Exhibition Essays

Every Now and Then

December 2006

Empty chairs

Mark Amery


Enjoy Public Art Gallery's latest group show, Every Now, and Then, curates a gathering of performance artists to examine "the nature of contemporary relational practices, audience participation and collaboration." MARK AMERY reports.

* * *

A PERFORMANCE by artist Peter Roche in Auckland in the 1970s saw him give a lecture entitled ‘Get the F*** Out'. It consisted of Roche repeatedly shouting these words into a megaphone until the audience slowly but surely entirely cleared out of the hall.

The ‘70s was a great time for abrasive, bruising performance works that placed demands on both artist and spectator. This decade, performance has returned with a vengeance, once again interested in escaping art's attachment to the individual, the object, the permanent and the consumer. It looks to social rather than private spaces and how art might create value in the community without needing to create physical edifices. Like some work of the 70s, it explores what could be considered art if the participation of a community of people is essential to its completion.

Yet the work we're seeing now is generally far more generous, inclusive and feel-good than it was in the ‘70s (from which images of ceremonial-like nudity, mock-crucifixions and the cutting of flesh and application of leeches linger). In Germany recently I saw documentation of work by Belgium artist Francis Alys, who is interested in working socially to create things out of nothing. Actions that (echoing Roche's action) involve maximum effort for minimum result. In one performance he stands in a square and looks at the sky. A crowd slowly gathers to see what he is looking at and then he moves away to document them all looking at nothing.

Performance and community events have always been a part of Wellington public art gallery Enjoy's programme, but this year have become increasingly pronounced. An exhibition that continues on the web (at cloudy.halo.gen.nz) and certainly has the feel good post-object participatory feel is Douglas Bagnall's Cloud Shape Classifier. The classifier helps you identify images of clouds you like, allowing you then to teach it via a camera to watch the sky for clouds you like and otherwise might miss. It's a work that raises a whole plethora of interesting questions about our contemporary interaction with art and technology.

Recently the Litmus Project at Massey School of Fine Arts presented a talk by their International Curatorial Fellow Claire Doherty from England (a closing discussion is at City Gallery on Saturday December 16 at 2pm). Doherty's focus has been on how internationally the visual arts have become dominated by "the artwork as situation", art as primarily project- rather than object-based.

Given our increasingly event-based public culture and the proliferation of post-object-based practice, the art that was once a barb in the side of the institutions in the 1970s (plucked out in the 1980s) may now be taking root in a way that will fundamentally change our view of how art operates.

Enjoy manager Melanie Oliver has curated Every Now, and Then, a group exhibition that's a modest attempt at exploring the different contemporary approaches of "relational art". Rather than try to curate some kind of survey, Oliver has worked with the artists to create work that actually focuses on issues around relational art. There's a limited amount to actually participate in or interact with here, yet what there is acts well as a trigger for wider community discussion.

These are conversation starters, with the artists providing the necessary furniture. Louise Menzie's contribution (she has previously made a work out of providing a good place in the city to enjoy dusk) is a talk on the public value of Oriental Bay's Carter Fountain. Till then, the work is a stack of old school hall pews in the corner.

A circle of foldaway chairs represents an entity called The Association of Collaboration. The presence of a rubbish bin, a paper bag full of scrawled suggestions, flimsy camping stools and one irregular swivel chair suggests a discussion underway around how true collective collaboration might be achieved, and whether a leader is required. You feel invited to sit and talk, or reconfigure the seating arrangement. I was told that a crude light fitting above, and lampshade made of builder's paper, had been the "association's" first decision since forming.

Modern art's attachment to objects of beauty that can be bought and sold is elegantly meditated upon in Ella Bella Moonshine's work, a rainbow strip of plain silk scarves in the window. For sale (an unusual gesture in this public space), where one has been sold and taken away a hole, like a gap in a row of teeth, is left.

The greatest charge to this exhibition is provided by Oliver's inclusion of a table of documentation of projects from the 1970s by artist David Mealing. An Auckland contemporary of Peter Roche's, what is striking abut Mealing's work as precedent for contemporary practice was its participatory community base (versus the old individual-against-the-world paradigm in Roche's work).

Mealing's inclusion nicely underlines the social and cultural differences between the ‘70s and now. For one it highlights how cheery and politically tempered most contemporary artwork is. Mealing's work railed against social and political injustice and elitism, agitating for social and cultural change. One of Mealing's best-known projects saw the Auckland City Art Gallery turned over to church groups for a jumble sale.

Yet did such actions within institutions actually achieve change? Today's post-object artists are establishing their practices within a different institutional framework: numerous small public project spaces. Ultimately Every Now, and Then's empty chairs asks these artists how they can best use these spaces productively as part of the community.


Originally published by The Dominion Post, Friday December 8, 2006.