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Interview with Anthony Byrt

October 25 2016, by Louise Rutledge

A few weeks ago I sat down with Anthony Byrt to discuss optimism, the decline of arts criticism, dating, Simon Denny, and how he picked the lineup for his recently published book,This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art.

Louise Rutledge: The book's title, This Model World, seems to come from Judy Miller's exhibition The Model World, held at Te Uru in 2015. I thought that was a lovely gesture, as she is both an artist you clearly admire and someone who has offered a lot of support to your family. In your conversation towards the end of that chapter, you phrase her titles as ‘absurdly utopian’ and describe her outlook as a ‘resistant optimism’. I was wondering if these were ideas that you empathise with or if you think that writing a book on contemporary art, with a wider audience in mind, is a utopian or optimistic gesture?

Anthony Bryt: Great question. I probably identify more strongly with the idea of resistant optimism in Judy’s project—I think that that’s where the title came from. I think that in the end, for all the ridiculousness of the art world, at its core there are things that we do within it that matter and I was interested in really exploring that in quite an open way.

LR: It seems like your conversations with Judy really framed a lot of the book.

AB: Yeah, Judy has affected and shaped my thinking over a long period of time. I’ve known her since I was 21 and over the last 16 or 17 years we’ve met every year at least a couple of times. I think that our friendship is, in large part, built around a certain world view that we share—both about the state of things generally and the possibilities that art making can have in terms of, not necessarily addressing those things directly, but disrupting or shifting people's perceptions of how they relate to the world. That idea throughout the book of this boundary where our bodies meet something public really had a lot of to do with my connection with Judy—with her work and the things driving it. So I would hope its more optimistic than utopian.

LR: You’ve commented on the climate for criticism in New Zealand before, with regards to the decline of investigative journalism and review pages in our newspapers (which is something I think we feel more here in Wellington than perhaps Auckland). How do you feel the sites for criticism have changed and do you think a publication like this is the best space for this kind of sustained engagement?

AB: The climate for criticism and arts conversations at the moment is as challenging as everybody perceives it to be. I’ve been very lucky, I struck up a working relationship with Simon Wilson at Metro during a time when he was really fostering a group of journalists of my generation. He was giving us, not just review pages, but five or six thousand words if we wanted to do a feature about someone. When I first sat down with Simon to talk about what the column would actually be, he was very open to it not just being five hundred words reviewing a show once a month. He wanted to think about how to fold it into a larger discussion about Auckland and a generational mode of thinking through journalism. So I am very aware of how lucky I’ve been because I know that in a lot of other spaces it’s falling away.

Again, I am very optimistic about what will happen. I think that a lot of the reduction of journalism or criticism is a consequence of big newspaper and magazine companies freaking out about the ‘digital’ and not knowing what that means. Newspaper circulation is falling, so they’re second-guessing how they are going to get readership back up and they think that arts coverage is not going to do that. But I think that people are smart and interested in stories and I think that a lot of people specifically are really interested in having contemporary art opened up to them as a field of possibility. We’ve certainly discovered that through my Metro column and it’s certainly something I observed in the UK in the years that I was there.

LR: In the book, you mention the Turner Prize as being a real focal point and you talk about how that space of contention helps to generate public interest.

AB: And it’s starting to happen here, people talk about The Walters Prize. I think that for all my reservations about Lisa’s work and it going to Venice, it got people through the door. That’s where people like Mike Parekowhai and Lisa Reihana can be extremely useful—they open up contemporary art practice to a lot of people. Steve Carr is another one.

LR: Public perception often falls on ideas that art isn’t relevant or that it’s not political. I tweeted the photo of my dad reading the Simon Denny chapter—

AB: Yeah, that was great I was so pleased to see that!

LR: —and I had been trying to explain who Simon was and talking about Venice and Te Papa. I think he was surprised by the political currency of Simon’s work. One of the things I enjoyed most while reading the book was the way your opinions change within chapters, how you open up this idea that even educated consumers of art don’t have all the answers. How important was it to you to show that humility or that journey towards understanding?

AB: It was very important for the nature of the book. One of the things that I thought about a lot while writing was the idea of how I could embody critic, narrator and character all at the same time. What is it to use ‘I’ on the page and how does it work?

