As a former Soviet Bloc state, Estonia is currently going through a time of enormous political and social upheaval. Based in a country with an emergent capitalist economy, socio-politically situated between both a Western consumer society and the world of the former Soviet Union, Avangard and PinkPunk come to New Zealand as both representative of current art practices in that region and as highly astute,perceptive artists in their own right. This socio-political awareness extends to the use of the performance medium as well as to the content of the work in itself. Performance becomes a direct way to appeal to a public that perceives art and the art establishment as not only elitist, but a luxury in a society that is still attempting to find its feet economically. Knowledge of the situation in which Avangard and PinkPunk are producing works helps to develop a depth of understanding when considering their practice.
A unique aspect of the works presented at Enjoy Public Art Gallery was the ability of the artists to maintain their engagement with this situation while achieving universality in their work. I was interested in the ways each piece was engaged with a New Zealand audience and that audience’s understanding of political and social issues while maintaining the specificity of the situation of its production. This shifting of meanings is achieved across sites both global and local. Thus, the first piece discussed here changes meaning in its movement from behind the Iron Curtain to a country that has long been anti-nuclear, while the second piece finds its meanings shift even between Wellington’s Parliament and Railway Station.
Soviet propaganda used to demonize Ronald Reagan, so for us as elementary school children he seemed to be a raging lunatic who wanted to destroy the world. He was the boogieman of our childhood. Our scared teachers used to tell us… the nuclear war will begin before you grow up.1
This piece by Avangard consists of a series of images, shown in succession and accompanied by a melancholic theme song. The images are photographs of plastic models of nuclear explosions, familiar mushroom shapes, caricatures of media images. These models are placed in a variety of settings; in school playgrounds, bathtubs, in front of Soviet propaganda posters, at airports. The effect is to draw attention to how hollow the threat of nuclear war has become. In this new context the mushroom-cloud would perhaps “look good in your living room or backyard.”2 The images remind the audience of the photographs of kidnapped garden gnomes sent back to the gnomes’ owners for ransom. Although these are static images, there is a performative element in the way in which the photographs are staged, with series of images creating vignettes within the overall presentation.
The effect of living under the constant shadow of a possible nuclear war had the consequence of weakening the power of this threat. This is perhaps a very human way of dealing with a situation that would otherwise cripple a person’s ability to live their life. Marcus Williams writes that “Nuclear war has been the possible, ultimate, apocalyptical danger for so long; the public can’t take it seriously anymore.”3
The work gains a new layer of meaning by its geographical relocation, moving from behind the Iron Curtain to a country that has long been staunchly nuclear free, thus has never believed itself to be a nuclear target. For a New Zealand audience, the piece exemplifies the distance of the concept of nuclear war. The mushroom-cloud of a nuclear explosion is an image that appears in a newspaper, in the movies or on television, but something that is merely a symbol of a distant destruction.
The irreverent attitude towards nuclear war that is so succinctly summed up in The Bomb becomes especially interesting when compared to works produced during the Cold War period that dealt with nuclear themes. One of the most prominent works produced in New Zealand that deals with concepts of nuclear war is Ralph Hotere’s work No Ordinary Sun (1984), which was based on the poem by Hone Tuwhare. The central motif in this work is a large “O”, intended to represent “the dark sun of a nuclear age”.4 For Hotere, symbols such as this “O” are charged with meaning, containing their own intrinsic messages that transcend the petty day-to-day. So while Hotere invests the “O” with all the Cold War fear of imminent annihilation, PinkPunk and Avangard show how the nuclear explosion itself has been stripped of meaning in its establishment as a universally recognised symbol. The comparison of these two works shows just how much this threat has become impotent through its over-sensationalism over the past twenty years.
In this piece, two women stand in a public place holding a sign reading “Give us money, we are pretty”. They are heavily made up and dressed in ball gowns or bridesmaid’s dresses, layers of coloured tulle and amateur-dramatics satin. The signs bring this prettiness back to the world of monetary exchange. Like Advertising all over the world, the invitation to admire beauty is also the impetus to spend.
The piece is intended to draw parallels between the consumption of the shiny-brightness of the women with the relationship of former Soviet Bloc nations to Western consumer societies. Like the performers, consumer society offers the possibility of reaching a further ideal through the expenditure of money. However, the extent of the effort made by the women draws attention to an absence of depth – the exchange is made at the most shallow level, money for a moment of aesthetic pleasure. Clearly this leads us to a discussion of the relationship between the artist and the art market, where the relationship of the public to the works is mediated on monetary worth. This has an added potency coming from a developing Capitalist society. The artists’ practice is rooted in a background where art is a luxury, and from a society where there are a number of over-qualified artists and little capacity to absorb them and their work. It would be cynical to conclude that this situation is also the status quo in New Zealand, however there are certainly some parallels when considering public funding for artists and spaces.
Furthermore, this performance deals with concepts of beauty, of sexual politics and the construct of femininity. In the use of a stereotypical manifestation of 'pretty', the performers both reference constructs of femininity that are used to control women and their sexuality, but also acknowledge that this construction of femininity provides women with a sort of power. As the cultural theorist Penny Sparke notes, women also have a historical connection to these concepts of taste, and by retaining this connection challenge the modernist masculine aesthetic that would control women’s sexuality by controlling and condemning “prettiness”.5
Like The Bomb, this performance has its roots in a specific Eastern European context but acquired a raft of new meanings for its Wellington audience. The format allows the piece to travel easily and has consequently been performed worldwide. Meanings shift depending on where the work is sited, both locally and globally. In the context of Wellington, the time and place the performance was undertaken created emphasis on various aspects of the work, in both a political and social arena. The first performance was staged prior to the exhibition opening at Enjoy. Notably, the effect of having a large motivated audience intensely watching the performers in the middle of Cuba Street highlighted just how much this was a performance, something to be observed and analysed. The second performance was at Parliament, where the performers were treated like protesters by Parliament security and the public alike. This treatment highlighted the political nature of the work, especially in terms of the relationship between the government and the art establishment in New Zealand (and more specifically, Wellington) where the art establishment is supported insofar as it makes the local and national government of the day look good, and does not threaten the wider public. The final performance was at the Wellington Railway Station, a major thoroughfare known for its buskers. PinkPunk therfore became commuter entertainment – their “prettiness” serving the masses in the same way that art institutions are expected to serve the greater public, where aesthetic pleasure is given in return for cash.
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The work of PinkPunk/Avangard gains its potency from its paradoxical ability to draw attention to the political and social situations of a larger international community through commentary on the socio-political situation of their own country of origin. In The Bomb Avangard examines the way that the concept of nuclear destruction has become meaningless by using the symbol of the mushroom-cloud as a kind of kitschy ornament, merely a semiophore. Fair Deal examined the relationship between Western consumer societies and emergent Capitalist societies, constructs of femininity and the way in which art is produced and consumed. Although PinkPunk and Avangard are very much rooted in a specific socio-political context, the work presented in Wellington achieved a new level of meaning from its relocation.
Marcus Williams, Portfolio, “PinkPunk/Avangarde 2004”, January 14, 2005. (Unpublished information provided by Williams).
Marcus Williams, ibid.
Marcus Williams, ibid.
Gregory O’Brien, Hotere Out the Black Window: Ralph Hotere’s work with New Zealand poets, Auckland Marcus Williams, ibid.
Penny Sparke, As Long As It’s Pink: The sexual politics of taste, California: HarperCollins, 1995. This book deals with this concept as one of its main themes.: Godwit Publishing, 1997, p. 90.