Saturday, May 30, 2009


A couple more images from yesterday, taken at dawn as I watched Michael Parekowhai's Yes We Are go up for the second time in Wellington. The work was driven down from Auckland the previous day on the truck that became its mobile plinth as it moved around the city. In the photograph of the sign on its back pointing up to the sky, there's just the possibility of a kind of Garry Winogrand-ish moment that makes me wish I'd had a better camera with me.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Open all hours

Yesterday I was in Wellington, following Michael Parekowhai's truck around town from dawn to dusk. His work Yes We Are was suspended from a crane on the flat bed of the truck, and was driven to strategic spots around the city, where it parked for an hour or so before moving on again. It took about 20 minutes at each site to hoist the work and secure it at the base, and about the same to unfasten and lower it again and strap it to the deck when it was time to go. Yes We Are was the closing work in New Zealand's One Day Sculpture series.

Here's some photographs I took over the course of a very long day.

5am. Taken from the motorway layby overlooking the Inter Island Ferry's marshalling yard.

Dawn in Buckle Street.

Mid-morning, Manners Mall.

Lunchtime in Cuba Street, near the Peter McLeavey Gallery.

Mid-afternoon, ouside Parliament on Molesworth Street. Budget being read indoors.

(Here I should have a photo of Yes We Are in its position at late afternoon on Oriental Parade near the Freyberg Pool, but I forgot to photograph it as I was having a cup of coffee at a friend's at the time, and saw it from an upstairs window. It looked great, though.)

Early evening, Point Jerningham, Shelly Bay, in a howling gale.

Last post: from the lookout at the top of Mt. Victoria, 9pm. (Clearly visible as far away as Vogeltown.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A chapter of accidents

As I write, the entire family -- absent me -- have been stricken with gastric flu and the house resembles the sun lounge of the Inter Island ferry after a particularly rough crossing. But right now all's quiet; time to sit down in front of Coro Street and blog about some things that have caught my eye over the past few days.

1. Accident Book
Accident-prone British artist Simon Faithfull has produced a book cataloguing the various mishaps which have seen him admitted to 8 Accident and Emergency departments. He's printing 500 copies, which will be tucked among the ratty old magazines at various A&E departments in London and Cambridge, waiting to be discovered 'by accident by people who've had accidents'. Those who fancy it can take Faithfull's book home, and if they're so inclined, they can then use a special code provided to log on to a website, record the location and date of the discovery of the book and detail their reason for their visit to A&E.

I like the sound of this work, very much: I've spent a lot of time waiting at A&Es myself over the years for one reason and another, and the work plays into the essential curiosity you always have about the exact nature of the events that have brought other people to the hospital. I'll keep watching to see what responses Faithfull gets. (I'd imagine the temptation to make some up, though, would be tremendous.)

Simon Faithfull, proposal for a work, 'Teach My Dog to Type (using a specially extended typewriter)'.

Reading about this project reminded me about a very accident-prone museum technician I once worked with. In particular I recall a terrible incident where we were installing a huge steel work. (I say 'we': of course, I was standing well back pretending to direct the traffic while everyone else did the heavy lifting.) The work was finally grunted into place and everyone relaxed. Suddenly there was an loud DDONNNGGGG sound, like a massive gong ringing. One of the steel motifs had become detached from the work and fallen squarely onto the accident-prone technician's head. There was no reason why it should have been him, out of the half dozen people in the room, but somehow it was not unexpected. He was utterly poleaxed. After being assured that he was OK, everyone collapsed in shameful laughter: it had looked like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, like the one-ton weight felling the coyote. When he came to, he said brightly, 'Not to worry! I've been concussed 16 times. This will make it 17.'

(Not much chance that I'll be in one of the A&E departments in which Simon Faithfull's accident register will be secreted: but I guess this comprises my response anyway.)

2. My body is my tool
I'm not a fan of street-level performance art. (And actually when I think about it, of much performance art at all, wherever it takes place.) The current push to preserve Marcel Marceau's legacy is not something I would happily contribute to. In fact, the list of public 'creative acts' I would personally be delighted to see a city ordinance against includes:

* stiltwalkers
* fire poi twirlers
* fire eaters
* human statues
* jugglers
* unicyclists
* mime exponents
* anyone wearing a Dutch girl wig with yellow wool plaits, etc.

(Any combination of the above only exponentially increases the offence.)

Possibly unwisely, I mentioned some of these shameful prejudices on Twitter the other night. I had several people tweet back in complete agreement (clowns, Christmas music, 'random acts of biblical reading on street corners and anyone playing a small electric piano', as well as face painting, were also suggested as prime offenders. It was also helpfully pointed out to me that as a resident of Christchurch, home of the circus arts school, I could witness public acts of creative heinousness committed daily all over town). But the next morning I was taken aback to read quite a plaintive tweet from someone I didn't know asking why on earth I would wish to ban fire performances and circus arts from public places? This was not something I could readily answer in 140 characters or under.

