Where our bodies hit the world
5 October - 28 October 2017
In 2016 Miranda July gave a performance in Wellington about her work and life as part of the Wellington International Festival of the Arts. At the end in the question time, a woman remarked that Miranda seemed fragile, and that her work was about fragility. Miranda agreed, ‘Vulnerability is a superpower’.
I was reminded of this and the idea of radical softness (see Lora Mathis) when I saw Justine Walker‘s latest exhibition Where our bodies hit the world at play_station in Wellington. The exhibition presents her experience of unsuccessful fertility treatments and pregnancies in order to talk about trauma and its associated shame.
The exhibition builds on a previous body of work, For Sale: baby shoes, never worn, shown at Toi Poneke in 2016 that explored the experience of loss—the absence of the longed-for child. The video and photographic works all used her body in various guises—as balaclava-clad heads, a profile portrait with a prosthetic ear, and a full length portrait in a fat-suit. In the video works her hands or face were seen doing, undoing and redoing a series of repetitive tasks: blowing up balloons, covering and erasing a surface with curly script, and sorting 100s and 1000s into piles. The repetition was meditative and mesmerising but ultimately without purpose.
Where our bodies hit the world also uses the metaphor of the repetitive task. In 28 days Justine is seen in front of a blank wall trying to make a grid to represent the days of her menstrual cycle with twenty-eight post-it notes. The notes won’t stick to the wall and one by one flutter to the ground. She picks them up and sticks them on again. And for one moment in the 9 minute film they are all on the wall. But then another falls, and so it continues. The falling post-it notes, together with the gorgeous galaxy of freckles and moles across Justine’s naked back, create an image of persistence and resilience—but also of vulnerability.
In Screw up, another video work, her hands are seen screwing up and smoothing out an image of her naked self. As the hour-long video progresses, the paper on which the image is printed becomes progressively more degraded and ragged so that, by the end, it is a soft shredded shadow of its former self. But still it remains. Breathe is a series of ten self-portraits. Each one is slightly less focussed than the next. There’s one I can’t keep my eyes off. It’s one of the most blurry in the series. Something terrible has happened to this woman—she has received bad news, has had a bad experience, is having a terrible time. It’s all there on her blurry face and I can’t stop looking at her.
While I’m at the exhibition, someone comes into the space and apologises repeatedly when she causes one of these self-portraits to tip over. But they’ve been installed with this kind of precariousness so that as you walk past, they could float to the floor. This adds something to them. This woman is traumatised and she may fall over but as happens in the gallery space, someone picks her up. These moments temper the potential weight of the subject matter.
Something Scandinavian about Justine’s restrained use of colour made me look up the self portraits of Elina Brotherus who works in the same territory. Her Annunciation is a series of portraits of a woman undergoing fertility treatment. And while these images with their pared-back beauty and pathos are incredibly beautiful and moving, they tell me how I will feel about them. That I’ll be sorry for this woman who hasn’t been able to conceive. I prefer Justine’s approach. She uses her vulnerability superpower to create poetic images with her own minimalist aesthetic that lightly discusses this tender vein of experience. I watch this woman holding back tears, sticking post-it notes to the wall and screwing up images of herself, and because she can, it’s somehow uplifting.
Mary-Jane Duffy - EyeContact
The Romantic Picturesque
24 January - 22 February 2018
Christopher Ulutupu’s show draws on the casual fetishisation of the romanticised ‘other’ through the eye of the camera. From ethnography to pinups, European culture has turned people with less money and less power into objects to be looked at. From the moment they arrived in the Pacific, people of European descent have projected their own fantasies, desires, and ways of thinking onto those they have met. Shaped by the enlightenment project in which everything became scientifically ordered, knowable, objective, and hierarchical they have frequently failed to see their own biases and assumed the right to knowledge and power.
The Romantic Picturesque directly engages with this topic, particularly looking at the performative and displayed nature of this relationship. It does so from the point of view of those traditionally being looked at. It raises questions about the subjectivity and agency of the performers, and the choices and decisions being made.
