Terrence Handscomb – 8 November, 2014
Despite his paper credentials and infectious charm, deep down Denny needs to grow up fast - but there is no reason for him not to. With so much support and love coming his way, failure seems quite unlikely. Dotcom's electoral politics and the public's unwillingness to separate the tabloid Dotcom from The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, clearly caught him off-guard.
The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom
4 October - 19 December 2014
Michael Lett, like many art dealers, deals not so much in objects but stories; states of representation in which excess is profit and feeling is currency. In New Zealand, Peter McLeavey is the paradigm. In its heyday, you came away from Peter McLeavey Gallery with the feeling that if you hadn’t bought something, your world would be somehow empty. This often amused me but it also dismayed me, because the engagement was not so much about the thing — the object — but about the sale and an excess of representation driven by a something that is not entirely intelligible. I call this feral duplicity, which like the taste of fake sweeteners, can leave a bitter aftertaste.
So when Michael Lett, Simon Denny’s New Zealand art dealer, in Wellington for the opening of The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, got up at dinner and volunteered a saccharine tribute to Denny, I despaired. Always the performer, Lett is quite capable of conjuring up the deep felt positivity and enthusiasm, which is essential in his profession. To a room full of believers, his excessive flattery went down extremely well.
It’s usually impossible to separate an art dealer’s feelings from the practical efficacy of their business; and again, Peter McLeavey is the exemplar. This duplicity can be disquieting if one’s approach to art is veridical and not iconic. That evening I felt the same disquiet with The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, Denny’s infectious charm, his feral duplicity and what I perceived to be his well-armored soft underbelly - so it is no surprise to learn that Denny and Lett, artist and gallerist, are indeed a match made in heaven (cf. Henry Oliver, “The art of success,” Metro Magazine, November 2014, p. 62).
Despite the excitement surrounding his rise to international success — meteoric by NZ standards — Denny has many local detractors who suspect his narrative and resent his offshore success. A critical assessment of Denny’s work is easily swept aside by his energy and positivity. The excitement that his international success is generating in NZ is quickly breeding a growing number of faithful who will not tolerate disparagement. Criticality can be a killer of feel-good sentiments in art, so it didn’t help Denny’s narrative of success when Walters Prize 2014 judge Charles Esche, who in his announcement speech implied that Denny’s work was never on his list of potential winners, raised an annoying narratological inconsistency for Team Denny.
Esche’s shrewd choice of winner and the way in which AAG presented the Sao Palo Biennial curator’s top-of-the-line international credentials, exposed an anomaly in the veracity of the Denny story. Team Denny quickly turned on the judge for either getting it wrong or not properly understanding the artist’s work, such was the expectation that he would win. However the Walters Prize snub has not diminished the Denny myth. Soon after the Walters announcement, MoMA New York bought five pieces from Denny’s Walters nominated show. Denny fans gloated (cf. ibid. p. 65).
By driving a wedge between the deep critical analysis of a work of art and institutional acquisition policies, Team Denny easily trivialised Esche’s decision. However, Esche’s snub raises an important point: the difficulty any critical analysis faces against what at first appears to be a watertight case for Denny. One has to go deep beneath the hoopla if the structural flaws that exist in Denny’s process, and the crafted assertions of his own shifting narrative, are to be tested against anything more than sour grapes and the market-based merit rankings of Artfacts.net (cf. ibid p. 58).
New Zealand’s Venice Biennale 56 curator, and fervent Denny fan, Robert Leonard is quick to explain away suspicions of and resistance to Denny’s work as the failure of his critics to recognise that the Denny phenomenon constitutes one of those “…breakthrough moments, when things are so new that, at first, people fail to understand them as art” … “I think of Manet’s Olympia or Duchamp’s Fountain. Denny is doing something similar” (ibid. p. 60). Clearly Leonard’s silly exaggerations, replete with recognisable imagery, are aimed at a local audience who he insinuates, are not yet up to speed with the Denny phenomenon. Even if this is true, his words entail the patronising assumption that if one is slow to recognize the genius of Denny’s work, then it is because one’s own judgements are flawed, not the thing being judged.
As I see it, “breakthrough moments” — in keeping with current philosophical thinking, call them singularities, singular moments or simply ‘events’ — are always disruptive in effect and revolutionary in character. Singular events in art, when they occur, collapse the gap between the simple presentation of things — the art objects — and the excesses of the representations which in art give them meaning and gives cultural weight to their pecuniary value. When actual breakthroughs occur — not the fake ‘events’ and ‘breakthrough moments’ Leonard is talking about — existing states of representation collapse and it takes the mutant logic of a genius to pull meaning out of the symbolic meltdown that inevitably follows. When actual events occur, no one knows what the hell is going on.
Denny’s process is plain-out too tailored to instigate an event. He is just not into revolution. Denny has yet to meltdown or allow his careful branding to blow apart. His brand favors seduction over destruction and accessibility over obfuscation (ibid. p. 59). Denny’s interest in the idea of disruption-as-unproductive-failure, is motivated by his reading of New Yorker journalist Jill Lepore’s critique of the economic theory of disruptive innovation, first introduced by Harvard economics scholar Clayton Christensen and his groundbreaking 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma (the title of which Denny arrogated for his own City Gallery, Wellington talk). “Disruptive innovation is an economic theory about why businesses fail” and “the rhetoric of disruption [is] a language of panic, fear, asymmetry, and disruption … in which an upstart [company] refuses to play by the established rules of engagement” . Therefore, the innovator’s dilemma — “doing the right thing is the wrong thing” — occurs when companies fail not because their executives made bad decisions, but because they continue to make good decisions.
