was regularly 36 degrees and people were frolicking in public fountains.

One summer during my childhood there was an enormous storm along the east coast, and dozens of the brightly coloured beach huts along the Clacton-Frinton-Walton-on-the-Naze strip were overturned and swept out to sea. For weeks afterwards the contents of the huts were washed up each day by the tide. On our morning walks along the beach we would see knives and forks, unbroken china plates, picture frames, chair legs, scraps of curtains, shrimping nets and door knobs lying in drifts on the sand, while flowered cushions bobbed on the outgoing tide. Men sweeping metal detectors in great fluid arcs were the unspoken lords of the beach: kids and idle walkers got hastily out of their purposeful way. I was fascinated by what the sea took, and what it gave back, and what might still be out there, caught in underwater currents. I was desperate to claim some of its treasures. My grandmother, however, forbade us to bring any of the booty home. "It belongs to someone else," she said severely.

In recent years, beach huts have become ridiculously fashionable and regularly command the kind of exorbitant prices which would have made my grandmother's family require a stiff cup of tea and a lie-down. Keith Richards owns one, as does PD James; the royal family have hung on to theirs at Holkingham Beach for more than 70 years. Yet for all their cultural resonance in Britain, the only artwork I know of concerned with beach huts is Tracey Emin's The Last Thing I Said to You was Don't Leave Me Here (2000), which consists of the tumble-down blue hut at Whitstable in Kent she bought with her friend the artist Sarah Lucas. It was originally exhibited in its entirety alongside two enigmatic photographs of Emin naked inside the hut, in which she seems to be dealing with some restless memory.

Tracey Emin, The Last Thing I Said to You was Don't Leave Me Here II, 2000, Tate Gallery

(The hut was subsequently bought by Charles Saatchi for $75 000, and along with Emin's infamous tent on which she appliqued the names of everyone she'd ever slept with, was destroyed in the massive warehouse fire in which many of the key artworks of the YBA generation were lost.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Very dim and brown

Christopher Perkins, Wellington Harbour, undated (c.1929-1934), oil on canvas, 406 x 508mm, Collection of the Auckland Art Gallery, gift of the artist, 1967

Surrounded by "very dim and brown" oil paintings and their makers at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington in the early 1930s, British painter Christopher Perkins unpopularly remarked that he seemed to be expected to be "some kind of missionary for modern art".

Perkins, who somewhat romantically saw himself as "a kind of respectable Gauguin" on his journey to the south seas, had accepted a job in 1929 teaching life drawing and painting at Wellington Technical College under a governmental programme which brought in working artists from overseas to lecture in the fine arts. The La Trobe scheme attempted "to counteract the effects of isolation and indifference to the arts that prevailed in New Zealand at that time," wrote Perkins's daughter, Jane Garrett, reflecting on her family's five-year sojourn in New Zealand.

"All New Zealand historians of the period agree that the 1920s were a time of almost complete stagnation as far as the visual arts were concerned," continued Garrett.
"There were several good reasons for this state of affairs, of which perhaps the most important was the remoteness and isolation of the country from the art centres of the world. Another was the scarcity of talented young artists, most of whom had left to study abroad before World War I, or had been swept into the armed forces. Most of those who survived had preferred to remain and practice their art in Europe rather than return to starve in a cultural wilderness. The few painters who did stay at home tended to produce insignificant or derivative work, interpreting the New Zealand landscape in terms of a Scottish loch or Cornish beach."

"As to the general public, it was as indifferent to art as it was ignorant of it, an attitude shared by the authorities of the day, who showed little interest in anything that did not directly affect the production of sheep, butter, and apples."

Re-reading Jane Garrett's sometimes very funny account of the Perkins family's experiences in New Zealand, I've been struck, not for the first time, by the sheer intensity of the claims of hardship faced by early and mid-20th century artists in this country. Not that I disbelieve Garrett's description of New Zealand society's general indifference to the visual arts in the 1930s; I'm sure it was exactly as she says. Neither do I discount Gordon Walters's much-quoted accounts of the particular difficulties faced by the abstract painter in the 1950s and 60s, nor dispute the justifiable bitterness McCahon felt on being confronted by ridiculous barrages of hostile criticism from the late 1940s onwards.

What I've been wondering about is whether the difficulties faced by modernist artists in New Zealand were much worse (more harsh, more indifferent, generally less professionally congenial) than those faced by progressive artists working in other western countries at the same time, or even in Britain itself. The extreme difficulty of being an artist in this country is a constant theme in New Zealand histories and memoirs of the period, yet I've found nothing to test it against.

Was the problem primarily one of lack of patronage -- that until comparatively recently there were no major private collectors of progressive art, nor any state support for it? (Garrett notes that the only state-subsidised artist in Wellington in the early 1930s was the City Organist, "whose chief official business was to play See the Conquering Hero Comes whenever the All Blacks returned to Wellington.") Or was it simply a matter of scale? Perhaps with a population of just over a million, spread over an area as large as the British Isles, there just wasn't the critical mass of people around to enable the development of a self-sustaining intellectual coterie, like the Bloomsbury crowd or the Seven and Five Abstract Group, for example.