Which in turn reminded me of something an ex-visual arts manager at NZ's Arts Council (now Creative New Zealand) once admitted to me; he had been badgered by the craft sector* for months, and in the end said with great dignity 'Knitting may well be an art form. But it is not an artform we choose to fund.'

Can't get away with that stuff so much anymore.

3. And finally...
Elder statesman, contrarian and cultural curmudgeon Hamish Keith is now on Twitter. He also has a new blog about the formation of Auckland as a supercity. Which is all very well, and quite interesting, but I've wished for sometime that he would start blogging about art and culture as I haven't been able to bring myself to buy the Listener (the once-great NZ TV & culture weekly in which his column appears) for months now. Bound to be worth following what he's got to say via Twitter.

*It could be argued that the craft community back then wasn't nearly as interesting back then as it is now, with people like @Styler on the job.

Things to do with an art history degree, #56

Kim Hill: "Did you know anything about art when you took the job on?"

Paul Brewer: "I have a Masters in Art History. I studied it at university, before I got into communications."

KH: "Oh well, never mind. You got over that, didn't you."

PB: "Yeah, I got over it."

Paul Brewer, previously Marketing and Communications Director at Te Papa, interviewed by Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand recently.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Working in the gap between art and life

Apart from the truly stupendous news that Martin Scorsese is to direct a biopic of Frank Sinatra's life (all it would need is art direction by Richard Prince and script consultancy by Nick Tosches & Dave Hickey for my cup to entirely runneth over), there hasn't been much of great inspiration shooting down the digital pipe and popping up in my feedreader lately.

At such moments, however, there is always the small guy. Always a fan of collages, more recently he's been experimenting with combines, a la Rauschenberg.

Here's one I rather liked from the weekend.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Department of creative self expression: This way

I trust I'm not alone in finding the juxtaposition of destinations on this sign at Canterbury Museum unfortunate.

Just asking for trouble, really.

*While the puerile double entendre made me smile, that's more than can be said for the clunky new signage design. Hopefully it's only a temporary measure during their refurbishment.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to get away from girls

The big guy and I are fans of both artists' books and handprinted books. We don't have many of the former, though we'd like to; but we do have a few of the latter which are among our prize possessions. Almost all of the handmade books on our shelves have been printed by Brendan O'Brien on an old-fashioned letterpress, in various suburban garages in Wellington and at the Rita Angus Cottage, during the term of his residency there. I love the gentle but distinct embossing of letterpress typography; the slight unevenness of the kerning, inevitable even in the hands of a printer as expert as Brendan; the sheer sense of significance of the printed word, composed painstakingly letter by letter.

The small guy, who started school at the end of last year, has been making handmade books of his own lately, again composed painstakingly letter by wobbly letter. Here's his latest, written in the form of a self-help manual for his readers. It relates to difficulties he's been having with a girl at school, who chases him at morning tea and covers him with kisses when she catches him. (I've changed the names on the cover.) It has a fairly tough and uncompromising message.

Last night, after commenting favourably on the unusual right-handed and round-the-corner binding (which has made photography quite tricky), a friend staying with us, who happens to be a prominent Wellington-based graphic designer, described How to Get Away From Girls as 'one of the great New Zealand books'.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Colour notes

Rita Angus, Colour notes, 1950s, watercolour, 324 x 290mm, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate.

I had coffee this morning with an old and very dear friend, in town to install an exhibition of his new sculptural work. We met at my suggestion at the art gallery cafe (he pulled me up on saying this: which gallery? he asked. There's only one with its own cafe, I answered) as the dealer space he shows at has a flight of stairs like Mt Everest which are completely impassable by baby buggy (and down which over the years I have seen many artworld luminaries take a nasty tumble after sampling a little too much of the hospitality up above). I won't be going to the opening tomorrow: at 5.30pm, exactly coinciding with dinner- and bath-time for tired small children, art openings are scheduled as if on purpose at the worst conceivable moment of the day for families. The Wellington-based trend towards Saturday morning dealer gallery openings (OK then, just the uniformly excellent Hamish McKay) is something to be warmly encouraged.

I got to the gallery a little early so I could spend some time looking at the Rita Angus show, which has toured to Christchurch from Te Papa. It's had an avalanche of well-deserved positive reviews, primarily for the excellent curation by William McAloon and Jill Trevelyan who have thoroughly researched the history, delineated clear chapters in the work in order to make its progression intelligible for the viewer, and included a few surprises as well as greatest hits. It's textbook curatorial practice, which should form a model for such things for New Zealand museum studies and curatorial courses.

