Friday, January 30, 2009
The guts might have dropped out of the art market in London and New York, but here in Christchurch New Zealand, things are just fine, thanks.
Photographed this afternoon outside the Centre of Contemporary Art, Gloucester Street.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
When Canterbury Museum's rebuilding project was put on hold in 2006 after being declined resource consent (the plans involved architectural changes made to the A-listed historic building designed by Benjamin Mountfort), its proposal to take over the old Robert McDougall Art Gallery building next door, which had recently fallen vacant due to the building of the new gallery, also foundered. The plan, as I understand it, was to use the beautiful old neo-classical gallery building for temporary and touring exhibitions, and also to exhibit what the museum until quite recently quaintly referred to as its "Picture Collection". (Can't find any reference to that on its website -- but then there's hardly reference to anything much at all. Time for an upgrade, chaps.)
Anyway, in conjunction with the Ellerslie Flower Show in Hagley Park later in the year, the Museum is using the old gallery building to exhibit the complete set of Banks' Florilegium, the engravings made from the botanical specimens collected by botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on James Cook's voyages of exploration, including from the Endeavour's landfalls in New Zealand. Painter Bill Sutton donated funds to the Macmillan Brown Library at the University of Canterbury to purchase the set of prints, one of only 100 in the world: the university has a short article about the collection here. (The festival publicity about the show suggests that it's the first time they've been publicly exhibited in Christchurch, but that's rot: I saw them in the 80s. Won't stop me going along to see them again, though.)
I very rarely make impulse buys from the supermarket, but when I saw these vegetable chips the other day, I had to have them. In a triumph of the copywriter's art, the manufacturers note: "We have drawn inspiration from Sir Joe and his insatiable appetite for adventure to develop our range of incredible taste experiences." Excellent stuff. Perhaps the Museum could snap up a caseload for the gallery shop.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
From the moment he skipped on to the stage, a lithe figure in an immaculately cut dark suit and homburg hat, and launched into Dance me to the End of Love, he had me -- and the other four and a half thousand people waiting breathless in the dark -- in the palm of his hand. The voice -- rich and mellow with a touch of gravel -- was better than any recording by him I've ever heard. At 74, he sounds better than he did twenty-five years ago. Apparently he's touring in order to replace his lost pension fund: since retiring from the live music scene he's been studying Zen Buddhism, and has become an ordained Buddhist monk.
At one point he said: "It's fifteen years since I got up on stage, just a kid of 60 with a crazy dream."
The concert was full of similar deadpan one-liners, delivered with the sort of portentous and seemingly sincere yet ultimately self-deprecating manner I always associate with artist Max Gimblett. (Must be the Jewish/Buddhist cultural mash-up.) For The Tower of Song, Cohen started up the farfisa organ: "Don't be alarmed friends, it plays by itself. It's fairly sophisticated and you may not have seen one before."
He kicked off by apologising for the "handrail crisis" that had placed a visual barrier in the way of the premium seating: "I suggested to the management that they take it off but they thought that due to the nature of my work people would be throwing themselves off." Later on he remarked on the media reports which had described him as being of "diminutive stature", suggesting that at times he was actually invisible to the naked eye and while he'd been in Wellington he'd been offered a job by Te Papa as the "colossal shrimp". Less the godfather of gloom and more the wizard of wisecracks, at every turn the cheerfulness kept breaking through the poet laureate of pessimism's dark and complex act.
I'm quite simply desperate for a live album to come out from the world tour: not till the end of the year, apparently. The musical arrangements of songs I've known by heart for twenty years were extraordinary. The large band backing Leonard Cohen included a virtuosi Spanish guitarist from Barcelona and the Irish Webb sisters on "vocals and acrobatics". I wouldn't have thought that the perfection of songs like So Long, Marianne, or Who by Fire could be improved upon, but it could, and was.
