Exhibition Essays

2004 Reviews

December 2004

Seasonal art with a sense of humour

Mark Amery

Traditionally, Christmas and contemporary art could be considered to produce anathema, cursed objects compromised in their integrity. The silly season is a time of mass-produced, badly made decorations and toys in the shops, and often, novelty group exhibitions in the galleries- stocking fillers for dealers to tide them over to the new year. When I tried to think of a major work of art since the advent of Santa in the 19th century that concerns itself with Christmas, I couldn't even come up with a nativity scene.

It may sound like dodgy art theory, but Christmas and art do share a similar troubled space in our society between religion and commerce. While some look for some sort of spiritual solace, others are always out to make a buck. Like the trade in holy relics, it has always been so.

At least that's the old paradigm. More current contemporary art is likely to question and explore the complexities and contradictions of faith – to call both the preacher and salesperson's bluff.

This should make Christmas for the contemporary artist an easy target. And certainly with Tim Armstrong's installation A Christmas Story, at public gallery Enjoy in Cuba St till December 10, the artist provides a welcome, engaging antidote to shopping. For an exhibition purporting to explore the "sinister side of Santa Claus and the mythology surrounding him", however, I felt the exhibition failed to communicate anything particularly insightful or fresh. But then it's a hard ask: Santa is a ludicrous and scary enough proposition as it is.

Entering the gallery you hear an unsteady, distorted reproduction of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the Bee Gees sounding like chipmunkish elves whose batteries are fast running out as they call us to Santa's shop. Around the corner is a faux-naive painting of a shopping mall Santa, sans trousers and underwear, giving the shoppers a chubby finger. The painting style is flat and icky, Santa is as ridiculously puffed up and pink as a live one. The obvious question is raised: why, in these excessively PC times, should we be letting little children sit on such a jolly fellow's lap?

This is a bad bad Santa, even more effectively produced with a full-sized fibreglass Santa. The type you might commonly find at The Warehouse (in substitute for employing a real human), this model, however, looks like the ultimate in factory rejects. It's a ploppy, mis-shapen bastard child of the Christmas industry, carrying a scythe (or is it Santa's belt to give the children a good whipping?) with fibreglass hairs matted across its surface.

More intriguing are a set of small, grotesque figures trudging across the gallery floor; their limbs bound by papier-mache of The Warehouse brochures. Nearby, a television plays a video featuring a few frames of security footage from The Warehouse, framed within a Christmas star, or "star-burst" shop sale notice. The video and figures give the installation its most powerful charge: the sense of our entrapment as shoppers within the Christmas wrapping.

The installation follows Armstrong's research into th ancient Roman pagan December festival of Saturnalia. In honour of the God of Saturn, the God of agriculture, Saturnalia was also about feasting, giving gifts and decorating houses and merriment of all kinds, with temples providing feasts for the poor and homeless. Armstrong's small figures are reminiscent of ancient clay figurines and he suggests that our temple is the red barn where everyone gets a bargain. Which is about as much insight as I could find in this installation, with what it lacks in revelation it makes up for in entertainment.

The name of the gallery, Enjoy, also makes it clear that contemporary art has got its sense of humour back. In 2004, this significant public space for emerging and experimental practitioners has continued to go from strength to strength. Now in its fourth year, their programme consistently and welcomingly challenges where the boundaries in visual art practice lie. The gallery has welcomed exhibitions from like-minded project spaces and artists in Christchurch and Auckland, and there has been a particular strength recently in intermedia and conversations between art disciplines, with the programme exploring the space between visual art, architecture, music and performance. A healthy partnership has been forged with experimental music venue Happy (another producer with a healthy sense of humour to counteract accusations of arty po-faced posturing). These organisations understand their necessary role in a burgeoning Wellington arts scene as community centres as well as presenters.


Originally published by The Dominion Post