This work engages with two art traditions in particular, photography and poetry, but in their bastardised low art versions: video and karaoke. In doing this the artist brings the coupling of class and race into the discussion. Photography is present both in a large format film camera and in arranged video stills where the subjects of the work are kept motionless against a moving landscape. Poetry introduces each scene of karaoke and stills. In her introduction Dilohana Lekamge mentions the artist’s declaration that “karaoke is the strongest form of poetry”. It speaks of love and hardship. Both low and high art forms are treated with weight and love.
The performers in this work are put on display in ways that echo European photographic traditions, both ethnographic and pinup, but also in ways that speak of performative choice and pride. This juxtaposition left me feeling both appreciative and uneasy. A young girl practices her marching routine in a relentless loop-proud and determined. The karaoke singers sing beautifully with passion in front of an engaged but largely expressionless small audience of one or two. While the singers have agency, the song, background, and possibly the clothing may have been selected by the artist. This echoes back to the earlier tradition of display of Pasifika people. The singers are complicit in the display and I wonder how much agency they have.
Landscape usage in this project is also interesting, given its title and theme, being introduced as another subject and another object of European dominance. Aotearoa/New Zealand is permanently altered by European reshaping. The small girl in uniform practices her marching routine flanked by ubiquitous introduced pines which make the soil too acid for anything else to grow. A man walks through grass backed by a scrubby slope. Karaoke is performed in a vine-infested non-space or by an empty oceanless beach.
Landscape, as something we go to see rather than somewhere we live, is a recent concept, now the object of our gaze, something to beautify and change. Aotearoa serves as a fascinating and disturbing example of the European (and human) relationship with the land. The burning off of bush, land reclamation, and the introduction of non-native species has irrevocably changed its look and nature so the non-spaces of these videos function as sad reminders, echoing the arrogance of power and human domination.
Jessica Hubbard - Eyecontact
Christopher Ulutupu: The Romantic Picturesque Princes Park Battery, Hobart.
‘For me every diaspora is the passage from unity to multiplicity.’ - Edouard Glissant
A minority is any person who is considered ‘other’ - that sits outside of what is considered neutral in Euro- centric society. This spans over several identity frameworks such as sexuality, gender, physical and neu- rological ability, ethnicity, profession, etc. Minorities perform for the majority almost constantly, whether it is conscious or not - adapting language, names, accents, clothing and conversations to make the majority feel comfortable and for themselves to feel safety. This is the kind of performance that often goes unrecognised, but Ulutupu creates staged dramatizations of these performances shown in his moving-image works.
It is to watch the unnerving stare of a white man walking towards a young Samoan girl. Donning a marching band costume, she stands in a dark wood performing an interpretation of a sasa, to what appears to be no one. Once the man turns and walks away, the experience is twofold - the first being that of relief, that she is no longer being watched. The second is of disappointment as he has apathetically rejected her, as though he had had his fill of her, despite surveying temporarily.
From enduring colonisation, to slavery, to violence and torment - survival is a necessary act that many people of colour are practiced very at and one of the ways in which they continue to survive is through ad- aptation. Social and contextual adaptation has become ingrained in people of colour, especially those who have experienced diaspora. The culture of our motherland always forms the base of who we are, but when people of colour have to exist in a white world, means of survival become difficult to recognise and can often compromise the respect we show our heritage. Whiteness does not have to infiltrate a coloured person’s connection to their culture, but in colonised countries it does make up a large part of our surroundings, therefore it shifts how we can make those connections. For many who were raised in these contexts they have learned a culture that is hybrid made from multiples, but that does not make our identities a mixture of these many cultures - it is something different altogether. It is a constantly transforming entity that is unique in it’s portrayal of culture. It can be seen in the gesture of singing songs that are culturally customary with a trio of relatives and soon after singing Western pop songs all on the same mock tropical beach. This is not necessarily the kind of performance that we do to make the white people around us feel like an ‘othered’ culture is easier to consume, but it is the kind of performance that our forever expanding knowledge base adopts as a practice of interpretation and exploration of our own identities.