Cohen frequently sang down on one knee on the gloriously kitsch Persian carpets which lined the stage, assuming a position somewhere between Frank Sinatra's "fleet's in!" 1940s hoofing style and Elvis's karate-derived vibrating leg. We were sitting upstairs, down the left-hand side of the auditorium, on about the same level as the band: we dismissed afterwards the idea that he was doing so in order to read the words off a song sheet, thinking instead that kneeling was a way to mitigate the stress of standing for almost the three-hour duration of the concert. (It seemed to take ten minutes to go by, of course.)
Silver-haired though he is, I got the sense that almost every woman there was utterly captivated by his presence. (He's a famous ladies' man who once announced that he “had a great appetite for the company of women.”) Dozens of women of all ages moved down the front for the second half of the concert, blocking the aisles and lining the stage. When during Chelsea Hotel Leonard Cohen sang "You told me again you prefer handsome men/ But for me you'd make an exception", I thought they'd rush the stage.
"The visits of the famous are always connected with our anxieties," writes Damien Wilkins in his When Famous People Come to Town. But when, after making a few jokes about Wellington's wind ("You don't even seem to notice it!"), Leonard Cohen said "You're lucky to live in a place like this", I thought that he's right. It's quiet down here at the end of the world, and sometimes I worry that it's a bit dull, but you can live a good life. But it's a life made much richer by the occasional visits of our cultural heroes.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Or maybe it's Leonard Cohen? Be able to tell you on Thursday.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
The Prisoner, of course, became a British cult classic. McGooghan, its star, was also its co-creator, and given his small-screen pulling power in the 60s, was empowered to produce one of the most genuinely experimental TV shows ever made. Filmed in 1967, it only ran to 17 episodes but like Fawlty Towers and Some Mothers do 'Ave 'Em, it screened many, many times in Britain during the 1970s. Along with reruns of John Wayne films, the musical Oliver, and the 1950s version of Flash Gordon, it always seemed to be on in the school holidays.
By contrast, that camp classic Fantasy Island seemingly ran to a million episodes. Designed, like The Love Boat, by crap TV genius Aaron Spelling as a revolving door for low- and mid-grade guest spots, new jobbing actors were brought in each week. (What's Charo doing now, I wonder?) Playing out their fantasies on the island, nothing ever quite went as expected, and in the process the confused character learnt a little something about life from the enigmatic Mr Roarke. While The Prisoner was genuinely baffling (particularly if one was aged under 10 at the time), Fantasy Island was just a bit odd, but eagerly looked forward to for after-school viewing. The one was art; the other was formula, but they both made a mighty mark on the cultural landscape of my childhood.
For your viewing pleasure, here's Ricardo Montalbán's famous Chrysler ad for US TV: possibly the best car advertisement ever made. "I know my own needs ... I request nothing beyond the thickly-cushioned luxury of seats available in soft Corinthian leather."
Here's the seaplane arriving and the bell tolling for one last time:
And Rover, the killer weather balloon.
Unsuitable for children? You bet. Great stuff.
A quick digression today into the ever-fertile territory of personal peeves. Although generally I retain my irritation for the demolition of historic buildings, bureaucratic decision-making in the visual arts, and over-use of certain punctuation marks, today I am concerned with the strange phenomena of signing oneself off in the contemporary world.
A few years ago I exchanged a 9-5 job (well actually more like an 8-7 job) for a new 24-hour-on-call position. In my former life I broke up fights, wiped noses, encouraged creative expression and tried to instill a culture of good manners behind the scenes: I do much the same in my new role, though the participants are all under four foot high.
Accordingly, the foul jargon of the contemporary business world has moved on without me over the last little while. Sometimes the big guy comes out in conversation with something like "staff engagement", and I have to ask what it means. (In my day the equivalent was FIFO.)
But something I have noticed is the increasing penchant for addressing people without any ceremony whatsoever in correspondence. Blow all the fag of putting "Dear" in front of their name, or signing off with any degree of courtesy; now it just seems to go like this:
[their name]Not a "Yours" or "Regards" or a cheerful "Cheerio" in sight.