In her critique of Christensen, Lepore notes that in the last fifteen years the mantra of disruptive innovation has morphed into the principle of wilful destruction. Corporations sack their principals who represent the unproductive old ways and bring on smart young innovators who, it is hoped, will re-float a sinking ship. This, Lepore argues, never works. The usual outcome is unproductive destruction without restorative innovation.
Denny is of a new generation of artists, who always with their audiences in mind, have distanced themselves from the disruptive and unproductive character of a dated ‘avant-garde’ (ibid. p. 59). Ironically, his abhorrence of a disruptive and unproductive avant-garde — a post-object solution to The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom would be to simply pin the list of Dotcom’s confiscated possessions to the gallery wall, but Denny clearly loves a production — now entails its own dilemma, caused by the unexpected and disruptive foray by the actual Kim Dotcom into NZ electoral politics, its consequential affect on the public reception of The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom and Denny’s urgent scurry to distance himself from it all.
Powerful ideas like disruptive innovation could have allowed the installation to take on an incisive new meaning. When it comes to narrative control, Denny is a control freak and Dotcom’s clumsy public manipulations of NZ politics does not, it seems, suit the Denny brand with its suave seductions and corporate aesthetic.
Ironically, Dotcom’s disruptions could have worked for Denny, but he avoided it, choosing instead to retreat to the safer ground of artist’s intentions, which are not at all clear, but which seem to have something to do with sourcing the “logic that functions on the internet” (whatever that means) , exploring the legal ramifications of intellectual property, illegal file swapping and the forced closing of Dotcom’s file-sharing site Megaupload — which Denny, when living in Berlin, used to illegally (one supposes) download English language movies and TV programs ohne deutsche Synchronisation und englische Untertitel.
Kim Dotcom’s unexpected, but quite comical, foray into NZ electoral politics, was never on Denny’s narratological radar. With the protective instincts of an angry lieutenant, an ardent member of Team Lett, when he heard that I may “review” the show, took it upon himself to set me straight on the fidelity of Denny’s intentions and how these were not to be associated with the Dotcom public fiasco, which incidentally, everyone was talking about at the opening. When a work is in the public domain, its meaning is up for grabs and semiotic control is no longer in the hands of the artist. An understanding of a work may indeed include the artist’s intentions, which are usually mutable and Denny’s intentions seem to change to suit the context. At best artist’s intentions should be considered as analytical pointers, if our understanding of art is to be informed by anything more than sour grapes and the protective hype of art dealers.
Being tabloid-bait to us commoners, the actual Dotcom is indeed now part of The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, whether Denny likes it or not. When engaging with the installation we cannot help but voyeuristically gaze into Dotcom’s life with a tabloid interest that cannot be undone. The fidelity of the artist’s intentions is easily slurried. Trying to stick narrative to object is difficult and Denny too easily believes representation is the object, which means that when the narrative gets out of control, all hell can break loose in the mind of an artist.
By capitalising on the Adam’s decision to time the show to coincide with the NZ elections, Denny could have used one of his narrative catchphrase fillers as actual motivation: disruptive innovation could have worked for him. With deft pliability he could have turned everything around and used the associative tension between unforeseen disruption and the stability of a finished work, then quietly let the willing pass it off as artist’s prescience (some punters at the dinner claimed such prescience, which they allege was entirely due to Denny’s artistic genius). Trapped by his own conceptual arrogations, feral duplicity failed him. Instead of running with it, he ran from it, distancing himself from Dotcom’s ultra-left toxicity to such extent as to apprehensively announce that he would not show the work again: destruction without innovation!
Despite his paper credentials and infectious charm, deep down Denny needs to grow up fast - but there is no reason for him not to. With so much support and love coming his way, failure seems quite unlikely. Dotcom’s electoral politics and the public’s unwillingness to separate the tabloid Dotcom from The Personal Effects of Kim Dotcom, clearly caught him off-guard — and his disappointing reaction to it is telling. Denny will carefully regroup for Venice and prepare for the ever-shifting political quicksands that surround Edward Snowden — government surveillance and Snowden’s NSA leaks is the latest rumored theme for Denny’s Venice project, but this could change. He will however, need to be vigilant on a number of fronts. Snowden politics can be messy and with his inexperience Denny may unwittingly overreach. By co-opting Nicky Hager into the fold, a number of moneyed punters are, already conspicuously distancing themselves from his Venice project. However, Denny is the consummate salesman and he tends to surround himself with good people. With charm and positivity he easily wins individuals over and his work is easy to understand. People like that.
Even though the New Zealand arts community has a history of abandoning its anointed young, especially when they reach a certain age — Binney, Killeen, Robinson — Denny will probably break the mould because he got out early and much of his local support comes with the warm winds of success, which down under, still blow onshore.
1. Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong,” New Yorker, June 23, 2014. See also Christensen’s response in “Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of ‘Disruptive Innovation,’” Bloomberg Businessweek, June 20, 2014)
2. Home page, Adam Art Gallery, http://www.adamartgallery.org.nz; downloaded: 31 October 2014 4:45 PM.