Exhibition Essays

2003 Reviews

March 2003

An eye for an eye makes the world go blind

Sarah Farrah
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth

The very title of Daniel du Bern's ‘curated' exhibition at the Enjoy Public Art Gallery generates certain expectations, for "an eye for an eye" is a well-known phrase denoting revenge and retribution. The phrase comes from the Code of Hammurabi, and appears in several parts of the Bible. So just what has du Bern in store for us?

On entering the exhibition one sees several pieces of paper pinned to the wall. These are the pages of a letter that du Bern has sent to numerous artists around the world, requesting unwanted landscape artworks for an exhibition project. He thereby sets up an expectation that the exhibition may contain works by some of the well-known artists to whom the letter was (supposedly) sent. On another wall a cluster of artworks in various sizes and formats are hung - ranging from dog-eared unmounted colour photocopies to neatly framed black and white photographs. Some appear familiar, closely resembling the work of New Zealand art icons such as Laurence Aberhardt and Anne Noble. Others are harder to identify. There are few clues given by the works' titles, all homogenously titled, "A New Zealand Landscape, Undated, Unauthored" - this of course being a lie, one can easily recognise that these photographs are not all literally of New Zealand, some being notable North American or European touristic landscapes (the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, etcetera). And so one can only speculate on the connections between the letters, the ‘artworks' and the framed artists' CVs on the opposite wall.

For art aficionados, visiting exhibitions and galleries often involves a certain type of game playing, to see if one can correctly identify the work on display. Recognition can result in a sense of self-satisfaction and smugness. du Bern, well versed in this game, has deliberately changed the rules by creating works in the style of other artists, or in some cases photocopying or cutting out reproductions of their work.

An eye for an eye: but whose eye was first?

du Bern confounds of the notion of authenticity. He alerts us to the ready trust we put in art gallery curators as experts to provide us with accurate and truthful information. The framed CVs contain some anomalies, but does anyone know these artists' careers well enough to pick them up? Are we instead relying on the truthfulness and sacrosanct nature of such documents, when really we should be paying more attention?

Not only does du Bern ironically comment on the omnipotence of the gallery curator, he also gains his pound of flesh from the artists whose style of work he assumes. One wonders at the reaction of Laurence Aberhardt to the poor quality photocopies of his Taranaki images that adorn the walls of Enjoy - wouldn't he be contemptuous of a precocious brat who defiles his beautiful images? Perhaps. Though one suspects that the reaction would be more one of disinterestedness; artists all over the world have imitated, and copied for their own sake, the work of their artist forebears. du Bern's approach is nothing new. In recent times, the practice of appropriation has gained wide acceptance as a viable artistic strategy. And this, together with the ever-increasing accessibility of photographic and digital technologies, has lead to a situation where the line between the original and fake has all but diminished. Originality is no so much the issue these days, rather it is a question of ownership and context, of who has used an image or object and to what ends.

An eye for an eye: what is the value of a pound of flesh?

So what implications does such a practice have on the value of an artwork? The Mona Lisa is said to be the most famous painting in the world, but this has less to do with its quality and artistic merit, than with its constant reproduction and familiarity. In du Bern's exhibition, viewers are left to wonder if the artworks hung across the walls of Enjoy are in fact original works by these artists, or du Bern's efforts at copying and downright plagiarism.

In the art market, where an artist's name and identity ultimately come to be of more value that the artworks themselves, du Bern has created a selection of artists' CVs for sale. He has placed himself in the omniscient position of being the only one who can distinguish truth from lies, fact from fiction. It is a game, and one that du Bern certainly enjoys playing. As artist/ creator/ curator/ art dealer/ art rogue, du Bern spins a web of intrigue over the images and their market value. Value, in this case, is in the eye of the beholder, as du Bern trades the artworks for the value the buyer believes each to be worth.

An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye...

In 1953 American artist Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by Willem de Kooning, and exhibited the work with the title Erased de Kooning Drawing. In this case, the work of art was a gesture, a defiant action that supposedly went against the art market and notions of the sanctity of the art object, it was in a word, Avant-garde. Fifty years later we see Daniel du Bern employing a similar tactic, but its outcome is somewhat different. While Rauschenberg questioned the autonomy of an artwork, for du Bern it was never there to begin with. He works instead from a position where appropriation is not longer just retaliatory, but a place where truth is contingent.