At vero eos et accusamus et iusto odio dignissimos ducimus qui blanditiis praesentium voluptatum deleniti atque corrupti quos dolores et quas molestias excepturi sint occaecati cupiditate non provident, similique sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollitia animi, id est laborum et dolorum fuga. Et harum quidem rerum facilis est et expedita distinctio. Nam libero tempore, cum soluta nobis est eligendi optio cumque nihil impedit quo minus id quod maxime placeat facere possimus, omnis voluptas assumenda est, omnis dolor repellendus. Temporibus autem quibusdam et aut officiis debitis aut rerum necessitatibus saepe eveniet ut et voluptates repudiandae sint et molestiae non recusandae. Itaque earum rerum hic tenetur a sapiente delectus, ut aut reiciendis voluptatibus maiores alias consequatur aut perferendis doloribus asperiores repellat. [or whatever's on your mind]
When I first came across this phenomenon, it was in an email from a person whom I would consider quite rude in real life, so I thought it was just a little special something they had devised. But it's increasingly common, and in my limited observation seems to be spreading through the artworld like glandular fever at a leavers' ball. Good friends of mine -- people I know to be completely delightful and unfailingly courteous in person -- are commonly doing it, so perhaps it's just that I'm out of step. I guess you could argue that the truncated courtesies exude a sort of modernist pared-back-ness, a ready-for-action no-nonsense sensibility in correspondence which some might find attractive, but I just don't like it. It looks like the sender thinks they're just too busy and important to bother.
(Which brings me on to a digression within a digression, a digression en abyme, as Francis Pound would have it. Public art galleries are, like all other branches of the public service, frequently inundated with impertinent correspondence commenting freely on all aspects of the gallery's operations, from the selection of works to the state of the foyer toilets. Dealing with this is either a pain in the bottom or a creative pleasure, depending on one's individual nature. An art gallery director of my acquaintance once described to me a reply he had sent with considerable satisfaction. "Dear So and So," it began. "I am seated with your letter of the 15th in front of me. Shortly it will be behind me. Yours sincerely, etc.")
And so on to the final plank in this morning's peevish rant: the ridiculous faux-courtesy of the labels which have appeared recently on tin foil and glad wrap, helpfully telling you the roll's about to run out. Without exception, these labels dispense themselves right in the middle of the piece of foil you are planning to cook with. It is impossible to remove the label without making a hole in the foil, thus rendering it useless for cooking. And the piece that's left on the end of the roll after all this stupidity plays out is always too small for what you need. As Helen Clark would say, it's not helpful at all.
Given the choice, I would prefer that rolls of kitchen paper didn't bother with a sign-off. But it's nice when human correspondents do.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Firstly, there's 'Code Share', an interesting-sounding show opening in a couple of days at the Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania, curated by Govett-Brewster Art Gallery alumnus Simon Rees.
The title of the exhibition is taken from the partnership arrangements made by commercial airlines to share passengers on a single flight in order to maximise profits. As the press release notes, this isn't to everyone's taste:
"Often travellers book a flight upon one airline and arrive at the gate to find that the plane and its staff is wearing the livery of a different partner airline – and serving food and drink associated with another national culture when we were looking forward to a specific set of flavours or the taste of 'home’! This might come as a pleasant surprise for the adventurous traveller but disappoint that flyer wanting to relax to familiar sounds and flavours two hours ahead of touching down. "Rees relates the airlines' practice of code-sharing -- dominated by the major carriers -- to the backroom arrangements which have grown up around biennales, whereby the movements of global art audiences and artists' circuits are sewn up by the big players and where there is a definite worldwide hierarchy of events based on "colonial and capitalist" order.
All this is pretty interesting, but what I particularly like about Rees's concept is his desire to have a bob both ways (he describes it as "double agency"). While the artists in his show have been selected following their appearances in many of the top-end global biennales (the Whitney, Istanbul, Sydney, etc.), their work is concerned with "processes of cultural and socio-political displacement and alienation". Effectively, turning one of the usual biennale platforms on its head, the works are being produced "in denial of [national] representativeness."