What I wanted to show in that was exactly what you just asked about—that moment where we encounter something that is a problem. For me, that’s the most interesting thing about contemporary art, that it creates problems. I think that the issue for a wider public has been that art is perceived to be this closed world that speaks to itself and knows all the rules, but in fact we don’t. We encounter these things and they are problematic because there are critical—they are engaging with the world and trying to find new form. What I’ve discovered as a writer is that the things that I initially find problematic are usually the things that stay with me the longest and become the richest to engage with. So whether that’s Yvonne or Shane or me trying to deal with what Simon has done, it’s always the same process—'there's a problem here, now what do I do about it?’

I just nipped into Te papa this morning to see what Simon had done and I think that the restaging of that work is so wonderful and so hilarious. It’s really funny! We caught up for a coffee in Auckland and he was saying how happy he was that it was going into Te Papa, this ultimate neo-liberal museum. To see his take on corporate neoliberalism in that building and in that way, I just thought was superb. I laughed when I walked in.

LR: One of the best comments I’ve heard about the show was one my flatmate made, that his vitrines could sit elsewhere in the museum and just be part of the display.  

AB: That’s exactly it. And equally, you could put them at the end of a show with Damien Hirst and Jeff Koon’s’ vitrines. That’s what is so interesting about Simon—his ability to move between the political and the sculptural in very intriguing ways.

LR: In your interview with Kim Hill, the question came up that maybe ambivalence could be a political position. However, at the end of your chapter on Simon you really align his political power with his formal power as a sculptor. It’s the same throughout the book; you place the political in that space of physical encounter with the work. Why do you place emphasis on that space when talking about the political potential of art?

AB: One of the main motivations behind the book was to find a form of writing that more closely mirrored the realities of my experiences with contemporary art than some of the conventions I was bound by with magazine work or art history. And the thing for me is exactly that moment of encounter; it’s that space here where ones body runs into something else. Philosophically, we could align that with a phenomenological view of the world—that’s one way of framing it. The other way is the reality that this is the stuff that keeps me going and sane, running into these things is what keeps me grounded.

I get very worried and concerned by the shape of political discourse and the shape of the world at the moment and the direction that things are going in. Over the past four years that I’ve become far more aware that an artistic or creative act is always a political act. I think we have a culture that is becoming more conservative, and any attempt to resist that becomes political.

I wanted readers to understand that the complexity of that experience, that you are running into something and it’s not just ‘I like the way this looks, this is really interesting to me’, it's actually, ‘No, how does it change the way we think and feel?’—either in that moment or more generally about the world. That really came through most strongly in the chapter on Simon when I finally make this realisation on ambivalence as potential political strategy and consider the way that those things up at Te Papa hold that.

LR: I think that chapter was the first text I’d read that framed Simon predominantly as a sculptor, before a consideration of his politics or how he reworks existing material, and that definitely shifted how I think about his work. I have always found his ambivalence so infuriating, but to consider him as a sculptor does something quite different.

AB: He’s super formal and he’s super visual, that’s the thing. That Kim Dot Com show up at the Adam was so rigid. I’ve heard people say very nasty things about Simon, that he’s like a nine-year-old who’s lining up his Lego toys. So there are a lot of people who concerns about his work but for me it was interesting to think about how those objects hold that both formally and politically. I think that he is part of something international that understands that—there is a new hybridity of form that’s emerging. There was a particular reason that I spoke about Hito Steyerl’s work within that chapter, as I think that she embodies similar energies. The art world that we now know is a direct product of the kind of forces of global capitalism that so many of us want to critique or want to challenge. But that system, which has been created and is funded by this money, is really good and commodifying and absorbing any critique.

So Simon is perfect, he is so aware of all of that  and has so self-consciously positioned his work within that space. It just hovers in this electric sort of weirdness, this electric of where is he on a political spectrum.

LR: They are incredibly difficult objects.

AB: Yeah, they are difficult objects, and there ugly as hell sometimes—he subverts all sorts of conventions.