Ulutupu tackles this for himself in ways that are often tongue-and-cheek - rejecting the often whitewashed approaches to art. His use of karaoke rebels against a time he was asked if he enjoyed poetry about land- scapes, to which he responded ‘Karaoke is the strongest form of poetry, especially 80’s and 90’s power ballads’. He humorously brings to light that what may seem to be a simple distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, but might in reality be a measuring scale of what is considered ‘whiter’.
Underneath his comical approach Ulutupu explores how identity affected by diaspora is continuously mod- ified by the influence of various cultural elements. The interpretation of each character’s role is directly influenced by their race and gender and how their presence shifts their positions in relation to whom they interact with. Incorporating white and coloured bodies alike in his cinematic works he prompts his viewer to question how performance shifts the interpersonal dynamics between characters in his seemingly relaxed scenes. The combination of works displayed shows hows the infiltration of whiteness into non-white culture is something that can be used as a tool for discussion, but also manipulated so people of colour can create betterment.
-Dilohana Lekamge, 2017.
an ascetic dissertation in dissociative aesthetics
both 3 August 2017 - 19 August 2017
Providing clues to understanding in an art gallery might seem old school, but there is a reason why it has and continues to be done. To give clarity to ideas, processes and concepts that are hidden away, to give context, allow space and produce an experience. It is, of course, possible for a space without traditional curator or visitor engagement roles to be just as evocative or capturing as one with. Occasionally, the visitor is given clues in order to aid understanding, and other times the visitor has to work hard to figure this out. When it comes to an Artist Run Initiative the boundary between artist, founder, and curator is blurred—on occasion all being the same person. In the last year, Wellington has become home to two new Artist Run Initiatives. play_station and MEANWHILE are founded by groups of Massey University graduates. The spaces they have secured lend themselves to being remodelled, rearranged and repurposed for their individual needs.
My first encounter of play_station was on a wet, windy, Wellington night, where the gallery was holding Flat Inspection. This art sale (every piece for sale at $20 each) was to fund their inclusion in HOBIENNALE, an Australasian arts festival. The event was a surprising experience. A young male audience dominated, a refreshing reversal of roles in the gallery setting. The art on show was hung from eye level to the ceiling in a salon hang - the space claustrophobic with people. Photographs, prints, drawings and paintings flooded the walls, people spilling from one space to the next. The quality of the art was variable, with everything from mixed-media collages and beautifully executed photographs to small drawings done on a scrap of paper, and a framed receipt. At an event like this it would be superfluous to position labels with artwork details alongside each work - it could distract and potentially influence the purchasing. What Flat Inspection did reflect, was the obvious support that play_station has from its artists and friends, who all provided the artwork to be sold, or bought the artwork themselves. In under a year, the gallery appears to have made quite a following.
A few days later I visited MEANWHILE (click here). I walked into a seemingly empty room, with no artwork on the walls, no sculpture on a plinth. Proceeding into the gallery space, I realised the art was beneath me. Planks of wood, made from what looked like brown scotch tape and black Sharpie lined the floors of the space, protruding slightly into the entrance area. Lucy Meyle’s Bad Actors (27 July - 12 August, 2017) is accompanied by a text explaining encounters with two replicas, or representations, of elephants. Neither elephant is an accurate representation of the animal. However, as Meyle points out, regardless of all these facts, there is a “familiar-strangeness” to them - you still know they are elephants.