No idea what the show will look like (maybe they'll put photos on their website in due course?) -- but I like the nature of the thinking behind it, very much. I was also interested to see that one of the contributing artists (down as coming from Malaysia/Indonesia; kind of ironic they'd include the artists' nationalities in the list of contributors) is Nadiah Bamadhaj, who went to art school at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, and whose work I last saw in a group sculpture show at the old CSA Gallery in the early 90s.
The second item that's caught my eye overnight is news of the death of Coosje van Bruggen, Claes Oldenburg's artistic collaborator and wife. Time's Richard Lacayo has a nice short piece about their large-scale sculptural collaborations here. A sculpture by Van Bruggen and Oldenburg at Donald Judd's Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, was the inspiration for one of my favourite works by NZ photographer Marie Shannon. In this series, Shannon rephotographed drawings made by her then 4 1/2 year old son of works the family saw at Marfa, including Oldenburg and Van Bruggen's Monument to the Last Horse.
Here's Marie Shannon's version, Leo's Sketchbook: Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen, Monument To The Last Horse (2002), a digital ink jet print on watercolour paper, from the Chartwell Collection at Auckland Art Gallery.
And here's Oldenburg and Van Bruggen's original, in Texas, marking the grave of a cavalry horse named Louie. (An essay about the work by Donald Judd can be read here.)
Monday, January 12, 2009
As I've mentioned before, I fundamentally disagree with the notion -- perhaps I should say the ludicrously anachronistic Calvinistic belief -- that lean economic times make for the production of better art. It's essentially a childish, old-fashioned romantic idea which presupposes that the best art is made by a hungry lone wolf of an artist emoting all over the show in his garret before going out to sell another pint of blood to pay for more oil paints. By contrast, too much money washing around the artworld leads inevitably to fat, bloated art and artists pandering to those tasteless overlords, the private collectors. What utter rot.
It's amazing how ubiquitous it is as an idea, though. Here's a couple of choice recent quotes on the subject.
"What is absolutely certain is that this recession has come in the nick of time, and that we should welcome it with open arms. The art world has spent a decade and a half metamorphosing into something ugly and worthless. That process has been halted. There is hope."And it seems that design isn't immune either from this rather nasty sense of glee in the face of other's adversity, as well as an oddly moral conviction that poverty should be the hand-maiden of creativity:
"...the whole tottering art-world edifice has grown soft, blubbery, arrogant, self-congratulatory and decadent. I cannot remember the last time I encountered an artist with the kind of fire in their belly that made Damien Hirst so unmissable when he emerged. Or anyone boasting the passions of the early Tracey Emin. British art needs a recession for the same sorts of reasons that those forests in South Africa need the occasional fire: to strengthen their wood, to return to an essence, to get rid of the weeds and to regenerate."
"So, roll on the recession. It’s all good news. A leaner, meaner, angrier art world that has to fight harder for our attention is exactly what we need."
-- Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times, 11 January 2009
"The pain of layoffs notwithstanding, the design world could stand to come down a notch or two — and might actually find a new sense of relevance in the process. That was the case during the Great Depression, when an early wave of modernism flourished in the United States, partly because it efficiently addressed the middle-class need for a pared-down life without servants and other Victorian trappings... Design tends to thrive in hard times. In the scarcity of the 1940s, Charles and Ray Eames produced furniture and other products of enduring appeal from cheap materials like plastic, resin and plywood, and Italian design flowered in the aftermath of World War II."
-- Michael Cannell in the New York Times
Hmmm. Can't see anything wrong with artists and designers making a decent living from their work, myself.
Friday, January 9, 2009
Plans to construct a new home in a safer location in South London for the US Embassy have given rise to concerns over the fate of the current US Chancellory building in Grosvenor Square, a modernist masterpiece by the US architect Eero Saarinen. Completed in 1960, the building does not currently have heritage listing status and so is highly vulnerable to aggressive remodelling or demolition.
