Peter Dornauf – 20 September, 2016
The media are the message, to slightly misquote Marshall McLuhan, and artist Sorawit Songsataya, takes this reality as a point of reference to confront questions of contemporary identity via the use and appropriation of cartoon elements taken straight out of Disney. Here the saccharine and cute are posited against raw realities. A formal ornamental plant stand serves as cultural marker set against the smooth swollen forms taken from the “adorable” world of cartoon animation courtesy of the American mass media conglomerate.
National Contemporary Art Award 2016
Selected and judged by Misal Adnan Yildiz
3 September - 4 December 2016
The art of artspeak was the winner on the night rivalling the art itself at points at this year’s National Contemporary Art Award, judged by Misal Adnan Yildiz, the current director of Artspace.
Things were “deconstructed” and “reconstructed”; “dialogue”, “discourse” and the ubiquitous, “conversation”, got served up. Stuff was “informed” by other stuff; “conceptual” got a work out as did the “language” of things: of politics, abstraction, of 3D forms. There was “exploration” and “engagement” with the artist described as a “seeker” and “archiver”. There were “metaphysical connotations” and “metaphysical intuitions” at play; things were “on-gong”, while other things were “contextualized”. The trend word “liminal” got an airing, but the prize had to go to Tony Nichols for the word “aletheia”, resurrecting a word used by Heidegger who resurrected it from the ancient Greeks. The plain old word, “truth”, just wasn’t good enough.
What this amply demonstrates is that artists themselves are constructed by their own clichéd and homogenised language. And it doesn’t stop there. They are also trapped by the limited and predictable range of concerns. From the topical issue of homelessness to the evils of racism, capitalism, gender dualism, planetary waste, terrorism and failed utopianism; unsurprisingly they all get trotted out.
Why is parading one’s virtues and vigorous chest beating so prevalent in New Zealand? Because politics is the only game in town. In addition, as art became more marginal in society, so its voice became more strident in an attempt to rescue itself from social irrelevance. Look at me! I do more than comely pictures.
Issues driven art, of course, must be careful in selecting the right causes. Poverty and the homeless is a sure bet and Tiger Murdoch plastered the gallery wall with replicated posters, of some homeless man lying on an urban bench. “We would like to make the invisible visible,” the artist pontifically intoned. I bristle at art that comes at me with such blatant designs on the viewer. It didn’t help that the artist descended into cliché by proclaiming that this was “the start of a conversation”.
One of the very few paintings, in the show of 34 works, was about the issue of environmental degradation. Oil Fields, by John C Johnston, acrylic on canvas, came out of the school of Neo-Casualism. A black blob of paint is surrounded by a wobbly handwritten text. Climate change like the problem of homelessness are serious and urgent contemporary concerns, but if I want propaganda, I’ll look for it at some politically rally. Art, of course, can be didactic, but do I want to be hit over the head with a hammer?
The same issue was dealt with by D Milton Browne in a photograph of a junk yard. The artist was at pains to alert the viewer to the fact that certain features in the image of his work entitled Departure, “conceptualizes” and “initiates a dialogue”. Pleeese.
Just in case we missed the point of his sculpture, Matt Ellwood made it abundantly clear in his title that he was seriously concerned with the serious issue of global capitalism. Portentously called Maquette for the Monument to Global Capitalism and the Free World, the artist himself was not averse to a little local capitalism in pricing the piece at $11,000 for his plywood and beeswax creation.
Issues don’t make art. But if art is going to deal with them, it had better deal with them artfully. And artist, Justin Spiers, did just that in his environmentally concerned photograph with its understated title, Nest Number Four. If we believe his story, the image was a found object, created by others, in this case, children, but it is the multiple ironies that abound in the work that make it artfully appealing. The message wasn’t laboured but simply endemic in the piece itself, full of delicious contradiction and absurdity, along with a touch of whimsy. It is a photograph of a dead bird placed in a plastic bag ‘nest’ made by children of the family who owned the cat, the killer.
In the sculpture category, Push me Pull me, a mixed media installation by Cachermaille & Bowmast, presented an assortment of hanging and floor laid works - aprons, smocks and tools the artists were inspired to construct during a residency in a light industrial area in Nelson. These soft sculptures (recalling Claes Oldenburg), have morphed from their origins to become surreal objects that in their new configurations - double-ended, suggest the celebration of collective and collaborative action of the workers. The visual conjunction of the familiar and unfamiliar works well here.
One issue and its treatment gave me pause and not in a good way. It was A Booth with Ocean Views (Self Portrait) by Christopher Ulutupu. It consisted of a photograph of the artist dressed up as a terrorist (orange jumpsuit, balaclava and gun) posed in front of blue sky alluding to some South Pacific paradise. The back story involved a terrorist-themed party the artist attended; come as a terrorist, held in Wellington where a photo booth was set up so that party goers could have their photo taken. What next? A Holocaust victim party, come as an emaciated Jew. The bad taste and morally dubiousness of the work is not saved by the coda in the blurb - “our vision of the horrific events of the world is skewed, leaving only a mirage empty and void of empathy”. This is true enough, but is the “art work” a case of mea culpa after the event?
The issue that had me crying “enough already” was one “explored” by Tony Nicholls, Essence of Art Part 1, and Rohan Hartley Mills, Floor Work 1. They both examined and deconstructed the nature of art. I think the world is ready to move on from this.
Conceptual art is all very sincere, earnest and heartfelt and one couldn’t get more serious and sober than Peter McLaren’s race sensitive pieces harking back to the bad old days of apartheid and segregation. His punning text, “No Colours” in his black and white sculptural work, It Could Not Possibly Happen Here, Could It? and the acrylic on board, Four Colours Only, did raise a smile but didn’t quite rescue it from terrible earnestness and inflammatory rhetoric.
One standout video piece was Monochronic, featuring hand-drawn animation, by Clara Wells. It was intriguingly constructed around rhythms and changing visuals (sped up) whose motif is the morphing circle. What begins as a satisfying dance aligned with the natural pulse of the heartbeat becomes, as the work progresses, discordant as the timing shifts and things fall out of sync. Perception of time itself becomes questioned.
Another issue, a perennial one that shows up at these functions, is the subject of the nature of the gallery space and the institution itself. This got a workout via duo Jonathan Organ and Jessica Pearless’ big shed in Blind: HI FI, Douglas Stichbury in To a Willing Person, Injury is not Done, and Mike Ting’s The Order of Things.
For relief, I stood in front of Matt Arbuckles’s Envelop, and simply enjoyed the abstract aesthetic of scratched lines dragged through black paint on a found object, in this case a 1946 aerogram.
The winner on the night though, Good Kisser, dealt with specific issues; gender ones. The two 3D printed vases, miniature ‘ceramics’ anthropomorphized with pouting extrusions, balanced on an ornate plant stand, spoke of the Self as constructed inside various detentions of contracted social life.
The media are the message, to slightly misquote Marshall McLuhan, and artist Sorawit Songsataya, takes this reality as a point of reference to confront questions of contemporary identity via the use and appropriation of cartoon elements taken straight out of Disney. Here the saccharine and cute are posited against raw realities. A formal ornamental plant stand serves as cultural marker set against the smooth swollen forms taken from the “adorable” world of cartoon animation courtesy of the American mass media conglomerate. These the artist imbues with “queer temporalities” and in such disparities the artist finds a frisson that reflects on what he describes as the strange and grotesque psyche of living in the contemporary world.
Why did it win? Because of the delivery. Witty, whimsical, Pop culture based and thus “contemporary”. And, of course, the issue is very hip. A current focus for sure, and popular.