This text is the only clue provided to understand Meyle’s Bad Actors. The floor boards are not the same size, colour, materials, or noise of floorboards. It is blatantly obvious they are not (like the replica elephants) real. Yet we recognise them as floorboards. The question arises, what makes something recognisable? In this case, is it purely their location? Or is it the near likeness? The title, Bad Actors, must allude to both the elephants mentioned in the text, and the floorboards themselves. The floorboards are bad actors, we can see right through them and we know they are pretending. But are we as the visitor, a ‘bad actor’ as well? Perhaps we are acting interested when we are not, or appearing non-phased about the lack of painting or sculpture. Bad Actors asks us if we too are acting when we visit an art gallery.
Unfortunately, the provided words are so integral to the work, that it is difficult to elucidate meaning of Bad Actors without them. Some people might not ‘get it’, or leave with a sense of nothingness. Bad Actors relies on the visitor doing the grunt work, whether that be reading the text thoroughly, asking the gallery attendants questions, or even Googling the artist. However I think this is a good thing, as the visitor continues to engage after leaving the gallery space. On its own, without words or explanation, the artwork can also be seen as is wonderfully funny in its simple but clever imitation of flooring.
I headed back to play_station to see Tyler Jackson’s Light-Space Corridor, 2017 and R. G.Laking’s an ascetic dissertation in dissociative aesthetics, 2017. In contrast to the busy walls from Flat Inspection, Jackson’s installation was minimalist and commanded the space. Simple in nature, two lengths of coloured Plexiglas - surrounded by timber from one concrete beam to another - create the Light-Space Corridor. Walking through the corridor, the configuration of colours modulate: from one end they appear green and yellow; from the other end blue and red. After realising the installation changed in colour, the temptation to walk up and down the corridor was strong. Although then you are only walking up and down a corridor, not towards anywhere at all. The frosted glass and ombré colours are transformational and dream-like.
However, when I asked the gallery attendant for more information - I wondered what Jackson was imagining this space to be - she told me that it was not the concept that was important, but rather the materials (stainless steel, Plexiglas, timber, steel wire cable, crimps and DynaBolts). Along these lines, the audience does not appear to be thought of. Apart from the superficial physicality of the piece, we are not given an intention, process or concept as to how the sculpture can be eventuated. I did consider that perhaps this was precisely the point—the artwork manages to capture a visitor walking up and down the corridor, watching colours change. This activity is so primal and basic that it is almost humorous. Jackson’s work sparks an interest from the viewer. However maybe it is time to compromise and give the visitor some extra information so they can appreciate the artwork beyond its colourful beauty. Physically, the visitor has been included, but mentally they are left in the dark.
R. G. Laking’s an ascetic dissertation in dissociative aesthetics, 2017 is in play_station’s yellow room. A video played in the space, strobing words like ‘Aesthetic’, ‘Dissociative’, ‘Form’, and ‘Respite’ at the viewer. The artwork, along with the claustrophobic space, created physical discomfort for any onlooker. The text based video came with a small booklet to guide the viewer. Inside the phrase “the formerly dissociated aestheticist formally asserts that dissociative aesthetics form a respite for disparate aesthetes, despite their desperate assertions to be disassociated from dissociative aesthetics” is repeated over and over. The words are intellectual and a bit fancy, the phrase difficult to comprehend. About to give up attempting to understand, I saw on the back page that the artist had written that this artwork is only intended “for focused readers” and if you are not, it will be an “overly dull exercise”. Laking even goes so far to declare he does not want to “elicit too many unanswerable questions” or “disperse too many irrevocable meanings”. It appears that he may want his viewers experience to be mentally and physically uncomfortable and confusing. Does this discourage some viewers from engaging?
Artist Run Initiatives have the potential to showcase new, engaging and exciting art by emerging artists. In Wellington, Meyle, Jackson and Laking’s artworks all raise questions about the physicality itself of viewing art. While these spaces cry out for experimentation, they cannot afford to be exclusive to their own communities. By considering their audiences, inviting them in and encouraging enquiry these galleries can only grow for those hungry to see work by the newest and bravest. In order for more people to understand, connect with, and interact, some interpretation of the spaces may be needed to give people a way in.
Lucy Jackson - Eyecontact