Architectural writer Hugh Pearman notes that while the US Embassy building is perhaps "too aloof" to inspire the affections of the public, it:
"is now championed by historians of the 20th century, and rightly so. Curiously, its busy, joggled fenestration -- so at odds with the clean, corporate lines of the dominant "International Style" that Saarinen rejected -- is very much the kind of thing that today's younger architects are doing, if with a lighter touch."
"Like it or loathe it," he goes on to say, "this building has enormous character, the expression of a subtle architectural intelligence. I know this: If we lose it, we will come to regret it."
I'm feeling much the same about the plans recently announced to demolish the existing Christchurch Airport Terminal (ironically completed in the same year as Saarinen's US Chancellery building in Grosvenor Square), designed by preeminent Christchurch mid-century modernist architect Paul Pascoe and awarded a gold medal in 1960 by the NZ Institute of Architects. I love the sense of the glamour, sophistication and fun the building still exudes, a pavilion constructed in the golden travel age of swinging trolley-dollies and handsome lantern-jawed pilots. Of course it needs redevelopment and expansion to accommodate hugely increased passenger and freight schedules (the international terminal by excellent and under-sung local architects Sheppard and Rout was, as the Canterbury Heritage blog rightly notes, a sensitive addition a few years ago), but to simply raize Pascoe's building to dust reveals a woeful lack of both imagination and sensitivity to the region's architectural heritage. An expat architect is describing it as the "destruction of a modernist legacy", over at Canterbury Heritage.
Photo of Paul Pascoe's Christchurch Airport Terminal from Canterbury Heritage
Not for the first time, I think work urgently needs to be done at a national level to preserve New Zealand's architectural heritage. The current system of ad-hoc heritage listing arrangements between local authorities and the Historic Places Trust is manifestly inadequate. Developers have already dealt to New Zealand's Victorian and Edwardian buildings, wherever they've been able: now it's the turn of our mid-century modernist architecture to be in the sights of the wrecking ball. I'm not advocating keeping everything, of course: just the good stuff, as judged by architectural critics who know their subject.
The developments at Christchurch Airport are being promoted under the PR rubric "Change is Good". But when it comes to knocking down one of the largest modernist commercial buildings in the region without a second thought, I simply can't agree with them.
From the airport's website, here's an artist's impression of the new building (by Sydney-based Hassall, working in conjuction with local firm Warren and Mahoney) which will replace Pascoe's terminal by 2010, and which, to my untutored eye, bears a surely unintended resemblance to the Millennium Falcon. (Though actually perhaps not, as that's almost enough to make me like it. And judging by the renditions, I don't, at all.)
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Large crowds are expected today to pack in to the loading dock at Auckland Museum, where an autopsy of a great white shark is due to start about now. (Actually I should say public necropsy, rather than autopsy -- apparently that's what it's called when the body on the slab is that of an animal, rather than human, as the Auckland Museum's press release helpfully points out.)
Speaking as someone who had to make a hasty exit from the fourth form science lab during the bullock's eye dissection class, I won't be watching the delayed video broadcast, available here at 2pm today NZ time. But I'd guess that lots of people round the world will be: the story's been picked up by the Times Online.
"Unlike the famous scene in the shark horror film Jaws where Richard Dreyfuss cuts open a menacing great white to discover a car licence plate and a crushed tin, the NZ scientists hope to find objects of the (previously) living marine variety.
“We’re interested in the gut content to see what the shark has eaten – it could be anything from seals, penguins, fish or even whale blubber,” Dr Trnski [marine curator at Auckland Museum] said, adding that the female’s reproductive organs will also be investigated.
“We’re certainly hoping not to find any human bits inside, but you never know.”"
Hmmm... a few interesting things going on here. Dismissing the possibility suggested by the Times's piece that the scientists are expecting to find human bits inside the shark's reproductive organs (a new twist on an old theme), I'm interested to note:
1. Public dissections as the latest installment in the ongoing one-upmanship contest between Te Papa and Auckland Museum: See your stinky old collossal squid and raise you the ultimate predator of the deep ... read 'em and weep.