Te Papa billed the show as a 'gift to the nation', as they decided not to charge an exhibition fee to the municipal venues who are hosting the show on its national tour. The costs of putting the show on the road (crating, loan negotiations, etc) were thus absorbed by Te Papa rather than being paid for by the touring venues, which enabled them in turn to put it on free of charge to the public. Of course, that's a good thing; but at the same time one might argue that:

a. the cultural heritage of New Zealanders, exhibited in public institutions, should as a matter of course be free of charge to the New Zealand public; and

b. Unlike the Auckland Art Gallery, whose NewGallery attracts an entrance charge, most of the other municipal public art galleries (Christchurch Art Gallery, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, City Gallery Wellington) habitually never charge for nationally-generated exhibitions of New Zealand art; and

c. Putting a major survey exhibition of one of the country's most significant 20th century artists on the road should be business as usual for New Zealand's national art gallery, rather than an extraordinary event worthy of 'gift' status.

But far be it from me to be churlish, etc. (I decided against titling this post 'A Gifthorse to the Nation', as (a) the show has excellent bite; and anyway (b) I have foresworn mean-spiritedness as a blogging platform.) Rita Angus is a great show, and a big one; I'm delighted to see it in Christchurch; it's of such substance that it would take an hour or more to get round, if one had the luxury of doing it properly and didn't have a fifteen-month-old in tow with an attention span even shorter than mine. Because I know many of the works so well, on this occasion I was able to spend more time with the strangers-to-me, like this:

Rita Angus, The artist’s studio, c. 1962, watercolour, 390 x 284 mm, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, on loan from the Rita Angus Estate

and this:
Rita Angus, Timmy, 1952, watercolour, 449 x 350mm, Private collection

as well as my all-time favourite painting by Angus, AD 1968 (I have personal reasons for this -- an excellent year, 1968 -- as well as thinking it one of New Zealand's finest modernist works).

Rita Angus, AD 1968, 1968, oil on hardboard, 587 x 595 mm Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, gift of the Friends of the Auckland Art Gallery, 2004

The inclusion of Angus's sketchbook material was a fantastic surprise, as was the inclusion of the preliminary study Colour Notes above from the 1950s, framed as a work and hung with other nature studies. The little washes of watercolour looked like Gretchen Albrecht's largescale abstractions on canvas from the early 1970s, and gave me an insight not only into Angus's technical prowess but also a quick vision of her as an abstractionist, in another time or place.

I've written before about the way in which access to the artist's preparatory material greatly informs a view of their work. There was something intimate, and private, and I suspect entirely memorable about being able to see the way in which Angus logged and developed her ideas, sketchy images surrounded by hasty pencilled notes, some of which later became paintings. I'll go back and spend more time with Colour Notes and the sketchbooks another day, if I can.

I was intrigued by a label on the case of ephemera which said something like 'Please respect the artworks'. While I think it was meant as a nice way of saying don't touch, it was kind of odd, as the sketchbooks were entombed in a perspex case, and you couldn't touch them even if you wanted to. (I did want to, of course; there's something so terribly frustrating about being only able to view a single page of a book.) The odd notice immediately made me think of Angus's much-storied sensitivity to criticism of her work. I trust visitors to the show have been duly respectful, and have only made positive comments in front of the work.

Although it really is a terrific show, I thought, not for the first time, that Angus's work is as good in reproduction as it is in real life. It's not something you can say of all artists: my experience of Angus's contemporary Gordon Walters, for example, whose strongly graphic works look great in reproduction, is that a real-life encounter can be breathtaking and quite different from looking at the work in a book. I don't mean this as a criticism of Angus's practice; maybe it's just that so many of the works are quite small, and quiet, and intimate in tone; and the book format, where you can sit down comfortably and look at the images in good light over time does as well for them as viewing in the gloomy spaces of the gallery, when you're on your feet and best behaviour.

(Just on this, I really wish Christchurch Art Gallery would turn the jolly lights up a bit. I know, I know, conservation values and all that: but I would just like it to be a little brighter in there so I could see the art better. I'm hoping that Nicholas Serota's conservation taskforce might change the rules of the game for the better for us all.)

Access to art's an important thing; whether or not like me one's in charge of a small anti-art protester and can only poke one's head briefly into an exhibition, barriers to full engagement with our visual culture are presented not only by dull lighting and steep stairs, but perhaps also more seriously by the absence of an actual National Art Gallery in New Zealand -- though the curators of Rita Angus: Life and Work sensibly haven't let that hold them back. I've said it before, but I will again: more like this, please.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Public sculpture desserted

An advertisement for the Millennium Hotel which appears in the Christchurch Arts Festival programme, launched last night. (I've been wondering whether Neil Dawson doesn't deserve a special royalty payment from the business community for the sheer number of times his various public works around the country have 'inspired' art directors at ad agencies.)

Never let it be said that Christchurch doesn't take its public art seriously.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The face of Jesus in my soup

This image appeared on the inside of the glass door of our logburner this evening, written in smoke.

Not wanting to make too big a deal about it or anything, but it did remind me quite a lot of this:

Jason Greig, Homer 2006, monoprint. Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney.

I think I may have been back in Christchurch too long.