LR: The book really focuses on studio and gallery based practices. I’m interested in how your self-confessed love of the studio informed which artist’s you chose to include. What is it about the studio that excites you and how does that environment frame your conversations and encounters with artists?

AB: That’s a really excellent question and it’s something that has been coming up a little bit more, particularly after I said that the studio was my happy place. A lot of people are like ‘what do you mean by that?’

Yes, it absolutely informed the choice of artists, without question.There were others who could have had a long chapter written about them but with whom I thought it wasn’t going to be a particularly fruitful studio conversation. How do you have a studio conversation with et al. for instance? It’s just not going to happen, and there are other artist’s who just aren’t that comfortable with having people like me in their studio.

So it drove the choice of artists to the extent that I knew that those people were, first of all, be willing to let me in and second of all, be willing to have themselves be exposed in a certain way on the page. And at times that was in negotiation. None of those where one off conversations, they were built out of seven or eight conversations over many months. So in a sense it becomes a kind of fiction—you have to make all of these conversations seem like one streamlined one.

The selection was about who I thought wouldn’t speak in sound bites and who would allow me to grapple alongside them within the studio. That was also why I chose this first person approach because I thought it was desperately unfair if I asked them to expose everything and wasn’t somehow vulnerable on the page as well.

LR: I think that came through most in the chapter on Yvonne Todd, you really get a sense of the ambiguity of her character, through all the stories and that quip about lie telling….

AB: Yeah, there’s that line where Yvonne says “ Well sometimes I just make things up when I’m talking to journalists” and I’m kind of like, “okay…”

LR: That’s the one!

AB: There’s a great book called The Journalist and the Murder by Janet Malcolm—who’s a great writer for the New Yorker—and it really explores this tension in the relationship between me and someone like me and a subject. You have to consider who your responsible to in that scenario. Ultimately, your responsibilities are actually to your reader and you then have to navigate this ethical question about showing people for who and what they are.

LR: How relevant do you see the studio in an artists practice, given conversations around post-studio practise or the mobility of artist’s between places like Berlin and New Zealand?

AB: I think it depends on how one thinks about what a studio is. And one of the reasons that the publisher and I commissioned Becky Nunes to take some studio photos—one of which is Yvonne Todd’s front room with her cat and her pink sweater hanging in the hallway. We wanted to slightly complicate the idea of the romantic studio. There are other artists for whom a laptop is the studio, so how do you have a conversation about that? So really it was motivated by the idea of being in the space of interrogation with that person and seeing how much they were prepared to let me in on that. I was lucky because some of those artists I know very well, and with those that I didn’t, we built up a relationship over time. It was the first time that Pete and I had worked together on anything, so that was an interesting negotiation—far more like a new relationship or dating for the first time.

LR: I like that idea of dating.

AB: Yeah, it’s like that. I remember when I lived in London I reviewed a young painter called Ryan Mosley, just randomly because I thought the show was interesting. I rang up his gallery and I said "Look, I would really like to meet this guy and do a studio visit”. And of course, we met in a pub and had a couple of pints before we actually got to go to the studio. It’s this weird thing because you’re both vulnerable when you meet each other, in a different way to the vulnerability that the space of exhibition sets.

LR: Another question that has come up in conversations around the book is the question of gender and the imbalance of having eight male and four female artists represented. I was wondering if you have any thoughts or a response to that?

AB: It was tricky thing to think through because the framework for the book is a very particular period in time, between 2011 – 2015 and I was trying to choose artists who had done something significant within that. The Walters Prize is a good example. For that particular Walters Maddie Leach was the only women artist included and the kind of conversations Maddie was having in the work were not the conversations that I could work into the book. There was a very clear move for me to go from Yvonne to Birkenhead in the suburbs to talking about Peter Robinson, to talking about Luke Willis Thompson and those questions of home.

If I were doing the book right now, there would be a very, very different framework. To be reflective of the nature of the time I think I would have to deal with Francis Uptichards show, for instance, and given what Ruth Buchanan is doing at the Govett Brewster and at the Adam, that it would be highly likely that Ruth would be one of the long chapters instead of one of the shorter ones. Imogen Taylor was an artist who I was desperately trying to figure out how to get in there but I couldn’t quite make it work. So I understand that the gender conversation comes up, and the other thing to consider is the cultural mix. And we thought through all of those things and we ultimately arrived at the decision that, you’re kind of dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. Because if you must balance it out, what does that do to the narrative of the book?