2. The seemingly endless public taste for death and the visual mysteries of the dead body. Manifest in our time with the ubiquitous CSI TV franchise and the extraordinary popularity of autopsy fiction by Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs (as well of course in grim splatter death-fests like the very nasty Saw movies), a taste for the ghoulish seems to be present back as far as you like in human history, from gladiators being torn apart by lions in front of cheering crowds in the Roman Colliseum to the system of public executions which only ended in Britain in 1868, commonly drawing enormous revelling hordes.
Perhaps the most well-known art-historical representation of this public taste for visceral horror is Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), where the body of a recently-executed criminal is dissected under the gaze of a number of interested spectators who have paid an entrance fee to be present (and a fee to the artist in order to have their presence in the theatre of death recorded for posterity). I like to think the man at the front looking slightly nervously away from the body and out towards the viewer has had second thoughts and is about to make a bolt for it, much as I did from the science lab.
3. A growing sense that with stunts like these, museums are outstripping galleries at gauging the contemporary public taste for spectacle. Call it research if you like (and no doubt the dissection of the shark is a useful thing to do, I don't mean at all to be snarky), but putting it out in the public arena renders it a social event at the same time, much like surgical operations in the 17th century Netherlands. Of course autopsies and dead sharks are a specialised area of art practice that Damien Hirst has made all his own, but given the costs of international freight we're vastly unlikely to see any of these works in New Zealand's public art galleries. If gore fests / dead monsters / 70s paranoia films are to your taste, better nip down to the Auckland Museum's loading bay for a gander at the real thing.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Walking home from the hairdresser's last night, I was reminded of the truism that there are actually many different artworlds, and rarely do they intersect. Here's a portal into an alternative artworld in which smudgy stockmen and unfeasibly plump-buttocked Modigliani-esque girlies are king.
Monday, January 5, 2009
Many's the time I've checked my spam folder for stray messages diverted from the real world and have paused, held captive for a moment by the sheer inventive banality of the junk email message titles. Want "restless sticking ability?" "Posh items for your style?" A PhD "by nomination"? [Yes please.] "Tension in your zip?" "A twice-larger King Kong?" It's all laid out there for you with a click of the mouse.
I've wondered, from time to time, whether any artist has used these everyday pieces of electronic junk to make work; or a poet, perhaps, with too much time on their hands and an interest in found language and Burroughsian cut-ups. (Haven't found a great deal of note, yet.)
British graphic designer Linzie Hunter has just published a postcard book, titled -- ahem -- This Secret Weapon will Give More Power to Your Little Soldier, a series of one-liners based on junk email message titles. (Via Art News Blog this morning.) It's interesting, I think, how the slightly aggressive and insidious aspects of the spam messages are almost entirely nullified by the decorative treatment of her illustrations: the mind-sappingly banal rendered jauntily cute.
On the other hand, if you were in NYC today and cumulative banality was your thing (and isn't it everyone's? not just me is it?) you could go and see 70 still-life polaroids by Andy Warhol, on for another 5 days at Paul Kasmin. (Via ArtObserved.) Dating from 1977-83, the images are of subjects from everyday life recorded by Warhol's Polaroid Big Shot camera, a device he referred to as his pencil and paper. The polaroids were intended as starting points for his paintings and screenprints.
Andy Warhol, Can of Tomatoes, 1977, polaroid photograph
This is just the sort of interesting small-scale show I always wish would come to New Zealand but of course never does. It's not fancy enough -- not sufficiently block-buster-y -- to be brought in by a NZ art museum. Not enough people would visit to warrant the expense of bringing it to the other side of the world (though one might think polaroids could fly fairly cheaply?). On the other hand, it's not the kind of right-up-to-the-minute contemporary project that would fit the brief of Artspace or the Physics Room. And I couldn't imagine anything in it for a New Zealand gallerist.
Good news, then, that Kasmin has what looks like the entire show online. (Love it when art organisations are good enough to do that!)