I'm thinking aloud; I'm not sure of the answer; but I'd like to be able to work out whether the hardship experienced by artists between say about 1920 and 1970 (which has defined the way much of our art history has been written) was a specifically New Zealand problem, or -- as I suspect -- a wider one.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Summing up

"I'm just a garbage man, but one with class."

-- Robert Rauschenberg (quoted by artist and fellow collaborator Don Saff at the Museum of Modern Art's recent Rauschenberg tribute evening).

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Death of a princess

What seems like a lifetime ago, I spent a couple of gloomy years in the provinces, learning my trade. I thought I would save a lot of money, and possibly also finish a half-written novel, as there were very few distractions where I lived: but I discovered that, as my predecessors had, I spent both my wages and my weekends driving to more interesting places, desparate to be distracted after another week spent in dun-coloured sweaty suburbia.

During what I now refer to as my period of missionary service in the heartland, I spent those long turgid weekends when I was stuck in town listening to music, making compilation tapes for the long drives north and west. On wet Saturday afternoons I wrote playlists and made picture covers for my cassettes. (When I saw High Fidelity some years later, it played like a documentary.) Because there wasn't a decent European mechanic where I lived, when the thermostat in my car blew I drove for some time with the heater stuck on high, which necessitated the driver's window being down and the music turned up loud. It was at this time I discovered Yma Sumac.

Once heard, never forgotten: "She warbles like a bird in the uppermost regions, hoots like an owl in the lowest registers, produces bell-like coloratura passages one minute, and exotic, dusky contralto tones the next," a Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote following a 1955 performance. The self-styled Voice of the Xtabay (or "female ensnarer"), Yma Sumac had a vocal range spanning four or five octaves and looked like an Incan princess (she claimed to be descended from the Peruvian imperial line, and may well have been).

Her brand of supercharged technicolour tribalism (described by the Tampa Tribune as "South American travelogue scripted by Disney, directed by Dali") was enormously popular in America in the early 50s, her records outselling even Bing Crosby. Self-taught, Sumac claimed to be influenced in her vocal style by the jungle birds and animals of her native Peru; when she played Carnegie Hall, she was flanked by two erupting stage volcanoes. Somewhat prone to exaggeration, Sumac claimed that when she left Peru, 30 000 people rioted in Lima. Her son suggested ruefully that there was just one -- his mother -- but it may well have seemed like 30 000. (Strangely, a rumour that she was really a housewife from Brooklyn named Amy Camus -- her name spelt backwards -- persisted in clinging to her, though it was vehemently denied by both the singer and the Peruvian government.)

Yma Sumac, who died aged 86 on Saturday at an assisted-living home in her adopted LA, provided a soaring note of tribal exotica to the soundtrack which backed my desparately provincial life in those years. Mondo suburbia ... Glenview mambo ... la la la! (Needless to say, I never did finish that novel.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The thin blue line

Saturday's post about art history and its discontents pointed to Charles M Rosenberg's handy list of alternative careers for art historians. Now there's another option: Scotland Yard has been recruiting part-time volunteer constables to its art and antiquities division. The catch is that you already need an art-history related job.

So far 13 special art constables (who receive a month's basic police training, wear a police uniform, and have the power to make arrests) have been recruited to the ArtBeat scheme, recovering stolen art and working on fraud and forgery cases. The special constables work two days a month on police art business, while their salaries continue to be paid by their employers, the major British museums and galleries who effectively sponsor the scheme. Zoe Jackman, whose regular job is booking school groups at the V&A, tracked down and arrested an art thief only a month after starting her job.

Given that some sources suggest that art-related crime represents the third highest-grossing organised criminal trade over the past 40 years, maybe it's something for New Zealand to look into? Though on reflection, a liberal application of turps might be the most effective solution for many of the art crimes perpetrated here ...

Monday, November 3, 2008

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Fame, please. And more cash.

It's official. Art historians are a disaffected bunch, much put-upon, ignored by colleagues from other disciplines, working for peanuts without the respect they deserve, battling both rampant anti-intellectualism and the high cost of international air travel. At least, that's according to the results of a survey by the College Art Association of America (CAA), which recently asked its members to list the most pressing issues they face in their profession.

While the CAA divided their responses into 10 categories, the Art History Newsletter blog suggests they can be boiled down to just two:

  • “I deserve more money and/or fame” (91% of respondents)
  • “We should do better work” (9%).

Disillusioned respondents could do worse than consult Charles M Rosenberg's list of career alternatives for art historians. Regrettably, however, most of his suggestions also require a "high tolerance for economic uncertainty" -- which on the strength of the CAA survey would seem to render art historians temperamentally unsuited.

Oh well. Back to the disaffection it is, then.