One of the things I was certainty conscious of trying not to do, and its very tricky to navigate this, but I wanted to avoid the idea that this is a new canon, or a piece of canon building. What I wanted it to be was a period in my life and a period in the art world’s life and to see what might we learn from that. But it’s a very valid observation about the line up.

LR: One of my favourite moments from the book again comes from your conversation with Judy Millar when you talk about how chasing art is no different to “people who travel to go hand-gliding, or to sleep with strangers, or to eat strange food” I like this idea of chasing, as it places the critic or author as always one step behind the artist—they’re having to play catch up.

AB: Somebody else asked me about that line as well! It came from this important moment, if not crisis, when we’d written a few chapters of the book and I was just starting to have this mini crisis about what this thing actually was. The thing about this book that was so unusual was that my publishers and I didn’t know what it was going to be, we kind of we worked it out as we wrote it. It was very different for a university press to have that experience, as normally someone might show up with a PHD or a reasonable fulsome manuscript and go, “well this is what I want to work on this year”.

I think that the book started out in its early days thinking about internationalism in a slightly clunky way but increasingly I realised how much place and the local infects what these artists do. So really that line was me questioning whether chasing this stuff around the world was just a form of cultural tourism or whether there was actually something of value in it?

The other thing that I wanted to try and convey was the idea that all of those activities are really about people trying to find meaning through there body meeting the world. Whether they’re sleeping with strangers or jumping off a cliff., we are trying to find something in those moments of threshold crossing. For me contemporary art is how I do it—I don’t jump off cliffs.

LR: In your interview Kim Hill you speculated on whether people could be addicted to poker—

AB: Oh yeah [laughter]

LR: —so my last question is, do you think people can be addicted to contemporary art?

AB: I think there are probably some collectors who are. Hm, can you be addicted to contemporary art?

LR: As someone who has obviously shaped their life around it?

AB: Well addiction is really continuing to do something in the face of its detriment right? So I would hate to think that we could ascribe that sort of value to contemporary art. I think that my addiction, if it is an addiction, is there because what I consistently see artists’ doing is asking questions at a time when we really need those questions to be asked. They’re are not necessarily direct political questions but they are questions of our relationship with space and our relationship with the world and our relationship with images and all those things which really matter. My hope is that in trying to give some voice or shape to these things is that I get as many other people hooked on it as I can. You know, it’s almost like being the pusher is this scenario.

I think it’s a very interesting time, because I want to say that art doesn’t have any negative impact, but it’s implication in the forces of global capital that are around at the moment is really problematic and complex, which is why I wanted to talk about the Sydney and Istanbul Biennial situations in the book. How do we relate to the companies that are involved in arms production or the offshore detention centres? How do we maintain or take up critical positions in the face of that, when we need those resources to be able to do things at this scale? It’s also an incredibly white and bourgie thing to be able to go around Europe and look at art. I was very conscious of that when I was the last Venice, as that was when the Syrian refugee crisis started to really hit the headlines. I was very aware that I had my two passports in my pocket, which allow me to go anywhere in the world very easily, and yet there were these people drowning trying to get a couple of hundred miles the Bolivian coast to Sicily. We need to reflect on that.

One the most interesting shows that I’ve seen of late is the New Perspectives show at Artspace that Simon Denny has just done, which is a deeply political and interesting show that really excites me in terms of the younger artists who are starting to emerge right now. There is some great work in that.

LR: I am hopping to go see it but I don’t know whether I’ll get the chance!

AB: It’s so fantastic. That’s a very long-winded way of answering your question about addiction, but I think we have to figure out how to how to not be didactic in our desire to do social and political good and equally, to be aware of our place within this system—it’s a hard balancing act. And that what keeps me interested; if it were easy I wouldn’t write about it. And I think it’s a good time be engaged in New Zealand art—just seeing what Ruth and people like Simon are doing and all these young artists coming through, there are some great things happening.

 

Please note the transcript has been edited for length and clarity.