Exhibition Essays

2008 Reviews

September 2008

Video Art: Taking the time

Mark Amery
The AFF at the NZFA and Murray Hewitt at Enjoy

An issue with time-based work is making the time to see it. At the theatre or cinema you buy a ticket, take your seat in the dark and persevere, having made a commitment to letting it unfold. At church walking out runs the risk of being ostracised. No such pressure is felt at the art gallery. With a plethora of choice people are used to passing by those works that don't engage them quickly, never mind that the work started five minutes ago on a continuous DVD loop.

As video art continues to gain ground in the public gallery this may change. Institutions like City Gallery are learning slowly but surely how best to present different sorts of moving image to suit the artwork's different intentions.

Recently Murray Hewitt presented four video works at Enjoy Gallery with a church organ and a church pew for the viewer to sit on. The show was entitled Gospel, and I felt that we were being asked to endure the work much as we might a church service - to make the time to go through the ceremony to get to the actions that had personal resonance. Popular culture provides kinds of communal solace and religion Hewitt reminds us. Two video works study shrines that bring communities together. In one it is Mitre Tens, and in another petrol stations, their grand architecture glowing, offering shelter over the icecream chest on a dark wet night in suburbia.

Hewitt's work features in the Artists' Film Festival, currently on at the New Zealand Film Archive. With the festival concept curator Paula J Booker has tried to tackle some of the issues to do with video and taking the time. To a large screen and grunty sound system she adds cosy couch, coffee table and arty rug.

The inaugural festival was held in 2005 at the now defunct artist-run Canary Gallery in Auckland. It responds to the difficulties of watching video art in a gallery, like having to wait until a work begins all over again. Here the viewer gets control of the remote, taking turns (there is a blackboard) to select a work and stop and start as they wish from a selection of 28 works.

The media release boasts this as being the "largest artist video show ever undertaken in New Zealand," but that's like calling the stage at music venue Happy in Tory Street The Big Day Out. The great spread of recent quality work included by Booker here suggests a big survey of New Zealand video art with the galvanising effect the Active Eye exhibition had for photography in the 1970s is overdue, but this isn't it.


Originally published by The Dominion Post

Just as some work suits the couch setting, for some it doesn't. The media release also states, "the comfortable surrounds of the Archive's mediagallery, mean visitors will probably stay all afternoon catching up on exciting new art."

Yes the programme is captivating and I had trouble tearing myself away, but a few cushy seats do not make the archive's gallery any less a black silo. The essential difference between Canary and Enjoy galleries and a place like the film archive is that the first two are communities, the second is a public institution. It can't hope to be homely.

While I hope this festival continues to be an annual occurrence, a true festival here would see a spread across the archive's nicely positioned public access computers in the foyer and use of the archive's other two theatrettes. Better still perhaps in meeting the festival's current intention would be the production and sale of the DVD so we could take the film festival of New Zealand video artists home with us. Rather than hope we're not about to get interrupted, or have to sit through someone else's compulsion to watch Daryl Walker's film of people peeling oranges over and over.

All this pays testament to the strength of Booker's selection. The curation is deliberately open-ended with, thankfully, no signpost wall labels linking the work together for us. And while there's a noted trend for artists here in their work to record feats of endurance, and to seek meaning in the banal, time spent on the couch here will also reveal eclecticism in the approaches. From old dada style stop animation and direct film action in Eve Gordon's pretty, playful work, to Martyn Reynolds' plein air recording of the landscape in a meditative conversation between the picturesque and the abstract, the selection resists boxing.

Highlights for me tended to be work which actually questions our relationship to the camera rather than just uses it as a recording device. You want to save the chandelier Johanna Sanders dangles before you, feel fear and enjoy the sensations of a precarious bike ride in snow in Amsterdam with Colin Hudson, and urge on artist James Oram on his exercycle - not just so his efforts light up the word ME drawn in bulbs on the wall behind, but cleverly lead his own figure to be lit up for us.

Another favourite was Hewitt's Untitled, which in its beautiful impressionistic slow sweeping 180-degree camerawork from a car, in a drive-by of a strange staged scene in a field in the Reikorangi valley, plays with our blurred half-conscious experience of the world out a car window. His service station work in the Enjoy exhibition meanwhile held less charge. Paintings and photographs have conveyed similar feelings with the same static subject.